How to respect kids’ privacy in the age of parenting writing

As parenting writers (and editors), we are constantly asking ourselves: how do we walk the line between the freedom we should feel when writing about our own experiences as mothers and fathers, and the respect we need to afford our children and their privacy. By definition, this balance is fluid; our lives are ever-changing. Our kids get older, our relationships with them become more complex, and using their personal anecdotes as part of our own creative process is no longer as straightforward as it once was when they were babies, toddlers, or even in elementary school. We’ve been examining this question a lot lately over at Motherwell, with respect to our own writing (Randi is a new empty nester, Lauren is a newly single mother) as well as with the writers we have the pleasure to work with on a daily basis.

We talked to a handful of editors and writers who have had some of the most personal and/or professional experience with this subject and here is what they had to say.

Navigating the tension between a writer’s craft and her children’s privacy is an ongoing challenge. Has there been a single principle you’ve relied on to help guide you through this?

Lisa Belkin, who started the Motherlode blog for the New York Times, gave me this advice when I took over: a Google search on your children’s names should never yield anything you’ve written. I took that to heart and then some—not only do I not use their names (and rarely their genders), but if the heart of a question involves my child’s heart—some hurt, some sensitivity, some tender spot—then it’s off limits for personal writing, although those things can and often do inform the topics I choose to report on (an entirely different thing).

I made a different choice for our family than I did as an editor of others (in part because my role was already so very public). I’m grateful for parent-writers who are more open, especially when writing about helping a child handle common challenges (learning difficulties, friendship). Their experiences are often a gift to the rest of us, helping us to manage those same issues—and reminding us that we’re not alone. Sometimes I suggested edits on behalf of someone’s future easily embarrassed 14-year-old, sometimes I spoke directly to that 14-year-old to check in on a story, and once I rejected an otherwise excellent essay entirely on the grounds that no teenage boy needs to ever read in the archives of the New York Times that his mother once worried that his penis was too small. —KJ Dell’Antonia, former Motherlode editor and author of How to Be a Happier Parent

Do you ever feel constrained by your children’s opinions about which stories about them you can and cannot share? 

Writing about my little kids I was always aware that, someday, they might read the words I wrote. However someday was a long way away, and the stories of their early lives were really more about me than them. (Aside from some potty training posts and pictures I’ve long deleted!) Now that the kids are tweens and teens, it’s a whole different ballgame. Their stories are no longer mine to tell, and they follow each and every word I post on social media in real time. I so miss the ease and innocence of those early days and struggle with my desire to share and relate to people without negatively impacting them. They are my top priority, though, and I let them decide how much and what they are comfortable with me sharing… I just wish they were more comfortable with an oversharing big-mouthed mother! —Jill Smokler, founder Scary Mommy and bestselling New York Times author.

What do you think your kids have learned from the fact that you write about them? 

This has never been a struggle for me. Everything I write about parenting is inspired by an actual event or a conversation that I have had with my kids. And the truth is, I’m constantly writing about things that I would never share with their teachers or with other parents; those are the interesting topics. I try to take the embarrassing, confusing, and tense moments of our lives, and turn them into meaningful narratives that can help other people. The more personal or awkward the event is, the more likely I’ll end up showing my kids how I wrote about it. Why? Because I’m pretty sure that the most important thing I do, as a father, is teach my kids how to construct meaning from their own experiences. That involves showing them how to reframe painful, uncomfortable memories into narratives that can enable more confident, transparent, and authentic ways of living. 

I want my kids to see how I’ve stripped the particular details from their stories—I want them to recognize that while what I’ve written no longer explicitly refers to the shameful moments of our family life, it still communicates the truth, transforming it into an honest lesson that can carry us into a more fulfilled future. —Jordan Shapiro, author of The New Childhood

Do you think it’s possible to write about parenthood without exposing too much of your kids’ lives? How does social media play into it?

I have four children, and have been blogging about motherhood for eight years. I also wrote a book about motherhood and my own recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. The question of privacy has never left my mind. When I wrote my memoir, I made sure to write only to the point that my story bumps up against others’, but not beyond. In other words, I can write what I saw, how I experienced our shared reality, but I do not get to jump into my kids’ minds, make assumptions about what drives and motivates them. That is their story, and none of my business.

Blog writing is a little different, and somewhat simpler. I have always believed it’s fine to write funny stories about my babies and toddlers. If one of my kids gets mad at me because I wrote a post about how they were a tiny dictator at age four, then we have much bigger problems. Namely, an utter lack of sense of humor. However, there comes a time when children quite clearly shift into their own fully autonomous beings, and at that point, I don’t think we have a right to blast their stories all over the internet. I don’t believe I have a right to speak about them publicly, permanently, in negative ways simply because it benefits me. With my teenagers, I ask before I post anything on social media.

I do think we can write about motherhood without articulating the details of our children’s lives. For example if a kid is mean to our child at school, we can write generally about how hard it is to deal with bullying, to know what to say to help, to not act on our desire to hunt down the bully’s parents. We can relate it to our own experience as a child. We can do all of this without betraying our kids’ privacy. It’s a bit of a challenge, but a great practice, and I have never felt particularly stifled by these boundaries. I respect them. They respect me. It’s so much more important to me than blog traffic. —Janelle Hanchett, creator of Renegade Mothering and author of I’m Just Happy to Be Here.

Do you show your kids you writing and/or seek their approval before your work is published? 

I wrote a column at the New York Times called “The Parent-Teacher Conference,” about the intersection of education and parenting. My own younger son was, like all pre-teens, struggling with organizational and time management issues. Every time I tackled that topic, and used him as my foil, we discussed exactly what I’d be writing and how. He read each piece before it was published, and had veto rights over every part of the process, including the photograph on the column.

My first book, The Gift of Failure, also featured my two children, and again, they both had veto power. There were plenty of stories that did not make the final cut, as well as others that we agreed would never even make it into the first draft, and while it’s never easy to be the kids of “The Gift of Failure mom,” they were satisfied with how they were portrayed.

My new book is about preventing childhood addiction, an even more loaded topic than failure. I am an alcoholic in recovery, and I teach teenagers in addiction recovery, so my interest in writing this book is for my own children and for my students. It is inevitable that they will all make appearances in this new book, and I have had to navigate this territory with a great deal of care and attention to their privacy and with an eye to their trust in me. —Jessica Lahey, author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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