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Basic Dad: Is It Okay to Facetune Photos of My Kids?

Advice from a child psychologist, a professional photo retoucher and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Just about every time my sister posts a picture of her child online, there’s some sort of overblown filter on it. I don’t mean that she puts Snapchat kitty ears on the kid, I mean that the photos are so severely retouched through filters and makeup apps that you can barely even recognize my niece. There’s nothing “wrong” with the kid either: She’s less than a year old and super cute. And even if there was some sort of big birthmark or something on her face, wouldn’t a parent removing it just make them even more self-conscious about it once they were old enough to realize what was going on?

Being a father of a three-year-old myself, I can’t imagine doing this to my daughter’s pictures, not only because she’s the most beautiful kid ever (which she is) but because I’ve got to imagine that this would have some sort of psychological impact on her. “What, I wasn’t cute enough for you?” I imagine my future defiant teenager would say.

I’ve considered talking to my sister about it, but a) that sounds kind of confrontational; and b) I don’t actually know if there’s anything wrong with what she’s doing, it just kind of seems wrong, and I don’t want my uneducated gut to blunder in without being able to make a strong enough point.

Basically: Should parents really be retouching their kids’ photos?

The Expert Advice

Maura Quint, a mother of two with more than 82,000 Twitter followers: I think that if every other kid in their class is touching up their photos, I understand the desire to help your child feel like they fit in. That said, I absolutely hate the idea of adding more unrealistic expectations into their world. Personally, I struggle with looking in the mirror and not seeing my best picture staring back. I’d hate to give my kids anything else to feel like they needed to physically live up to.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: I work with a young man who has a very big mole on the front of his nose that’s been there since birth. For the longest time, his mother would remove it from his pictures. Finally, once he reached middle school age, he got fed up. He got very serious with his mother and told her, “Every time you do that, it tells me that you can’t stand to look at me the way I am.”

See, if you’re doing things like making children look skinnier, or removing a mole or a birthmark, what you’re telling the child is, “This is what I wish you looked like.” Along with that, the message is, “I don’t accept the way you look,” which is horribly hurtful.

Now, if a kid is older and they want to do this, that’s a different story because it’s coming from the child. So if your teenager wants to alter a yearbook photo, first you might want to find out why by asking, “What is it about this that isn’t acceptable to you?” If it’s because they’re embarrassed about an awkward stage, help them with their embarrassment. Explain that they’re simply in a stage of growth and it’s perfectly normal and try to use your own pictures as an example. If it’s some sort of physical deformity, it’s all about helping that child accept themselves, which will be difficult for them, but incredibly important.

If it’s like senior photos and the child happens to break out shortly before picture day, it’s probably okay to allow some retouching, because cleaning up the photo would be more representative of how they actually look for what is an important event, instead of just reflecting a more temporary and embarrassing moment. By that age, too, they should be able to have a say.

Rick Zwicker, a father of two and a freelance photo editor: As a photo editor myself, I don’t have a problem if people want to apply an Instagram filter or adjust the color tone, contrast or saturation of a picture. These techniques are fine to bring out the best qualities of a picture. But when people start heavily retouching photos by popping out the eyes, smoothing out the skin and making things fuzzy, then the children look more like dolls and they don’t look like kids anymore — all I see is a featureless face with really sharp eyes. I can’t say whether this is right or wrong, but aesthetically speaking, I don’t think it looks good.

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: Studies have shown that social media presence in children’s lives has lead to a more narcissistic viewpoint. Additionally, a child of 13 already obsesses over what to wear because they believe that everyone is looking at them, so they always have to look their best. With social media and the internet, this has grown exponentially, especially with girls.

When it comes to retouching a child’s photographs, if you’re adding teeth to your five-year-old’s pictures or removing a scar from their face, the message you’re sending is, “We have to be perfect.” Or: “You’re not perfect; hence, we have to make you look perfect.” If everybody has to look perfect all the time, we’re not telling our kids that it’s okay to go through awkward or messy phases, because that’s what growing up is all about. Who doesn’t look back at a childhood picture and say, “I can’t believe I looked like that?” But those awkward times build character, and children need to experience them. Rather than telling a kid they need to be perfect, you should be sending the message, “We’ve all been there.”

Another thing is, by adding teeth or removing a scrape or whatever it is, you’re losing that milestone, and losing a sense of how a child has grown over time. You’re losing that history about your child, like the time they had that big cut on their head because they fell out of a tree or when they lost their first tooth, which is some of what we’re trying to document with these pictures in the first place.