Are You Experiencing Your Kids from Behind Your Cameraphone?



What’s more real – getting to see something in the here and now, or sharing it digitally with your friends so that they can tell you that you saw it?

Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent (now-viral) plea for theatre-goers to please stop filming him during his live performances has made its way around the interwebs recently, pointing another painful finger at this phenomenon that’s gripped the planet that “if you don’t share it, it didn’t happen“.  It’s a valid plea he makes – seeing as if you’re there giving a live performance to an live audience, you’d hope that the audience could actually be there and experience your performance and receive the communication you were giving them. If folks were there only there to record a performance and watch it later, why not just watch a movie?  Why bother going to a live performance in the first place?  It’s deflating for a performer to give a live performance that isn’t actually being heard live.

But this got me thinking about the amount of time most parents spend recording their kids’ every  movement on-camera as opposed to watching and listening and observing the kids that are in front of them.

It got me thinking about the last few school performances I went to, where approximately 80% of the parents present were watching the performance via the viewfinder on their camera, rather than simply watching their kids.   And the problem is, though they may not say it, kids are just as sensitive as Mr. Cumberbatch when it comes to knowing whether or not there’s actually a receipt point for the communication they’re putting out.

Now, I’m sure some parents possess super-human levels of perception and focus, and can watch and be completely absorbed by their child’s performance or communication while also operating a videocamera.  But think of this:

Just picture your spouse sitting down with you to dinner, and having an intimate, important discussion with you about heartfelt matters of family.   And you are there, trying to act like you’re listening intently, saying, “yep…yeaaaap, sure honey, yep…”  while you’re there videoing them, nodding blithely and looking at them through your smartphone or viewfinder.   Just picture that.  As a husband, I can assure you I would end up with my wife throwing my phone into my clam chowder, and storming out.  It’d be upsetting for her, and absolutely plain that I wasn’t factually listening.  But more important, it would be clear to her that her communication was not important.

Day at Mt Hood Timberline

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that with respect to my kids, I’ve had a real problem with this.   I love photography, and I love my kids.  So, naturally, I’ve been much more enthusiastic about taking pictures these last 6 years that I’ve been a dad than at any time previously.   However, and quite sadly, I also have spent way too much time behind my camera before finally figuring out that my kids really notice when I’m not factually there watching them.   And there was a point where my keenly-observant daughter, formerly the most photogenic girl in the world, realized that when I was taking a picture, I wasn’t really watching her.   For a while, she stopped really liking getting her picture taken, as she knew that meant I was not really paying attention to HER and what she was doing and saying.

When you boil it all down to basics, it comes down to manners.   Like, the real, raw definition of manners.  Specifically:

““Good manners” sum up to: 

(a) granting importance to the other person and 

(b) using the two-way communication cycle.”

— L. Ron Hubbard

Meaning, specifically, the person on the other end needs to know that they’re important – and if they’re trying to show something to you, YOU WATCH IT.   NOT YOUR CAMERA.  If it’s super-cool, ASK THEM if it’s OK to take a video or a picture.  If they say no, DON’T.   If what they’re doing isn’t worth your undivided attention, I can’t imagine it’d be easy teaching them to give YOU their undivided attention.

But (b) above is the simple formula of communication, shown in the video here:

They say something, you give it your actual attention, you understand what it is they say, and you acknowledge them.  Then it can go back the other way.

And so often, with children, the actual communication they have to offer is in the form of smiles, in the form of “cool things they can do”, things they made or stuff they draw.   Not giving those things your real non-electronic attention makes it clear to them you don’t find it important.

So, personally, I made a few decisions with regard to how I approached my kids & photography:

  • On Trips, Think About Photo Ops Beforehand:  I spend a lot of time outside, and go to some seriously scenic places that just beg to have photos taken of them.   On such, instead of having my camera out all the time, I instead plan for a photo or set of photos I really want to take before I go.  I.e. if I want a photo of the kids on the top of some mountain, or a sunset photo on a trail, etc – I can know I’m switching “hats” to the “photographer hat” when that happens, then spend the rest of the time just experiencing the trip with the kids.
  • Don’t Video School Performances:  As much as possible, if the kids want to give me a private performance that I can video, I’ll video that.  That way, when they’re up on stage, looking into the crowd, wondering if “daddy is watching” they can look and see that YES I AM TOTALLY WATCHING.
  • Get Their Permission:  If they’re doing something cool, I generally ask before videoing them.  More so now, they’ll ask me to take a video of them so they can see it later, or they’ll exercise their power of choice and say, “No dad – don’t take a picture of me now.” — and then I WON’T.

Best Buddies Having a Chat

As as an interesting final note on this, my  baby daughter, who is the MOST SMILEY of my three babies, from the time she was a newborn, positively only has responded to direct eye contact.  She ABSOLUTELY KNOWS if you’re fiddling with your phone out of the corner of your eye, and will not smile for you if you’re faking it.   So, for the most part, all of our smiley baby pictures have to be taken by a 3rd party while the primary baby communicator does not one other thing but watch the performance.


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