Do Kids Even Feel Seen If We Don't Have Our Cameras Out?
I am learning daily that while pictures of precious moments may be priceless, the far greater gift I can give my children is simply the ability to look up.
Recently, I was walking home from the market with my 5-year-old, Sid. Two blocks away from the house, he decided that he’d had enough with walking and threw himself dramatically across a park bench. He looked up at me with his puppy-dog eyes and puffed-out lower lip, making a face that only an overindulged first child could.
“I can’t go on. Can you carry me?” he asked, dead serious.
Unable to hold back a chuckle, I set down six bags of groceries and stared at him.
“Why are you so cute?” I asked, shaking my head, transfixed by his cherubic face and convinced he was the hottest guy I’d ever seen.
“You can take a picture of me if you want,” Sid said, not missing a beat.
“It’s okay,” I said with a smile. “I just want to take one with my mind.”
Sid cocked his head to the side, confused, as if he were a rejected contestant on The Bachelorette. “You don’t want a picture of me?” he asked, still trying to process.
“It’s not that I don’t want one. It’s that I want to be in this moment with you.”
Sid shrugged and stood up. “Okay. But can you still carry me?”
That night I told my husband about the experience and how deeply it had affected me. Sid had seemed almost wounded when I didn’t whip out my phone and snap a picture of him. As if without it, he wasn’t actually being seen. Had I communicated this idea? Or was it simply part of being a child in the age of social media?
There is no denying that we’ve become a culture of compulsive documentarians, buying tickets to fake museums that celebrate ice cream, staging photo shoots in front of pink walls, and boomeranging ourselves into bathtubs overflowing with marshmallows—not so much because it’s fun but because it tells a story that we desperately want to be true. It’s concrete proof that we are being good moms, that we are leading interesting lives, and that we are “hashtag blessed.”
While I always hide their full faces, I, too, use social media to share cute shots of my kids pouting on park benches. But I also use it as a way to judge myself—to scrutinize my body from six months ago versus my body today, to approximate how happy I was in times that I now idealize, to continually question if I made all the right choices, closed the right doors, and sneaked out the right windows.
Unlike a glass of chardonnay that comes out after the kids’ bedtime, this is an addiction that we make few attempts to hide from our children. The moment my kids say something precocious, do something funny, or show each other even a sliver of affection, I grab my phone and start filming.
But as compulsive as this desire is, I don’t want it to be my knee-jerk reaction. There are moments that pictures can’t capture and feelings that we are perceptive enough to pick up on only when we are unplugged and paying attention.
As parents in the digital age, we must hold ourselves accountable. We cannot simply look to our photo libraries for validation and use pictures as proof that we were present with our kids. I am learning daily that while pictures of precious moments may be priceless, the far greater gift I can give my children is simply the ability to look up.
Jenny Mollen is the New York Times best-selling author of I Like You Just the Way I Am. She has two sons with husband and actor Jason Biggs.
This article originally appeared in Parents Magazine's October 2019 issue as 'Pics or It Didn't Happen.'