Why Do We Send Photos of Our Kids as Holiday Cards?

Holiday cards are artifacts that express our beliefs about childhood and parents

Posted Dec 18, 2013

Across the country, it's holiday card time. These cards often highlight family and particularly children. Usually the card itself is a family portrait, or a portrait of the kids. Often there are numerous photos of the kids on a single card.

This practice is so consistent and defining for the tribe of parents I study in New York City that one year, when my husband and I sent out a "mere" card, several people told us, by email and in conversation, "You forgot the photo of the kids!" For many members of the Manhattan parent tribe, the kids are the whole point of the holiday card, and a holiday card without kids is no card at all.

Our relative affluence in the industrialized West has allowed us to change up childhood in fundamental ways: in contrast to childhood worldwide, here it is an edenic idyll, a time of play, free time and formalized education. Children have little to do, other than be children—they do not contribute to the household in the ways children in other cultures do, for example. Thus our investment in our children, each and every one of them, is comprehensive and costly. The wealthiest couples in Manhattan, where I study childhood and parenting practices, may have four, five or even six children. However many children you have, sharing a holiday card with photos of healthy, happy children is shorthand for "All is well." And like ornaments and gifts, children are literally precious, something to be celebrated and displayed. In addition, sending an annual update about the status of one's children documents their growth and well-being for an entire community. Having most likely evolved as cooperative breeders, with the help of kin and the kindly disposed when it came to raising our offspring, we have a deep investment in not only our own children, but those of others.

Sending and receiving these cards, we affirm, shore up and celebrate our very specific, very western version of childhood and parenthood. The cards are literally "portraits of childhood" as well as clues about our evolutionary prehistory as cooperative breeders. Oh, and those kids are cute, too. Happy holidays....