Every once in a while, you come across a social media post that is so successful at making a lot of people very angry that it almost seems like it was lab-engineered by a Russian troll farm for the express purpose of destabilizing Western civilization. Such is the Dog Lady tweet.
If you’ve logged onto X (formerly Twitter) or TikTok at any point over the past three days, you probably know which discourse I’m referring to. It was prompted by a woman who posted a photo of a very cute white dog with the caption: “Small child runs up to Zoë. I body block and say, “Maybe we don’t run up to dogs we don’t know.” The parent: ‘She’s three.’ Me: ‘If she isn’t on voice recall, maybe she should be leashed?’”
The tweet, which now has 21 million views, was a shining example of the type of content that generates engagement on X, or what Vox’s Rebecca Jennings has referred to as “discourse bait”: smug, boldly declarative, and bereft of nuance. It also had the added benefit of pitting two very vocal groups of internet denizens against each other: dog people (who argued that toddlers should be taught not to approach unfamiliar dogs on the street), and parents (who argued that despite their best efforts, it is sometimes quite difficult to control excited toddlers, and that perhaps it is not the best idea to speak about children as if they were dogs).
As the parent of two small children, as well as the mom of a three-legged rescue dog who is regularly stopped on the street for pettings, I feel uniquely qualified to weigh in on Dog Lady Discourse. Generally speaking, I think all of the above arguments are reasonable. There is an unspoken protocol that governs dog-child relations: the child asks the dog parent if they can pet the dog; and the dog parent considers the request and chooses to grant or deny permission. Occasionally, dog-child relations can go awry: even the most well-behaved child can act impulsively and pet without asking, while even the most good-natured dog can take umbrage with an aggressive petter. But in my experience, in these rare instances, the adults on all sides of the equation have been pretty understanding.
The niceties of proper child/dog etiquette, however, was secondary to the discussion that took place on social media, which immediately devolved into contempt for bratty children and the selfish adults who raise them. “Normalize leashing children,” said one poster, while another wrote “Three means she’s snack-sized.” “Three is old enough to understand no,” wrote another, who has clearly never met a three-year-old. The mother was also not spared opprobrium, with many arguing that it was not the original poster’s job to parent the child for her; many expressed sympathy for the original poster on the grounds that the dog was a service dog, arguing that a child petting her could endanger her safety.
At its core, the conversation could be summarized thusly: whose safety and comfort took priority in the situation, that of the child, that of the pet owner, or that of the dog? And ultimately, this is the central theme of most discourse bait, which typically centers on a person who is not particularly adept at navigating social situations having to do so, and having an awkward situation with a stranger as a result. The question is always, whose needs take priority? Our own, or those of other, perhaps more vulnerable members of the community?
Often, though by no means always, this debate hinges on children. And the reasons for this are obvious: in a world that increasingly emphasizes staking out a claim to one’s own comfort or one’s own space, children are antithetical. All of them, virtually without exception, are fundamentally selfish and do not respect adult boundaries or adult perspectives. (As evidence of this, consider that I regularly have to explain to my six-year-old why it is important for me to consume food.) Very small children are also dependent on the goodwill and support of adults for their survival, putting them completely at odds with a community that puts a premium on individualism and self-care.
Even though children are among the more vulnerable members of our community, and thus ostensibly worthy of our consideration and care, many adults reared on a diet of Tumblr culture and TikToks about how biting your nails is a trauma response despise them, to say nothing of the lazy, entitled parents who unleash them Nerf gun-style onto the general populace, then whine about how hard it is to raise them. When you get down to the crux of the issue, however, the problem isn’t people having to share the physical world with children and their parents. It’s the fact that they have to share space in the world with others at all.
The most prominent example of the cultural ascension of online child hate is probably the discourse over adults being asked to switch seats with parents of small kids on airplanes. This seemingly mundane scenario, which most flyers have probably faced at one point or another, has given birth to an entire subgenre of viral TikToks; one July 10 video about a woman who refused to give up her window seat to a mother has 5.2 million views; while another by TikToker Audrey Peters, in which she sips champagne on an airplane while lipsynching to the audio, “Girl, fuck them kids and fuck you,” has 2.8 million.
There is an obvious ethical conundrum posed by such videos: should someone who has paid good money for a specific seat on an airplane, thereby ensuring their own comfort and safety, be compelled to give that up to ensure the comfort and safety of others, particularly if they are more vulnerable? But if you look at the comments on such videos, that’s not really the question people are engaging with. Mostly, they just seem exuberant over the prospect of an adult standing up to the tyranny of entitled children and the entitled adults tasked to care for them. “Fuck dem kids, her poor planning does not constitute my emergency,” reads one popular comment. Another wrote about a little girl asking if she could have the window seat so she could look at the window, and him responding, “Nope. I do too.” (That comment has more than 3,800 likes.)
Some of this ire can likely be chalked up to the simple fact that some people just don’t like kids, which is, in my view, utterly reasonable. (See: me having to explain to my child why I have to eat food.) Perhaps less reasonable is a smaller subsection of the internet, mostly made up of female Redditors in their twenties or thirties, that perceives both parents and children as a drain on societal resources, a nuisance to be dealt with rather than functional members of society, or functional members of society-in-training. (A good sign of this is references to children as “crotch goblins,” or the even less savory “cum pet.”)
To a large extent, I understand this sentiment: for decades, motherhood has been viewed as the default for all women. Thankfully, the tide is slowly turning, and it has become gradually more socially acceptable for women to delay parenthood or opt out of it altogether. But there is still stigma attached to being child-free, and I understand why some women put in the deeply unfair position of having to defend a choice that does not need defending may harbor resentment toward those who have, in their view, benefited from the social advantages that come with motherhood (even though, at least in the United States, there aren’t really many advantages at all).
But the “crotch goblin” demo is a relatively small one. The far more dominant perspective, at least among the very online, is the emerging consensus that the comfort and safety of the individual takes precedence over the comfort and safety of others — and families are totally incompatible with that.
The rise of what Bustle writer Rebecca Fishbein refers to as “therapy speak,” or the misuse of pop psych vernacular to justify selfish or callous behavior, has been key to this. By focusing on drawing “boundaries” around “toxic” individuals who may be “gaslighting” them — all popular terms in the Gen Z self-care and wellness space — people end up using real pop psych concepts to legitimize retreating further and further into themselves.
Take, for instance, last year’s Coffee Discourse, when a woman’s innocent tweet expressing pleasure at her morning routine of drinking coffee in her garden with her husband sparked an onslaught of outraged replies accusing her of flaunting her racial and economic privilege; or Chili Lady Discourse, where a woman was accused of being ableist for bringing a pot of chili to her neighbors’ home, because she wanted to surprise them with a home-cooked meal. It’s easy to dismiss others’ outrage at a person’s experience not encompassing every aspect of your own as silly or marginal. But really, it’s reflective of our own need to assert that our own boundaries, our own comfort, our own welfare trumps all, even at the expense of those who may be more vulnerable and in need of advocacy.
This was readily apparent to me on Day Two of the Dog Lady discourse, when the conversation inevitably devolved further from the already-inane debate of dogs versus children, to the pointing out of various demographics and experiences that the original poster had failed to include in her tweet, prompting her to dig in even further. When some pointed out, for instance, that she hadn’t considered how a disabled child may have more difficulty approaching a dog in appropriate ways — a fair, if tangential, point — the poster responded by asserting that as a disabled person herself, her needs took priority over that of the hypothetical disabled child in question: “It is not my responsibility to keep YOUR child safe. To keep YOUR child from distracting MY service dog. Stop using special needs as a crappy excuse,” she wrote.
I must admit that my initial reaction to this particular example of discourse bait was to fall for it, hook, line, and sinker. As the parent of a neurodivergent child, who has often been put in the position of having to apologize for or explain his behavior, I am intimately familiar with the lack of grace adults typically extend to kids like him. This response, from a person who ought to have known better, seemed to pretty perfectly crystallize the issues with therapy-speak, and what happens when your reserves for empathy are so tapped out on yourself that you no longer have any to spare for others.
But then I did something that I, and most adults on the internet, rarely do. I tried not to make it about me.
I tried to put aside my own circumstances, and my own perspective, to imagine what sorts of struggles this woman must have had in the past, and how irritating it must be for her to walk her service dog and have a snot-nosed, jam-fisted toddler come up to pet it without asking (and have her mother, the ostensibly responsible adult in the scenario, step in to defend her kid’s behavior). I thought about how her safety and comfort must have momentarily felt compromised, and how stressed she must have been trying to anticipate how her dog would behave around the child, and the various anxiety-inducing scenarios that likely flashed through her head. I considered that, by filtering her experience through my own perspective as a parent, who spends every waking moment considering my children’s comfort and safety, I had not considered that of another vulnerable member of my community. I tried to give her the grace that so many people were arguing she could have extended to the mother and child in her tweet. And weirdly, it made me feel free.