When We Talk About Child Stardom, Are We Really Talking About Child Abuse?

As badly as I feel for the children who are trying to become child stars, I feel worse for the ones who actually succeed.
Publish date:
April 25, 2014
childhood star, stardom

I grew up in Los Angeles and before you ask if I was a Hollywood child let me tell you yes, I was the HOLLYWOODIEST child, I was an industry kid in almost every way a kid can be an industry kid. Growing up, my parents were television writers and producers, which meant I went to preschool on the studio lot, hung out on soundstages, and the first word I ever read out loud was the Hollywood sign.

Despite my surroundings, I had a pretty normal childhood. I went to public school, I read lots of library books, I was consistently the last person picked for kickball/dodgeball/whateverball. It was the dorkiest possible version of a normal childhood, but there it was, all the same.

The thing is, I didn’t WANT to have a normal childhood. I wanted to be a CHILD STAR. I would see the kids whose parents let them be child actors on set and I wanted to be them so much in a manner most Talented Mr. Ripley. They didn’t have to go to school all day and be bored in math class and bad at P.E. They had to work with their set tutor a little bit but mostly they got to play pretend and make money for it.

I wanted to be a child actor in the worst way. And my parents never for an instant considered letting me do it. I think this is because they knew I was not a very cute child, certainly not cute enough to book cereal commercials and sitcoms. But I think me not being pinch-those-cheeks-cute enough was only 2% of the reason my parents wouldn’t let me act professionally. The other 98% was, what they told me over and over again “We’re not taking your childhood away from you. We’re not giving you adult responsibilities and obligations as an elementary schooler. We’ve seen how child stardom ruins people as adults. You are our baby, and we love you, and we are not intentionally ruining you.”

At the time I thought my parents were the MEANEST PARENTS in recorded history. I look back on these conversations and I realize not only were they the greatest parents, they were also completely right. We should not turn children into stars. We should not put them in the public eye before their brains are fully formed. We should not be making money off of children by taking their childhoods away. I’m just going to go out on a limb and say it. I think we should seriously consider that child stardom may be a form of child abuse.

I don’t think allowing/forcing your kid be a professional actor or singer or whatever is the same thing as sexual or physical abuse. That’s not my argument. I’m not equating a day on the set for the minors of "Modern Family" with that level of horror and monstrosity. That would be insane. Still, if we’re going to define abuse as “physical, sexual, or emotional maltreatment, or neglect of a child,” as Wikipedia does, I think there are elements of emotional maltreatment and neglect in letting a kid make the attempt to be a child star, and I think there’s maltreatment and neglect in letting that child succeed.

Yes, I think letting a kid try to be a professional actor is just as rough as the kid actually becoming one. It was the documentary "The Hollywood Complex" that turned my brain around on this one. It’s available on Hulu and I can’t recommend highly enough. We follow a group of youngsters who live at Oakwood (an infamous apartment complex that houses aspiring and emerging child stars and their families) during the four months of the year that is television pilot audition season.

Not to spoil the doc too much, but none of the kids featured really achieve their goals in the span of those few months. By the end of pilot season, most of the kids, who have put their lives on hold to take a shot at the dream, are feeling like abject failures.

Which pisses me off. Because they’re not failures. They’re sweet-faced, silly-brained children who would thrive in a normal environment. But because the bar for success has been raised impossibly high, they feel like they’re letting everyone down when they don’t book pilots. They feel like they aren’t talented enough or hardworking enough, when what they really are is not lucky enough. And I can say pretty confidently, from an insider industry kid perspective, that whereas hard work and talent are more admirable qualities, luck (right place, right time, right kind of nose) is the clinching factor in booking gigs.

As badly as I feel for the children who are trying to become child stars, I feel worse for the ones who actually succeed. They are thrust into the public eye and that is a CRAZY place to be. Most adults can’t handle the Gladiator Colosseum of Public Opinion. And they’ve had decades to develop a thick skin and coping mechanisms. A child had not yet developed, like, any skills, beyond toilet training and the ability to issue begrudging and insincere apologies for hitting other children.

It’s not just that they’re being asked to do a job that is difficult for most adults, they’re being asked to live a life that is difficult for most adults. That’s not something we as a society should feel comfortable about doing to children.

The thing about having a regular childhood is it prepares you for regular adulthood. Of course it’s hard for former child stars to live regular adult lives. Small and ordinary lives, as boring as they sound in theory, give children practice, they learn how to exist and be, if not content, then at least functional when life gets small and boring. Which it does.

We are so surprised when child stars grow up and go off the deep end, we think they must have always been, like, a ticking time bomb of crazy. But they didn’t have childhoods that encouraged them to be rational and functional adults. It’s so easy to mock Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Amanda Bynes, but what are we really mocking? Their destructive behavior isn’t an effect without a cause. It comes from years and years of being children who didn’t receive the experience they so desperately needed to become functional members of society. That’s not a joke. That’s a tragedy.

I’m not saying that all child actors/musicians are destined to grow up to be monsters. Some grow up functional. That’s the best outcome of all possible worlds and makes me the happiest. But I do think that letting a child pursue and/or achieve these adult pursuits makes it much, much, much harder for kids to grow up functional and happy. And why would we as a society make things harder on our smallest, most defenseless and most innocent subset?

I get that children exist in real life and we like seeing real life reflected back to us in media. I get that some of our greatest American films feature children front and center, some of the greatest songs in our pop music canon are sung by the under-18-set. I get that children have made an invaluable contribution to capital-A-Art.

It’s difficult to imagine a world of art and culture without children playing a professional part in that world. But I think it’s really worth trying to imagine. I feel ethically icky about condoning child stardom because I want to watch that kind of movie or listen to that kind of song. There are lots of movies I can watch and songs I can listen to. I don’t want my consumption of art to come at the expense of a child.