As the child of teachers with a fondness for anecdote, I know all too well what it’s like to have one’s private life become common knowledge. It was bad enough when anything I said might become fodder for my dad’s seminary classes, used to illustrate some aspect of naïve faith or instinctive questioning. Worse still was when my mom started teaching history at my own school, just as I was entering ninth grade, and my peers were regaled with stories of my childhood Oedipal yearnings (told I couldn’t marry her, I vowed to marry my sister instead—oh, how they loved hearing about that!) This was ostensibly a sidebar to a discussion of ancient Greek literature and mythology, but even then I saw it for what it was: the irresistible impulse to tell and re-tell that cute thing your kid said.
Parents have dined out on their kids’ cute sayings since the dawn of human speech. Most of the time, it comes from the right place: love, adoration, pride, maybe a little friendly competition with their fellow parents. And most of the time, it’s pretty harmless, going no further than the office next door or across the back fence—at least, that was the case for most of human history. In the age of digital media and “living our lives in public,” the stakes are somewhat higher.
A single status update or tweet can reach more people than a year’s worth of playground chats and dinner parties. The family photo album rarely if ever left the house, but candid shots of ice cream-smeared faces and kissing siblings now travel the world at the speed of light. Video clips can turn even the most intimate moments into global sensations—just think of that poor kid on his way home from the dentist … (or maybe not so poor; apparently his YouTube fame will help pay for college). Across the Web, infants and toddlers rank just behind cats in the “you gotta see this one” category.
Of course, it’s not always a matter of gratuitous tale-telling. PSP was founded on the willingness of its members to share personal information about their kids with a larger community, but in the context of asking for help and advice—surely a worthwhile motive. Yes, it can get pretty raw—bedwetting, tantrums, self-exploration, as often as not with the child’s name appearing right next to the parent’s. But PSP is strictly a “walled garden,” restricted from public view; as large as it’s grown, it remains a relatively safe place. Even the laziest and most craven journalists have resisted the temptation to mock our kids the way they mock our politically correct obtuseness and helicopter parenting. Still, you do have to wonder how our kids would feel if they knew just how much of their nascent personal life was being bandied about on the list.
On the list or elsewhere, it’s easy to rationalize that anyone who reads that revealing story or sees that hilarious picture either knows your child, and takes it in a gentle spirit; or doesn’t, in which case what does it matter? No parent sets out to deliberately embarrass their child—at least, I hope not—but humiliation is in the eye of the beholder (or the beholdee). Even a good-natured celebration of a child’s irrepressible spirit or an unguarded moment that shows her in an entirely positive light, can still be a violation of her trust and confidence.
The creation and curation of an online persona is central to modern life—the things you choose to reveal about yourself and your life, the pictures you’re willing to post, the details you choose to keep private. It’s both highly personal, and fundamentally public—similar to choosing your own clothes and hairstyle, but even more sensitive. Just as we wouldn’t deliberately dress our kids in ridiculous or unflattering outfits, it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re portraying them fairly, as real people, not props or caricatures. From day one, their dignity is in our hands—even, and especially, before they’re aware of it themselves. Is the image we’re revealing in their name the one they would choose for themselves? Will today’s cheap laugh resurface in a Google search five years from now, just as your child is entering a new school?
As one of those insufferable people who use photos of their kids for profile pictures, I’m hardly a purist about keeping them out of public view. I’ve posted about them on PSP, bored my social networks to death with pictures and quotes, and written about them here and elsewhere, surely not always with as much discretion as I should. Often it’s in the hope of some redeeming social purpose—expressing solidarity with other parents, helping others learn from my failures, reaching for some larger point about the nature of childhood and parenting—just as my parents’ students often did learn something valuable from the stories they heard about my sister and me. But I’m as guilty as anyone of blatant, self-indulgent cuteness-mongering.
So Bobby, Lulu, when you read this some day, please remember: your father loves you. I’m sorry for all the times I’ve embarrassed you (and the times still to come). If I’ve been too free with the details of your lives, it’s because I can’t help it—your awesomeness is just too rich to keep to myself. I throw myself on your mercy. Just remember what I told Grandma when I was little: “When you get old, I’m going to put you in the nicest nursing home in town!”