When I was around three or four, I would spend hours at my daycare’s craft table, constructing what I thought of as my “inventions”: sculptures made of cardboard, sellotape, and sometimes paint. At pick-up time, I would bound over to my mother clutching that day’s invention, determined that she take it, inspect it, praise its ingenuity. The invention would come home with us, and then be dutifully placed in the kitchen next to the sink, until eventually it had been supplanted by enough newer inventions that I allowed my mum to throw it away.
Here we have the expression, I think, of a fundamental instinct: look at this thing that I've made. Isn't it good?
I'm not sure if, for me, this instinct has been carried over to adulthood completely uninhibited. I certainly always feel ambivalent about “promoting” any of my actual creative work. But it is an instinct that I very much feel when it comes to my kids. I look at them, and I think: my God, everyone should see this! My son can sing the alphabet song by heart, and do basic sums — isn't this brilliant, isn't he clever? At his age! The other day he pointed at a photo that he initially thought was of me, before deciding that it was himself from the future, just as he knows we have photos around the house of ourselves in the past — isn't this the most magnificent misunderstanding? This morning, my baby daughter tried to squeeze her sachet of fruit mush into the bowl for herself — what a genius! And just look at her, anyway. You know, strangers gasp when they see her in passing — isn't she just the most beautiful little thing in the world?
I made these things, or at any rate I helped to, or at any rate I'm helping to raise them. I love them, and every instinct I have is to convince the world that they're as wonderful as I think they are; to show them off.
And yet, we often find ourselves being warned about this urge. Here, at any rate, is a question any new parents will find themselves being asked: are you going to share pictures of them online? For most people, of course, the answer does seem to be “yes,” at least to some extent (maybe they would share pictures on Facebook but not on Twitter, for example; maybe they would share pictures on their private but not their public account) — but there are definitely some parents who are very iffy about it. Some parents, of course, go completely the opposite way, and attempt to leverage their kids into a career as an influencer. But even if you don't, even if you just post nice pictures of your kids every now and then on your public account, well, who knows who might be looking? There are some real sickos out there. Besides, shouldn’t we all be worried about how much data tech companies are collecting on us?
My partner and I have always had an attitude to this question that is basically rather fatalistic — less, that is, of an answer to the question as it is posed, than a refusal to admit we have any agency in the matter at all. The internet's panoptic gaze will get our kids eventually anyway, no matter what we do. So why resist it? Why not allow ourselves to share cute pics and stories about our kids online?
We live in a world filled with other people, who don't really know us, who don't live with us, who still — for all that — are able to see us.
Recently, I found a version of this question posed by Piper French in her review of Raising Raffi, a collection of essays published by the writer Keith Gessen about his six year-old son. French is partly worried about how children are affected by parents oversharing about them on social media. But in the review, she projects this worry through what Gessen is doing, and what his wife Emily Gould has done: writers mining their children as a source of material. Gessen and Gould were late-noughties Brooklyn literary celebrities (Gould was a prominent editor at OG Gawker) — and nowadays, it seems to French, they are attempting to sustain that fame through their son.
While I might be able to shrug fatalistically at the question of whether it might in some sense be “harmful” to share the odd photo of a smiling baby on social media, I personally find this way of putting the problem a lot more compelling. After all, I am a writer too, and I often, in a sense, do just what French condemns: I write essays about parenting, which often necessitates including details about my kids (this piece, for instance, was about my daughter's name). When my partner was pregnant, I even wrote a whole book structured around it. So obviously this is a question I feel the bite of: what if, by writing about my family in this way, I am doing something morally wrong?
As French argues, when we present an image of someone else in writing, we are in some sense “fixing” them in the eyes of others: we are telling other people what to think of them. Thus Karl Ove Knausgaard, in mining his life for literary ideas, might present an unflattering image of his ex-wife. But if a writer does this to an adult, that adult is always free, in theory, to write back (as Knausgaard's ex did, becoming a successful novelist in her own right), or perhaps even to sue them. With children, it's different: children are still too young, and still too dependent on their parents. So if Gessen and Gould write unflattering things about their son's “difficult” behaviour, that's a lot more troubling (I've personally argued in print that my son should be allowed to destroy works of art at our local gallery). As French puts this point: writing about our kids threatens to rob them of “the chance to write their own stories.”
I do think that part of what is going on here is that French, herself, feels uncomfortable knowing so much about other peoples' kids. She reports feeling a sort of ickiness towards Gessen's writing about his son, which she likens to the feeling that she has when “I realize I’ve become a little too invested in the Instagram presence of some couples I vaguely know who’ve had babies recently.” Here I think the solution, as ever, is just to stop reading and looking at things that bother you in this way. But there is also something deeper to the worry French raises: does writing about one's kids, can posting about one's kids, rob them of the right to define themselves for themselves?
Certainly such writing, such posting, can seem to leave our kids exposed in some way — exposed, that is, to the gaze of others, who might then go on to infer all sorts of weird, wild things about them as a result. This might feel like some sort of new internet thing, which parents nowadays are having to grapple with in ways which our own parents, for the most part, simply didn't. But I'm not actually sure that there is any real, qualitative difference between social media snooping and what both used to, and still, goes on at any local park or grocery store.
We live in a world filled with other people, who don't really know us, who don't live with us, who still — for all that — are able to see us. Sometimes, they think things about us that are inaccurate. Sometimes they don't like us. This is just part of being what we are: a social creature. The internet can massively accelerate this, in some pretty monstrous ways, but this is really just a quantitative shift.
For me, one of the great lessons of parenthood has been that the nuclear family is barely fit for purpose: kids thrive, and you as a parent have a much better time of it, when they are allowed to exist outside of it. Your children need to exist in public space too. They might not always get to “define themselves” when they are in it, but hey, you know what, read Hegel: recognition is achieved through struggle.
What seems important here, to me, is not to never allow strangers to look at our children, or to refuse to disclose any information about them at all. What is important is to share things about them, to talk about them, to write about them, in the right way.
In her wonderful The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch talks about the “loving” gaze, as that which is most likely to allow us to see others as they really are. In one famous example, she tells the story of a mother-in-law, M, who initially sees her daughter-in-law, D, as an unpolished girl, lacking in dignity and refinement — she feels that her son has married beneath her. But in time, M refines her image of D — being a good person, M strives to look on D with eyes of love. She realizes that her initial image of D has been conditioned by fusty prejudice and personal jealousy, and so comes to see D as “not vulgar but refreshingly simple, not undignified but spontaneous, not noisy but gay, not tiresomely juvenile but delightfully youthful.”
Murdoch herself introduced this example in the context of a discussion that is supposed to show us that ethical action can sometimes be completely private: that it needn’t, in fact, have any sort of external manifestation at all. But it can also be a guide for how we talk about our children publicly.
It is wrong to rob our children of the chance to define themselves for themselves. But this can be mitigated against by always attempting to see them lovingly — to see them, that is, as who they really are (which of course is something we should always be doing as parents, anyway). When we talk about our children publicly, which of course we will have to do sometimes; when we write or post about them, which we may or may not choose to do, it is the image of our love we should present. In this way, sharing things about your children - sharing things about our children well - can be part of being a good parent.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.