My four-year-old, like all four-year-olds, is a creature from the Land of Me. See that last banana sitting in the fruit bowl on the counter? That's his. Never mind that he's already eaten two breakfasts this morning and one of them was the second-to-the-last banana. Never mind that he didn't even want that banana until I expressed interest in it. Never mind that I paid for the banana—what's money to a four-year-old? Never mind that he'll peel the banana out of its skin, clutch it tightly in his grubby paw, take one sloppy wet bite, and then leave the rest on the dining room table to brown. That banana is his.
I know the point of being a parent is to shepherd a child from the inward-focused, self-centered world of infancy and toddlerhood to the world beyond, to give my son a sense of his social responsibilities and obligations even as he makes a place for himself. The challenge is that the world beyond looks a lot like the Land of Me, just populated by taller people with smart phones who share their every word, action, and dream with audiences intimate and unknown. More of these tales of Me line up, glossy and pert, on newsstands. They sit perfect-bound on bookstore shelves and move in high-definition on TV screens during primetime. I'm part of this world; I indulge. I'm sometimes charmed by, sometimes irritated with, and sometimes embarrassed for the sharers and the tellers. I've told some tales myself, but the doing is still tentative and hard-considered for me, not a natural quick click of a “post” button.
Unlike my children, who will grow up natives of this culture of public narrative-building and shape-shifting, I've had to adapt to it. From my vantage point, the positioning of a private self in a public world seems particular to this time and these technologies but is exacerbated by the inherited American sense of self-determination, trail-blazing, and reinvention. We've always been the heroes of our quests; now we are the storytellers and publicists, too.
The discussions about narcissism, authenticity, and propriety that happen when private lives are lived publicly feel perennial, even though the players and the circumstances have changed. These are ideas that are still intriguing, still worth arguing over, but they are timeless. What feels newer and pressing are concerns about complacency in light of technology's vast reach and appeal, particularly regarding surveillance and citizens' rights to privacy.
Another concern that feels new and underdiscussed is whether my children and their peers, as they embark on the quest of becoming who they want to be, will understand the value of internal dialogue, of daydreaming, of turning an idea over and over in their minds—testing it and absorbing it and making it something integral to who they are. I hope they learn to shut out the noise, resist the urge to perform, ignore the impulse to gather external feedback. I hope they develop a capacity for solitude and a habit of self-reflection—where the real “me” work is done—even as they push forward into this bright new world.
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