Editor's Letter: Kids in a Fishbowl

By Annie Tobey | November 1st, 2019

Parents telling tales, from cave walls to Facebook

Editors_Letter Annie Tobey Preachers Kid

I’d be sitting in a church pew, possibly tuned in to the sermon or perhaps pondering afternoon plans. Not infrequently, I would hear my name from the pulpit – not as a reproach but as a central figure in an anecdote.

As a preacher’s kid, my life provided fodder for my father’s sermons. One Sunday, Daddy told the congregation about my favorite reading spot: a sturdy limb in a tree in the parsonage backyard. I don’t recall the relevance of this fact to a biblical principle, but I do recall being embarrassed by the scattered titters around me as well as resentment that my private refuge became public knowledge.

Other aspects of life in a preacher’s family similarly felt like living in a fishbowl. We were like celebrities, but with a much smaller fan base and recompense.

Churches typically expected the entire family to represent the church, which meant perfect attendance at church events and modeling virtuous behavior.

Although my parents respected biblical values and identified as Christian moderates, their rules were influenced by the most conservative church members. They didn’t want to cause dissension or wear the metaphorical millstone. For example, I couldn’t participate in a March of Dimes Walk because it was on a Sunday. I couldn’t wear a trendy smock, Mother said, because I might look pregnant.

“But I’m not pregnant!” teenaged-me griped.

“That’s not the point,” she replied.

In fairness, my parents also swam in the fishbowl. Though they weren’t teetotalers, they wouldn’t drink in public or buy alcohol because someone might see them. On vacation, though, a glass of wine or a wine spritzer was a welcome pleasure. (As my dad would say in later years, “Just a little wine in the bottom of my glass, please,” to which my sister would retort, “There’s nowhere else to put it, Daddy!”) My mom was thrilled each Christmas to make her traditional rum cake, and she would travel incognito to a distant liquor store to pick up a bottle of rum. (It never occurred to me to ask what had happened to the rum from last Christmas.)


Parents have probably been telling tales for millennia on their adorable and mischievous offspring (which archaeologists should consider as possible explanations for cave drawings). Except for royalty and other celebrities, however, the fishbowl phenomenon has been relatively rare. Granted, in small communities, everyone knew everybody’s business. But when our parents overshared, it was through photos of a bare-butt baby on a bearskin rug (surely a meme for our generation, if memes had been a thing) or by dragging out embarrassing photo albums when you brought home your boyfriend or girlfriend.

These days, though, lots of parents put their kids in the spotlight. Social media has become such a common platform for parents to post kids’ pictures and anecdotes that there’s a term for it: ‘sharenting.’ If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen parental feeds filled with pictures of children, from ultrasound to undergraduate. A British study found that parents post about 1,500 images of their offspring on social media – before the kids even turn 5!

Perhaps my fishbowl memories have tempered my willingness to post much about my three (who were, admittedly, adults by the time I joined Facebook). I understand the desire to post, but I also see the drawbacks. Parents are proud ­– but do they also experience keep-up-with-the-Joneses’-kids pressure? Do parents who default to privacy fear their kids don’t think they’re also proud?

Like I did, kids can resent the posts and prefer privacy to publicity. One study stated that one in four are embarrassed by the information their parents share and another that kids are more likely than adults to say that adults overshare.

Annie Tobey, editor

And then there are safety issues. My father shared anecdotes to a relatively small group of friends and acquaintances, while social media parents potentially share images and information, including birthdates and locations, with friends, acquaintances and strangers. Sermon tales (perhaps like the lessons they were meant to convey) were soon forgotten, while social media has no expiration date.

Parenting has never been an easy, by-the-book task, and specific strategies must evolve with the times. I wasn’t thrilled when Daddy told tales on me from the pulpit, but my resentment never lessened my love for him. After all, what are parents for but to embarrass their children?

More from Boomer