Saying Goodbye to Picture Day

It’s hard to let go of things. There’s comfort in routines and the familiar. Traditions are like that. For some reason, humans like doing certain things over and over, year after year, generation after generation, creating customs. Those things that your parents did with you when you were a kid, which were the things they did with their parents when they were kids, and so on; that’s culture. And oddly enough culture can survive mostly unchanged for generations. Although, it’s not like customs don’t get strange or weird throughout time, and sometimes the precedent of the tradition becomes more important than the act itself. Sometimes, it gets hard to remember why we decorate trees in the winter and dress up like monsters in the fall, but that’s just what we do. We think these kinds of rituals are important to pass along to our children, with the hope they’ll do the same with their kids. We call this heritage.

Many parents probably don’t realize the power they wield in the way we can choose what we pass on to our kids (or not). I have to say it is very difficult straddling that fence between what makes sense to teach young people in this day and age, and what is just nonsense. But we pass it all along, with no thought as to why, because that’s just what tradition is about. Right? Don’t get me wrong, some customs are nice to pass on to my boys but, in the face of changing times, I’ve started to let certain traditions fall to the wayside. I’ve been dropping a lot more since the pandemic too. Heritage is important, and I do realize there’s always uncertainty when change is involved but, sometimes, you just have to evolve! You know?

Recently, I gave up on a long tradition in my family: buying school pictures. My mother comes from a large family, and the school photos on the walls of my grandparents’ house were a special part of their own unique culture. Because of a practice my grandmother had done, each of her kids’ school picture frames held a story. I can remember visiting my grandparents many times as a child. I’m always reminded of it by the smell of old wood and coffee farts. With 14 children, my grandparents had tons of pictures on their walls. One time, my mother showed me how you could take the frame of any of her siblings’ school photo, open the back, and inside you’d find every school picture taken of them, from kindergarten through highschool. 

What started as a moment between me and my mom soon grew. Before we knew it, a bunch of family members were crowded around. We flipped through the photos and laughed as we watched each of my uncles and aunts quickly age in the space of moments. Every yearbook worthy portrait chronologically ordered by my grandmother. Fashion and puberty were the most talked about topics, as we perused the old pictures, but there were also stories told, and a way of life was shared with me. This is what we call family culture.

Unsurprisingly, my mother did this same ritual with my brother and I. On her wall, she’d hang all our school photos in just one picture frame: toothless grins giving way to acne covered sneers, nested like a bunch of Russian dolls in remembrance of the way her mother did the exact same thing. Just like when my mother was a child, never a year was missed, and every grade had a photo. The ritual was passed on. When my kids started school, it felt like something I could do with my boys too. Why not? Two generations certainly made a tradition. Right? 

When I bought the picture frame for my oldest son’s school photo, years ago, it was before the divorce. Back then, my son was in kindergarten and finally starting to talk with the help of speech therapy. “No reason not to try to be a normal family?” I thought. Families thrive on tradition. Well. The divorce was a long time ago, and this year, for the first time, I didn’t purchase school photos for my kids. I broke a chain that had been going on in my family line for years, because I’m not making enough money to buy crappy pictures of my kids this year. Thanks minimum wage! On top of that, I’m starting to realize that it’s like 2021, and I have a camera on my phone, so… I don’t really need to buy pictures when I can take all the free pictures I want. You know? Things are different now. Besides being broke, I just can’t justify doing it anymore. Sometimes things have to change, because problems are just as easy to pass on to my kids as traditions are.

Do you ever sit and ponder the stuff that we’re still teaching our kids? How much of it is really necessary anymore? Take spare change, for instance. One day, at the tail end of last year, my son came home from school, extremely jazzed up about pocket change! All of a sudden, he knew that 4 quarters made a dollar, and that a dime was 10 cents! But after we walked home from school and sat there in the kitchen, his understanding of the values of the coins started to digress. I found myself in teaching mode, all of a sudden. Dad to the rescue. But then my son tried to pull literal context into his questions. Like: what could he buy with each bit of metal money? The only problem was, I couldn’t really think of anything that he could buy for less than a dollar anymore. And where do you use spare change these days anyway? Nothing practical came to mind. This was old stuff I was having to describe. Why was I doing that?

Because of current technology and commercialism, the money that goes ‘clink’ doesn’t do shit, except get stuck in the most disgusting crevices of our cars and furniture now. I know I should have continued the lesson from school and helped my son learn how to count change, but I didn’t really see much of a reason to. Thinking about the laundry I had to do that night, and my ongoing job search, I just told him that we really don’t use that form of money these days, and we haven’t talked about it since. I’m either a bad father or the world’s greatest dad. I’m sure you know how I feel.

For thousands of years, parents have known that a piece of them will live on, long after they’re gone. We all know this. Someday you’ll be dead, but it’s okay. A part of you will still exist in the future. Hopefully. Someday, when generations have come and gone, you might be one of those lucky people who will have a small strand of your unique DNA still existing, driving around another living vehicle, made of flesh and bone, which kind of looks like you. Who knows? But beyond DNA, what will you pass on to the future? Maybe we should all think about that?

At some point, a lot of people who have come and gone throughout the history of the world, inevitably have become genetic dead ends. Anyone alive and reading this right now is not descended from those people. What had been a long, unending chain of replicating matter, suddenly came to end. At that branch, anyway. Every human, at each generational interval, has the power to be the last of their line or decide to keep that line moving forward. Becoming time travelers, in a sense. As a parent, I can avoid the entropic fate of humans. I can’t imagine not wanting to have kids. It’s hard raising them. Sure. But there is something intrinsic in my molecules that shouts at me to not only have kids, but to sacrifice anything in order to give my children a better life. Surprisingly, a lot of my peers have no wish to have children, and it’s an increasing trend around the world to be childless. 

I’m grateful to have kids. In an evolutionary sense, I want to question people who decide not to procreate. I’m not saying anything is wrong with them, but I wonder, “Don’t they feel it too?” That drive or biological clock. Whatever you want to call it, I had no choice but to heed the call. But more than that, like a tradition, I want some form of me to continue to exist through time. I like to imagine that our species will live on, and I want a piece of me to be a part of that continued existence. Like many parents right now, I’m deeply worried about the future. I’m pretty sure everyone’s kids are going to have a rough time on this planet in time, and I want to do something to make it better right now! When you are actively thinking about what the world will be like for your kids when you’re dead, then you are more aware then people who only live for today. If you’re paying attention while parenting, you can have a deeper understanding about the passage of time.

I like to criticize lazy parents. It’s the worst kind of laziness, I think. That being said, I think a lot of parents just go on autopilot when it comes to tradition. They don’t sit and contemplate about it like I do. They just figure they’ll pass on all the same stories and practices that were passed on to them. Who cares if it’s useful or not, or even if it’s harmful? Maybe they think it’s cute, or maybe they just think it’s an obligation? But as far as dealing in traditions, these people are mostly on repeat. So lazy!  I find it ironic that it’s the majority of parents who are driving the SUVs and minivans, driving their kids those few blocks from their home to their school, when they could walk instead. We’re all fueling the climate crisis that our children will inherit.

There’s nothing surprising about the problems that have been passed on to us. I think our true problems are caused by traditions. People just want to live the same way their parents lived. Gobbling up resources and polluting the world with our consumerist mentality. I don’t try to judge these people, because I’m one of them. We just want to continue the rituals that are familiar to us. Unfortunately, things have to change.

Continuing a long chain of shared family experiences across time is how we can maintain a culture that spans generations. It’s pretty amazing. That whole slogan, about kids being the future, is not just a cliche. As a father, I sometimes find myself in one of the most important positions in society, due to the fact that I can actively choose what kinds of beliefs and practices I pass on to my kids. You might think some of these decisions I make are small, but the beliefs and rituals that we share with our kids give our kids a connection to the past. It’s true. But are we helping them survive the future?

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