Children Are Not Props

By Brenda Yoder, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Speaker's Bureau Member

I came across a beautiful photo on my Instagram feed. It was lovely. Everything was propped and proportioned so meticulously. It had shoes and travel accessories laid out on a surface with a beautiful baby—about one year old, with a flat look on her face—lying on her back in a suitcase. 

The symmetry and colors in the photo were stunning. The caption was great. 

But it broke my heart. Actually, the beautiful baby girl propped in the suitcase broke my heart. Because that’s what she ​wa​s in the​ photo, alongside the shoes and sunglasses and perfect lines: a prop.

Instagram moms prop-staging their young children continues to break my heart. This is why.

First, I’m a mom. So I’m breaking the mom-code of talking about how another mom is doing something. It’s not about shaming—it’s about thinking about things you don’t think are a big deal in the moment but really are in the big scheme of your child, what you’re teaching, and the culture in which they live.

I’m also an older mom, a mom of teen boys and a daughter. This places me a few stages ahead of baby-bearing moms. I’m raising teens in this Insta-culture.

I’m also a therapist, school counselor, teacher, and a child advocate. So please hear me.

Your beautiful baby is not a prop. And when you use your baby as a prop for the aesthetic and viewing pleasure of others, it teaches me, her, and others many things.​

It teaches those of us viewing her that children and other vulnerable humans posed for the viewing pleasure of others have no voice or choice in what’s happening to them or how they use their bodies​.

It feeds a human problem growing exponentially where children or vulnerable people don’t have a voice or a choice in how they are​ used at the positioning of others in power over them.

It reinforces objectification—when you take a human and treat them like an object. And it’s epidemic in our culture, and it’s harmful. Completely harmful to her, to us viewing her, and to all of us who flip the page or flip our screen to view her as another image that crosses our visual path.

It desensitized each of us—parents, social media consumers, creatives in the visual world—and teaches us that kids are fair game for objectification for our next post we hope will get lots of likes and perhaps go viral.

It desensitized us to the nonhumanity of children, which feeds into the real problem: children being used for sexual staging, pornography, and sex trafficking. This problem is growing exponentially because of social media. That’s why objectification of children, even with fun, wholesome intentions, is never okay.

You’re a good mom, I know. You have no intentions of putting your baby or social media platform into the same camp as those involved in the sexual exploitation of children.

But as your beautiful baby girl grows, you’ll be challenged with the question of at what age do you stop propping her and objectifying her? I saw one mom-post with a cute caption in the last week with a preschool child propped on a bed in his underwear, doing whatever his mom told him to do for the photo.

Have you thought about what it teaches a child who’s old enough to take in what’s going on around him? How is he or she supposed to know it’s wrong when someone they love or trust tells them to pose a certain way so they can take a photo? Because children trust adults, and trust is the number one way predators groom children. They are not the creepy guy or girl down at the corner.

They are someone you know.

And they may be watching your Insta-feed, because they do things like that. And they are smart. They may watch your child grow up on your online art gallery of fun poses, know a lot about them, and reach out to them. And your child, who’s comfortable with the Instagram/social media/posing life, will feel too comfortable about things they should not feel comfortable about.

Like posing on the bed in his underwear while someone takes a picture.

You’re the first generation of moms and dads whose babies, toddlers, and preschoolers have the opportunity to be Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter-posed rock stars, making you a platform sensation.

I beg of you, please stop.

Please stop propping. Please stop objectifying. If you want to share your beautiful family with us, your Instagram followers, or if you want to highlight them for your baby products or mom-blog, make them real to us.

Make them precious to us.

Make them evoke a feeling that tells me they’re human and are to be honored and valued. That feeling that makes me want to protect their precious curls, smiles, or chubby cheeks. That’s what you and I should feel about anyone’s child, whether they are mine or yours—that I will protect them if needed.

So please forgive me if I’ve offended you. I’m writing because I want to protect your beautiful little girl, the hip little boy posed in his underwear with the iPad, and the baby on a plate with chopsticks who have evoked feelings of protection, empathy, and heartache in me.

Because I’m tired of seeing authentic childhood, innocence, and compassion robbed from kids I work with. I’m tired of seeing moms and women fight for the nonobjectification of their daughters. I’m tired of my sons being bombarded with images telling them women are just objects.

And I’m tired of learning more and more about the men and women who increasingly use their children for child exploitation, pornography, and trafficking through social media, and the people who consume it.

We are humans. Your baby is precious, and she’ll grow up with what she learns around her.

You’re setting the standard for your generation and for your children who are completely immersed in visual culture.

It’s up to you.

Brenda Yoder is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, school counselor, teacher, speaker, author, and a member of Dove's Nest's Speaker's Bureau. She often provides trainings on abuse prevention, trauma, boundaries, parenting, and mental health issues. Brenda's newest books include Balance, Busyness, and Not Doing It All and Who Do You Say I Am?, a resource for teen girls. She also has a mental health column in her local paper, is a parenting columnist for several online magazines, and is a regular contributor to the Purpose devotional magazine. Her platform as a writer and speaker is Life Beyond the Picket Fence: life, faith, and parenting beyond the storybook image.