On balloon boy, blogging, and who’s least likely to scar their children for life

This morning I did a live interview for the NPR show, The Takeaway, about La Famille Balloon Boy (My favorite family. No, really. ) and reality TV show families in general.

Let me tell you, there is something both awesome and totally terrifying about sitting 2 feet from a pro like John Hockenberry while he’s grilling you. Emmy voters? Fine choice. The man is masterful. As is his co-host Celeste Headlee. She needs some more shiny trophies too.

So why was I there? Well in part because my friend Danielle recommended me. (Thanks Danielle!) The topic was about parents who put their children out for the world’s scrutiny for our own gain, and there were some assertions as to whether bloggers loosely fall into that category.

Some probably do.

So I’ve spent the last 12 hours or so thinking about the differences between what we do here–sharing photos of our kids and their first teeth and their first haircuts and relating stories of how they confuse mushrooms for marshmallows–versus what families do when their kids are on Wife Swap or The Trainwreck Formerly Known as Jon + Kate.

My knee-jerk reaction: It’s soooo not the same thing. Not even close! Man, are you kidding me? Pfffft.

Now hm, let me figure out why.

A lot of people on twitter last night had great thinking about the distinction, notably so many of you who described yourselves as being your own writers, editors, producers, with final control over the story that goes out to the world. It’s true that describing the moments in our day after they’ve happened, after some reflection, is a whole lot different than letting it play out live for cameras with the goal of creating the most dramatic tension.

In other words, there’s more reality on this here blog than on any so-called reality show. Maybe not as much tension but eh, what can I do.

Also I really liked what @trouttowers said: I skew the facts about my children unapologetically. Producers do that too, but not as friendly-like

Because that would be true too.

Actually, the whole discussion is kind of refreshing. It’s been so long since I heard the “are you exploiting your kids when you blog?” line of questioning. Mostly it’s been all about swag.

We all make different choices about what we choose to share about our kids online, how much and for how long. I would generally like to give individual parents the benefit of the doubt that they know their kids and their communities best, and that they make (or try to make) the decisions they think are right in any given circumstance. But at some point I believe, as I said on the show today, that as our babies become children their stories become their own. They have their own identities and their own reputations and there comes a point that some of their private moments are their own to share at some point, should they want to.

(Of course my hope is that my girls will never share a single thing online with anyone, ever. And I have a great plan for that: I’m going to sit here, with fingers crossed, and wish really really hard for the internet to implode.)

I already see a difference in what I share about my girls now that Thalia’s four. I don’t want to humiliate them (too badly). I don’t want to create problems for them. I don’t want to reveal anything here that I wouldn’t share with their entire preschool class live and in person.

But what I will defend until the end is that I share about them. And I will continue to do so. Because that’s what writers do.


44 thoughts on “On balloon boy, blogging, and who’s least likely to scar their children for life”

  1. The difference is in our storytelling, both the narrative ability and desired reaction. We writers/bloggers might monkey with details for the sake of privacy, not for the sake of ratings.

  2. My kids serve as my accomplices, frankly. When one of them cracks me up, Tacy inevitably asks, “You gonna tweet that?”

    And I reply, “Do you want me to?”

  3. It is absolutely different because you are deciding what you say and what you put out there, not leaving it up to producers who do not have your children's best interests at heart. We have several friends who are reality tv producers and while I believe my friends are ethical and not slimy, I would never let my children be in any reality show–even with my friends producing. No good can come of it, I tell you!

    By the way, did you hear that Jen Gilbert is going to be a Real Housewife on New York????????????

  4. This is the point, and well said Liz:

    But at some point I believe, as I said on the show today, that as our babies become children their stories become their own. They have their own identities and their own reputations and there comes a point that some of their private moments are their own to share at some point, should they want to.

    Through the context of my business (I am more an accidental blogger than the rest of you powerhouses!) I have been candidly sharing the story of my kids for eleven years. And yes, you are right – now at 7 & 11 (plus steps at 13 & 18) these are more their stories than mine. The intersection of these parent/child relationships is what feels fair game.
    And of course, if you really want to hear about the nasty underbelly of 8th grade girls, 6th grade IB politics,how custody issues effect the development of my little guy or even how to talk condoms with Mr. Senior Dude just give me a call! That stuff is a little more private!!!

    Thanks for this post!

  5. It's something Yvonne talked about recently too. About people not believing her sons were as loved as her daughter, because she chooses not to share about them anymore. Teens don't want their stories shared.

    At some point, it does become their story, not just ours.

    My girls don't actually know about my blog. I don't share pictures anymore and I use made up names. I'm now at the point where very little of their life is okay to be shared anymore. At five and nearly eight, it doesn't feel like it's as funny in storytelling as it used too.

    My son however, is only a year. He is still prime real estate. Ha. Kidding.

  6. I recently took a great deal of flack from some of my readers when I wrote about a difficult time with my 13 year old son. This was a story of poor choices, getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, dabbling in illegal activities – something that happens to “other” people, not people like me.

    My blog is somewhat anonymous (i.e. I don't identify where I live, but I do use real first names). Some of my readers felt this was over-the-top and not something I should make public.

    I felt the importance of the message far outweighed my son's desire for privacy in the matter. Hopefully I made the right choice.

  7. My baby doesn't do anything that is in the least bit interesting to anyone other than her father and I but I write about it anyway. And some day, when she does do those things that she may not want repeated, I'll respect that.

    I'd like to think that if it were me that had done X, Y or Z, how would I feel if my mom put that on the internet. I can remember being really young and telling my mom, “Please don't tell your friends about such and such” and then hear her telling exactly that thing. It's a trust issue between you and your kids.

  8. Liz, you are exactly correct. I don't write much about my oldest boy – he's 17 – it's not because I don't love him, but his story belongs to him and I don't want to embarrass him.

    It's not that the material isn't there, though…

  9. I appreciate how you've tied this in for all of us as well try to maneuver through these similar (albeit not completely the same) waters.

    The fame, the fortune, and notoriety are all attractive, particularly as many people are struggling (recession, etc.).

    But I think the difference between many of us (not all of us, sadly, but many) is that we're parents first. Yes, we're writers and we look for the story that begs to be told.

    But there's the line – again not for all us – but for many of us that we just won't cross, particularly when it comes to our kids.

    Story or no story.

  10. I have noticed people tend to write less and less and then finally stop blogging as their babies become children — or else they change the nature of their writing. (One woman whose “mommyblog” I read for 2 years or so started up a food blog, one a children's book blog, and one a nature blog.) Age 4 seems to be the dividing line.

    You raise an interesting point, though. “Mommyblogging” is uncomfortably similar to reality TV. I'm wondering if there's a fundamental difference between reading and watching TV which excuses us, if it would be better to compare mommyblogs to memoirs. Memoirs just don't generate the kind of publicity that reality shows do.

  11. Jennifer you do think it's like reality tv? Because I don't in the least – even if NPR put it in that box a bit.

    The first thing I said in the interview is that I'm a memoirist – and the newsweek editor brought up Michael Chabon as an example so I think we're on the same page.

    I think also as we find our tribes and our kids get older and settle into school, sometimes the novelty or need to figure out motherhood through our blogs goes away and sometimes we find an in-person community to replace the online one. I'd love to figure it out more.

  12. I agree completely! I definitely try to think back to when I was my kids' ages and would I have wanted MY Mom blogging about me and posting my pic then?

    At their ages right now, I think it's fun and mothering but I'm also cautious. In a few years? I think it will be much different. I consider this a lot.


  13. Loved hearing you on the show this morning and knowing the truth of what you said. However, I pass this along from years of experience: Go on and continue to write about your kids. It won't matter. They will revise history so much that you won't even recognize your own stories.

  14. I think Jennifer made a good point actually about how children become less of the focus on “mommy blogs” as the kids get older and bloggers (like myself) are forced to find other fodder for posts. Which may explain why I post far less frequently this year.

    My son, now that he's older, doesn't give me nearly the amount of material he used to. Damn him.

    Once you've done the sappy “my baby is growing up” post on the first day of Kindergarten there's a lot more time in the day for the “what the hell am I going to do with my life now that my kid's in Kindergarten” stuff.

    Mommy Memoirists? Hmmm. Has a nice ring.

  15. What's the difference between the genres of fiction and creative non-fiction? A great writing coach (Eunice Scarfe) told me that we have to distinguish the facts from the truth, and we can still tell the truth without telling all the facts. Points can be made with privacy intact.

    So when I blog, I tell the truth, but not all the facts.

    I have written a few funny or poignant posts (imho), and then opted not to post them because I felt they crossed the line in terms of respecting my daughters' privacy. But I'm sure some day I'll cross that line (or maybe I already have). And when I'm not sure, I just ask. People who I write about get the right to veto.

    I love to blog because I can express something about my life and my upside-down experience as a mother, hopefully in a literary, or at least a thoughtful, way. I'm happy for the few readers I have, but I won't sell myself out for more. Maybe that's the test: If nobody read what you wrote, would you still write it anyway?

  16. I had a more public (real names used) blogs that I ditched in order to be more private. And though I miss my first blog (and the followers I had there), I think it was the right thing to do. My kids are still young, 6 and under, so I'm not as concerned about the occasional story I write about them. But my blog is also for me, to write about things in my life that have occurred. I'd like it to be a memoir as much for my kids as about my kids.

    Sorry I missed the show!

  17. Just Making My Way:

    Such a wonderful way of summing it up. I agree, it's for my kids too.

    Which brings up another point – sometimes we need to remember to be careful about what we write online not just about our kids – but what we write period. Our kids will find it all one day, no doubt.

  18. I am also finding that I become more private as my kids get older. Babies are babies, and they're sort of universal. Kids, well, it's a different story.

    I think that, in all cases, it comes down to parental responsibility. There are many kids who are very much in the public eye, like say celebrity children, and seem OK. There are bloggers who cross every line. In my mind it's less about the medium, than how you choose to conduct yourself.

  19. “Mommyblogging” is like reality TV in that we're saying something about ourselves by way of our children. The children are not the stars of the show, but without the children there's no story.

    The main difference I think is that in reality TV, the audience is a voyeur. In mommyblogging, the audience is comprised primarily of fellow bloggers — of friends, or at least sympathetic acquaintances.

  20. I don't always abide by this 100% (because let's face it, a funny kid story is sometimes just a funny kid story) but here are my personal guidelines when writing about my children (the oldest is almost 12):

    1) the “who cares” factor (by that I mean that I try to find some universal theme that every parent can relate to, because does anyone *really* care about other babies' boogers? No, we want to think about how other babies' boogers relate to our own babies' boogers…)

    2) write with genuine affection and respect. That means that yes, I edit out details that my kids (especially the older ones) wouldn't want 'out there' and even when I'm venting I try to be obvious about how much my kids are loved. I love David Sedaris because he can share the most hilarious, scathing stories about people in his family, and yet underneath there is such obvious love and affection. The thing is, though, most of us are not David Sedaris. It's a fine line to walk and I'm not sure I've got the chops so I'm very careful in this respect.

    3) Make it about me. My kids' stories are theirs to tell. But I can write about how their actions make me feel, or how scared I am to have a certain conversation with them…etc. I liked what Forty Weeks said about the intersection between parent and child interactions being fair game. I think that's true, so long as those interactions are presented with love and respect.

    That's the difference I guess between my blog and reality TV. Nobody else gets to decide how to present my children…but me. On the other hand, I've seen blogs that don't use a lot of discernment in choosing what to share or how to share it. But those don't define the genre.

  21. I don't write much about my kids. The reason is that if I'm perfectly honest, nobody cares. Just because you think it's cute that you're child peed on the cat doesn't mean others are interested. My kids figure into my posts when it's topical, like when I was writing about Ferberizing or swaddling.

    Other than that, and it's just my opinion, kid stories are a bore. And I don't watch those reality shows called anuthing like “24 and more” either.

  22. That internet thing is sooo a passing fad. (-;

    I agree. Even when we share some of the more cringe worthy parts of our lives, we self edit. And I don't know a parent alive who doesn't skew the facts when it comes to our children. I look at it as not just story telling, but also as recording a life time of moments, thoughts and feelings that I might otherwise forget.

    Already at 5, Hollis's life is starting to become more private. I might write about my reaction to certain things that happen to him, but much more of my blog real estate is now devoted to the 3 year old and I can already see the end….

  23. I think this is a very interesting topic that you bring up. I think in some way it is the same.. except there really is no fame involved. Not that I don't love everyone's blog and would say they are famous in the real world, not famous in real life. I could meet my favorite bloggers on the street and never know it was them…why because there is that level of privacy on a blog. I think when you are on tv there is a large part of the equation that is fame seeking.

  24. All these comments about giving the kids more privacy as they get older are making me wonder what the hell I did to my eight-year-old son – I'm holding him back from having his own video game review blog with a whip and a chair. 🙂

    But of course, video games are not the same as stories about sex talks and girlfriends and all of the stuff that is on the horizon. So I ask him. He's not even close to understanding the ramifications of stories about him being out there, so it's still up to my judgement, but he definitely gets a veto vote.

  25. This is why I refuse advertising offers and do not promote my blog. It is mainly about my children and my experiences as an expat mother. It is not a business. And I do think that if I were to use my blog for financial gain that would be exploiting my children to some extent. Not that this would necessarily harm them in any way but it's not something I choose to do. Although I am a huge fan of other bloggers who do write about their children for money.

  26. I think Mommyblogger's need to strongly defend their job description as memoirist or personal essayist. These sorts of blogs remind me of the writing of Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and any number of women writing columns for the “Women's” section of local newspapers back in the day. Nothing at all to do with reality shows! It's all about the sentimental smiles and knowing looks the writers, as parents, are sharing with their readers.

  27. Interesting timing. I've recently found myself disclosing more about my boys than I usually do, but there are no real names, and only a vague sense of location.

    I've been thinking a lot about this because I live in a tiny little town where, as the saying goes, “if you don't know what you are doing, someone else does.” I walk that line between living an open book and being quite averse to gossip. I've told few IRL people about my blog, so almost all my readers are virtual friends.

    I've come to the point know where I know I want to do something more with my writing, and so the space I have created for myself will either have to be unveiled or be closed. I haven't done either yet because I can't decide.

    No matter how much we share, I just can't put bloggers/memoirists/essayists in the same category as the Heenes or the Gosselins, or the Duggars. It is fundamentally different, even if I am hard pressed to say why.

  28. Exactly. I think the editing makes all the difference. I never reveal anything about my son on my blog that I wouldn't blab in real life, but, yes, as a writer if a funny story happens I'm going to share it. I don't think I'm writing anything more embarrassing or therapy-worthy than what my son will probably write about me on the Internet in the future. Laugh-exploitation goes both ways when you're a parent. I thought that was common knowledge.

  29. I find that I am very protective of my 10-year-old online. I rarely talk about her, ever. I'm still willing to talk about my four-year-old, though I'd say as a whole I say very little about my kids on my blog at all. (Which, as you can imagine, has limited me somewhat in the mommyblogging world.)

    But I do tweet some of the funny stuff they say. I guess I feel like if I can do it in 140 characters or less, it's not going to leave a lasting mark?

    That said, it has never even occurred to me to exaggerate the details of their lives. Ever. I guess I didn't know people did that. I feel kind of dumb now. When I tweet something my brilliant kids said, do people think I'm making it up?

  30. There's also a big difference in audience. A reality TV show may have millions of viewers – even Dooce doesn't have that kind of readership.

  31. My kids are ALL over 4, so if I stopped writing about them completely, I'd (sadly) very have little to say anymore. That said, I try to capture those slice of life moments that I think will resonate with others and to also chronicle some of the struggles I have as a parent. There is a LOT I don't touch upon though; I try to put myself in their shoes and think about how I'd feel reading what my mom said about me when I was young.

    As far as the reality TV comparison some try to make, I think that is wayyyyy off; those moments I chose not to write about would be prime television fodder but will never see the light of day on my blog.

  32. I think it's totally about maintaining control and that we implicitly have our child's best interest in mind. The parent who doesn't is a departure, and lets assume there aren't too many bad apples.

    I was impressed by an NPR segment in which a man who allowed his family to be filmed for a documentary about little people explained how he had a lawyer write all the contracts to give them a huge amount of editorial control and that they had one simple mission. They wanted to show that little people are regular people. They did not want to become celebrities, and never filmed anything afterwards. He was satisfied with his contribution to culture and did not hunger for more. Clearly the opposite of the Balloon Idiots.

  33. And another thing… when I asked my kids if they wanted mushroom on the pretend pizzas we were making, Scarlett said “Oooh, I LOVE mushrooms! I have them when I go camping with hot chocolate.”

  34. I love all these comments and really good points being made, because I think we have all doubted at some point if what we are doing is “fair” to our kids when we think about their future. I don't write anything about my older step daughters on my blog because if they wanted it out there, they would do it themselves (they can type!). But also, I think another major difference is talent. You, Mom-101, and other bloggers have a reader base and fans because you are talented writers with a gift for touching other people. Most of these reality TV show folks have no talent or gift they are offering viewers. People watch out of curiosity, not admiration or a sense of connection.

  35. I like the description of our Mommy Blogs being more like memoirs. My son is still an infant and I go back on forth on how much to write about him. I ended up deciding to split my blog into two blogs, with one of them being private.

    Is your interview available on the NPR website? I'd love to listen to it!

  36. Yes Jennifer, very very sad state of affairs all around. I am worried for the mental health of that blogger and the lynch mob that's now out for vengeance.

  37. I just finished Corrigan's The Middle Place, and referred to her home videos as her “Graffitti,” or her proof that she was here. That's how I feel about blogging. It's how I capture my children, and my life as their mother, so I can show them themselves one day, and so they'll know what every detail of their lives meant to me.
    For me, it's easier to capture a memory with words than with a picture.

    I also blog because I have to write to survive. It's my exhalation.

    When I started blogging and began to grow a following, my husband told me, seriously, that he was worried we'd become like Jon and Kate. I assured him that would never happen because I have an excellent hairdresser.

  38. I've been expecting this shift in the parenting blogosphere for some time now. While some early mom bloggers had older children, if you look at the first “break-out” group — the one the consumer product goods companies courted so assiduously — it was mostly comprised of women with babies and toddlers. Using their blogs to connect with others facing the same new experience of parenting. As these kids have grown up, the parent blogs have changed as well, reflecting the different stages of their, and their children's, lives. I can definitely see a different sensitivity about privacy. My guess is that we'll see a turnover every few years. Some percentage of the current parenting blogs will evolve into or be replaced by a different type of blog by the same writer, and there will be a new crop of baby oriented blogs/social media sites.

    Personally, I have always felt that way. I posted pictures of my son when he was younger on a private family website, but that was it. He was already 4.5 when I started a professional blog, and in my personal blogs, he features as part of the family story, but nothing that would embarrass him should his friends read it.

  39. My kids have always been older than the bulk of the mommy bloggers who comprise my community, so I've always had to balance this issue. I've never had the chance to write about diapers or temper tantrums.

    I started off blogging about them by being careful to ask them if they minded if I shared their story.

    I've always given them editorial control over any posts that I write which could embarrass them. And I'm always careful to make sure I don't write anything about them that is going to get them shoved in a locker at school.

    That said, it's my blog, my memoir, my legacy to them. So I may not write embarrassing stories about them, but that doesn't mean some of the other stories I write about myself won't embarrass them.

    I counter that by having the school block my blog from their internet so none of the children who attend school can read my blog while on school property.

    It's not perfect but it's something.

  40. Actually, I thought writers write. Why not truly write something, create something so you don't have to worry about to what degree you are exploiting your children?

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