Richard Heene was more than the alleged perpetuator of a hoax when he paraded his son Falcon on television after claiming the boy had floated off in a helium balloon. By pushing his child into the national spotlight to benefit himself, the former reality television contestant became the latest in a long line of “stage parents” so prevalent in the media lately.
The resulting “performance” by Falcon couldn’t have gone more wrong. The 6-year-old apparently gave away his dad’s scheme on “Larry King Live” by insinuating the family arranged the crisis “for a show.” Falcon also threw up while being interviewed on the TODAY show. After that, both Heene parents came under fire when it was discovered that dad had orchestrated a profane rap video featuring all three of his kids.
Much has been made over the years of parents such as Joe Jackson and Dina Lohan, who seem to treat their offspring more like cash cows than people. But reality shows have made the machinations of such parents more obvious. Years ago, children with showbiz inclinations might be pushed too hard by eager parents, but in the reality show realm, children might not want to be in front of cameras at all, said Dr. Jenn Berman, a Beverly Hills psychologist who specializes in parent-child issues.
“It’s one thing to have a child who has an innate talent and to try to help that talent blossom, but it’s a whole other thing to use your child to try to make your family famous,” Berman said. “I think that a parent who would use their child to try to get fame and attention is a very disturbed parent.”
The exploitation of children on reality shows has also come under fire since Nadya Suleman, labeled the “Octomom” in the tabloid press, decided to put her children on a reality show in July. The televised implosion of Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage also threw into question what effect that would have on their children, who spent the last several years before the cameras as part of the show “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”
“It’s the human equivalent of (the animal documentary show) ‘Meerkat Manor,’” said Paul Petersen, a former child actor who provides support to former child stars through his non-profit organization A Minor Consideration. “And it’s terribly sad, because you see within the reality show community these people so pumped up on their self-importance.
“There is a sociopathic trend in the business” when it comes to the treatment of children, Petersen said. “They’re not really people — they’re objects.”
But long before reality TV, stage parents were a problem within the entertainment industry. Petersen thinks only a small percentage of parents with children in the entertainment field qualify as stage parents, but those who court the spotlight seem more like the norm than the exception.
“They’re in-your-face parents,” Petersen said. “Yet 95 percent of parents (with children in show business) are just like the general population — they kind of fumble their way through the correct decisions and they do what is right for their kids. Those are the parents who do not rely on the child’s income and who have no emotional investment in childhood success.”
Good vs. bad parents
Stage parents, Berman believes, are people who want to stay “overinvolved in their child’s life” and “often times lose their own identity in their child’s identity and success,” which, she thinks can have a lot of long term negative effects on the kids.
Those negative effects aren’t necessarily caused by specific incidents, like Heene putting his child into the national spotlight. But problems can develop when inept parenting becomes a pattern in a child’s life, notes Berman, who addresses this issue in her book, “The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids.”
“The bigger picture is when a parent does something like this it shows a lack of sensitivity to their children and a lack of understanding of child development,” Berman said. “Generally, with the exception of blatant abuse, children tend to be harmed more by ongoing parenting choices than one specific incident.”
That harm can manifest itself in the form of depression, resentment and anxiety. “When a child is being depended on to create a sense of success and self-esteem for a parent, it is way too much pressure,” Berman said. “And it can lead to all kinds of things like alcoholism, substance abuse and eating disorders.”
Berman also cites Teri Shields, the mother of Brooke Shields, as a classic stage mother, as well as the aforementioned Dina Lohan.
“(Lohan) is someone who appears to be overly involved in her child’s career and was so busy trying to create a brand that she overlooked her child’s well being,” Berman said.
Who are the good parents of young entertainers? Petersen cites “the ones you never hear about.” He singles out Ron Howard’s mother and father as good examples, since they insisted their son attend college and kept a home away from Hollywood (perhaps because both Jean and Rance Howard were actors themselves and knew the pitfalls of stardom).
The better parents of child actors, Petersen believes, encourage their children to break away from the industry at 18 and attend college. He cites “Harry Potter” star Emma Watson’s decision to attend Brown University as a good one.
“If Billy Ray Cyrus would listen to me, that’s exactly what I’d be telling him about Miley,” Petersen said. “The smartest thing a successful young performer can do the minute they get their high school education finished is get out of town. It’s a biological imperative — we’re supposed to leave the nest.”
Some stage parents are born to the task, and push their kids to do professional work whether or not those kids have an interest, according to Judy Savage, a veteran agent who represents child actors and was herself a parent of child actors.
“You can almost tell if the child has that passion to do this, from the time they’re 3 or 4 years old,” Savage said. “When I get a child that comes in to interview for me, I ask the child, ‘What is your very favorite thing to do?’ If they tell me it’s playing baseball, then I tell them to go play baseball.”
Yet other parents turn into “monsters” when they begin dealing with the high stakes entertainment industry. “Some parents are great at first but as soon as those kids start to make some money the parents turn into a nightmare,” Savage said.
That’s an experience familiar to longtime acting coach Diane Hardin. Hardin’s famous former students include Leonardo DiCaprio and Kellie Martin. She’s also the parent of actress Melora Hardin from TV’s “The Office.”
“Sometimes what happens is the child was the one that wants to do it, and then the parent gets addicted to the business of show business because of the highs and lows,” Hardin said. “It’s almost like going to Las Vegas and pulling a flush.”
“It’s just too easy to get caught up in your child’s career especially if you’re someone who opts to give up your job so that you can take your kid to auditions, which many parents have to do,” Berman said.
How did Hardin herself avoid the pitfalls of stage parenting? She said she made sure Melora always knew “our love and respect and admiration for her had nothing to do with whether she worked or not. Had she ever not wanted to do it, we would have gladly told her to stop.”
Former child actor Robbie Rist, who played cousin Oliver on “The Brady Bunch,” has seen stage parents outside the entertainment industry as well.
“Stage parents are in sports. They’re in debate clubs,” Rist said. “I will include (some parents of) teen chess champions and anyone who is young and at the top of whatever it is they do in that category.”
Rist, who said his own parents would not be classified as stage parents, believes these parents are simply using their children to make up for their own shortcomings. “It’s sort of like, ‘I wasn’t picked to do ‘Our Town’ in junior high, so I’ll show them,’” he said.
As for the consequences of all this on “balloon boy,” well, that’s up in the air, Berman believes. “I think we’re not going to know the repercussions for many years to come,” he said. “It’s all just a really sad situation.”