As a mother of three who rarely has any idea what I am doing, I am very loathe to criticise the parenting style of others. There are numerous ways to bring up a healthy child, from home-schooling to non-schooling, disciplinarian to free-range, strict to lenient, attachment to Dr Spock, techno-centric to organic.
There is no right way to parent and there is no wrong way to parent; whatever works for each family is valid and appropriate.
So when I express concern over the image just released of 13-year-old Willow Smith posing on a bed with a shirtless 20-year-old man, I am not criticising the parenting of her mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, or father actor Will Smith. I am questioning their choice in allowing this particular image to be made public, because of the ramifications it can have for other children.
Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith are well known for their unusual parenting styles. They believe strongly in the empowerment of their two kids, Willow and 15-year-old Jaden. They do not believe in punishment, choosing instead to give their children the respect they would give to any other person.
"My style of parenting is very similar to that of my parents, minus the concept of ownership” he has stated. “I think that, specifically in African American households, the idea coming out of slavery, there's a concept of your children being property and that was a major part that Jada and I released with our kids. We respect our children the way we would respect any other person."
And so far, this form of child rearing seems to have paid off. Willow and Jaden have both embarked on successful careers in the entertainment industry, and up until Tuesday the greatest controversy sparked by either was when Willow shaved off her long hair at the age of twelve. (Although, admittedly, Jaden’s permanent scowl is a constant talking point amongst the paparazzi.)
However, this image of Willow has definitely disturbed me. The man in the picture is 20-year-old Moises Arias, best known for playing Rico on Hannah Montana. He is, apparently, a friend of the family, and there is no suggestion of any sexual relationship between the two, despite the provocative nature of the photo.
Though it is probably unusual for a 13-year-old girl to have a close relationship with a 20-year-old man, in the entertainment industry it would not be unprecedented. Children work alongside adults on film sets and recording studios, and have access to the adult world far more than regular kids who attend school and play soccer on the weekends. If Willow wants to take a photo of herself lounging around on a bed with her mate (who presumably got hot and needed to take his top off) and her parents didn’t mind, then so be it.
However, to publish such images on the internet is, in my opinion as a mother of a 13-year-old, completely irresponsible. Willow Smith is a role model for hundreds of thousands of young fans, and whether she likes it or not, this is something that comes with the territory that is celebrity. Will and Jada Smith know this well, and both have maintained squeaky clean profiles over the years.
The photo sexualises Willow. How can it not? Place any female on a bed with a half naked adult man and you will end up with a sexualised image. Add into the equation the black and white filter, Willow’s sultry look at the camera, and her position curled up against Moises, and you have a shot straight out of a Vanity Fair spread. This is not the sexual emancipation of a newly minted teen – experimenting with boys her own age, trying on bubblegum lipstick and Britney Spears perfume. It is expressing the sexual fantasies of adult males, with dim lighting, heroin-chic bedding and buffed bare chests.
This photo normalises the sexualisation of teenage girls, children still in the throes of puberty. And what is does is say to my 13-year-old daughter and her friends? “This is appropriate and aspirational. This is who you should be. An adult’s fantasy of a sexual being.”
This may not be what the photo means to Willow, and I assume it is not what it means to her parents. But it is what it will mean to many of their legions of fans, and it is a message both dangerous and all pervasive in our society.
I hope Jada and Will Smith will continue their mindful parenting, but perhaps extend their mindfulness to the other children they influence along the way. Their daughter is a celebrity, and may grow up quickly, but that doesn’t mean our daughters should be encouraged to do the same.