When sharing our frustrating parenting moments goes too far.
Recently, on Facebook, a friend shared one those listicles, “23 BEST Pics from ‘Reasons my Kid is Crying.'” You’ve seen these before: a series of high-res images of sobbing babies and toddlers, their red eyes staring up into the camera lens. The photos are captioned with the reason the child is crying. Things like, “a fly landed near him,” and “it was his sister’s turn to use the hose,” and “the neighbor’s dog isn’t outside.” The idea is that we’re all supposed to laugh at these crying children for being upset about such small things.
Only, I don’t think it’s very funny.
I’m a parent, too, and, trust me, I understand that parents need to blow off steam. At least three times a day, my partner and I look at each other and roll our eyes because our toddler is whining for a cup of milk that is already IN HIS HAND. Parenting a small child can be frustrating and thankless. You love them so much and you try so hard and all you want to do is make them happy. And when your daughter’s whole world falls apart because “her hoodie wouldn’t zip any farther than this,” your only options seem to be: laugh, or lose your damn mind.
So I don’t have a problem with the impulse to laugh. I also don’t have a problem with the need to share the experience. Camaraderie is important—necessary even. We all need to reach out every once and a while and tell someone the things about our kids that are driving us crazy. Sharing the burden helps to ease it.
What I have a problem with is the broadness of this sharing. It’s no longer a phone call to your mom or best friend, or a text message to your wife at work. Now we upload our frustration to a tumblr with 500,000 followers. The photo is no longer just “ours.” Anyone can share it, and LOTS of people do.
The goal of this kind of sharing seems different, too. It doesn’t feel like it’s just about venting, or connecting. It feels almost competitive. Who can write the funniest caption? Who can get the most likes? The most shares? Who can get us to laugh the hardest at their screaming baby?
There’s also a permanency to this sharing that I find difficult to ignore. When you call your sister or best friend to share a frustrating moment you had with your preschooler, the words come out of you, hot and fast, and then…they’re sort of gone. There’s a beauty in the ephemeralness of that kind of old-fashioned sharing. When you put the photo of your crying child on the Internet, it’s there forever. It’s there to be bookmarked and screenshot and re-shared. It can be re-captioned and re-uploaded and searched for. It may be found at a much later time by your kid’s teacher, or your kid’s third-grade bully, or your kid.
We need to remember that these children, even though they feel like “ours,” do not belong to us. They are people. When I snap a selfie with my sisters on the rare occasion all three of us are together, I ask their permission before posting the photo to Facebook. That’s pretty much common courtesy in the social media era. Our kids are too young to meaningfully consent to having their photos shared. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever do it, but it does mean that we have to take some extra responsibility to keep their interests in mind when we do. If someone took a picture of you at your worst, your most frustrated, your most vulnerable and exposed, how would you feel seeing it trend on a viral listicle?
Part of the beauty of the parent-child relationship is that our kids feel secure when they’re alone with us, in their home, their space. They don’t need to hide their feelings or be on their best behavior. They can be who they are, even if that person is someone who completely loses it because “he has a sticker on his face.” When your child looks at you for help, or comfort, they think they’re just looking at you. They don’t know that the phone you’re holding in front of them is a window, and that you’re inviting thousands of people into their private experience of pain. They think they’re safe.
So I can tell you one reason your kid might be crying. He might be crying because instead of helping him, or hugging him, or stepping away for a few deep breaths while you let him figure it out on his own, you’re unlocking your phone and taking a picture and putting it on the Internet, where you’ve invited strangers to come and look and laugh at him forever.