Justin Bieber’s latest exploits — drinking and drag racing in a Lambourghini (with his father, no less), egging his neighbor’s house, and a long-rumored drug problem — have made news all over the world. Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears before that…the list of young celebrities behaving badly goes on and on. Added to that, reality television and social media make today’s celebrities more omnipresent than ever before. Children and teens often assume that celebrities are people to look up to and emulate, and our society’s obsession with celebrity leads to confusion about the distinction between being a star and being a true hero.
Talent and performance can make a star, but true heroism is based on strong character and heroic acts. Teens and young adults are highly impressionable to the lifestyle and choices of today’s celebs. Children especially are impacted when a pop idol and role model, such as Miley Cyrus, decides to undergo a public personality transformation from squeaky clean Disney ingénue to enacting a strip club vamp in her latest performances.
Kids hold celebrities to an untouchable standard and react to it when celebs demonstrate bad behaviors. Even more disturbing, many teens and tweens celebrate (and try to emulate) their idols’ destructive behaviors. When a young celebrity falls, it’s an opportunity for families to talk about values and character.
Here are some tips for parents when discussing fallen celebrities with children:
1. Consider a child’s developmental age. Children younger than age 10 generally lack the abstract thinking ability to process how a famous celebrity could be both great and popular and yet involved in an heinous activity. You can tell your child that this is an opportunity for their “hero” to learn from their mistakes, and to remember they are humans, too. Try not to focus on the tabloid fodder and negativity.
2. Avoid editorializing. In general, even if your child is older, try not to share your opinion on the details of the matter until after you’ve heard what your child has to say. You’ll gain information regarding your child’s perspective if you listen to him or her and try to stay neutral while helping them process.
3. Use the celebrity and their recent negativity or negative behavior as an example of what a hero is not. Present the celeb as someone who was idolized based solely on talents, and not his or her behavior and character.
4. Define a hero as one who performs heroic acts. This is an opportunity to help your children understand what a true hero is. Provide examples of your own heroes and describe the qualities of those you consider heroic. Examples— like a family you know that helped another family in need or the first responders who saved lives at last year’s Boston Marathon—bring heroes up close and make them real.
5. Monitor your children’s celebrity idol worship. Children who are over-focused on celebrities are at greater risk for copying negative behavior. Reality television is a magnet for this kind of negative idol worship. Parents often use celebrity-focused reality TV as a way to bond with their children. It’s important to be aware that this can backfire, as your kids are significantly more impressionable then adults. Even though reality TV is targeted towards the entire family, the content and context is often more adult-oriented than child-geared.
6. Explain that people have different personas. If your kids are old enough to watch reality TV, then they need to be old enough to understand the contrast between the celebrities’ public persona vs. their true character. Parents can use this topic as a forum for discussing how sometimes people act different ways in different settings.
7. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce the concept of moral character. Teach your kids about empathy and compassion. Explore your children’s capacity for empathy and find ways to build empathy, such as volunteering to help those in need or instituting an “acts of kindness” initiative at home.
8. What makes a role model. Point out that kids who excel in any talent — sports, drama, music, academics — are often seen as role models. If your children are star performers for their age level, instill in them a sense of responsibility. Ask them for specific examples of what the celebrities that they idolize are doing for society and how they are behaving as role models. Remind them that they, too, might be seen as role models for younger children and they need to be aware of the importance of modeling good behavior.
9. Help them to understand that being a good person is more important than performing well. How celebs act off camera is as important or more important than how they perform in their superstar role. Sometimes fans glorify superstars without knowing much about their character. The desire to identify with their glory and fame contributes to people’s willingness to overlook bad behavior.
10. Don’t make excuses for the bad behavior of a star performer. The fact that someone is a superstar doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for him or her to violate the rights of others in order to gain attention or make a sale. Explain to your children that top-performing celebrities are responsible for their actions, just like everybody else.
11. The higher the pedestal, the greater the disappointment. Discuss with your kids how idolizing someone can lead to extreme reactions if the person they idolize ends up disappointing them. If you have an example of a fallen idol from your own experience, share that with them. The message here is to learn to view people realistically and avoid seeing them as better than they are. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking a great performer is great in every respect. Help your kids to see that no one can actually live up to such idealization and oversimplification.
Even though society expects celebs to act like heroes — to demonstrate responsibility and see themselves as role models for the fans who look up to them — in reality, that’s not often the case. While adults are able to separate celebrity character from their talents, children are likely highly confused and even suggestible when it comes to understanding the behavior of fallen celebrities. That’s why it’s our job as parents to have these conversations with our kids and help them understand that the glamorous persona they see on TV isn’t who that celebrity really is in real life.
About Dr. Kate Roberts
Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a Boston-area licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist who has coached parents and families for more than 25 years. She offers parents practical strategies in her bi-weekly parenting column; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News and in her Savvy Parenting blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Roberts has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout New England and works with parents and children through Massachusetts General Hospital. You can check out Dr. Kate's website at www.drkateroberts.com and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.