Capturing the moment . . . can ruin the moment

Is it time to have the Christmas play unplugged?


Small children shuffle shyly into place, the girls dressed in white with gold tinsel halos while the boys in dressing gowns have tea towels tied around their heads: yes, it’s the chorus line assembling for a rendition of Away in a Manger at the Christmas play.

As the little ones peer into the audience, what do they see? The encouraging, expectant faces of their doting parents? No, just an array of phones, digital cameras and tablets.

Both the ubiquity of technology and a compulsion to “capture the moment” are in danger of turning that moment into something else entirely. Whether you are the parent jumping up to jostle for the best camera angle, or the one seething at the big eejit who is blocking your view, the dynamics of the occasion have been irrevocably altered.

It seems a shame that the mercurial magic between performing children and audience is compromised for the sake of trying to record it for people outside the room.

Spare a thought too for teachers who have to try to accommodate all parental preferences, never mind children who are easily distracted. And that’s before even considering what happens to those photos and where they might end up (see sidebar).

One parent who didn’t want to sign a photo waiver form ahead of the Christmas party at her son’s creche recently posted in a parenting forum about how she had been told he couldn’t go unless she signed it, because the creche could not be responsible for preventing other parents taking pictures of him. Although this could not be verified by The Irish Times, it sounds like the sort of tangle that could arise.

“For goodness sake, watch them with your eyes and your minds, not your phones,” ranted Australian photographer Thomas Stewart to wedding guests during a blog that went viral in November, as he pleaded for brides and grooms to have “unplugged” ceremonies. Is there any chance of having nativity plays unplugged too?

“It’s a very special thing to see your child walking out on stage for the first time and singing a Christmas carol with all the other kids,” says psychologist and author Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. “You detach yourself a little bit from that if you are messing around with the focus on the lens, taking the photo.”

Different role

Besides the technological detachment, your role is now different, he points out. You are not sitting there smiling and interacting, you are engaging as a recorder. Our need to capture everything can take us away from the more important business of being involved and experiencing life with your child – having a record of it is less important, suggests Gilligan, whose latest book is titled Raising Emotionally Healthy Children.

Taking photos at events such as the Christmas play can be an issue at some schools, says the chief executive of the National Parents’ Council Primary, Áine Lynch. Without rules and clear expectations, it can become a real problem.

“You go into a play and one parent stands up to take a photo, then you get a knock-on effect – ‘if he can do it, then I can do it’. The behaviour is showing that parents want to capture a moment and that is understandable.”

But the question for schools is how do they facilitate parents to catch a moment and for the children and other parents to enjoy the play? The best way to find a solution, she suggests, is for the principal or teachers involved in the production to consult the parents’ association.

They then need to ensure that the rules, and the reasons for them, are clearly communicated to parents well ahead of time. If parents arrive, cameras at the ready, only to be told they can’t use them, the event may start on the wrong footing. “You will find people very irritated by that and they’ll say ‘I am going to do it anyway’,” says Lynch.

The solution will be different for different schools. Maybe there is an opportunity before or after the show to take photos; or an area of the hall where parents can photograph their own child.

“If you have people standing in the way all the time and you can’t actually see the production, you can go home very upset.” Never mind catching the moment, you may have missed it altogether.

“It shouldn’t be trivialised,” she adds. “These things are very important for parents and also for the children – they have often worked very hard for it in school.”

The 28 children aged three to five at the Stepping Stones Early Learning Centre in Ballinhown, outside Athlone, Co Westmeath, are indeed working very hard for their Christmas play on December 18th.

“We explain on the morning that this show is for the children and it is about building their confidence and giving them public speaking skills and can we be respectful of that,” says the centre’s owner and manager, Lorraine Farrell.

Photo opportunities

Parents are told it is about enjoying the show, with the children and for the children, and that there will be opportunities for photos at the end.

Generally that is respected but never 100 per cent, she says. “As each show goes on, we are a little bit more forceful about it but we absolutely don’t police it – it is their children when it comes down to it. From our point of view, it distracts the children; they don’t get to showcase their best if they are distracted.”

Every September, Stepping Stones makes its annual policy on taking photos very clear to parents. They are given four options – no photos are taken of their child; photos can be taken for inhouse use only; the centre can use photos for competitions, such as Early Childhood Ireland awards, for which it needs to supply documentary evidence of its work; or they are happy for photos to be used on the Stepping Stones website and Facebook page.

“Once we are very clear about how we intend to use the photos, parents tend to come on board with us,” says Farrell. “We have a list in our office and we know exactly who falls under which heading.”

There are only a couple of children who don’t want their photo taken at all, “and that’s fine; we have zero problem with that”, she stresses.

At events such as the Christmas show, parents are reminded the photo policy is still in place and that they should be aware some parents might not want their children photographed.

“We also ask them not to post any photos on social media – we will look after that, and they can then like and share those. If something was shared without our permission, we would probably hear about it,” adds Farrell, who would then quietly ask the parent to take it down.

Parents’ permission

Bernie Sheridan, manager of Beaumont Community Preschool Playgroup in Dublin, has been in the business for 23 years and has seen a lot of changes. They now look for parents’ permission for staff to take photos of their child throughout the year, which are used for observations with parents and put in a personalised journal for each child.

A forthcoming visit from Santa is just one of the many activities at which all 80 children will be photographed for their journals. Parents are allowed to come in to take photos of their own child but in isolation from others.

There can be very good reasons for parents not wanting their child photographed;there may be family issues going on or foster children involved, she says.

Early Childhood Ireland chief executive Teresa Heeney says photos are an important and useful way to document children’s learning and to do narrative assessment. However, she warns against letting photos become the most important aspect of the interaction, just because they are needed for, say, inspections.

The flip side of annoyance at camera-toting parents and worries about data protection is that events, such as the Christmas play, may go unrecorded in the future. Or you end up with something “very sterile”, she says, because a professional photographer has been invited.

“You end up not having that photo of your son or daughter with that tea cloth on their head, looking askance, and not singing a song . . .”

Parents really want to take those images of a very important event in their child’s life, she adds, and it may be very important for the wider family, particularly for a parent unable to attend, to see those photos.

Church no exception

When a church is the setting for a school carol service, you might think parents would be more respectful and desist from frantic photographing, but you’d be wrong.

One Dublin clergyman who has sat through decades of both primary and secondary school carol services now sees parents, when it’s their child’s turn to sing or read, unashamedly stand up with a camera at the ready even though they immediately block the view – and the camera angle – of those behind them.

“The child is so preoccupied with checking to see if parents are watching, they never look at the teacher anyway, or even attempt to concentrate on what they are actually there to do.”

Once their own child has finished, these parents lose all interest in the rest of the service. “The camera is between the knees and the remainder of the time in church is spent checking through the photos in the hope that everyone will be pleased at the home viewing afterwards.”

Observing these huge efforts to record the occasion, he can’t help wondering if only the parents had left the camera or camcorder at home.

“If they had chosen to sit quietly, listened and actually participated, they may have got far more out of the experience and, ultimately, have left with more tangible memories than a digital image.”

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