Care and Feeding

My Daughter Wants Us to Ruin a Young Writer’s Reputation

She’s technically right about this, but should we really go through with it?

Young girl holding a book, pointing and laughing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 7-year-old daughter just came excitedly running to me with a magazine that publishes work by young authors, in which she’d recognized a familiar poem. She’s at that stage where she is very, very concerned about fairness, and right versus wrong.

Sure enough, the poem—supposedly by a 10-year-old girl in a distant state—is identical (except for a new, more generic title) to a poem in a 1970s collection of children’s poetry by a famous author, which I inherited from my mom and my daughter inherited from me.

She knows it’s wrong to claim someone else’s art or writing as your own, and she wants to see this girl get in trouble. The magazine is a couple of months old, and there has been no notice/retraction/etc. in more recent issues. Is it a good idea to let my daughter write to the editors to let them know?

My concern is that we have no idea what kind of background this girl comes from, and I’d hate to risk getting her beaten or otherwise disproportionately punished for something that, in the big scheme of things, is inconsequential. But I’d also hate to give my own daughter the impression that plagiarism is something that should just be shrugged off. My other thought was that the young “author” has a very uncommon name, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find her parents’ address. Would it be better to have my daughter write directly to her? What would you do?

–Mom of the Poetry Police

Dear Mom of the Poetry Police,

I agree with your concerns about the plagiarist’s life: how much trouble she could get in, why she may have done it, etc. I don’t think it would be worth it to notify the magazine, and I am especially opposed to trying to find the child’s family. I think this is a great opportunity to talk to your daughter about a number of issues.

First, the plagiarism: why it’s so wrong, why we never borrow from anyone else’s work without citing it, and what can happen (at school and beyond) when you get caught doing something like that. You also should talk about having some empathy for the child who did it; this person may be dealing with insecurity, depression, or some other personal stuff that led them to make a very bad choice. People who do bad things aren’t necessarily bad people, and we should remember that.

In terms of explaining why you aren’t going out of your way to out this child, talk about the fact that some children live with parents who aren’t as kind and understanding as you are, and that you would not want to open a kid up to some sort of terrible punishment. Remind her that the person who did this has to live with the knowledge that those weren’t their words in the magazine, which is a punishment of its own for someone who can understand right from wrong. Your daughter may feel frustrated that she isn’t going to see justice prevail, but hopefully, she’ll walk away from this situation having thought about empathy and the lives of other children in ways she, perhaps, hasn’t had the occasion to consider them before. All the best to you.

—Jamilah

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