I love it when I see pictures of my friends' kids on Facebook. I feel like I'm sharing a little bit of their lives, seeing them grow and develop. And sometimes the posts are hilarious.
But, as with any kind of social media sharing, sometimes it becomes too much, and I grow concerned. I do not have children, so the things I say here are simply the observations of a single woman. But I am a teacher and a nanny, and I spend a lot of time with kids. I was also that kid who wrote things in her journal for her future self, just to make sure that when I was an adult, I didn’t forget what it was like to be a kid. I hope to always remember what it felt like to receive punishment that I felt was unjust (even if I know now that it wasn’t). I don’t ever want to forget those times when I closed the door to my room and tipped my head back so that my tears wouldn’t fall onto my cheeks, because I was self-conscious about my family members knowing my true feelings. Children have a narrow lens of the world, and a limited experience that makes their focus heightened, intense, and all-consuming.
It’s because of this that I feel concerned with the overuse of social media in relation to kids. As I said, I love having a window into the lives of those who are far away. But I grow concerned when my newsfeed blows up with constant posts about people's children. I grow concerned when parents ask for super personal advice in such an open forum. I especially grow concerned when a child is grumpy, or does something wrong, and a parent's first impulse is to take a photo and post it for the world to see.
My concern isn't really safety, though of course that's one issue. My concern is that we are the first generation to utilize social media in relation to our children, and I'm not sure all the ramifications are being thought through. For better or for worse, social media is what we've got, and it's going to change things. But I think it's worth considering how it'll feel for children to grow up with their entire lives—from conception onwards—documented online. As adults with access to our own profiles and active agents who are free to make our own choices, we can curate our own online image as much as we want to. Kids, on the other hand, have no say over what or how their parents post. And while some of this is par for the course as a kid—with or without social media, children have always had to come to terms with the fact that their parents will say or do what they want—parents should not be naive enough to assume that kids have no understanding of their online image, or no stake in the matter.
A friend of mine is a preschool teacher, and she shared a story with me about how one of her students—a girl who was three years old—was distraught one day, and nothing would comfort her. Finally, the teachers found her mom’s Facebook profile and let the girl scroll through photos. The girl calmed down, and my friend told me that it was apparent that there was emotional memory attached to the photos. The child made the connection that she had been happy in the pictures, and it made her feel better.
Kids have a knowledge of their own online presence from a very young age. When I was growing up the most important thing to me—far and above anything else—was what my parents thought of me. If my parents showed that they trusted me, I was relieved and proud. If my parents were unhappy with me, I was ashamed and angry. And if anyone else knew about the situation, my world came crumbling down. There are so many things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults, or just seem funny or cute. Everything is a big deal to a child. It’s worth considering the piercing embarrassment a child feels when someone other than a family member is privy to their wrongdoing or foolishness, even if it means sacrificing sharing something hilarious with online friends.
Posting pictures of kids is a blessing for those far away, and I’m certainly not advocating removing all photos and stories about kids from the internet. But we all know how embarrassing it was when our parents said or did things in front of friends. I doubt anyone wants their kid coming up to them ten years later and saying, "Remember when I was sobbing so hard I was hiccuping and you thought it was funny so you took a video and posted it online? Not funny to me, mom." Or, "Remember when I was eight and I peed my pants and you posted a picture to Facebook? Thanks, dad."
It's impossible to parent without inflicting some pain, because we're human and we're imperfect. And it's doubly hard to navigate something no parent has had to navigate before. But it seems worthwhile, to me, to not only consider when and how to allow kids their own time online, but to also consider how we represent them and ourselves on social media. It's not just their physical safety that needs to be guarded, but also their perception of themselves and the trust they place in their parents. It’s not easy to be a kid—my journal entries assure me of that. Having an online presence at such an early age must be doubly hard.
Last year, on my 25th birthday, I told my family that it would be my "Name it and claim it," year. I wanted a boyfriend and a full time job. I was kidding--mostly. But I was terrified to turn 25. I was still getting used to NYC, half way through my grad program, and for the first time without my grandfather, who had been my birthday buddy since I was born. I didn't seriously believe that I could name and claim things that symbolized security to me, but I certainly felt that if I could manage to get them, I would have found some measure of control in my life.
I'm turning 26 tomorrow, and I have neither a boyfriend nor a full time job. Periodically throughout the year my family or a friend would ask how the claiming it was going, and I'd respond with a laughing, "Only a couple months left... Gotta get moving!" But as my birthday drew closer, and I found myself in one of the most challenging seasons I've yet experienced, I began to ponder my words in a different light.
During January and February, I often felt like the widow in the book of Second Kings, putting her hand into the jars of oil and flour and finding just enough. Never more than she needed, but always enough. Through those slow, quiet winter months, when my physical longing for spring reflected the longing in my soul for direction and an understanding of where I'm meant to be, I began to learn truly what it means to wait on the Lord. To pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," and to know how dependent I am on God's provision--that had a profound impact on my soul.
I am blessed to have known that my parents, and others in my life, would have caught me if I'd fallen. I still don't know where I'll be come Fall, but I know that I have good work to do until then. And I can see already that wherever I end up in life, and whatever amount of physical security I attain, this moment in my life is going to affect me forever; when I was poor, and God provided. When I was unsure, and he told me to wait. When I learned to accept the lovingkindess of others, so that someday I can recognize and offer it myself.
Going into this new birthday year, I'm going to continue to claim. But rather than making a joke of it and claiming things beyond my control, I am claiming the promises I know I have been given. I am not promised happiness, but I am promised joy. I am not promised a spouse, but I am promised fellowship with God's people, and the boundless mystery and majesty of fellowship with God himself. I am not promised prosperity, but I am promised that my name is written on his hands. If that's the case, what have I to fear?
I did not get a boyfriend or a full time job this year. But what I did get was this: evenings on my rooftop, praying with the stars as my companions. Crying with my family, laughing with my roommates. Watching the slow rose fill the sky during summertime sunrises, and paint the tracks orange and purple during Autumn sunsets. Opening my heart and eyes to hard work, the twist of knowing I made a bad decision, the gratefulness of heartache, and more sticky fingerprints pressed into my heart. The hush of winter, the joy of knowing that sometimes, all it takes is to sit quietly, and that's enough. The knowledge that I'm not waiting for anything, that my life doesn't start in a year, or five years, or when I know where I'll live long term, or when I find someone to be with. It is now, in the confusion and the delight.
These are the things I had this year. This year and every year, these things are enough.
I was talking with a friend recently, and she asked me about my convictions as a Christian. “If someone were to ask you what you think about the way they live,” she said, “what would you say?”
This is a question I’ve thought about a lot since moving to NYC, and I believe it is one of the areas in my life where there has been profound growth over the past several years. After growing up as a Christian, going to a Christian college, and then moving back home for a few years, living in NYC has been the first time in my life where most of my friends are not Christians. So naturally, for my first six months of living here, this question weighed on my heart.
I think this is a question that people who grow up as Christians all struggle with, and, quite honestly, often come up with the wrong answers to. As a culture, Christianity in the US very often errs on the side of legalistically telling the greater population how they should be living, instead of telling them the reasons why.
It’s almost impossible to avoid this, when growing up in a Christian home. For a large percentage of Christian kids, their faith doesn’t get truly thought through until high school or college, and until then the values their parents impress on them come across as things that are done just because that’s the way it should be. This is often not the fault of the parents (though sometimes it is, if they are more concerned with keeping their kids from doing bad things than encouraging them to make the faith their own.) My parents, and many parents I knew, constantly preached the gospel to their children. I remember my mother saying, once, “Someday, I hope you love Jesus more than you love me.” Yet until the Spirit works in a child’s heart, even those with the most proactive parents often see the faith through nothing but legalistic eyes. Even once the faith takes root and becomes knit deep into the bones, it’s hard to shake this sense of cultural morality.
As a child, when friends asked me why I did or didn’t do the things I did, my understanding of my own depravity and the depths of the gospel was not extensive enough to truly explain the choices, so more often than not I would spout a platitude or cite a rule. Combined with the directive to be missionary-minded and bear witness for the gospel, I and Christian kids like me often began to see our role in the world as a kind of Christian rule-minders, beginning first with our Christian friends and inevitably crossing over into our interactions with non-Christians. Even into my young twenties there was an anxiety that followed me, as I was never quite sure how outspoken I should be about actions and words that were in direct opposition to Christianity.
For children, this is hugely difficult to avoid, and something that has to be worked through individually. Yet the problem is not that Christian children have to work through this, but that it is something that continues into Christian adulthood, and has embedded itself into the fabric of many Christian cultures across the US. I am beginning to see how destructive this mindset is.
The answer to my friend’s question, for me, is to first ascertain whether the person I’m speaking with is a Christian or not, because my answer will be different depending on that crucial distinction. I can imagine this statement being misunderstood, or plainly disagreed with, because one of the tenets of the Christian culture in the West seems to have become an expectation that everyone—whether their hearts are in it or not—should abide by the Christian laws (which are different from the civic laws. We're not talking about murder here.) And I want to be very careful, because I don’t want to be misunderstood to the extent that someone would think I am advocating a moral relativity, or saying that I don’t believe the way Christians live is the right path. What I am saying is this: You cannot ask someone to live in accordance with morals they do not profess.
As a Christian, I believe I have chosen the path that is not only true, but also best. So it makes sense that I want to share my beliefs and the benefit of living the way I do. As my sister Hannah would say, “If I have the cure to a deadly illness, of course I want to share it with others.” But we cannot force others to take the cure, and we cannot put the cart before the horse. The way Christians are called to live is impossible without the work of the Spirit in their hearts. So how can we expect a society who does not know the Spirit to live in accordance with its radical work? It’s difficult enough for Christians to walk this road. The first step, therefore, is not to condemn a person for actions that are not in accordance with a doctrine she doesn’t believe. The first step is to extend an invitation of the love that knows, sees, and heals. The first step is to introduce a person to the grace of Jesus, and only once she has seen with new eyes can she be expected to make decisions about how her life should be changed and shaped by her new faith.
It is within the Body of Christ that the hard work of living in accordance with God’s desires begins. The letters of the New Testament are riddled with commands, warnings, and examples of how we should live, but what Christians often overlook is that these letters are directed not to the unbeliever, but to the Church. Within the Church, by the grace of the Spirit, we begin the process of transformation, which means prayerfully making changes and struggling through complicated decisions. To the unbeliever, the message is simple: come as you are—exactly as you are—and bathe in love beyond all measure. We should tell others why we live as we do, lending advice to those who need it and encouraging them to choose the best path. But we must be careful, with both our children and our unbelieving friends, to point first to the good news that is the root of this change.
The freedom of this new understanding overwhelmed me, when I first realized it. I am not the keeper of my friend’s morality. I do not have a required standard for the way my friends act. I can drink with and eat with and speak with my friends who are not Christians and not fear that their choices are somehow my responsibility. Within the church, we have a responsibility to hold one another accountable; outside of the church, our responsibility is only to be honest about our convictions and to extend the reckless love of Jesus. It is not that Christianity has nothing to say to the secular world—in fact it has very much to say, and we should be endlessly extending the gospel of grace to our friends, pleading with them to listen. But only once God’s love is made manifest in a Christian’s heart and the transformation begins can we start to discuss the deep changes that must be made, for it is only then that the lifestyle presented in the gospel will begin to make radical sense.
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor