Reader Request Week 2006 #6: Paranoid Parents

Thoughts on childhoods past and present, from cisko:

Why have we changed so much, in the past 20 years, about how we protect our kids? And what is (or would be) going too far?

One example: As kids, my brothers and I would spend all day riding our bikes around the neighborhood, playing with other kids and generally having a ton of self-directed fun. Today, that just wouldn’t be acceptable — kids need to be supervised all the time, seemingly into at least middle school.

Is your experience similar? And what do you think it means for the kids and parents, both now, and as the kids grow up?

Related to this, this question/comment from Eric B:

Some time ago my brother posted some pictures online of our older sister’s two children, including their full names. My wife saw it, freaked out, notified older sister about it, and within a few days the pictures were taken down.

When I heard about the situation, I at first was a bit curious why it was a problem, since I’d been reading about Athena here on the Whatever all the time. So I wonder, what fast and hard rules do you think there are to putting kids’ information online. Granted, a parent should have more control than other family members in such matters, but does it make a difference if one lives in a rural or (sub)urban location, has an unlisted number, or other factors.

It’s interesting. Toward the last of these, every few months or so I get an e-mail from someone genuinely concerned that me posting pictures of Athena is an open invite for the pervs and freaks to come down to the Scalzi Compound and stalk my little girl. Typically speaking I appreciate the concern (except the one guy who said something along the lines of "I hope you don’t ever have to live with the regret of having been able to have prevented your child from being molested if only you’d not posted pictures of her online," to which my response was, hey, fuck you), but I’m also not overly worried.

I’m not overly worried (which is not the same thing as "not worried at all") for a number of reasons: I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I have a really excellent idea where my kid is all the time. Athena is very smart and knows about the potential danger of strangers. Our home, by virtue of being removed several hundred feet from the road (any road, on any side), and by being the home of a dog who sees it as her job to alert us when anyone approaches on foot or by car, is not one which is easily approachable by stealth, and I’m home almost all the time in any event. Athena’s school won’t let her leave the school with anyone without me or Krissy having come in and approved it. Finally, Athena’s online presence is now and for quite some time will be mediated by me and Krissy, and aside from knowing where she is online at all times we’ve also been not shy in telling her that pervs and jerks exist online.

And of course, I’m also not entirely stupid in what about Athena I post online. It’s one thing to show Athena hungrily eying a cat or suffocating dear old dad or posing as a vampire; it’s another thing to show her in the tub. You’re not going to get any of the latter. But this is all of a piece anyway, and something I’ve been very open about here at the Whatever, which is that I’m perfectly happy to share any number of superficial things, but my private life — and the private life of my family — is (no offense) none of your damn business. I’m happy to tell you how my book is doing and how I feel about my work. My personal relationship with my wife and child: not so much, other than in generalities. Athena’s pictures here tend to be silly and fun and I’m happy to share surface-y anecdotes and such, but there’s lots you don’t know about her, nor are likely to. Not because I’m worried about freaks and pervs using the information to gain her confidence, or any such thing. But simply because she deserves to have a life that’s her own and not available for general comment.

On her side, Athena is pretty savvy about what’s going on; she understands the concept of a Web site and she understands that lots of people check in here to see what I and occasionally she are up to. She will in fact from time to time suggest a picture for me to take or ask me to take a picture of a drawing for the purposes of displaying it online, which is why you get the occasional monster collection. I also clear with her anything about her I want to put online — and yes, she’s exercised a veto before. Is Athena being aware of this stuff make her safer? Yes, to the extent that understanding any process can make one safer. It also gives her a measure of control over her own life, and commensurately an expectation that she should have some control and that this desire should be respected. It’s not the same as giving her mace and instructions to spray pervs in the eye if they rush her, but it’s not insignificant.

Now, the thing to note here is that this is my kid I have on my site; as a general rule I don’t put other people’s kids on my site without explicit permission from the parent(s). Why? Because they’re not my kids, and people have every right not to have their kids’ pictures plastered about teh Intarweebs without their permission. So, Eric B, I think your wife’s reaction is not entirely out of line — not because suddenly a Web of pervs have a line on those kids (which is unlikely), but simply because those responsible for the well-being of the kids didn’t get a say about whether they were out there on the Web. I’m confident I am not at all endangering my child with the occasional picture of her on my site, and I feel likewise confident that the vast majority of kid pictures put up on the Web are not perv magnets, but you know what? What I think about other people’s kids and their pictures/info online doesn’t matter. It’s up to the parents.

(Some of you may ask: All this talk is about you and Athena, John — doesn’t Krissy get a say? The answer: Well, obviously. If Krissy were ever uncomfortable with a picture of Athena or something I wrote about Athena online, it would come down instantly; moreover if she decided that there was to be no more Athena on the Whatever, there would be no more Athena on the Whatever. This is all axiomatic.)

"Up to the parents" bring us to the first question, which is, essentially, whether today’s parents are overly paranoid about keeping track of their children at all times. Well, to begin, if you read the paragraphs above detailing how I pretty much know where my kid is at all times, then you know that I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have your kids’ whereabouts down to a science. Second: Yes, I suspect we probably are paranoid as hell, and probably overly so. When I was Athena’s age I essentially roamed the neighborhood at will; I don’t think my mom had the slightest idea where I was most of the time. Second and third grades I would get on my bike and disappear for hours at a time, tooling around the entire city. And of course I was generally getting into things and places that would have given my mother an absolute stroke had she known.

And I’m still alive, as are most of the former kids of my generation; most of the kids of recent previous generations also managed to make it to adulthood despite the lack of almost-constant parental supervision. Thanks to a media cottage industry in making parents feel inadequate no matter what they do, today’s parents certainly feel like the world is more dangerous than it was when we were cruising around on our Huffys, but I’m pretty sure that statistically and overall, this day and age is actually safer than the mid-70s, early-80s world in which we grew up.

I suspect that somewhere along the way, the framing of childhood shifted from the actions of the kids to the deficiencies of the parents. A good example of this was a term that became popular when I was growing up: "Latchkey kids." These were the kids who came home to empty houses after school because their parents worked during the day; without that parental supervision, you see, it was natural the kids would be up to no good. The thing about this was that even the kids who weren’t latchkey kids were up to no good — mom or dad may be at home, but as soon as a kid said "I’m going out with my friends" and they kicked open the screen door, the kid was still going to do what the kid was going to do, for hours at a time, away from the parents. But the point of view was shifted to suggest that kids were suffering because of lack of parental supervision. Undoubtedly some were, but I think most kids were not in a rush to have parents hovering no matter what. Go back in time and you’ll realize you probably didn’t want to hang with your mom or dad all the time either. But when my generation started doing that "Gen X" thing we had going there, blaming absent moms and dads for our hip cultural alienation was sure useful.

Gen-X parents want to be more engaged than they remember their own parents being, which I think is well and good, but wanting to tag our children with tracking devices to know their whereabouts 24/7 — or alternately, scheduling them with so many structured activities in and out of school that they don’t have time to breathe, much less get in trouble — is very likely to backfire. Look, I’m in the same boat here: I’d like to have a cute little GPS device my daughter would be delighted take with her always, so no matter where she is I can track her location with Google Maps. On the other hand, I also fully expect that if I did that, sooner rather than later my adorable little daughter would tell me to go fuck off. Kids want and need their space and the ability to do things alone, or at least, without constant adult supervision. And they’ll carve out that space whether we want them to or not. I think we all think we’re hip to our what are kids are up to, but come on, people. Think back on all the things you did when you were a kid and a teen that you know your parents had no idea about. News flash: You’re as clueless now as your parents were then. Sorry, but it’s true.

Athena is easy for me to watch now because she’s seven and I’m at home — and she actually likes spending time with me. When there comes the day when she wants to hang with her friends and do her own thing, I’m probably going to hate it, but I’d rather have her believe that I and her mom are willingly giving her space than have her believe she has to take it in spite of us. The positive benefit of that is that then when we ask her "where are you going?" we’re likely to get a more expansive answer than "out." And maybe then she will take that cell phone with the GPS chip in it, because she’ll know it’s not that I want to track her every move, I’ll just want to know where she is if she falls down a well. That seems reasonable.

Reader Request Week 2006 #5: A Political Judiciary

Activist judges everywhere! Ohako asks:

“When did the judiciary become so political? Activist judges here, there, and everywhere!!

I once sat on a jury, and when we were done, we explained our verdict a little to the judge. He didn’t care, and I was impressed because I realized that it was his job not to care, one way or the other. His duty was to render fair justice, without any personal bias at all.

So why is it now that being a judge, at any level, seems to be another Red State/Blue State dichotomy thingy? Rather than being just another technical sort of job?”

Well, Ohako, to the first, the phrase “activist judge” is crap propoganda. “Activist judge” is the rhetorical bludgeon that the right-wing folks currently in power have decided to use any time a judge gives a ruling that doesn’t fit their agenda. As I’ve said before, the most “activist” ruling of the last decade, if we’re talking about the judiciary thwarting the will of the people, was the Supreme Court ruling that gave the presidency to George Bush. Yet no one seems to be calling Antonin Scalia an “activist judge.”

Having said that, “activist judge” is a brilliant rhetorical phrase, because regardless of its relationship to reality, it allows its users to describe their enemies in ways that both put their enemies on the defensive and also gull the unsophisticated masses. Most people don’t know or understand the role of the judiciary, nor understand (at the federal level at least) that it is explicitly designed so as to be insulated from the day-to-day electoral and political pressures the other two branches of government face. Complaining that “activist judges” are not responsive to the “will of the people,” particularly when that “will” is expressed by the political “want” list of the executive or legislative branches (even if both branches are currently polling below 40% approval) is in many ways complaining that the judges are doing their job as defined by the Constitution. But most people don’t get that; they turn on the talk radio and listen to bloviating right-wing lard brains model a version of separation of powers that has absolutely nothing to do with Constitutional reality.

Those in power know the model they’re promoting to the politically unsophisticated is a bad one, and what should be particularly galling to the people they’re selling this Constitutional snake oil to is that in reality, those in charge on the right don’t actually want the judiciary to be more politically responsive and less “activist” — otherwise Bush wouldn’t be so busy trying to jam people onto the Supreme Court (and into lower courts as well) whose political and judicial theories are far to the right of the general population. The Bushies rely on the staying power of an insulated judiciary to extend their political agenda long after Bush will be out of office — and indeed hope that these judges will be “activist” in their political direction, batting back the electoral will with their own unique view of US Constitutional law.

This is par for the course for the Bushies and their right-wing fellow travelers who prize their unchecked power over the constraints of the Constitution and whose theory of politics is best described as “feckless,” since the same right-wing bootlickers who are busy eviscerating the Constitution for the benefit of Bush today will the ones climbing the ramparts to take it all back if a Democrat gets elected president in 2008. There is no political theory on the right today; there’s just what they think they can get away with. This is sad for Republicans and conservatives who actually do prize the US Constitution and the rule of law, of course. Maybe next time they’ll run a presidental candidate who can actually think. In the meantime, of course, the monkeys are in charge, and they can take comfort take that the morons on the left are so ineffectual that they can’t actually get it together to counter a phrase as politically vapid as “activist judge,” much less counter any of the concrete violations of the Constitution currently taking place.

Now, before it looks as if I am blaming every bad thing ever on the Bushies, let’s review US history, in which we find that presidents have ever played politics with the federal judiciary. Indeed, one of the great Supreme Court rulings, Marbury v. Madison (which established the right of the Supreme Court to be the Supreme Court as we understand it today) arose because outgoing president John Adams created a bunch of judicial positions and packed them with his political fellow travelers in an attempt to thwart the political plans of Thomas Jefferson, who had just crushed Adams in an election. Closer to our own time, and on the recognizably opposite political end of the spectrum from the current Bush administration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 tried to get around a Supreme Court hostile to his New Deal by proposing to add a Supreme Court justice for every sitting justice over the age of 70 (thereby allowing FDR to appoint judges sympathetic to his politics). This didn’t fly, but it seems to have scared the then-sitting judges into allowing some New Deal provisions they seemed otherwise to be ready to bounce. For the record, I find FDR’s (and Adams’) attempts at court-packing fairly loathsome; say what you will about Bush, but his people aren’t imaginative enough to pull stunts like these. But the point to be made here is that being political about judges really is nothing new.

Are today’s judges “activist” — meaning they arrogate to themselves the powers that should reside with the other branches of government? By and large, I think not — I believe the majority of federal judges, even the ones whose judicial philosophies I disagree with, try to do their job faithfully and in accordance to the Constitution (moreover I also suspect that state and local judges do the same under the laws by which they rule). What is different — at least in very recent time — is that currently the right wants to suggest the judiciary is unchecked, arrogant and politically-minded. But inasmuch as many of the rulings decried as the result of “activist judges” are legally rigorous and sensibly ruled — just not what the folks on the right wanted — it’s pretty transparently partisan whining.

When will the howling about “activist judges” die down? I suspect when and if people come to power who understand that the role of the judiciary under the US Constitution is not, in fact, to let the president do everything he wants to do because he feels like it’s something he wants to do. In other words, when people come to power who actually respect the US Constitution.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)