What Really Bothers Me About The Willow Smith Photo

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Imagine
this tableau: a pretty 13-year-old girl lies next to a handsome 20-year-old man
on a small, messy bed.  The man is
shirtless.  His head is thrown back and
he’s laughing. The girl, fully clothed and unsmiling, looks at the camera.

Are
they friends?  Sexual partners?  Brother and sister?
Moises
Arias, who played Rico on the Disney TV show Hannah Montana, and Willow Smith, the
young daughter of movie stars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, were recently
captured in an arty Instagram photo in just this pose. 
It
could be titled: Still Life, Shirtless Man, Precocious Celebrity Daughter.
There
was an enormous blogosphere outcry over the photo.  Arias quickly took the picture down. But it was too late.
This
is a bizarre story.  Imagine, for a
minute, having to explain every Instagram photo your kids are in.  Imagine trying to explain to your kids why the
world cares quite so much about them. Adding to the nuttiness are the pictures themselves
(there are actually a few), which look
like they could (maybe) be innocent.
Weird,
but innocent.
Both
Smith parents vociferously defended their daughter.
“Here’s
the deal,” fumed Jada Pinkett Smith. “There was nothing sexual about that
picture or that situation. You guys are projecting your trash onto it and
you’re acting like covert pedophiles, and that’s not cool.” 
Explaining
their parenting philosophy, Will Smith said, “We don’t do
punishment. The
way that we deal with our kids is, they are responsible for their lives. Our
concept is, as young as possible, give them as much control over their lives as
possible…you can do anything you want as long as you can explain to me why that
was the right thing to do for your life.”
If
I were not a parent, I might just shrug and say, “Meh, who cares?” 
But
I am a parent.  From a parenting
perspective, this picture is a Rorschach test revealing the landmines
underlying our efforts to raise teenagers responsibly. 

What
riles me is not the picture. It’s the age of the man and the girl in the
picture.
My
parenting head would explode if my 15-year-old daughter (or yeezus forbid, my
12-year-old) were found in a bed anywhere, anytime with a shirtless
20-year-old.
If
I discovered my 17-year-old son in bed with a girl six years younger, I would
be beyond furious.
If
any of my kids added insult to injury by posting these activities on Instagram,
I would crush their iPhone with my mom clogs.
I think it’s crazy for any parent to allow a young girl to lay on
a bed with a 20-year-old, shirtless or not. (The shirtless part just
makes it more provocative.)
I am no prude. I have always been open with my kids about sexuality. I want
them to feel good about their bodies on every level, including sexually.  At
17, 15 and 12, my kids are mature and responsible. Once they get to a certain age, their
sexuality is not my business.  
But that
doesn’t mean I abdicate all parental responsibility. I will offer my advice,
unsolicited or asked, on tricky situations like this, because my children don’t
yet possess the judgment to navigate every life dilemma.
It
may feel flattering for a teenager to attract an older man, or appealing to
pursue a naïve younger girl; my job is to offer boundaries and consequences
from my life experience. 
If I found my kids in this situation, I would tell them it’s wise to question intimacy — in the friendship way or the sexual
way –with someone of the opposite sex of such a different age. As a
responsible and loving parent, I don’t want my kids to pay the heavy price for
avoidable mistakes, especially when it comes to sexuality.
I
respect Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith as artists and parents. But I don’t
respect this kind of permissiveness by adults.
To
try to get some degree of objectivity, I imagined another, non-celebrity
adult  — say, a teacher supervising a
school field trip, or a trusted summer camp counselor overseeing sleep away
camp — giving my child permission to lounge in bed with another person of the
opposite sex. Especially one who was significantly older or younger.  In any degree of undress.
My
response would be simple: I would have that adult investigated and reprimanded.
I would no longer trust them with my children.
Look, it’s a free country. No laws were broken here. This is not our daughter; celebrities
and others have the right to parent the way they see fit. But we all have the
right to consider what they did, whether and why it bothers us, and use the answer as a compass to guide our
own kids. 
Want to hear Leslie tackle this topic on NPR? Listen to “Parents Draw The Line On Teen Relationships And Social Media

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