Call it the Viral Parenting Vortex -- the place where what you do as a parent can become fair fodder for the entire world to discuss. A place where a mom or dad who wakes up in anonymity can, by nightfall, come to stand for all that is questionable, misguided, outrageous, or DOWNRIGHT CHILD ABUSE, WHY DOESN'T SOMEONE TAKE AWAY THEIR CHILDREN?, about parenting.
This was the year that place -- that vortex -- reached adulthood.
They grow so quickly, don't they? It seems like only yesterday that our little vortex was an infant, and we couldn't even post a comment when, say, Ayelet Waldman wrote about loving her husband more than her children. There was no comment section then. There were blogs and websites ("BAZILLIONS of blog posts," recalls Waldman, who arguably became the first parent into the new fray with that Modern Love essay. "Hysterical, frantic blog posts. Andrew Sullivan. Gawker." Still, most of those who felt the need to tell her that SOMEONE SHOULD CALL CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES still did so in what is now the old-fashioned way. "My GOD the email," she says, as millions sent her piece to each other, then rallied with new outrage after watching her on Oprah.
Three years later, in 2008, there were comments open at the New York Sun when Lenore Skenazy wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway home alone. But only 13 readers figured out how to leave one, because the philosophy of online commenting at the time was that "editors really did not want a two way conversation," Skenazy says now. So she started her own blog, which hundreds of people found after she accepted invitations to appear on every TV show and radio program that asked. I'd bet that's how you heard about this in the first place -- on the Today Show, or from a friend, not online.
Within a year though, the video "David after Dentist" was likely brought directly to your inbox, and you had a chance to become one of the millions of critics opining on YouTube. That boy is being EXPLOITED by his father! Why didn't Dad put down the camera and HELP HIS SON? Someone find David a FOSTER HOME!
By 2010 "parenting fail" had become an internet comedy staple.
But this year?
It began just after New Year's, when law professor Amy Chua published an excerpt of her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in the Wall Street Journal and became the most controversial Mom since Medea. (Or, at least, since Joan Crawford.) Don't allow sleepovers, she advised. Or fun. Call your children garbage. That will get them into Yale.
Where Skenazy got 13 comments, Chua got 8821.
The next few months brought debate over whether a mother who sold her young sons' toys on eBay (in order to pay what it cost to fix to the bathtub glazing they'd ruined with those toys) was a teachable moment or a harsh overreaction; and also over whether a father who took a baseball bat to his daughter's cell phone because she received inappropriate texts from boys was a life lesson or the waste of a perfectly good phone. How about the Mom who made her son stand on a street corner with a sign announcing his sub-par grades? Message delivered? Or just plain mean?
We argue about more than just discipline and natural consequences, of course. The vortex allows us to wrestle with all the big questions, and bring them down to bite-sized bits of snark and wit.
Gender identity? There's Storm Stocker in Toronto whose parents have decided not to tell anyone whether their child is a boy or a girl. And Jenna Lyons, the president and creative director of J. Crew, who was pictured in an ad for that company painting her son's toenails and saying "Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink."
Children growing up too fast? What were Maddy Jackson's parents thinking, putting falsies on a four-year-old?
Childhood obesity? How can any parent allow their third grader to reach 200 pounds? How can the state remove a child from his parents and send him to live with strangers because he is fat?
The most interesting question raised by the vortex, though, is the one that is almost never asked there. Why do we care? Why are parents in particular and society as a whole so increasingly quick to jump on examples of parenting that would not have been on our radar screen a few years ago?
"Because we can" is too simple. Yes, we have more glimpses of these moments in a digital age, but we have more glimpses of just about everything, and there is a different tone to online parenting conversation. In the vortex, it gets personal. And unlike web talk about politics or celebrity or health or the economy, when we spew our thoughts about other people's parenting we are almost always really talking about ourselves.
Gossip -- which is, bottom line, what all this talk is -- has always been society's way of establishing norms. Dishing about what someone else is doing teaches you where others think the boundaries are. Every social and economic trend of the past decade (parents are more distracted by work, kids seem at more risk from the internet, education is more costly and competitive) has made parents less certain of their own choices (stay home, choose day care, attachment parenting, free-range parenting, private school, public school) and therefore more defensive about them.
Because we are constantly questioning ourselves, we are locked and loaded to question others.
I am the first to champion the power of parenting web conversation to do good. There is no better place where a parent who might otherwise be the only person they knew struggling with a problem they only just realized exists can find others who are doing the same. It is also a place where parents who might not want to share in person, because their doubts are so private, can turn, anonymously, for advice. And there is no better place to find the wisdom of a crowd, to see what a swath of families are doing or thinking, then tailoring those to fit your own life.
But there is also the other side. As Katie Roiphe pointed out on Slate last week, "a new species has risen from the shallows of the Internet: the angry commenter. Sure, there is a long tradition of inspired cranks and interested retirees who have always written letters to the editor, but something in the anonymity and speed and stamplessness of the Internet has unleashed a more powerful and uncontrolled vitriol."
In angry comments (almost 1000 of them) readers pointed out that they have ALWAYS been angry, which is certainly true. And given how deliberately provocative she can be in her writing, there is a Casablancan element of being "... shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here." But I do agree with Roiphe that there has been an evolution, an escalation this year, particularly in the corner of the Internet I know best: parenting. There, specifically, is a new norm: we don't just criticize one act by one person, but we elevate and inflate that act until it represents ALL BAD PARENTS.
It's our defensiveness masquerading as self-righteousness that most surprises those caught inside the vortex. We don’t think about them much after we opine and move on, do we? But they certainly think about us.
As Amy Chua's oldest daughter, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, said in a letter defending her mother in the New York Post: "A lot of people have accused you of producing robot kids who can't think for themselves. Well, that's funny, because I think those people are . . . oh well, it doesn't matter.”
Those people, those accusers are...what?
"Working out their own issues," says Georgina Marquez, who was lambasted as an opportunist for paying $3000 for her daughter, Rebecca Black, to produce a music video that went viral. "It's about their own insecutiies, their own life turmoil."
"I wasn't surprised that strangers have opinions," she told me last week, looking back on the year that made Rebecca a celebrity. "I was surprised by the viciousness of the attacks, and mostly I was surprised at the amount of time people will spend being critical of someone else. Who are the people leaving all these messages condemning my parenting? Where do they find the time?"
Well, it's quicker, and cheaper, than therapy.
One can only imagine what next year will bring.