I got a chance to watch a portion of VH1's "Top 100 Child Stars" last night, and let me tell you it was interesting. Not only did I get a chance to see former child stars all grown up, but there was a recurring theme in most of their stories. Seems that when a child star gets big, many parents use that as a vehicle for their own egos and their own wealth. And, unfortunately, there's not a lot a child star can do.
Take Gary Coleman, for example. At one time, he was the highest paid child actor in history. However, his parents and other adults took sizable chunks out of the money Gary was making. By the time Gary found out and tried to take legal action, it was too late, and he had to sue to get even a fraction of the money back that his parents stole from him. Now, his parents and the adults in his life are rich...and Gary's reduced to working as a security guard and making occasional appearances on reality TV shows.
Another common thread connecting the lives of former child stars is drug and alcohol abuse. Todd Bridges, the late Dana Plato, Drew Barrymore, Tatum O'Neill, Adam Rich, and many others experienced the highs of being a child star, which lead to the highs of the more illicit kind, often at an early age. And, of course, the parents never see it coming. Maybe it's because they're too busy soaking up the limelight (and whatever booze and drugs are available at the parties their kids are invited to) to notice.
Fortunately, some child stars don't fall victim to the trappings of excess and manage to do quite well once the limelight is off of them. Others manage to continue on in their chosen craft, while others put it aside, either temporarily or permanently, to make something of themselves other than being known as a former child star. Take Kirk Cameron, for example. He was one of the hottest teen stars in the late 80s and early 90s. He had girls screaming for him, money in the bank, and more than a little sway in determining his future. Yet, he turned his life over to God when he was 17 while he was still on "Growing Pains." After the show went off the air, Kirk started his own ministry and has spent his adult life trying to enrich the lives of others. Not too shabby for a guy whose character hung out with a guy named "Boner" huh?
One has to wonder where the parents of child stars go wrong. I've often said it's because the parents are trying to fill a void in their own lives by living vicariously through their children. Even the parents of local celebrities, like child sports stars or child beauty pagent contestants, fall victim to envy or greed. The soccer moms and baseball dads who take their childrens' performances on the field a little too seriously are only variations on a theme.
Fortunately, though, I think parents are getting smarter when one of their children becomes famous. They do their best to separate the business side of their childrens' lives with the family side. Some make incredible sacrifices without looking to score anything more than an "I love you" from the child. Keisha Knight-Pulliam, formerly of "The Cosby Show," understood that and insisted on going to school and to college after the show went off the air because she felt she needed something to fall back on. A credit to her and her parents for being smart on that one. And more and more parents are moving in that same direction to ensure their child stars don't wind up like so many others.
Show business can be a surreal and crushing business if you're an adult. Now, imagine being a child and having to deal with all of those pressures long before you have an intellectual and maturity level capable of dealing with them. Then, throw in tagalongs and parents who may or may not have the child's best interests in mind, and what you have is a formula for disaster. If you're one of those parents who push their children to do a lot, ask yourself why. Is it because they want to do it, or is it because you want to do it. And be honest with yourself. Otherwise, you could just be setting up your child to fail.