Laura Gassner Otting's son, Toby, is not your average fourth grader. For starters, the Newton, Massachusetts 9-year-old runs his own fashion and lifestyle blog (which has gotten thousands of hits so far), and just last night he delivered a talk on "finding your voice" at TedxCambridge. But the self-proclaimed "junior sartorialist" has had some help from Mom along the way. I chatted with Otting to get her take on parenting in the digital age.
How did you feel seeing Toby speak at Tedx last night? "I was so so proud of him! It's an intimidating stage, and to get up there and own it for seven minutes is a pretty remarkable thing for a 9-year-old."
As a working mom, how do you fit helping Toby with his blog into your schedule? "If we happen to be driving somewhere, and he has an idea and wants to talk about it, I'll take out my iPhone and make note of it. It could be weeks later before we type it up. It takes five minutes to do a blog post, but the formulation of his opinions is what takes time."
What is your role in his writing process? "The whole point of the blog was for him to develop a voice of substance, so we'll first have a whole conversation on a given topic, and I'll push him. He'll say, 'That was delicious,' and I'll say, 'Okay, what made it delicious? What words would you use to describe that?' So he'll go deeper: 'It was a feast for all the senses.' So when we sit down for him to do the writing, he has a more fully-formed idea about what's he's thinking, and from there, he narrates what he wants. If there are spelling or grammar mistakes, I'll say, 'Can you think of a better way to end that sentence?' Sometimes he'll narrate a whole blog post, and I'll say, 'What did you give the reader that was more valuable than the reader reading the menu themselves? Did you give your Toby Take?' This process helps him learns to think deeper."
The "Toby Take" – I love that! Adults know that whatever gets posted online is permanent. Did you ever have a discussion with your son about that? "We talk about that from time and time in terms of his opinions on things. He tries not discuss things that are less than positive. It's an active act of omission."
How would you handle a situation where one of Toby's posts gets negative feedback? "I would handle it just like I would handle bullies in school. If someone posts negative feedback or a hurtful comment, I would tell him that you don't have to go to every fight to which you've received an invitation. What matters is what you think about yourself. There's always going to be people who don't like you, but most of the time it has very little to do with you."
What tips do you have for other parents who want to put an academic spin on their kids' passions? "I think as a parent you have the option to support or suppress. You can't dictate what topics will be of interest, but you can decide to be a part of it or not. For example, my older son cares deeply about Roman history and how it can help us predict the future, so we introduced him to economics. It's taking one special interest and finding interdisciplinary approaches to it. Ultimately, your kids are driving the bus, and you can decide to get on the bus or stand in front of it and get run over."
Image: Courtesy of the Junior Sartorialist.