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Parenting and Instagram

The Instachildhood

If your childhood could be re-created in Instagram shots, what would it be? Instagram is for brief beauty, for pretty things, for selfies, for cats, goats, for humor, for places gone — and for children. Instagram is like "aspirational child" candy for me: snaps of children doing things, active, creative, or alluring. It is a picture of childhood, but Instagram is in fact a parent's lens on children. I can't decide whether it is the expression of a creative parent, the photographer mama, or whether it's becoming another vehicle to peddle unrealistic parenting. Fantasy parenting at its best.

I use Instagram to see some of my friends with kids, and I track family lives that I know nothing about, total strangers' photography. Children are the main subject of these accounts. There's pleasure in the strangeness of it. I see this blogger's kids, her NYC kids, her Chicago kids, her unschooling kids, her ranch life kids, and her constantly out-of-doors, the beautiful outdoors, California kids. I enjoy seeing other areas of the country and places I used to live. But I don't know what to do with the inspiration. Lately I've felt strange about my own awareness of the childhoods other children are having. The intricately, carefully, purposefully beautiful childhoods. I am suspicious of the Instachildhood.

I post fewer photos on Facebook now that I put pictures of my children on Instagram. I'll post about fun we are having, and doing things outdoors — hikes, my garden, objects we find, and so on. It seems okay to feature your own plants on Instagram (including the children you are growing), or a pleasing arrangement of beach stones, whereas on FB, I no longer feel comfortable sharing photos. I have nearly stopped posting pictures of my kids on Facebook, as they get older, aside from birthdays and back-to-school. Facebook is no longer a truly positive experience, and I think many would agree it's not positive at all, but newsy, shlocky, and full of angry debates and dumb forwards, or things you are asked to passively agree with.

Instagram is simpler. Friends and followers don't really comment. They don't wage arguments or conversations. The squareness and the filters make things look prettier, but mostly it's the type of picture — a still life; clouds at sunset; a child running. A moment of something you hadn't seen before. It's just pictures, unlike my FB feed, which long ago stopped being full of pleasant, personal news. And it's okay to follow strangers on Instagram, people who don't mind sharing their photography.

Recently I've begun following school groups, blogs, and alternative schooling collaboratives — accounts like Wild and Free that have to do with children and education, run by people I have never met. They are also businesses, selling educational materials. I follow a ranching family, also a business, that seems to live entirely out of doors. It's refreshing, so beautiful. I love this aspect of it. It reminds me of my own rural childhood. And yet there are the children, in nearly every shot, the other children. There they are, having other childhoods. Hand-knitted-hat childhoods. Outdoor-adventure childhoods. Cowboy-boot childhoods. Baby-animal-raising childhoods.

We have all grown used to viewing the lives of others on social media — who's on vacation, or basically, who's doing something great while you are sitting at your computer, again. While you are checking your phone because the bus is late, again. But I'm not sure how to process the idea of the other childhoods these kids are having — are they better, are they healthier, are they freer? Are their parents putting me on? These kids look wonderful. I want to hug them all or follow them into that creek. Any adult who was raised on Laura Ingalls Wilder knows this feeling of missing the pioneer life we never actually had.

The Instachildhoods make me look at my life, in my relationship to my family and my children, the work we are doing day in day out, and I wonder whether our lives are alright. Are we doing what we should? Could we be doing something else? Are we living in the wrong place? Are we boring? Are we creative? I don't think there's any parent who hasn't felt some misgivings about the project they have undertaken, who hasn't spied a blissful mother doing peaceful things with her hilarious, self-directed children at the park or Walgreens.

On Instagram, the childhoods are not dragged to Walgreens or even to Target, they are kids with horses and wild snakes; kids in hand-knit clothing building fires, kids never going to a traditional, boring public school. I can't help but notice the narrowness, both racially and class-wise, of some of the parenting and homeschooling accounts, and that's when I try to remind myself these are very small snapshots of lives. They are personal and yet not at all. They are sharing what they choose to present. Often, they are a business, they are selling something. The photos are tailored to sell. Of course they go to Walgreens. And if they don't, I salute them.

Perhaps it is a mistake, to think this type of blogger, in one Instagram account, does or should represent wider diversity. But I can't leave these accounts behind. They tap into my fantasies of a life more free from the predictable and the perfect childhood, or even an easier way of raising kids. (Homeschooling, let it be said, would not be easier for me). What should life look like? Maybe it's about admiring life, or creating depth with what you have wherever you are. Recording the things you don't want to forget and know you will unless you post. I'll let you know, in snapshots.

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