Parents Draw The Line On Teen Relationships And Social Media

Teen performer Willow Smith's mom says the Instagram photo of her daughter laying in bed with an older shirtless man is no big deal. But some say it's creepy. Tell Me More's parenting panel weighs in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about setting boundaries for teens. This after 13-year-old performer Willow Smith, who, of course, is the daughter of megastars Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, made headlines because of photo of her lying on a bed with an older shirtless male friend. And this photo was posted on Instagram. The picture went viral and so did the debate.

Some fans called the situation inappropriate or even creepy. But her mom, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, says there's nothing wrong with the picture or with what was going on. Still, the story raised a lot of questions about how parents draw the line when it comes to parents, teenagers friends, their relationships and social media. So we wanted to talk about that. And with us are Dani Tucker, fitness instructor and mom of two. Welcome back, Dani.

DANI TUCKER: Hi. Thank you.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner's back with us. She's an author, most recently of "Baby Chase", and a mom of three. Leslie, welcome back.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And Phil Lerman is author of "Dadditude", a memoir about lessons learned by being an older dad. He's also the former executive producer of "America's Most Wanted." That might be some helpful - provide some helpful information here. We'll see. He's a dad of one and a step-dad of one. Welcome to you, Phil, as well.

PHIL LERMAN: Good to see you.

MARTIN: So Jada Pinkett Smith was asked about the photo by paparazzi the after this, as we said, kind of went all over the place and this is how she responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

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.

MARTIN: You are projecting your trash onto it. (Laughing). What do you have to say about that? Leslie, why don't you start.

STEINER: Well, I think, you know, she makes a good point. And I have a lot of respect for her and Will Smith as parents. And it's not the photo that bothers me. The photo in many ways is beautiful. But - come on - the age of the man and the girl in the picture.

MARTIN: And he's 20 years old. He's an actor. His name is Moises Arias. And I think a lot of people who watched, you know, kid television - Nickelodeon, Disney and such - will have seen him.

STEINER: But he's 20 and she's 13. And I tell you, my parenting head would explode if my 15-year-old daughter or my 12-year-old daughter were found in a bed anywhere, anytime with a shirtless 20-year-old man. And if I discovered my 17-year-old son with a girl six years younger, I would be beyond furious.

MARTIN: I have to say they weren't in bed, they were lying. They were sort of - he was sitting and she was stretched out.

STEINER: They were on a bed.

MARTIN: OK. They were on a bed.

STEINER: Yes.

MARTIN: I just want to be clear on that. So you said your head would explode.

STEINER: Yes, and I would be furious at my kids. It has nothing to do with whether they posted the picture on Instagram or not. If I discovered that my kids had done this, I would be - I would be really, really angry with them and disappointed. And I'd have a very serious conversation with them about the perils of being attracted either to a significantly older man or, in the case of my son, to pursuing a significantly younger girl.

I just - and I'm not - I'm no prude. I'm very open with my kids about sexuality. And they're really mature, at ages 17, 15 and 12. But still, it's my job as a parent to offer boundaries and consequences. And in this case, I would definitely do that.

MARTIN: Dani, where are you on this? You have both an older son and a young teen daughter. Your son's out of the house. He's in the Navy. But where are you on this?

TUCKER: Well, it wouldn't be my kids. But on this picture, though - to me, Willow hasn't been 13 ever. She was born 30 years old, the way her parents treat her. That's the way I look at it. Because she's always - her and her brother have always been raised to be, you know, an adult - like adults. To me, the kids have never been kids. So I wasn't surprised by the picture at all.

But I agree with Leslie on some extent, you know, that it's not appropriate. My daughter wouldn't be laying that - laying where she was laying with a 20-year-old man. But at the same time I'm not going to say that, you know, what I saw - it is - I don't have a problem with it. Let's put it that way.

MARTIN: Because - why not? Tell me. You're saying this would not be in your house, but...

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: ...the picture itself - the circumstance itself - why? Because they're actors and actors sometimes do things that, you know, other people don't do, as part of their job? I mean, sometimes are in a state of undress that the rest of us would not be in as part of their job. Is that part of it? Or - what is it?

TUCKER: That's part of it. I mean, also, too, it's just part of the parenting. I mean, we know Will and Jada to be free-willing parents. I mean, those kids have been grown. If you listen to them, they don't talk like your average teens. And what I'm saying is there some open parents - I mean, there are parents who give their kids alcohol to drink before the age - before the legal age. I mean, I just know that there are people who parent their children a lot more - I would say not as conservative as many of us do. How about that?

So with that, I just wasn't in shock. And I'm like, hey, that's how they parent their kids. I mean, if you look at the picture, everybody was comfortable. She was just comfortable, so it wasn't the first time. It definitely wasn't the first time. So, you know, I just think that when we look outside at the families like that, we just have to understand that they're a lot free minded, too, than many of us are.

MARTIN: Phil, where are you on this?

LERMAN: Well, I think that the thing that's important to remember is this is really not about Willow Smith. Will Smith is not sitting there, listening to NPR, waiting to say what we think he should be doing as a father. You know, Jada, I just heard Phil Lerman. He says the photo's inappropriate, so maybe we ought to have a talk with Willow when she gets home.

This is not what it's - it's not about what she did. There are a lot of adults in this story. None of them have told her she did something wrong here. And we have to remember that - that, in her world, nobody said this is inappropriate.

The question is, in my world, is it inappropriate? If I get to the point - if I had gotten to the point when my stepdaughter was 13, where we are parsing the question of whether you are in bed with a 20-year-old man or on a bed with a 20-year-old man, then I have already lost the argument. I've already lost any ability to set the kind of boundaries that you're talking about.

If you want to set boundaries for your kid, a good place to start is - remember the 20-year-old guy who used to hang around after you graduated high school with the 13-year-old girls in middle school? Were they all creepy? No, they weren't all creepy. There's a good chance nothing is going to go wrong if you're lying on a bed with a 20-year-old. My job as a parent is to make sure that I'm not setting the boundaries of - I'm OK as long as there's a good chance nothing goes wrong. I have to set the boundary where there is the best chance of nothing going wrong.

MARTIN: So talk to me about that, because I'm glad you said that. Because, actually, my operating principle around this is the only reason to talk about it is if it has something to do with the rest of us. Because I'm not raising her and I'm not in their house and I have no idea.

And celebrities often have very different lives than - you know, than the rest of us. They sometimes have a lot more supervision than a lot of other kids do because - guess what? - they can pay people to be around if they cannot be, in the way that a lot of us cannot, 24/7 - thing one. And there are a lot more eyes on them, in the way that sometimes is not the case for the rest of us. And then there's - the opposite can be true. There are a lot of exposures that these people have that our kids don't have to a lot of things.

So to me, that's the only reason to talk about it - is - what can we learn from this? Is there something we should be talking about? So start, Phil, if you would, about this whole question of what should be happening? What is it that's raising or pushing your buttons here? Is it that the age gap is just too much for people to be in that intimate a situation in your house?

LERMAN: If you're OK with your kid, at 13 years old, lying around on a bed with a 20-year-old guy, then God bless you and good luck to you. We have so many stories on "America's Most Wanted," thousands of stories of child molesters and pedophiles. Stories that started out with - it seemed like such an innocent relationship.

He was just being friendly with her. He always walks around with his shirt off. I am saying nothing about Moises. I don't know the guy. I'm sure everything was fine - I'm sure everything was fine in that situation. The question is, for my kid - do I want my kid to take that situation and say, this is a place where I feel comfortable? I don't want my kid to feel comfortable in that situation. I want my kid to feel uncomfortable. And I want to teach my kid, as a value, that that's not a situation to put yourself in. Say - we always...

MARTIN: Which - what? Which exactly - what? What exactly would you say to your child about this situation? If this is a teaching moment for you and you say, I know you've heard about this. Here is what I don't like as a dad - tell me exactly what you would want to say to your 13-year-old?

LERMAN: What you have to say to your 13-year-old is that twenty-year-olds don't belong in a bed, on a bed with you and you don't belong in a bed, on a bed with them. If you don't understand what sexuality means and what it means when somebody gets turned on, then you have to have a conversation. Nobody wants to have that conversation with their daughter. No father wants to have a conversation with his daughter - what it means when a guy gets turned on. But if you don't have that conversation with your daughter, she's going to found out in a lot worse way.

MARTIN: Leslie?

STEINER: You know, the way that I would approach my kids - my son and my daughters with this is to talk about what it was like for me to be a 13-year-old teenage girl. And I think one of the most difficult parts, for me, of navigating adolescence was learning how to say no to men who were attracted to me, who I didn't want to have anything to do with.

And I don't think that I'm unusual in that. It's really, really hard. And I don't care if he's 13 or 15 or 20, it's hard to say no. And that's what I would talk to my kids about. About - that it's important to learn how to say no and to set boundaries yourself. And that I'm offering them the wisdom from my life. That's part of what I do as a parent - is to give them advice in tricky situations like this.

MARTIN: Well, what - tell me exactly what you're finding tricky about this and exactly what it is that you would want to raise with your kids? And the reason I'm saying that is that a lot of people don't know what they should be upset about these days. I mean, you have very young girls who are fashion models, for example. Kids who are very, very young who are all dressed up as adults. And people look at that and they think, wow, that's really cool. I mean, I'd kind of like to do that. And stuff like that. So tell me exactly what you would say? Is it the shirtlessness? Is it - I don't want somebody with - who's that much older than you in your room?

STEINER: Well, it's not the shirtlessness. It's that I think that there's a huge difference between a 20-year-old and 13-year-old. And I don't care what the gender is of each. It's just the 20-year-old is almost an adult and they've had a lot of life experience that no 13-year-old - not even somebody like Willow Smith - has had. And that's what I would say to my kids. That it's just - and I would try to stay away from judgmental words like, it's not appropriate. Or, you know, to put any label on. Just that it can be very uncomfortable. You could be inviting sexual attention that is overwhelming for you or for the other person. And that I think I would probably just - my default would be not in my house. If I couldn't articulate...

MARTIN: Oh, that's not judgmental at all.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, no, judgment there. Not in my house. If you're just joining us, it's our parenting panel. We're talking about drawing the lines in teen friendships and relationships. We're speaking with Leslie Morgan Steiner, Phil Lerman and Dani Tucker. Dani, what about you? Have you had any conversations around this at your house? What would you say? Or what do you - do you think it's something that you would want to talk about?

TUCKER: I mean, well, Imani's seen the picture and she's like, no big deal. I mean, you know, I wouldn't do it. You know? And I say to that, I'm grateful, because, you know, at that age where she is - late teenager - I'm proud that the wisdom is there. You understand what I mean? Because it was a judgment call. Because of course I asked her about it. And she's like, Mom, they're just watching TV. I mean, why's everybody making a big deal out of it?

And sometimes it becomes that. I mean, because, like you said, it's not appropriate - OK? - if it's not right. You know, that's what I'm saying. Meaning - me just looking at that picture and not knowing the situation, I would say that's inappropriate. But again, like Imani and I was discussing, I don't know their relationship. This kid - you know what I'm saying? Like I said, looking at the picture, I don't think it was the first time that they have leisured around as friends.

MARTIN: Leisured.

TUCKER: You know? And that his age and her age - I mean, again, he's 20, she's 13, but the way these guys are being raised, it's like they've been 21, you know, the whole time. And that's the life that they live. And I was proud of my daughter for accepting that. She's like, I'm not surprised, Mom. Will and Jada are grown. You know, that's the way - I mean, not Will and Jada, but Willow and the little one.

MARTIN: Jaden.

TUCKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: So let me ask about the social media aspect of it, because that is something that all kids are involved in these days. I mean, that's just a - you know, a fact. So Phil, what about the whole Instagram aspect of it? What - how would you handle that part of it? I mean, kids...

LERMAN: Well, my son...

MARTIN: ...really young kids these days are involved with social media, you know.

LERMAN: My son - when he was little, he wanted a cell phone. And I told him, yeah, when you're 12, you'll get one. Whoever knew that that day would come. He just turned 12. He just got a cell phone. The week before, I downloaded one of those contracts online. And I made him - and it turns out that the week before your kid gets a phone, you can get him to agree to anything. So I got him. I get to look at your Instagram. Oh, yes, of course. I get to know all your passwords. Well, that's only for my own safety.

I mean, he was giving me the whole farm, 'cause he wanted the phone. So we had this agreement. And he knows going in now that I can pick them. And I have a couple times said, OK, let me see. What are you posting? Ok. That looks OK. OK, OK. Let me see your emails - who you're talking to. Oh, isn't that nice. All right. And it's already in his mind that that's how he relates to the world - with his father looking over his shoulder.

MARTIN: How often do you check his account - every week, every couple weeks?

LERMAN: You know, he's only had the phone for a couple of weeks and I think I've checked it twice now. And more importantly, I think since he knows I can check it any time, he's going to go into it not wanting to put stuff up there. But more importantly, for me - we always used to talk about at "America's Most Wanted" - as - about how you had to teach safety as a value. You want your kids to be nice to other people. You didn't sit them down when they're seven and say, be nice of the people. OK. Got that done. Check that off the list.

It's something you do every week. You go to church every Sunday. You go to the synagogue every Saturday. Every time you see someone being a jerk, you say, don't be a jerk like that guy and don't use the word jerk. And so it's an ongoing process. And the same thing with safety. Safety's an ongoing process. You teach it as a value. And a photo like this - who knows what was going on with these kids? Whether it's fine or not. A photo like this gives you a chance to, once again, have that conversation with your kid about what's appropriate in your house for them to post.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you?

STEINER: And I think it's much harder to talk to kids about sexuality, even than safety or appropriate use of technology. And what I would try to say to my kids is that somebody - when you're 13, somebody who is six years older has a huge advantage over you in every way - psychologically, in terms of their life experience. And that if they are interested in you sexually, it's not for a good reason. And that you should never be in a relationship with somebody who has so much more power over you.

And that harkens back to my own experience with domestic violence and the fact that my first marriage was a violent one. And I talk to my kids about that all the time, even though that's another uncomfortable subject. And so I'm with Phil on this - that this is a conversation that you have to have your kids over and over again. And, you know, this isn't about Willow Smith. It is about our own kids. And it's a great excuse to talk to our kids about the issues involved in being in a bed, on a bed with somebody of a significantly different age to you.

MARTIN: Dani, can ask you, since I think you have the older son here, who's - he's a grown man now.

TUCKER: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what about conversations that you might have had with him about this?

TUCKER: Oh, it's real simple. You know, bring them home too young and I'll break your neck. You know.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: We don't - you know, there's no need to sit down or have the... (Laughing).

MARTIN: The talk.

TUCKER: We don't have that long conversation. It's just, you know, don't do it. Period. End of discussion or you die. Real simple.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

TUCKER: You know. But I'm not worried about that with him. Because one thing, too - I agree with my fellow parents that if you have an open dialogue with your kids, this won't be new. You know what I mean? I mean, this is not - if this - if seeing this picture is the first time that you had the conversation, then you need to work on that.

You know, in other words, we have always had an open dialogue. And they know what is appropriate and what's not. You know, if she's younger than you, you shouldn't be there. Because she's not mentally ready to handle you. You're not mentally ready to handle her. So this is conversations we have had. But fortunately for me, their boyfriends - they both have, you know...

MARTIN: Significant others.

TUCKER: ...They're both in relationships, I should say.

MARTIN: Yes.

TUCKER: Yeah. I don't know what to call them no more. (Laughing) They both have boyfriends and girlfriends. Let's say that. And I love them both. Because one thing about it, too - if you start this dialogue with your kids younger and you develop your kids, especially mentally, they will attract like-minded people. And I am happy to say that my kids have attracted like-minded people who are on the same page that they are, as well as the parents. You know, I have a great relationship with the parents, as well. So I really don't worry about them going there. But the too young thing, especially Devon, who will be 21 - oh, my God - next month...

MARTIN: OK.

TUCKER: Oh my goodness. Because I know I've raise a God-fearing, respectful young man.

MARTIN: All right.

TUCKER: I know that.

MARTIN: All right. Well, at least you - you know what we say - trust, but verify.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right. That was Dani Tucker. She's a fitness instructor and mom of two. We reached her at her office here in Washington, D.C. And in our studios here the with me, Phil Lerman, the author of "Dadditude", a dad of one, a step-dad of one, Leslie Morgan Steiner, author, mom of three and regular contributor to our parenting roundtables. Thank you all so much for joining us.

STEINER: Thank you so much.

LERMAN: Thanks.

TUCKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You're also listening to Willow Smith now. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

PINKETT SMITH: I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth...

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