The Athena Veto

Krissy and Athena.

Today’s Twitter kerfuffle (not counting the enduring discussion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knowing how to dance, much to the consternation of some conservatives) comes courtesy of this Washington Post article, in which a “mommy blogger” by the name of Christie Tate discusses why she won’t stop blogging about her kid, even though the kid had asked her to. At the end of the article Tate mentions she and her kid have come to an agreement about how and when Ms. Tate can write about her, and it’s important to note that mom still retains the upper hand and can choose to write about her kid even if the kid objects.

My thought? Basically: Well, that’s not the way I did it.

The way I did it was, when Athena was an infant and a toddler, everything I wrote about her and every picture I posted of her went through Krissy for approval. When Athena was old enough to understand that I wrote about things she did or said, and posted pictures of her, and all of that was seen by thousands of people, most of whom she didn’t know, I let her know she had approval over what I wrote about her and what pictures I posted of her. If she didn’t like what I had written, or didn’t like a picture, then she could veto them, with no argument from me.

And she did! There are at least a few blog posts (and rather more pictures) which I would have posted but didn’t because Athena wasn’t comfortable with them one way or another. She said no, so they didn’t go up. I should also note this rule is still generally in effect, even though Athena is now an adult — in point of fact, I messaged her that I was writing this piece and asked if that was okay. She said it was.

This rule is also in effect for Krissy, who has absolute veto power over anything I write about her here, and any picture I want to post. It’s also generally in effect for other people in my personal life, when I’m mentioning them specifically and they have not posted something publicly that I’m responding to.

Why do it this way? One, because it’s polite and kind to do so. Two, because I’m aware that for better or worse I am a public figure with a wide readership, and largely the people in my life are not, and so my portrayal of them is going to be how most people know of them. That’s a lot, so I think it’s only fair that they get to approve of their portrayal. Three, because I don’t want the people I love to hate me. It’s not out of line to say the approval of the people who are close to me is more important than the curiosity of people I mostly don’t know.

Also, in the case of my daughter specifically, I thought it was important that she both understood she had agency and should expect that agency to be respected, and that if it wasn’t, then there was a problem — and that the first place she learned that lesson was in her own home, from her own parents. I think that’s the sort of thing that echoes forward in one’s life, hopefully positively.

In her piece, Ms. Tate was concerned that not writing about her kid would have a direct impact on what she writes and how she expresses herself. One, sure. Two, so what? I’ve been writing this blog for two decades now — people who have been reading the site literally saw my daughter grow up in front of their eyes. There’s a lot you can write about even when you give your child (and spouse, and other people) the right to veto how they’re portrayed in your writing. It will make you a better writer, not a poorer one, to consider the wishes of the people most important to you in how you portray them.

The other, final benefit of giving my kid (and spouse) veto power on their presentation in my writing and photography is that, so far, at least, I’ve not had cause to regret anything I’ve written or posted about them, and nothing I wished, later, that I could take back. That’s not a bad record over two decades with Athena, and even longer with Krissy. It’s a streak I hope to keep going.

51 thoughts on “The Athena Veto

  1. I have not read the WaPo article, and I don’t write a blog that makes me money. I have twin sons who are almost 7, and I have been checking with them for at least two years before I share the cute things they say or their photos on Facebook.

    More often than not, they say OK, but occasionally one or both of them will say no. When that happens, I respect their choice and don’t post it.

  2. I always wonder how much agency family members of a prominent person have with regards to their presentation on social media. I’m literally nobody but I still ask permission from my non-social-media-having husband every time I want to post a picture of him because, well, him not having social media isn’t an accident. The mother in that article floors me with her complete disregard for her daughter’s feelings and framing it as some kind of imposition on her ~art~ to consider other people.

    Reminds me of two things: 1) that Onion article about how a mom learned to love her autistic child through monetization of her story and 2) another (real) article about a mother who prided herself on her “no-holds-barred” approach to writing about motherhood, only for her father to point out that her sons might not thank her down the line for her frank discussions of puberty and potty training. The article she wrote was incredibly similar to this one, where the argument boiled down to “but I wanna”.

  3. “The Athena Veto” sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel.

    Clearing things by your daughter and wife before posting them shouldn’t be seen as an extraordinary thing because it just comes off to me as a decent thing that should just be done.

  4. I 100% agree with you on every aspect of your piece here. I keep my daughter’s information very close to my chest because I just don’t feel comfortable sharing too much of her without her permission. This might change when she gets older, but I want it to be HER decision, not mine, and I don’t– I really don’t– want her to look back years later and say, “Mum, I wish you hadn’t shared that about me.” That’s more important to me than, frankly, almost anything else.

  5. I had a moment the other day, when you posted the picture of Athena and Smudge, that was very much of the “I’ve never met this kid but I watched her grow up” variety. I don’t know for certain how long I’ve been reading this site but it’s been at least ten years, since I remember buying The God Engines right as it came out. That’s half her life, which is nuts.

  6. I am going to make explicit something you implt without saying:

    You respect Krissy and Athena as individuals separate from yourself.

    Ms. Tate isn’t showing respect for her kid. I mean, she can still write whatever she wants, in the privacy of an unpublished diary.

  7. I think this is the only way it should be done: respecting the privacy, boundaries and wishes of the other people. I guess that being a public figure means the exposure or the possible damage done gets multiplied, isn’t?

  8. I’ve heard once wise words of a politician who warned a younger collegue about letting in the press on her marriage;”When you let them in when everything is fine, they’ll also come when things tur

  9. The position you’ve taken should be the default. Everyone has the right to be let alone. Good for you (and for those you hold dear).

  10. I like this, and I don’t post pics of my kids without permission. (I don’t blog, but)

    Cautionary tale: my kid sister (now 34 years old) is still upset about a poem our grandmother wrote about her as a teenager in her vanity published book of poems she sold to other church ladies.

    So yeah, I’m careful about what I share and get permission for it.

  11. I’ve read Gone Girl like a lot of people so I know how much oversharing about kids f**ks them up.

  12. A good post–when I wrote about my boy Joseph in Oddly Normal, I asked him whether he’d let me write the book (he said yes too quickly, so I asked again), read over the draft and argued over some points, which improved those passages, wrote up a children’s story that I used as the last chapter, and came to a couple of book talks. Without his consent at every step of the process, I could not have written about anything so personal.

    But what about the effect of having it out there even now? What luck! It all worked out, since the book has only sold 10,000 copies, and has all but disappeared.

  13. As a very privacy minded person, I just wanted to thank you for respecting your loved ones wishes and privacy!

  14. Dear John, sometimes reading your posts is like stepping out into the day that is clearly full of grim blustery rain only to find myself surrounded by warm and delightful sunshine. Thank you. In times like these, I always welcome the people who bring the sun. ;-)

  15. “Christie Tate discusses why she won’t stop blogging about her kid, even though the kid had asked her to”

    Tldr: because mom gets something out of exploiting her kid.

  16. Respect and trust goes two ways. I don’t think this mom gets that. I personally can’t imagine blogging about my daughter without her permission.

  17. I think this boils down to a difference in how people view children and their labor.

    There is one camp that holds whatever a child earns/creates belongs to the parents because they are paying for the child’s food, clothing, etc.

    Then there is the other camp that holds whatever a child earns belongs to that child because the parents willingly had the child, knowing that they would have to pay for food, clothing, etc. and they would have to pay those expenses even if the child never earned a dime.

    Though there is a strong generational gap on the issue (older folks tend to fall into the former camp), there are also cultural issues (more agricultural families that rely on child labor also tend to fall into the former camp).

    Personally, I fall more into the latter camp.

  18. I’ve not read Tate’s blog nor do I know she of her child. That said, if the child is old enough to object then Tate needs to respect that. She will end up with a child who resents her, blocks her on social media, and may eventually grow up to block her in real life.

  19. Nice picture of the female Scalzis. Krissy’s hair reminds me of a line from a Stephen King book in which he writes that someone’s ‘hair is pulled back so tight it’s on the verge of a scream.’ Also, Athena appears to have thinned out a bit from her high school days, which isn’t unusual, but I doubt she’s living on a diet of ramen noodles and left-over pizza pilfered from parties or study group sessions as many of us did.

    I really do appreciate you sharing the seemingly mundane, everyday life stuff that everyone experiences, Scalzi. We’re not all successful science fiction writers but we all presumably (and hopefully) have some means of supporting ourselves, and it’s nice to know that aside from our professional lives, we’re very much all alike in many regards. Well, some of us are better “amateur” photographers that others though!

    Again, thanks for sharing a good portion of your everyday, non-professional life – warts and all – with us all. Happy New Year!

  20. I read that piece on the WaPo site this morning and was frankly horrified. To the point that my guts were knotting and I felt like crying.

    Because I could SO clearly imagine my late mother doing something like that, had blogging been a thing when she was alive. She was the sort who saw absolutely nothing in the world wrong with telling everyone in the world every last sordid detail about everything. And the thought of discovering at age ten or so that stories about my potty-training, travails with mean classmates, bad grades, school problems, and god knows what else were splashed all over the internet made me want to run into a corner and throw up.

    And I’m 61 years old. It’s been half a century since I was that age, and it never actually happened to me, but just the thought of it affects me that badly.

    I hope the blog writer makes a really, really good living from her writing. I hope she makes enough to make up for the fact that she is unlikely to have any kind of a relationship at all with her daughter the moment the daughter is old enough to self-emancipate. Because if I was that kid, my mother would never see or hear from me again the minute I turned 18. And she wouldn’t hear a helluva lot from me before that point, either.

    Thank you for respecting the people in your life. I know I don’t have to fear stopping by Whatever lest I find some horribly embarrassing tale about your family or your friends, and I really appreciate that. I’m reasonably sure that they do, too.

  21. As someone working toward a teaching career, I was very firm with my mother about what she can post. Initially, it was difficult for her to take no for an answer (she felt guilty about posting pics of my sister so much more than of me), but now it seems second-nature. She practices good judgement (no vids of me in a casino) and always asks first, allowing me to see each picture and veto if I choose (or offer a different pose). Depending on the context, I may even give her a blanket ‘go for it’ (such as Mother’s Day at the Japanese Gardens in Seattle).
    I’m glad she saw the merit in allowing me to choose this, and am horrified anyone can justify doing otherwise.

  22. I think that it’s wonderful, and also fair, to include your daughter, and Krissy in anything you post about them. Furthermore I think the mother who will not allow her children a voice in what she does that will, eventually, if not sooner, affect their lives is being rather disrespectful. But that’s my opinion.

  23. Your post reminds me of the specific celebrity not cashing in on kids behavior of Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage. With the former, he was pretty clear of not revealing who his kids were until they were both over 18, at which point it was their choice of whether or not to appear “publicly” in photos with him. I suspect Adam Savage presented a similar choice to Things 1 and 2 as to whether or not he’d mention their names/appear “publicly” with them, although I’m less clear as to whether it was each individually, or if one saying “no” was enough to have both not.

  24. John, I have been reading your blog, I believe, since before Athena. I have never thought to myself, “Boy I sure wish he would write more about Athena.” However, I have enjoyed every post about both her and Krissy. If I was ever in a position to recommend Athena for anything, I believe I know enough to tell someone that “Yes. She is a good person and very interesting and creative.” I have enjoyed the times you have let us know about both Krissy and Athena. You have bragged on them as appropriate, I believe. I don’t understand some of these bloggers that tell all about family members. Some have blogged about personal stuff that maybe I didn’t want to hear.

  25. Writing about someone over their objections just because they’re related is indicative of a fundamental lack of respect for that person’s rights and feelings. Period.

  26. It is just about decency and respect which seems to be sorely lacking these days so kudos to you on the respect shown to your wife and daughter.

  27. When my kid was eight or nine I was working for the features section of a newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska. At one point I took her to an orthodontist for an evaluation and the receptionist said, “Oh, you’re the girl who eats Spaghettios.”

    (I’d written a column about how I wouldn’t let my daughter have a Barbie doll and how I’d sworn I’d never serve her stuff like Spaghettios. Like many parents, I ultimately learned that heat ‘n’ eat had its uses — and then one day, while warming up the canned pasta I saw a contest advertised on the label. Peeled it off and you guessed it: The prize I’d won was a Barbie doll.)

    She didn’t seem to mind, but I did think twice after that about writing about her without letting her know.

    My daughter grew up to be, among other things a writer. And yes, she posts about me on her blog. I return the favor. We send each other readers all the time!

  28. It sounds like a great policy: very respectful of the people in your life. It would be even better if more people followed the same guidelines.Thanks for being a good example to counterbalance the over-sharing mommy blogger.

  29. I took the path of not posting about our offspring, but they were preteens when I might have started and even showing photos to Grandma was occasionally eye-roll inducing. (Though they did make appearances in a couple of text book illustrations.) That said, all along I happily share bits about my spousal unit/partner, Roger. Folks often meet him at conventions. Plus he does epically cool stuff, while I’m just typing.
    Thanks for this conversation. I think it’s a very important one indeed.

  30. Well, that’s great. But what of the cats? Won’t somebody think of those poor exploited cats???

  31. The part in this about teaching Athena about her own agency really struck me; that’s good parenting, that is and a lesson to live by.

  32. I’ve gone to the other extreme and basically don’t write about my children or husband, as my blog is about reading and writing sci-fi. I could easily share little anecdotes and funny stories from my personal life to flesh out my posts, but I can also, just as easily, not. Like you, I figured this is the easiest way to not accidentally write something regrettable. However, I sometimes wonder if my kids will grow up and wonder why I never wrote about them!

  33. Great, thought-provoking article. That blogger’s behaviour reminds me of that of one of those pushy showbiz parents whose kids end up in therapy or worse down the line. I feel like someone needs to beat them around the head with the collected works of Immanuel Kant (yes, all of them. In hard-cover, large-print editions, with all the footnotes, in the original German…) while chanting over and over, “people are ends, not means!“. And I’m not even a deontological ethicist…

    I recently had reason (i.e., the long-looked-for and well-deserved downfall of one Milo Y) to post a link to the Schadenfreude Pie article on another blog so it was funny seeing Lil’ Athena cackling maniacally again. Who knows? Maybe 2019 will be the you get to bake a sequel to Schadenfreude Pie…

  34. For all of you worrying about the cats … they’re cats, they will assume (correctly) that all attention will lead to more worship of them, which is as it should be.

  35. I am a new parent – I have a 15 month old. I want you to know your words have an impact. Effective immediately, I’m adopting your policy. My husband isn’t a social media user, and I’m a heavy user, so I’m going to run stuff by him until she gets her own voice. Thank you for this extremely timely (in my life, at least) reminder that even though they’re kids, they still need agency.

  36. “…and so my portrayal of them is going to be how most people know of them.” That’s it right there. In a world where a 5 second sound bite or a single post taken out of context can ruin a person’s life or sway the opinion of millions, we need to have that second level of common sense available (whether it’s a spouse, a friend, or the kid) as an anti-stupid check.

  37. In my case, I’ve wound up working to keep my wife and daughter out of any shots that are not intentionally of them as I’ve had too many otherwise nice pictures that had to be shelved due to family member vetos.

  38. You and Lisa R. Hirsch said it right.

    I’ve taken the same approach with my now-teenage daughter since she was small: if she objects to a photo or description of herself, I don’t post it. For me, it goes along with teaching her she doesn’t owe relatives or anyone else hugs, kisses, or any other kind of intimate contact just because they want it. Agency is vital, especially for children.

    Ms. Tate has the right to parent as she pleases, short of abuse, and I have the right to consider her an egotistical jerk.

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