The other day, a news story that went viral, as the kids these days say, caught my eye. Morris Bart is the eponymous head of a large New Orleans-based personal injury law firm that advertises on daytime television in Louisiana and surrounding states. A toddler named Grayson Dobra absolutely loves his commercials. When Grayson celebrated his second birthday earlier this year, his mother decided to give him a Morris Bart-themed party. She made a cake and a t-shirt with Morris Bart’s picture on it. She contacted the law firm, and while Mr. Bart was unavailable to make a personal appearance, he sent an autographed picture and a bunch of promotional merchandise. (Here is an article from their local newspaper about Grayson’s party.)
My first reaction, as was probably the first reaction from many of you, was cheerful laughter. Everyone knows some little kid who has a weird obsession, and many of us probably were that kid at one time in our lives. I’ve had those weird obsessions before, and I’ve written before about one that I had when I was considerably older than Grayson Dobra. Seeing pictures of Grayson Dobra’s Morris Bart cake are just adorably cute, when you think about what little kids are like. It still makes me smile, and I’ve read the story several times in the last 24 hours.
But there’s a darker side to this. I’m afraid for Grayson’s future. Specifically, I’m afraid of what will happen if someday he outgrows his obsession with Morris Bart and wants to put it behind him, but his mother insists on dragging out the pictures from the birthday party on a regular basis, and reminding Grayson of his Morris Bart phase every time a Morris Bart commercial comes on television. In this era of social media, hundreds of people see everyone’s embarrassing baby pictures, and the maternal tendency to smile and laugh at a child’s awkwardness. I cringe at the thought that Grayson may someday not want to be reminded of this, but his mother insists with an excuse like “Oh, but you were so cute then!” That kind of behavior is extremely disrespectful on the mother’s part, and it sends the message that the child’s feelings and personal boundaries don’t count.
Maybe I’m just projecting my own past onto the Dobras. There have been plenty of times over the years when my own mother has insisted on bringing up embarrassing and traumatic things in my past because she thinks they were cute, or she thinks that I’m overreacting when I say I don’t want to talk about it. No, Mom, I’m sorry, but you don’t get to decide what I do or don’t find embarrassing or traumatic. (Mom, I know you read this, but I’m going to say all of this anyway. I know, though, that you weren’t setting out to hurt me intentionally, and that it’s only human nature that what is not that big a deal to someone might be to someone else. And I definitely do have to admit that you’ve been better about this in recent years, and that you did apologize after I wrote last year about the weird obsession from my early teens, so thank you.)
One of many examples that I remember well happened at a family gathering for Thanksgiving in 2000. Mom was telling my aunt about something that had happened to me recently, I made it clear that I did not want to talk about it. Mom kept egging me on to fill in my aunt on some details of the story that she couldn’t remember, and I kept saying I didn’t want to talk about it. Eventually Mom and my aunt went into the other room, where Mom could continue telling the story out of earshot of me. The message that this sent, of course, were that my feelings didn’t count, so Mom was going to keep disregarding my feelings out of earshot of my objections. One of my greatest regrets in life is that I didn’t, at that moment, walk the couple miles to the Greyhound station and find a bus home. That would have sent a much stronger message, that I won’t put up with someone being so disrespectful to me, and that I will take whatever steps are necessary to remove myself from situations like that. I really wish I had done that.
Maybe Grayson Dobra is going to turn out just fine. Maybe he will be able to let his Morris Bart phase go peacefully with the ability to laugh about it later. And if he doesn’t, maybe his mother will be respectful when he says he doesn’t want people looking at those pictures anymore. I certainly hope so. Many of my friends have children around Grayson’s age. I know you enjoy Facebooking and Instagramming your children’s cute embarrassing moments–and I enjoy seeing the pictures and videos as well–but please respect their feelings if they indicate someday that they don’t want you to share something. I don’t want your kids to grow up thinking that you don’t respect their boundaries, because those turn into the kind of kids that hide things from you, out of embarrassment and shame. Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot to hide that would have gotten me in trouble, but not all kids are like that. Grayson and his family probably won’t ever read this, but if they do, I hope they keep this in mind.