When I was a kid, my parents bought a VHS tape recorder, which I quickly co-opted for my own regular use. It became pretty standard to record silly character sketches, songs, and fully choreographed dances with friends after school. We amused ourselves to no end with playbacks, hoping with stars in our eyes to appeal to a wider audience.
My parents always got a kick out of my efforts. Upon listening to an audio playback at dinner, I watched my own mother spit out her soup with laughter. Making people laugh, smile, and feel good about themselves is a part of my DNA. At some point in my early teenage years, I asked my mom if I could quit school to go try to become a pop star (before Taylor Swift was even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes). Needless to say, I didn’t follow that track—nor would my mom have let me.
I’m sure I would have relished endless opportunities to develop those creative bits of my childhood, but my parents had no intention of turning me into a one-kid show, and would never have considered accepting the potential profit from my labor for themselves.
But in today’s world, the temptation is even greater. Last week’s New York Times article, “Why Isn’t Your Toddler Paying the Mortgage?” followed the families of children who have found social media stardom as toddlers.
Today’s fame train starts like this: a natural conversation, authentic expression, or surprisingly cute/gifted/exciting moment is captured, parents unleash it to the internet, and a viral following results, garnering corporate sponsorships, gifts, and marketing opportunities. Sometimes, the children’s performances are organic moments, but also just as often they’re monitored and engineered by a parent with intent to boost likes, attract infamy, receive free stuff, and rake in the cash.
It’s fairly safe to assume that when the first comprehensive child labor laws were enacted nearly 80 years ago, no one could have accurately predicted the technological advances of today.
In the age of fingertip technology—with everyone’s personal computers kept in their pockets 24/7—it’s standard procedure to include pictures of offspring on various social media platforms. But doing so as a money making venture just seems wrong—and also perhaps illegal.
But the fact that it’s a moral and legal gray area isn’t keeping people from using their kids as style influencers, thereby propagating their personal family brands—and the parents of these “performers” are taking the money and running with it. Some parents quit their regular jobs to “invest” in their children’s fame full time, while others are slightly more sensible, placing portions of earnings in bank accounts with their children’s names on them.
Call me old-fashioned (I’m not), call me crazy (maybe a little) but this is ridiculous—and totally horrifying. The last reason to have kids is to make money off of them. No one should be using their children for their own profit. Have people forgotten how to put children’s earnings in trust for them, so that no one should be spending this money, made under very special circumstances, until it is within the child’s best interest to do so?
The whole thing feels tacky and weird. And some serious questions linger: can children consent to labor whose benefits they don’t get to reap? Should we be asking our children to consent to parental curation of their public image? Are toddlers even old enough to understand what they are being asked to consent to?
“You can’t make 2-year-olds do anything,” laments the mother of twins whose miniature conversation about what they want to be when they grow up went viral over the summer. Yeah, no crap, I thought to myself while reading. I can’t get my 2-year-old to eat pancakes even after he asks for pancakes! 2-year olds don’t know what social media is, but parents feel comfortable asking them to regurgitate lines in front of a camera.
Look, I get that it’s cute, and maybe I’m a total scrooge, but even experts agree that children grow up to be happier as adults if they are allowed privacy and autonomy during childhood.
I don’t know the answer to these larger questions, but I know how my gut feels about it. Sure, I like to share little updates of my son’s activities to a limited Instagram and Facebook audience, most of which was handpicked by me. But beyond that, I’ve joked that I intend to keep my son’s childhood as analog as possible. And I certainly don’t want to force him into performing if he’s not a performer.
He’s a toddler. He doesn’t know who he is yet, and I don’t really know who he is, either.
I will place no expectation on his ability to act like a wind-up monkey just so some retailer can send us soccer balls.