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The Explainer

Why do child stars turn out bad?

Being a child actor in Hollywood can have a negative effect on kids' lives, but parental support can go a long way towards avoiding a downward spiral.
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Patrick Pentland, August 28, 2013 2:47:19 PM

“Why do child stars turn out bad?”

I had been discussing Neil Patrick Harris, and how he had been a kid when he first hit it big on Doogie Howser, M.D.. Now, some 23 years later, he was in my living room most evenings as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. He seemed to have done all right, not falling into the clichéd pit of drugs, booze, and craziness that so many child stars seem destined to do. Of course my kids overheard me, and wanted to know why child stars end up going bad.

Neil Patrick Harris represents a seeming minority of kids who enjoyed success in Hollywood at a young age, and didn’t melt down in the process. And the fact that he’s still successful as an adult in Hollywood is all the more impressive.

My children are old enough (6 and 9) that they understand that kids on TV and in movies are actors, and they make good money doing what they do. While they haven’t directly expressed an interest in acting per se, they have expressed an interest in having lots of money. So, at some point, they might put it all together, and want the fame so they can have the fortune. But now I was saying that child stars often don’t end up in a good place, and this was confusing to them because they didn’t see why kids would have any big, adult problems in the first place. Kids are kids, right?

And that is the sad thing when talking about fallen child stars: they were kids, and they some how succumbed to adult problems.

I’m not saying that for every NPH or Jodie Foster there are six Lindsay Lohans. In fact, I think the media exaggerates the number of child stars who have fallen by the way-side. Most child actors don’t make the transition into adult roles because of many reasons, not just addiction and mental health problems. They get older, their bodies change, their looks change, and their interests change. They go to school, they get degrees, and they move into different fields. Fred Savage from The Wonder Years, for instance, went from acting as a child, to producing as an adult.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of sad stories when it comes to former child stars, sometimes with tragic endings. All too often it seems that these stories could have ended up happier if the children in question had a better support system behind them, from management to parents. In fact, as a parent, I’m not sure I even understand the motivation behind allowing your children to be injected into the Hollywood star system, besides financial gain.

My point is that, as with everything in a child’s life, they require guidance and care, and Hollywood is a place that has thrived on the opposite. Everyone backs a winner, until they aren’t winning any more. And if you are the type who needs a lot of attention (actors), when you don’t get it any more, when it is taken and given to someone else, you act out (no pun intended). That’s where the slippery slope gets steeper for some, and TMZ are there to film it all. If you don’t have a support net to catch you, you become the cliché, and if there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s clichés.

“Not all child stars turn out bad, but some do,” I said.

“How? Why?”

“Well, they have a lot of pressure put on them, a lot of responsibility that most kids don’t usually have. Sometimes that can be hard on them, and they find ways to cope, often bad ways.” I didn’t want to get into the whole drugs thing, but I knew it was coming.

“Like what?”

“Oh, you know, the whole drugs thing.” I winced.

“You mean they start doing drugs when they’re kids?”

“Yes, sometimes, and drugs never lead any where good in the end. Or they may not have capable or caring parents, and so they have no one to turn to for help if they start to not be as successful any more.” My kids are lucky in that they have many people in their lives who love them, and are shown that love every day.

“So if I wanted to be a star,” my son began, “I might start doing drugs?”

“No, I don’t think you would. You have a lot of people who love you, and would help you if you were having problems. Do you want to be a star?” I asked, thinking: please say “no,” please say “no.”

“No.”

“Why not???” Now I was concerned that he didn’t want to do the very thing I was basically warning him against doing.

“Too much work. Plus you have to read and remember lines, and that’s soooo booooring.”

It was safe to say that I had eliminated another wrong turn in my child’s life simply by letting him come to his own conclusion. It reminded me of a nugget of advice to a child from one of TV’s more famous fathers, Homer Simpson: “Never try.” In this instance, I was happy enough with that.

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Patrick Pentland

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