When Moms Bully Moms, Online and Off

Filed under: In The News

More and more parents are being bullied, online and off. Credit: it's life, Flickr

Gillian Foreman is an enthusiastic breastfeeding advocate, and when she said as much on Twitter, she found herself being attacked online -- by her next-door neighbor.

The New York City mom of one tells ParentDish that what she saw as a friendly conversation about feeding cereal to infants ended up exploding in her face.

"She ... won't stop passively aggressively attacking me, making snide comments, being just plain mean," she says. "And now, of course, the silent treatment. Nice, huh?"

Twitter, Facebook and the good old-fashioned listserv are great ways for moms to connect across geographical and cultural lines, but they often have a dark underbelly. The simple fact that you can't see another person's face makes it a little too easy to start slinging insults from a comfortable spot in front of your keyboard hundreds of miles away -- or even from the apartment next door.
Cyberbullying is in the news a lot lately, as teens gang up on one another and cause heartache -- and sometimes even tragedy -- using the technology in which they are so fluent. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that kids ages 8 to 18 are spending as many as 53 hours a week online -- and that offers a lot of opportunities to bully.

But virtual harassment isn't limited to teens anymore. More mothers find that expressing their views online nets them not community, but instead insults and judgment from strangers. In a guest post for The New York Times' Motherlode blog, Nicole Sprinkle details the fracas she started when she defended the rights of childless couples to live in her kid-centric New York City neighborhood.
Her defense of nonparents unleashed what she calls the "wrath" of a dozen moms.

"What was wrong with me?" Sprinkle writes. "Surely I was just too sensitive? This was a place of openness and friendly camaraderie! I had to have been imagining it! I had to be WRONG!"

Sprinkle's experience is not an isolated one. Catherine Connors is a Toronto blogger and writer who says moms -- and parents in general -- feel more free to express their opinions aggressively when the they don't have a face-to-face relationship with those on the opposite side of the debate.

"You don't have to see me at the schoolyard or playground or sit down to coffee with me, so you feel freer to express your disagreement as passionately as you like, without ... regard for my feelings," Connors tells ParentDish.

Connors is no stranger to bullies, both online and off. Her popular mommy blog, "Her Bad Mother," is a fertile ground for parental debates. She posts honestly -- and sometimes provocatively -- about topics ranging from spanking to co-breastfeeding to her grief over the recent death of her father.

One post stemmed from a real-world incident in which a woman witnessed Connors nursing another woman's baby at a bloggers' conference. While the woman did not approach Connors at the time, she did offer her opinions about it later -- online.

"Afterward ... she wrote a scathing [blog] post about how disgusting she thought it was," Connors says. "She hadn't had the nerve to confront me in person, but online, it was a different story."

Connors used her own blog to respond to the criticism.

"Interestingly, when I wrote a post in response, saying how upsetting that had been and how wrong I thought it was to talk about other moms in those terms, I received a lot of angry commentary and e-mail from her supporters, accusing me of bullying her, of trying to censor her and shut her up."

She adds that social media networks such as Twitter encourage bullying because it "facilitates a schoolyard dynamic."

"People nudge each other and whisper to each other and say 'did you hear what she said? Pass it on!'," she says. "Someone reacts to what you've posted or tweeted and seeks out agreement from others, who in turn react, and so on and so forth. It can make bullying viral in a way that it just wouldn't be otherwise."

The culture of bullying isn't limited to the virtual world. An opinion piece in the Huffington Post points out that even being a good ecological citizen can give parents license to talk down to -- and yes, even harass -- parents who have different philosophies about child-rearing.

"A new competition has developed pitting the so-called 'green' parent against the 'helicopter' parent who tends to micro-manage and control every part of her children's lives," writes psychotherapist Carol Smaldino. "Directly or not, the bullying tendency within our culture encourages the 'liberated' and ecologically correct parents to openly snicker at those caught in a web of anxiety that is all too frequently culturally induced."

Lillian Gould tells ParentDish about her best friend, who turned on her once she became a fellow parent.

"There was constant bullying," the Charleston, West Virginia mom writes in an e-mail. "Everything from how much weight I gained to the house my husband and I bought."

After her son was born, Gould's friend turned her high beams on Gould's parenting choices, right down to how and what she fed her child.

"I heard those words play in my head every time I fixed a bottle," she writes. "Anything I did as a mother was just a disgrace in her eyes, and she was very vocal about it. She made me feel so bad every time we talked that I just couldn't be around her anymore."

Connors also recounts an incident in which another mom chastised her for nursing her son in the kids' section of her local public library. It was, she says, very hurtful.

"She insisted that I should be ashamed of myself, doing it front of young children, especially boys, especially her boy, and it was horrible," she recalls. "It was horrible because it worked. I did feel ashamed. The experience stayed with me and caused me upset for a long time afterward."

Why are moms so quick to judge and bully? We can't say. We do know that it starts early: Just look at the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old South Hadley, Mass. student who committed suicide after what the Web site True Crime Report called "an onslaught of bullying via texts, Facebook messages and in person at the school."

The site reports that a Facebook page set up to remember Phoebe was taken down after the taunts and nasty comments continued even after her death. This leaves us wondering: How can we teach our children to be kind to one another when we can't model that behavior in our own lives?

Have you or your children been bullied, or have you ever been the instigator?

Related: Who is Affected by Bullying

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.