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Childhood through a viewfinder

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Wednesday, 5 January 2005

As essential as the nappy bag or spare bottle, the video camera is the parenting tool of this decade. Who needs memories when we can capture hours of our children’s development on film? First words. First steps. Delightful images to play at our children’s 21st birthdays and to share with them as they grow. Yet, I find myself resenting the handheld device.

I forced myself to stop videoing when I saw another dad at the park. He’d brought the video camera along and was placing his daughter on the slide and videoing her coming down. He videoed her on the swings. He asked her to smile as he videoed her climbing a ladder and then videoed her crossing the bridge. After all the videoing - they went home.

The girl’s dad had not played once. He captured a manufactured experience of his daughter at the playground in which he had not participated at all. He had been the third eye, the observer. Watching her through a machine - like we do the nightly news or a movie. He would no doubt show this day in the park to friends. But what would he remember of the experience? Probably very little.


We are so focussed on capturing the moment that we forget to enjoy it. What is the point in being able to look back at your child’s first steps if you rely on video evidence for your memories of the experience? An experience is about all the senses, not just the audio-visual. A video won’t be able to tell you how it smelt, or how you felt, or help you recall the taste. Video is a poor substitute for memories.

We are addicted to capturing our lives on tape. Look at the countless hours of footage shown on television shows like Funniest Home Videos. Children are shown falling over, falling off, hitting themselves or each other, while canned laughter plays over the top. And rarely does the camera switch off or pull away, it remains transfixed.

Image does not simply dominate; it actually affects a child’s experience. In the future a child won’t have the memory of their parent picking them up off the swing immediately and comforting them making sure they are ok. They will have a video-replay experience, which may have won their parents a stereo system on a television show. The image of them hurting themselves will be played and laughed at over and over again.

Experts point to evidence that television violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behaviour in our children. The images children see impact on their developing minds. If violent images from a war that is a world away affect our kids, we should stop to think about the impact laughing at images of children hurting themselves has on the youngest members of our society.

The first video footage that exists of me is when I am aged about seven. We didn’t own a video camera so there are probably about four or five precious tapes of my siblings and me during our childhood years. However, it is only a single lens snapshot of my childhood.

There is no footage of my mum singing songs to us in the car as she took us to school, or footage of my brother and me hiding in our cubby house making secret deals. Video camera’s rarely capture the hours leading up to the birthday cake, or the hours after. They can’t be in every room, capturing everything. The home movie experience is not Big Brother. In my family, past birthdays exist in candle lit memories.


What video footage my family has is great. But it is all that video can be - a small window on history. It gives you a sense of what it was like, but hardly conveys an entire childhood. Actually, I’d hate to have my entire life on film. If it were, I’d be doing some serious editing.

So, don’t throw the camera away. Get it out on the odd weekend and video your children playing outside. But, try not to get obsessed. Make sure you play when you go to the park. And at birthday parties sing as loud as you can.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on December 10, 2004.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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