My daughter was five. We were vacationing with my brother’s family. She and her cousin fell asleep in the same bed and looked adorable—that vulnerable, heart-melting little-kid sleep that sprawls out, sweaty-haired and heavy. I snapped a photo, sent it to my immediate family, and thought no more of it. Well, that’s not quite true; in the furthest reaches of my brain was the worry that maybe my daughter would be a little embarrassed about me sharing the photo. Still, the lure of “sharenting” was too hard to resist. I wanted my mother to see how cute her grandkids were; I wanted my other sisters to be jealous of the fun my brother and I were having. I hit “send.”
A couple of weeks later my daughter was doing something on my phone and saw the photo. She was furious. Seriously angry. It was a shock. My kid had been mad at me before, but for child-parent reasons: a too-early lights out, an argument about vegetables. I had been in the right on those other occasions and held my ground at the 7 p.m. bedtime and two more bites of broccoli. This time she was mad at me for what was, in fact, a legitimate reason: I had breached her privacy.
If she was mad that I took a photo, she was furious when she realized that I had sent it to my family. There was yelling; there were tears. She was embarrassed that I had shared a photo of her sleeping, and she was angry I hadn’t told her about it.
I was bewildered by the whole thing. As a Gen X kid, my childhood had not been overly documented. That was partly because taking a photo was complicated: involving cameras, film, and getting those images developed at a kiosk. But the other, possibly more relevant, reason was that my parents were, frankly, not that interested in me. I was one of many kids milling about, getting sunburnt, performing in school plays, wearing corduroy hand-me-downs, and latch-key-ing myself into my house when my parents were working. Documenting my adorability was low on my parents’ priorities, and even if they had snapped a million photos, what were they going to do? Host a slideshow and invite the neighbors?
My daughter, even at a very young age, was growing up in a world of camera phones and Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok immediacy. I have no idea where she gets such a strong sense of privacy, but I can’t deny that it is real. The Sleep Photo Incident was my first inkling that I needed to adjust my approach. My kid was seriously angry with me for sharing that photo. What’s more, and what was worse, she felt she could no longer trust me. We were both upset about it, and there was nothing I could do to make it better. I couldn’t unsend the image, and she was horrified by my proposal to text my family asking them to delete the image I’d already sent. That somehow made it even WORSE.
After thinking about it for a little while, I asked her, “Do you know what revenge is?” When she said no, I explained. “It’s when someone does something bad to you and you hurt them back to get even.” Now, to be clear, I would normally not advocate revenge as a solution, but I honestly couldn’t figure out a way to make my kid feel better and to make up for my mistake.
And so, we set up her revenge. She would take a photo of me asleep and send it to my entire family. We staged the shot, me on the bed, head on the pillow, eyes closed. I did not like how my chin looked in the photo. I didn’t like how red my nose was. I looked vulnerable and weird, but that was too bad. No reshoots were allowed. I started to write a little explanatory text to tell my mother and siblings what was going on. No. That was also not acceptable. I had to just send them the photo—an inexplicable shot of me, red-nosed and chinless, apparently asleep—without a word of explanation. I didn’t like doing it. I felt embarrassed, vulnerable, and annoyed. I did it.
My daughter was happy with her revenge, and it taught me a valuable lesson: respecting boundaries—even for little kids—matters. We all deserve privacy. We all deserve dignity. None of us likes how we look when we’re asleep.
Amy Tector is an archivist and novelist in Ottawa Canada. Her latest book in the Dominion Archives Series, Speak for the Dead, is out now.