I shared a photo on Instagram the other day of my son. He’s three, and has appeared in hundreds of photos online. He’s quite photogenic, and, in fact, is also the most heart-achingly-adorable three-year-old boy who ever lived, I say this because maybe you’ve heard of him.
Anyway, it was an unseasonably warm April day in suburban Buffalo. My son, whom I will call Bub in this essay about his privacy, had behaved well and eaten his vegetables.
“Please,” Bub said. “Please, please, please. Is it time to play in the sprinkler?” Usually it’s not until late June when the temperature is warm enough for that. But it was in the low seventies at dusk, and a mild but stubborn winter had just ended, and my wife and I thought, “yeah, sure.”
You know how thrilled three-year-olds get when they realize you have just acceded to their whim. Minutes later, after calling the garden hose names and snapping at my wife only once, I turned the handle and the dog-shaped plastic sprinkler with the crazy hose-hair began flooding the lawn, which still awaited its first cut of spring.
I watched Bub look at us, smile, and look at the sprinkler. He approached it cautiously. Now that he could feel the evening breeze on his shirtless body, he was clearly having second thoughts as he neared the spray.
While he stood there thinking about whether to get wet, I snapped a picture with my iPhone. I put an Instagram filter on it, and uploaded it within a minute to my social network, a crowd of about eight hundred people (including my Facebook friends).
I watched him, and then I looked at the photo. His back is to the camera. His head is down, his arms out as if maintaining his balance. The colors are warm and saturated. The golden sunlight looks like angels are going to slide down it, and there’s even a halo of light at the edge of the frame. It’s a postcard of a childhood I hope he one day regards as half as good in reality as it looked in this snapshot.
Its intimacy surprised me. I don’t know what he was thinking. It’s often hard to tell, as his mind is growing so fast it’s hard to keep up as he pinwheels from one developmental phase to the next.
But because he is my son, and maybe because I’m projecting, it seems like he was having a “moment” to me. Something was occurring to him, that he was turning over in his new mind. Whether he was grasping at some passing, ineffable joy he doesn’t have the words for, or wondering if he had to use the bathroom, I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that it was truly candid. He wasn’t holding still for the camera, or twisting his face into that weird, unnatural imitation of his smile I get when I ask him to say “cheese.”
In that moment I saw him as an individual, as if I had never considered the meaning of the word before, at least as it applied to him.
It sounds ridiculous now to say this, but sometimes we forget our children are people, separate people, individual people. The weight of this idea can get heavy. I say “we” because I feel like a negligent parent if I admit that Isometimes take pictures of my son the way you’d photograph a sunset, or a monument.
Certainly I don’t need to defend the practice of posting pictures of children on social media. I do it, we all do it, because these small people bring us pride and joy (two more dull-sounding words that come electrically to life as you consider your own children). We overflow with these proud and happy feelings and want to share them.
Someday, before too long, Bub will stare back at the camera and he’ll know more about what will happen after I press the shutter button. He’ll realize, in his way, that he has an audience, even his private moments, and that he’s had one all along. My guess is it will matter less to him than it does to me because of how common a practice this is.
Will it be a comfort to him? Will it be a distraction? Will he censor himself? Will he try extra hard to look good in pictures, which can be snapped without warning and published to thousands of people at any second? When he’s older, will he think twice about having a drink at a party, or committing some prank with his friends, for fear of it appearing on social media?
We don’t go to church. We haven’t talked about God. At the church-sponsored daycare he attends, he gets a bit of “God-lite.” They say grace before meals and are taught to be kind to one another and abstractly “thankful,” but there’s no dogma, no Heaven and Hell, and, as far as I know, no lessons about an unseen father-figure who watches your every move (except for Santa Claus, which is another story).
One of the reasons we don’t talk much about traditional religion is that I didn’t think it was appropriate to tell a child that his behavior, even his innermost thoughts, were not ever private, but were being watched and judged by forces beyond his control, and one day he’ll have to account for them in a way he couldn’t possibly fathom.
As I scroll through the photos of my son’s life, considering the moments both posed and when he was oblivious to my happy photography, I wonder what about that idea of always being watched by an audience is so foreign to me, or so offensive? Maybe social media infamy will put the same fear in him that I had of “blackening my soul” (my mother’s preferred image) as I committed the private transgressions of a normal childhood.
I don’t know what I think about this. Perhaps I’ll publish fewer pictures. But regardless of what I do, Bub will grow up in a world where everyone will record everyone else, for everyone to see, even in “private” moments. Maybe it won’t make his world of visible “God’s eyes” feel any differently than the one I grew up in, believing I was constantly under invisible surveillance of an eye that loved me, but could punish me instantly, and irreversibly, if I strayed too far from the flock.
Maybe he’ll see that when everyone can see everything at any time, no one’s really looking at anyone else.
Because of course all the pictures we take are selfies, the view in the frame a reflection of the person pressing the shutter.