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My son is a cyborg -- 'My Son is Gay' and parenting in the digital village

By Alexandra Petri

My son is a cyborg.

Or he's not. I don't care. He is still my son. He's five. And I'm his mother. And if you have a problem with any of the above, I don't want to know you.

This is the beginning of a blog post that I worry I will be writing sometime in the course of the next twenty years, based on current trends.

The original (My Son is Gay by the blogger Nerdy Apple Bottoms) has caused quite a stir, with its eye-catching picture and bold opening line. After reading the post, everyone has been nominating this mother for Mother of the Millennium awards -- or, alternatively, comparing her to something between Hitler and a skunk cabbage with limited child-rearing ability. I don't think either is entirely called for, but I want to make a plug for the first camp, with some caveats.

Everyone wants to be a good parent. That is why you see people running around piping Beethoven into their wombs and attending lectures on Landmarks of Modern Architecture as soon as they notice the blue plus sign. "Wake me up when the lecture is over," they murmur, drinking several healthful tonics and falling into a deep slumber, "It's for the baby."

Remember the "Children Must Be Seen and Not Heard" model of parenting? Not on your life! These days, children must be both seen and heard -- on Youtube, if possible. Often this is good. Sometimes, however, it is flagrantly, wildly bad.

One of the most formidable bugaboos of our era is the Stage Mother Who Uses Her Children To Get Places. Whenever we see a new star, we fret about this; whenever we hear of a mother who has made some sort of prominent parenting decision, we get all nervous and jittery about it. Publicly seizing the mantle of Good Parent is the equivalent of proclaiming yourself the humblest person you know. It's per se untrue. For me, the children's book Princess Boy -- about a similar dress-up question -- falls on the wrong side of this line. It's lovely that you're encouraging your child's self-expression. But do you need to publish a book telling me that you have done this? To quote the mother of the first blog, "I am not worried that your son will grow up to be an actual ninja so back off."

And with the advent of YouTube, we have a new bugbear: the You Are Visibly A Bad Parent And I Must Tell You So. This springs up when you post a video of your son after the dentist, or when you create a blog called Lying To My Kids. Sometimes it's merited. Often, though, it's none of anyone's business.

I think the story of Nerdy Apple Bottoms and her Daphne-costume-toting son Boo falls on the good side of the trend. This mother has been blogging for a while. According to her Twitter profile, "I read, teach yoga, mother 3 shorties, am married to a cop, have a bleeding heart, and live in the Bible Belt. Send help." This is why the Internet exists -- to send help. It creates communities -- mommy bloggers, daddy bloggers, sex offenders (hopefully not in the same communities) to share tips and provide mutual support. Remember how it used to take a village to raise your child? That village -- people frequently note -- has moved online.

But I worry a little bit about this trend. Not because I'm opposed to good parenting -- except when I want to rebel and have run out of other causes -- but because of its viral potential and because the whole phenomenon of High Visibility Online On Television All The Time Parenting disturbs me. I love watching strangers rear their kids as much as the next guy, but that's why God invented binoculars and vans with tinted windows.

Still, I preferred when the kids I watched grow up in public acted out idyllic sitcom plots when the cameras were on and reserved their terrible lives in trailers with stage parents for when the cameras weren't. But all this reality parenting has reversed the frames. Jon Plus or Minus Kate Plus 8? Teen Mom? These are the sort of things that make me want to wait to have children until I can contract out the parenting responsibilities to sentient robots. I think C3PO would do a great job -- he wouldn't require sleep or food or alone time, and my children would quickly learn statistics!

But both the upside of this blog posting -- vast outpouring of support, appearances on CNN, the works -- and its downside -- even more negative speech -- are emblematic of two features of our generation: the tendency to do everything in public, and the desire to avoid accidentally damaging or hindering children from blossoming into -- well, whatever it is they want to blossom into. "Repress everything!" Victorian parents told their children. "Be careful not to repress anything!" we tell ours. Then we go blog about it.

Both impulses are here to stay.The village isn't moving offline anytime soon. And the scores of bleeding hearts determined to let kids grow up into whatever it is they are destined to be will not diminish. But sometimes I wonder: what is going to happen to the generation of kids whose entire lives wind up posted online? The sort of information that it used to be the special prerogative of parents to show prospective dates on prom night -- "And here's Jeff dressed as a canteloupe!" -- now is available for everyone, a few Googles away. People, for the most part, don't post videos and pictures of their kids expecting the whole world to swoop in and comment on their parenting, their home life, and what this means for the U.S. economy at large. These snapshots are directed at their peculiar villages. For the times it spirals beyond that, maybe we need some sort of Online Dream Act. If you're a star of this digital village through no fault of your own, you ought to be allowed to slip back into obscurity, away from the indelible image of your adorable Halloween costume -- at least for first dates and job interviews.

But the Internet doesn't work that way.

Perhaps, in twenty years we'll all laugh about it. "This is when my mother told CNN I was a cyborg," we'll say, clicking through our albums. "That's when my father accidentally overloaded me with nitrous oxide!" our dates will respond. It'll be a new coming-of-age ritual. Forget making a hope chest! That's so analog. Now we're stockpiling online fame for an embarrassment Armageddon.

Or maybe by then no one will care.

By Alexandra Petri  | November 10, 2010; 4:56 PM ET
Categories:  Only on the Internet, Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  kids these days, millennials, online comments  
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I feel bad for you when you spend 10 precious minutes writing a column and nobody comments. You usually have at least one person who brings up the time your Grandma wrote in her blog, "Alex is really 10 years old, and she drivels into the rubbish when she puts out the garbage on Friday!" That'll learn you not to ask her to quit smoking!

But do you really expect anyone to read this column when it has the word "G-y" in the title? I once shook hands with a g-y man, (I didn't know he was g-y at the time) and I started humming George Michael (I didn't know he was g-y at the time either) songs all day.

When I saw the title of this column, I immediately put on latex gloves, but I still started humming Elton John songs and eating octopus! So I clicked a link I found in my email that promised to install "nogay.trojan," but it turned out that some h-mo had just renamed the "g-y.wad" virus.

I suspect that the virus has installed a "backdoor," so I have to move out of my house now. I can't write any more because it's time to go Stay at the Y.M.C.A. (hummmmm)

Posted by: divtune | November 11, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

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