Killing a teenager’s laptop, loudly
Perhaps you’ve heard of Tommy Jordan. He’s the North Carolina dad who recently recorded a video of himself reading and responding to a Facebook post composed by his 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, after which he shot her computer nine times with a .45 pistol.
Hannah had done what 15-year-olds have been doing since time immemorial: She complained to her friends, in this case in rather foul-mouthed terms, about household chores and the overall lameness of her parents. Her dad, in turn, did what parents do: He lost his temper and took away something she held dear — in this case, the laptop.
“I don’t know how to say how disappointed I am in you,” he says in the video. “But, kid, you got it easy.... It’s about to get harder.”
Harder and a lot more complicated. For all the timelessness of parent-teenager struggles, the battle between Tommy and Hannah was defined by one crucial difference: It was taking place online. Hannah had voiced her frustrations on Facebook, in this case in the form of a letter addressed “To My Parents.” Her father, an I.T. specialist who knew how to get around her privacy settings, fought fire with fire.
“You might not ever see this,” Tommy says to the camera after thoroughly chewing her out. “But as soon as I’m done, I’m going to post this on your Facebook wall so all those kids who thought it was cool how rebellious you were can see what happened.” Parents, he added, might get inspired to take on their own misbehaving kids.
Cue the air-raid sirens of the culture wars. Cue the red-state types who thought it was awesome, and the blue-state types who bristled at the gunplay (not to mention Tommy’s on-camera cigarette smoking). Cue the parents from all kinds of states who thought Tommy was a buffoon but secretly fantasized about unleashing firearms on their own kids’ electronic gadgets. Cue a “Today” show poll that asked “Is laptop dad’s punishment appropriate?” and found 73% of respondents in agreement.
That kind of stuff generates ink because it basically amounts to residual Tiger Mom mania dressed up in cowboy boots for maximum red-versus-blue-state friction.
But Tommy and Hannah aren’t so much Exhibit A on the issue of how to raise children but on something even more interesting: the end of shame. Tommy Jordan wasn’t just angry with his daughter. He was embarrassed by her (and for her) in a way that, until recently, parents simply didn’t have the opportunity to be embarrassed. That’s because he is among the first generations of parents to raise kids who don’t vent about their parents by writing in a diary or yakking on the phone or carrying on at the school bus stop — but by posting their grievances online.
There, on the pages of Facebook or MySpace or Tumblr, they go about the natural business of being teenagers — gossiping and complaining and saying stupid things in stupid ways. And though they know they are essentially doing this in public, there is something about the forum that also makes it ephemeral. The commentary may never be erased, but for Hannah and company, the instant it rolls off the screen, it doesn’t matter. However badly they comport themselves, it’s out of sight, out of mind and off the conscience.
That’s why I suspect it wasn’t Hannah’s brattiness or disrespect that drove Tommy to shoot the laptop. It was his perhaps unconscious awareness of an unbridgeable gap between him and his daughter, the gap between knowing what it means to be publicly humiliated and belonging to a cohort for whom humility is an increasingly arcane concept.
You might start to wonder about the Darwinian implications. After all, as humans evolve into ever more exhibitionist beings, not embarrassing easily might be seen as a highly adaptive trait.
Which also means that Tommy’s method of discipline ultimately failed. His video didn’t just record the end of a laptop; it tried to embarrass someone who’s so accustomed to people exposing themselves online that it doesn’t occur to her to be embarrassed. He hurt himself worse than he hurt her.
“She doesn’t really seem bothered by what the world at large feels about it,” Tommy wrote, by way of explaining why Hannah hasn’t posted a response. Meanwhile, he’s cranked out thousands of words in response to his critics.
“If I’d known that image was going to follow me the rest of my life,” he said, “I’d probably have cleaned my boots.”