Objectification of Children: Sharing Their Stories

I was challenged (positively) by a reader to think about how sharing stories about the children in our lives results in those children being objectified. It was a great conversation that made me reflect more deeply on the idea of “ownership” of children, and our right as parents to appropriate the lives and stories of children for our own purposes. I feel grateful to this person for the opportunity to explore the issues of whether or not I am, in fact, exploiting and objectifying the children in my life, as well as invading their privacy as a result of this website and my book.

We objectify someone when we regard another person as an object, rather than a human being. Most often, we hear this term in relationship to women being considered sex objects. Objectification can also be considered another form of dehumanization. Why would sharing stories about children dehumanize or objectify them?

In our culture, it is easy for us to believe that as parents (or generally as adults) we have the right to share information or stories about children without their permission. Schools are legally seen as in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) and have the rights and responsibilities of parents in the school setting. Children are not seen as having any privacy rights in school and it is considered critical to the educational process that parents and teachers shares details about the lives of children.

As parents we are asked to share information about children to many different authority figures. For example, teachers, school officials, doctors and other health professionals routinely ask parents to share information about children and we routinely share that information.

Adults who are involved in children’s lives routinely share intimate details about those children without even considering the impact on the child. I have done this myself. Especially when children are younger, or as babies, we share the details of their physical and emotional lives without thought. Because we are so involved in the physical care of children when they are young, we may not even consider this information to be private. As they grow, we may be aware that a child may not want us to share a story about her that may be embarrassing or personal. And yet, we still do it.

In my journey as a parent, I have shared information without thought. I’ve told the “cute” stories with other parents and grandparents without asking permission of them. In this way I turn them into objects. They become things (rather than people) that we might laugh about and deem “precious.” In fact when I’m doing this I am not only objectifying them, I am also using my power as a parent and adult to minimize their feelings and behavior. Their feelings and behaviors may be serious and important to them and, as adults, we turn this into fodder for dinner conversation with other adults, a way of bonding over the joys and challenges of parenthood.

Although I am more aware of asking permission when they are present, I still share much more than they would probably give me permission to, when they are not present. When I wrote my book, I did ask permission to share their stories and I received it. However, I have to wonder if that consent is truly informed? Perhaps in my desire to write the book and get it published I did not fully inform them of the potential impact of invading their privacy. At the same time, the view that adults have of privacy might be very different from that of children. In the era of Facebook and Youtube, what we might consider private, children and teens might not. Or, a child that is very private, may not ever want a parent to share information with another person about them. It is a challenging issue to grapple with as a parent.

Despite my work in trying to see the children who share my life as human beings with the right to self-determination and respect, I still have this sense of “ownership” of their lives that is manifested in the ways I share information about them to others. Sometimes when I’m sharing this information, I’m trying to get perspective and help from other parents who can challenge me to think, feel, and behave differently. Other times, I just want to share something that made me smile or made my day. Even in those moments, I objectify their behavior and take ownership of their stories.

I don’t have easy answers to these questions. The concerns raised about invading a child’s privacy or appropriating their lives to meet some larger goals makes we wonder if I have merely rationalized and justified the stories I share because I have some more “legitimate” goal. Does the means (sharing private information about children) justify the ends (raising awareness and creating change)? I’m not sure, but it is something I need to keep thinking about and discussing with them.

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