10/27/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2012

Do Parents Today Take Too Many Photos of Their Kids?

Written by Sierra Black for

13,527. That's the number of photos in my iPhoto library. The overwhelming majority of them are of my kids.

That's probably two orders of magnitude more childhood photos than my parents have of me. And my kids are still young.

No one can enjoy 13,000 photos. It's simply too many to make much sense of. So I've been sorting and culling them. The problem is, I keep adding new ones faster than I delete the old ones. I'm constantly photographing my little girls.

That might be more than just an organizational challenge. A recent post at Motherlode suggests I'm doing my kids a disservice parenting them through a camera lens.

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The worry is that constantly documenting our kids' childhoods gets in the way of their simple enjoyment of just being kids. We're inducing self-awareness too early, bringing about a critical gaze in a child who might otherwise be blissfully unaware.

Here's what David Zweig has to say:

"Like most everything, self-awareness is healthy in moderation, and problematic in excess. For adults excessive self-awareness has links to a host of ills from anxiety to vanity. Though he was careful to mention that not all the effects are negative, Dr. Morin noted, "frequently being photographed and filmed likely induces self-awareness and thus self-evaluation, self-criticism, and may lead to other aversive consequences."

Woah. Anxiety? Vanity? Sounds like I'd better put that camera down.

I'm not eager to, though. Zweig is spinning a compelling case for letting childhood fly by with less constant documentation. And he's right that our omnipresent photography effects the subjects we photograph; kids act differently when they know the camera is on. They do something cute and insist that we take a picture of it. They stop doing the cute thing we were trying to photograph and assume a "cute" pose, head cocked to one side and fake smile plastered across their pretty faces. We've all seen this.

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The trick there isn't to stop taking pictures. It's to do it more casually, more subtly. Keep the camera running after the moment has passed and catch the next one, when the child is playing unawares. Take a dozen photos instead of one. Capture the sweet moment where your three-year-old puts her arm around her brother and also the one an instant before where they look at each other in wonder and the moment after when he pulls her hair and they both start to cry.

Then throw the outtakes away.

I have two regrets about my 13,527 photos of my children.

One is that I haven't taken more of them. The other is that I haven't thrown more away.

Let me explain: when my first daughter was a baby, I didn't have a good camera. I had a crib and a bassinet and two different baby baths and enough clothing to dress a small town, but no decent camera. So many of her firsts disappeared as a result. When I look back at her baby pictures they bring those first moments together back to life; I remember things I had entirely forgotten, and savor the reminders of how it felt to hold her in my arms, or see her wobbly walk for the first time. They're treasures, and I wish I had more of them. I have a friend who has taken a photo of her daughter every day of her life for over six years, and I envy her that record.

On the other hand, now I have a camera built in to my phone that is better than anything I owned then. It goes everywhere with me, and I use it daily to record our little moments. I also have a DSLR I break out for particularly beautiful days and special events. Between the two, my family has moved into the hyper-photographed digital age. My kids are old enough now that they take pictures of their own, as well as posing for mine. They're used to being photographed and don't constantly mug for the camera. So I have a lot of pictures.

But a lot of them are worthless. This is my second regret: that I haven't taken the time to edit and sort and delete them as I go. I don't want to sort through 13,000 photos every time I want to look up my daughter's first birthday, or find pics of the kids with their dad. I want the photos I have to all truly be treasured memories, not 14 takes of the same shot of my youngest licking batter off a wooden spoon. I should have one shot of that, and a much smaller photo library.

Maybe there's a tradeoff here and my girls are growing up a little too self-aware. We've certainly had sweet family times marred by someone whipping out a camera like a tourist at an awkward moment. I don't think the answer is to put the cameras away though. Rather, I'd like to see them used more sensitively, playfully and in a way that's integrated with the rest of their lives. I want the story of my children's lives to be told in pictures and words. My writing and photography is one of my main gifts to them, something I hope they'll enjoy as kids and treasure as adults.

What we need isn't fewer photos. It's to become better photographers.


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