About ten years ago, I did a YouTube thing for a friend of mine. I showed up at a space in Hollywood, and did some silly gaming stuff with them to help get their channel off the ground. They’d done the same for me with Tabletop, and I was happy to return the favor. As I’ve said many times, nobody gets their foot in the door without some help, no matter how hard they try to rewrite their origin story.
There were a TON of YouTubers there, most of whom I didn’t recognize because I’m not in the demo. Most were twentysomethings, but there were a couple of teens, and maybe half a dozen younger kids who seemed to be having a pretty good time playing with toys and games. About halfway through the day, a mom who appeared to be around 27 or so brought her son over for a picture with me. He looked to be about 7. You know, the age I was when my dogshit parents ended my childhood and put me to work.
So this mom tells me that she’s super excited to “get his channel going” and before I even knew what was happening, I heard this come out of my mouth: “He wants a channel? Or you want a channel? He only gets one chance to be a kid, and no kid should have to work at all, or perform if they don’t want to.” Then I looked at the kid, and I saw a VERY familiar face from about … 1979. It’s in the eyes and the way the shoulders slump. I looked back at the mom. “Don’t take his childhood away from him.” Then: “He only gets one childhood.”
She looked shocked. This was clearly not something she had ever thought about, and certainly didn’t expect to think about at this thing. I felt like she was seeing her child as a child for maybe the first time? I don’t know. She was clearly uncomfortable, like nobody had ever spoken up on behalf of her child before.
“He loves it! He’s always having fun!” She said, with the same fake enthusiasm and terrible lying I knew from my mother. I glanced at the kid and knew that was not true.
What I wanted to say to her was, “I hope this is a total failure for you. I hope you get zero views, get your own job, and support your kid being a kid so he grows up with a mom.” But instead, I looked at this sweet little boy and said, “You deserve to be a kid.” Then I walked away before I caused a scene. I did not participate in his exploitation by posing for a photo that he didn’t care about, that would be used by his mother for some kind of promotion.
I think about that kid from time to time. He’s probably right around 18 or so, now, and I hope that his childhood wasn’t anything like mine. I hope he’s happy and living his best life. I hope his mom grew up and chose to be his mom, not his pimp, and that they have a loving and supportive family relationship.
So that all came back to me this morning when I saw this story from Teen Vogue, about Influencer Parents:
“Claire, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has never known a life that doesn’t include a camera being pointed in her direction. The first time she went viral, she was a toddler. When the family’s channel started to rake in the views, Claire says both her parents left their jobs because the revenue from the YouTube channel was enough to support the family and to land them a nicer house and new car. “That’s not fair that I have to support everyone,” she said. “I try not to be resentful but I kind of [am].” Once, she told her dad she didn’t want to do YouTube videos anymore and he told her they would have to move out of their house and her parents would have to go back to work, leaving no money for “nice things.”
“When the family is together, the YouTube channel is what they talk about. Claire says her father has told her he may be her father, but he’s also her boss. “It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. When Claire turns 18 and can move out on her own, she’s considering going no-contact with her parents. Once she doesn’t live with them anymore, she plans to speak out publicly about being the star of a YouTube channel. She’ll even use her real name. Claire wants people to know how her childhood was overshadowed by social media stardom that she didn’t choose. And she wants her parents to know: “nothing they do now is going to take back the years of work I had to put in.”Bolding is mine. “Also her boss”? Fuck you, Claire’s dad. Fuck you eleven different ways, you piece of shit.
Children deserve to be children. Children are not the property of their parents who can use and exploit them for their own gain. They are CHILDREN and they will spend the rest of their lives hurting because you stole that from them. Ask me how I know.
I see you, Claire, and I am so sorry for what they took from you. You did not deserve that, and you are enough. When you are of age, if you choose to hold them accountable, I have your back.
29 thoughts on “children are not property. they are people.”
I’ve always counted myself lucky I never had any discernible talent. Kidding. I’m actually super-lucky in that, growing up, I had the kind of parents who wouldn’t have put me on the clock for the crime of having a marketable characteristic. I can only imagine the terrible harm that would have resulted, and even just my imagination is enough to make me angry at Claire’s father, at that 7 year-old’s mother, at Wil’s parents. I already can’t stand people who shove their kids at tutor after tutor, trying to force some talent to the surface, without the thought of them trying to profiteer from whatever skill or ability they torture out of their kid. Grr. I’m gonna go play my guitar badly, now. That part I’m not kidding about; I’m not a good guitarist (yet).
I have to admit, the pull was so strong back when I was young(er) and broke and had a 5 year old and my then-husband was out of work, and suddenly some friend-of-a-friend who turns out to be an agent tells me “your child is just beautiful, perfect for so many commercials and maybe even a soap!” – and dangles a ridiculous amount of potential money in front of me.
I went so far as to try a ‘pretend’ audition with my son. He was NOT HAVING IT. He understood, more or less, what acting was, he’d been in a couple of little kindergarten plays by then. He thought those were fun. But going out and dealing with a bunch of strangers and bright lights and cameras sounded absolutely terrifying to him. He made it very clear that he had no interest in it at all. So I reluctantly shut the whole thing down. That agent kept calling ‘just in case’ until I finally told him to never call again as it was not happening, period.
Holy shit we could have used the money. I briefly had visions of a college fund, an apartment that had two whole bedrooms, maybe even leaving the city altogether. Now of course it’s entirely possible that he wouldn’t ever have landed any job, and I thought about that, and how that would be awful too – dragging him around to auditions that he never gets.
Wil, every time I read something about your experience as a child actor, I am reminded that I made the right decision. My kid is 21 now, had a real childhood, is at college on scholarships and plans to become a high school history & economics teacher. There were really rough times along the way, but I don’t regret not forcing him to perform so we could make money off of him.
Good for you for reminding people that their children are not there to profit off of, especially if they don’t want to in the first place. Kids deserve to be kids. That’s their ‘job’.
I think there is starting to be a shift where many people are realizing that a lot of child performers are exploited. Wil, you’ve certainly been helping to put that information in front of people’s eyes for a long time, and I’ve been hearing more people bring up things like Jennette McCurdy’s memoir or articles they’ve read about Sarah Polley. I hope they think about that when they see very young “influencers” and realize how incredibly unlikely it is that nobody is pressuring them into that life.
Listening to you book ‘still a geek’
I’m at appendix A and wanted to reply on Instagram but stumbled back on your page.
I’m really, deeply touched hearing about the experience you and your sister’s had.
My blood even boils only hearing about them, I’m a father of two boys.
I wish we lived in a better world.
Will be relistening to ‘fuzzy natio’n after this.
It was my introduction to John scalzi, and a book I childless adore.
Not to mention the discovery of your audiobooks 🙂
Hope you and your family are well
With kind regards.
It doesn’t even require that the child be a celebrity or proto-celebrity. There are simply parents who will commandeer their child’s life as some sort of twisted vicarious “do-over” of all the things they think is wrong with theirs. Ask me how I know.
Thank you for speaking up. Capitalism (everything is a product) and children — a horrible combination.
Was just talking about howmany children have absolutely no agency (or even bodily autonomy) the other day, and how horrific that is. I’m so sorry this was brought back to you in this way, Wil. And yeah. Fuck you, Claire’s dad.
That is great that you spoke the truth to that mom and that little boy. I too hope that she heard you and really listened.
For some parents I think they genuinely think it’s a good thing for their kids to become famous and others like your parents want to profit off of their child’s talent.
My teen daughter is an INCREDIBLE artist. Like professional artists who have seen her work are impressed. She also plays a couple of instruments she taught herself to play well enough that musicians can’t believe she hasn’t taken any lessons before. She’s also adorable and funny so cuteness factor is high for her. However, I don’t even want her on social media, much less to become YouTube or TikTok famous for the exact reasons you have talked about so many times. She’s a high schooler with a bright future but it’s not my job to force her to try to become famous and I would actually prefer for her mental health that she doesn’t.
Too many stories are surfacing about the abuses people are subjected to trying to become famous or because they ARE famous. Kids need to be protected from harm!
Keep speaking out on abuses in the industry and discouraging parents from pushing their children into it against their wishes.
Or when you’ve got people like the Frankes family, or the DaddyOFive channel, who literally are abusing their children on camera for views. That stuff gets me so annoyed.
I am proud of you for standing up for that kid and continuing to talk about this. Maybe that sounds weird, but as someone your age I don’t see a lot of people in our demo standing up for what is right. If you were my friend I would be proud of you, as your audience I am also claiming that right.
When I look at a TNG episode now and I see you at that age, I am reminded of your story and your willingness to talk about it publicly so others can learn. It gives me hope.
Thanks Wil. Take care
Have a good day.
Stage mothers are the worst.
Jock parents aren’t far behind.
Hey Wil, thank you for continuing to bring light to this. I finished listening to “Still Just A Geek,” and I’m still processing as most of it hit harder this time around than before when I read the OG edition. I’ve been a work in progress for 30 of my 54 years, some days I roll ‘1’s on my mental health check, others I do better. A lot of the new book triggered in ways I wasn’t prepared for, but in addition to the waves of negative, I also felt seen, validated. Please keep writing.
On children working instead of being kids, being their parent’s property: I’ve experienced the same parent-type you describe above in the design world, working with children models being pushed into the profession by their parents. I recall working with some on photoshoots who CLEARLY didn’t want to be there, we’re all trying to put them at ease and have fun, be relaxed, only to have it all undone by the abusive parent who would hover and verbally harass their kid to “perform.” After a few horrible experiences, one design firm I was at instituted a zero-abuse-tolerance policy and wouldn’t permit parents on set as part of our contract with the agency. We also had a special advisers work with us to make sure the kids were always safe and protected and treated like the professionals they were, with the same courtesy and regard for their well-being as we would an adult. I wish I could say that was the standard, but it’s not.
There needs to be more done to drag this form of child-labor out into the light; kids (myself included) have been used in advertising, marketing, packaging and promotion for decades and only recently has anyone in the industry thought to consider the long-term cost to the kids. That their safety, their childhoods, their mental and physical well being must always be protected — because the parents of these kids sure as hell aren’t thinking about it. All you need to do is go to our Mall of America here in Minnesota during a casting call for “child” models and see how many thousands of kids and parents show-up. The kids likely just wanting to go play in Legoland…
I have three daughters, two adults and one still in high school. When they shadowed me at work, I’d take them to photoshoots to see how we did food photography, set up a set, lit and styled the subject (ice cream was the worst). Sometimes we’d have kids and adults hired for the shoot, if the product was in that “family” demo. All three of our girls at one time in these visits would ask about modeling, and if it was something they could try. I said sure, but only after they understood exactly what they were getting into, and that the decision to try it would be entirely up to them. We reminded them that their first job was to be a kid, that modeling wasn’t as easy as it looked and that our job as parents was to ensure that IF they did this they were protected and safe. Thankfully, none of them asked to try it. All of them have, instead, used the experience to become illustrators and animators.
Everyone involved in this business, starting with the parents but also including the agencies and creative firms, have a responsibility to protect the children they employ. Someone has got to shake the tree on this. Hard.
You did a good thing, Wil. Very proud of you. hugs
Wil reads Teen Vogue?
Someone probably sent him a link to it, knowing he would be interested in the subject.
Yeah, that was a joke. I know he doesn’t have a subscription.
Also, Teen Vogue doing decent political and social commentary for quite some time now, so I find it drifting into my feed reader way more than I’d’ve anticipated in the 90’s.
Yes, of course. Everyone knows about the legendary political commentary in Teen Vogue. Good grief. 🙄
The moment I saw that article I thought “oh, hey, I bet Wil has SOME STRONG OPINIONS about that bs.” Glad you’re out there as a voice for the kids to be kids.
Wil, something that I have always admired and appreciated beyond my ability to say is this knack you have for seeing kids in trouble.
When I was 17, I used to frequent your message board. Though I can’t remember what I posted, it caught your attention and you emailed me and we had a lengthy exchange about what I was experiencing. To this day, you are the only adult that saw and acknowledged what was happening- without even being here. I was a kid in Canada— it boggled my mind that you saw so clearly what everyone around me couldn’t (wouldn’t) see. It’s 22 years later and I still think about that a lot. Honestly, that exchange we had still helps me to this day.
Reading this post FLOODED me with that memory and feelings of someone out there who doesn’t even fucking know me—cared.
I just wanted to say thanks, because I don’t know if I ever got to properly thank you.
There is a teen in WA working hard to stop the monetization of children on family social media accounts.
If you support their efforts, like, follow or let them know.
You are such an amazing human being and have all my respect and admiration. Great of you to speak up for those who can’t.
It is not about being parent but being correct human being. There is a very famous couple of influencers here in Italy that are putting their child on every shitty IG stories or even their Prime show without caring at all. This is shitty as well.
Oh dang, I made the conscious choice not to force any kind of internet presence on my kid when she was born back in 2001. My decision was primarily for her own safety and privacy, it never even occurred to me back then that she might have been a commodity I could monetize. I have thought about this with other aspects of my life & hobbies, but never with my kid. What goes through a parent’s mind? I mean, I guess, other than a hefty check from YouTube…
Excellent. Have your kid share their hopes and dreams and your only job is to support them. If it changes every Tuesday, that’s fine. Just support them …. that is your job.
As of a very specific disability community, I’ve had a lot of peer pressure to support an elementary school aged girl who is part of the community and is marketed as a young advocate. It set my teeth on edge and I’ve been struggling to figure out why.
She acts maybe a little flirty in her poses, and her tops are sometimes crop top style, but her clothes are basically kid clothes, nothing overtly sexy. But still, somehow, all I could see was “her mom is the one doing all this, she’s just using the child as a prop”. I kept beating myself up for being judgmental.
Reading your post really rings the bell for my intuition’s validity. It IS her mom doing it all. The words aren’t child words. The poses aren’t natural child poses. The clothes aren’t comfortable for a child to play in. Her smile is too plastic. Her eyes too flat and expressionless. She’s a toy dolly. Her parent’s toy dolly.
What once seemed foggy now seems clear. Once seen, can’t unsee.
Thanks for waking me up.
This reminds me a few years ago my Son was about 10 and talked about wanting to do a YouTube channel. My first ask was what do you want it to be about. He never did come up with a good idea. I always wanted to make him decide and be for him. Letting kids be kids today is crucial there is enough pressure they get under without making them work.
The kid heard you, even though his mom didn’t, and hopefully felt seen and taken seriously as being his own person for once. I hope he finds his way free sooner rather than later. You done good.
So thankful that my parents let me be myself.