Saturday, December 16, 2006

Only the Children?

It's holiday card time again, and again I've been struck by what seems to me a strange phenomenon. Most of the cards I receive from families include pictures only of the children, not of the parents.

I don't want to read too much into this practice, but... what does it mean? The parents don't matter? Only the children are important? Maybe the idea is that the children change rapidly from year to year, and so require a yearly photo to update the card's recipient, while the parents change relatively little. Or maybe it's the opposite -- the parents think they've changed too much, changes of which they'd rather not apprise their holiday card acquaintances.

A basic psychological test involves asking a child to draw a picture of herself, with no further instructions. The child's decision -- just the face? the whole body? is a family included? is there anything in the background? etc. -- reveals a lot about the way the child perceives herself. If the "children only" holiday cards test something similar, what do they reveal?

I don't think any of this is bad, by the way; I'm just trying to understand it.

Is the "only the children" approach purely an American phenomenon, or do other cultures do it this way, too? The holiday cards I receive from Japan tend to include photos of complete families, but the sample size is too small for me to be sure it means anything. I'm curious how holiday cards are done elsewhere.

Any other thoughts on the cultural origins and implications of the "only the children" approach? Am I alone in wondering?

Happy holidays,


JT Ellison said...

I was thrilled to receive a card today from a close friend with a picture of her, her husband AND their kids.
You've hit my pet peeve, Barry. Not that I don't want to see the kids, but I'm friends with the parents. Let's see what you look like, warts and all. A friend will love you regardless of change, or lack thereof.
Happy Holidays!!!

Rick Klau said...

Weird - I noticed this exact thing today too. And our card, of course, is just of the kids. However, we mitigate that a bit by doing our letter online... Alongside the letter we include a slideshow of the year in pictures - which has lots of pictures of my wife and I, the grandparents, etc.

I think your first guess - that it's the kids who change so quickly - is the likely response.

Of far more interest to me, however, are the letters that sometimes accompany the pictures. There are the 'happy happy joy joy' cards in which all is sunshine and sweetness in the family's life - those are rather predictable but harmless enough. It's the letters that focus on all that went wrong that year that make you cringe - but, just like passing a car wreck, you can't stop from reading to the end.

By far the most incredible letter we've received this year was one in which the word miserable (applied primarily to the Mom, but once to the kids and another to the town to which they'd moved) appeared five times.

Yikes. I think there's a coffee table book concept in there somewhere.


Anonymous said...

My friends that take regular photos of themselves send family shots. The ones that don't send school photos of the kids because that's what they have.

JD Rhoades said...

My wife's usually the one taking the picture, and I'm ugly as a mud fence. That's why out Xmas card usually has only the kids, who are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention this today. I was just doing research on a little story today, and stumbled on a study of the drawings of Amish children. They never draw only themselves or only one person. Because they live in such an interdependent and social society, the concept of one person standing alone is an alien one to them.

As a teacher who skulks around guiltily for having a hobby, and hides the fact that she writes on the side, I can say that our societal message to teachers and mothers is pretty clear: the kids come first. Everything for the kids; I'm not important, not in comparison to them. No sacrifice too great.

I also find it interesting that teachers are supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to teach, and are supposed to work hard to earn the respect of their students. (Wonder why the teacher drop-out rate is so high?)

In Asian cultures, respect is given to teachers and parents as a matter of course. Students and parents are grateful when a teacher takes them on. Yes, the teacher returns this respect, true.

But it's not like America, where respect is a one-way street and it's going the wrong way.

I hear mothers say all the time that they can't remember the last time they did something for themselves alone. Teachers are burnt-out and emptied. Sheesh, it was only a hundred years ago that the attitude was, "children are to be seen and not heard." I'm not saying we should go back there, definitely not, but how did we get from that extreme to this one?

And where will this generation of self-centered (how can they help what they've been taught?), entitlement-obsessed children lead our country?

Anonymous said...

By way of contrast, here in Australia where we send Christmas cards rather than holiday cards the placing of a family photo on the card would be considered highly unusual and perhaps a little pretentious if not outright weird. Most people send shop-bought cards which contain traditional Christmas nativity scenes, angels, magi or similar iconography; or they may choose secular traditional scenes of Father Christmas, reindeer, snowy windows etc. Yes, snowy windows because although for us Christmas comes at the hottest time of the year (thousands of hectares of our bushland are burning as I write) much of our Christmas symbols reflect our English ancestry including a view of Christmas that perhaps never was. To some extent this is thanks to Charles Dickens who was in vogue at a time when large numbers of mostly middle class people emigrated to Australia.

Even those who manufacture their own Christmas cards would rarely put family on them. More commonly it would be an Australian landscape, I’ve even seen Uluru on such a card, but usually it would also include something traditional like holly or Christmas pudding decked out with tinsel.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Anonymous said...

crazy. instead of kids i'd send a photo of my dog & cat. but i usually just buy a card from a shop.

just to spam your blog. i managed to buy "one last kill" with hardcover in the UK (the only book ive read so far). noticed that "hard rain" was available for $6.00 in the US. please for christmas, could you get your publishers to send more copies to barbaric outposts of this world?

Anonymous said...

oh well...
jakarta indonesian people they send christmas card without family pic...i normally home @x mas ...and i just notice..typical indonesian christian love to sending card with a church motives..
once back in 1999-2002..i dont know how many hundred over cards with church with different version

Anonymous said...

Americans being the kind forward, competitive, success seeking, objective-based people they are, I always thought kids were a kind of status symbol in the country. Obviously that's not the absolute and we all love our children. I suppose in some ways the British are to blame! Heh, we had a guest lecturer on early American history whom was British himself and put a rather blunt perspective on it: "America was the trashcan of the British colonial system!" So I suppose Americans' fierce sense of independence and competitiveness has it's other side effects of bandying children like prizes. As if saying "I'm a successful person, financially and biologically! I have spread my genes!"

And I just realized, I bought Mr. Eisler's The Last Assassin but I forgot to read One Last Kill! Stupid finals, I was confused. Oh well, need to trot to the bookstore this week, I'll pick it up then.

Unknown said...


We get cards from all over the place: Ireland, UK, USA, Australia, Japan, Sweden, Germany, etc, etc...

Only the American cards include photos - and only of the children (hey, we only remember the kids when they were babies, they're strangers to us now -but the parent -or parents were our friends and it's their photos we'd prefer, that is if they insist on sending photos). Now some of them simply combine the card with the kids' photo in a 'one pager' from Shutterfly!

And then there's the typed personal letter to all (...used to be exclusively American but now we get them from Australia as well) that describes the up and downs of the writer, their immediate family, their extended family - most of whom we don't even know and truly have no interest in. It's almost like being invited to someone's home and then being subjected to viewing three hours of photos they took on their last vacation...

And there's the third gripe I have: the cards that have the senders' name and greeting pre-printed on the inside. We get these from various places, not just America. I want to see a card that's been signed by the person who sent it. If that's too much work, please don't bother sending any card at all..

So, Barry, it seems that the US is the prime culprit - but as with all American culture, good and bad, it's spreading world-wide.

Enjoy the holidays! Hope to run into you somewhere in 2007,

Anyway, as we say in Ireland:

Athbhliain faoi mhaise duit

…agus ….

Fad saoil agat agus go n-eiri an bother leat !

(which means: A prosperous New Year to you … and … a long life to you and may the road rise to meet you!)



Alan Deal said...

Perhaps we send pictures of our children only because #1 they change rapidly and there are those we send cards to that have not seen us or our children, in years. #2 The said recipient of the card will perhaps remember us as we were - lean, mean, and with grit in our teeth -- not fat, docile, and in need of a good dental bleaching. #3 Proof positive that you can dilute ugly genes. ;-)

Wishing you the best and a Merry Christmas,

Anonymous said...

My wife's family comes from a town in Upstate New York where they are very much into the Christmas Photo card. My Atlanta, Ga upbringing did not include that tradition.

Thus as an outsider looking in, I always felt that the card was supposed to be in lieu of a gift. Sort of a mass produced gift that you sent to the people you wanted to connect to at Christmas, but didn't like enough to send a wrapped present to.

As a type of gift then, the photo card is supposed to represent something of value (quite insulting to send a value-less gift, right?). It has been my observation, that most people don't value themselves, but do still believe their children to have value. Perhaps because the kids still have unexplored potential?

Thus the "draw a picture test" that you mentioned, Barry, would be showing where people subconciously feel the biggest space of unsullied Love still lies in their life.

Just my two cents. Enjoy your blog and am a huge fan of your books. Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Pat Mullen:

Seems you have a lot of criteria for proper in-bound Christmas season communication. What does one from the Emerald Isle send to all those friends who seem to be so wayward in expressing their year end greetings.......?

Unknown said...


I can't speak for everyone on the Emerald Isle. However, a glance through the card stores would show the usual display of Christmas and Holiday cards: the ones with religious themes, those with a secular sense, more recent Irish designed cards -in both English and Irish; still others in the Seasons Greetings category for those senders and/or receipents who are not Christian. In the 'Celtic Tiger' Ireland of today we have a healthy multicultural mix: Polish, Russian, Chinese, African, Brazilian, German, Dutch, Myanmar, Moldovia, Japanese, French, Chech Republic, Slovakia, etc, etc.

The cards we receive from our family and friends in Ireland run the gamut from religious to secular to the newer Irish language/modernly designed ones. Family often add words of love as well as signing. Friends sometimes do likewise. Others simply sign and add 'best wishes' or something. But - always less is more - no photos and no pre-printed names and no typed one page letters to everyone. The key is : less is more.

So I can't speak for all of Ireland. Maybe they do everything that Barry wonders about. I do not know.

Personally, we send and receive cards from family and friends in Ireland, UK, many European countries, Australia, Canada, USA, Japan ... We usually choose Irish designed cards of a unique design - and add our own simple words.


Elizabeth Krecker said...

I've wondered about this phenomena for years. I'm not sure that it's solely an "it's all about the kids" American cultural phenomena. I think there's something deeper at work. Maybe we're not so happy with who we have become, but we're proud of our kids and want to show them off instead. Or maybe we just think it's self-serving to send a picture of ourselves, but not self-serving to send a picture of our kids.

This year, I sent a picture of both of my son and I. Why? It was a really funny picture. Maybe next year, we'll rent Elvis costumes.