As parents, we never lose the opportunity to learn – about our kids and about ourselves – and I was recently confronted with such an opportunity.
A little background. Until my oldest son was about to enter middle school, I used to write about their shenanigans, and my reactions to them on a blog called bent spoon. I stopped writing about them when I realized my work was exploiting my children. Even if I had asked their permission to write about them, any authorization would have been illegitimate: they were children.
Going back a little further, while I was in college I sang in an a cappella group, back before “Glee” or “Pitch Perfect” gave a cappella singers cultural capital. The men I sang with became family. Starting at our 20th college reunion, we returned to campus to sing together and returned five and ten years later. During one performance, a classmate shot video of us singing and later shared it with me. I cleaned up and posted the footage to YouTube. Innocent. Right?
Flash forward to present day. The current iteration of the group was recently disbanded on campus. In the 30 years since I left campus, hazing had become a thing in the group. Hazing. In an a cappella singing group. The news infuriated me for many reasons. Learning about this, however, opened a door for me to talk to my sons about hazing, and bullying, and how we treat others. The conversations were lively, and heartening as I heard my sons’ already steadfast opinions about bullying, and hazing, and how they’ve both already defended people who they saw being bullied, or belittled. But this wasn’t my learning moment.
A few weeks later, the New York Daily News published a story about the disbanding of the group, which had been the longest continually functioning singing group on campus. The author, Jessica Schladebeck, needed images for the article, and stripped a screen shot from the video I posted. The use of the photo was troublesome. Yes, she was kind enough to credit me for the photo (“via YouTube/RJ Lavallee”). But for years I have been building a body of work about parenting, producing a speaker series involving parenting experts, even beginning a master’s degree related to parenting. But now the meta-data from the story will forever link my name with hazing, and we all know how quickly such associations can become misconstrued, or misinterpreted.
I learned about the article just before picking my my youngest son up from school. When he climbed in the car, he saw the concern on my face. He asked what was wrong and I told him, not needing to fill in too many details as we had already been talking about what was going on. He understood my concern, but found an opportunity to tell me what had been on his mind for a few years. “Yeah, dad, can you take down the videos you posted of me and [my brother] from a few years ago?”
To me, the videos were innocent: proud dad videos of track meets, and concerts. His request, however, broke the spell my concern over being associated with hazing had over me. I thought instead about why I had stopped writing on bent spoon, about how my son would feel if someone used one of my videos of him without his permission, and about how I had posted videos of my sons without thinking about how they might eventually feel about them.
I apologized to my son for having the videos still online, and took them down as soon as we got home. After all my years trying to guide my sons to treat others with respect, and being mindful of what they were posting online, it was my youngest who had the last word, at least the most recent last word, reminding me to go back to all that I have posted over the years to make sure the posts are responsible to myself and my sons. But isn’t that parenting?