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The Moments All Parents Forget to Capture of Their Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

Last year, my son and his class recited a handful of poems for the school’s arts festival. Midway through their reading, I stopped to survey the audience. What did I see? Not a gymnasium full of parents watching a second-grade poetry performance, but a gymnasium full of parents watching tiny rectangular recordings of a second-grade poetry performance.

I was one of them: smartphone in hand, held at arm’s length, planting a screen between me and the moment I was supposed to be enjoying.

The ubiquity of recording devices during children’s performances, games and events isn’t all that new. Our generation of parents lights the audience with our glowing smartphones just as our parents once clogged the performance hall aisles with their camcorder tripods.

It’s what we parents do: We get in each other’s ways in our efforts to document our own special-snowflake children. And while there are plenty of arguments to dissuade us from this practice—including ones related to general politeness—few of these arguments push us to ask deeper questions about what, exactly, we should be recording in our children’s lives.

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Are we recording the events that our future selves will actually want to watch?

Are we capturing the moments that we do, in fact, want to commit to perpetuity?

What will we want to remember about our children when we are old—and, if we’re lucky, when they are old, too?

My husband's parents have a tape recording of him at age 3, talking at length about Darth Vader and Jabba the Hut. On a superficial level, the content of this recording is not terribly unique. Nearly every kid in the '80s (and subsequent decades) rambled on and on about "Star Wars."

And so I asked myself: What do I want to remember about them as they are right now?

And yet all these years later, my in-laws return to this recording again and again. They have many other special videos, including an adorable recording of his performance in a third-grade play. But it’s this ordinary moment—a little boy waxing sentimental about “Doth Vaduh and Jobba Hut”—that encapsulates something truly special for his parents.

We record the major events in which our children are participants, performers and players. But do we take the time to record the moments in which they are not performing? When the masks—both the literal and the metaphorical kind—are off? When, instead of reciting lines, they are simply rambling on and on?

A child’s deep self, if there is such a thing, is ephemeral. Small kernels of personality might remain throughout their lives, but their quirks and interests and funny little sayings are heartbreakingly short during childhood. This 2-year-old might seem like a completely different person at age 8. And that 8-year-old might seem unrecognizable, even to themselves, at age 16.

And so I asked myself: What do I want to remember about them as they are right now? What pieces of their current selves will disappear in the coming years?

In that moment, I knew precisely what I wanted to record.

I picked up my phone, held it at arm’s length and walked over to my 4-year-old, a boy whose mispronunciations of words are so adorable that they break my heart, but so obvious that they are sure to disappear sometime before he’s far beyond age 5.

“Say 'robot,'” I said to him, hoping that his words hadn’t grown up without me noticing.

“Robonnet,” he said.

The point, I think, is to reimagine what “something special” is.

I was so pleased. This word is him, right now, at age 4: so sweet you want to smoosh a kiss right on its chubby cheek.

“Say 'preschool,'” I continued.

“Pretty school.”

And finally, “Say 'tomorrow.'”

“Tomarner.”

Though I would have much preferred to record him saying these words in context, unprovoked, the words themselves were what mattered to me.

They are part of what makes him special.

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So perhaps the point isn’t to stop recording our kids engaging in special events. Nor is it to record our kids doing “nothing special.”

The point, I think, is to reimagine what “something special” is.

And once we know what that is, it’s time to hit the record button.

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