Life Lessons from a “Stage Mom”

Picture of Jonna Jerome

Jonna Jerome

When a friend suggested I get my toddler into acting and commercials, I never dreamed we would still be at it years later. Bullies and hormones made school challenging for my reserved son, but acting provided an outlet for him and bolstered his confidence. I continue to support the endeavor, even though I spend a heck of lot of time driving him around.

I’m sure some people think I’m a “stage mom,” exploiting my kid and robbing him of his childhood. My son was just having fun, and I felt I had a handle on it. That is until I was schooled by a fateful experience with a pop star who once wore rodent ears for a living.

My son was called to audition for an anonymous star’s music video. It had been a long dry spell, so when the call came that he got the job, he was ecstatic. However, it wasn’t until we were ushered through security the day of the shoot that I learned who the video was actually for. Uh Oh.

I asked to see scene breakdowns or a storyboard, to no avail. I had two choices: Decline and take my son home, or stay and monitor the situation as best I could. Usually a backup child is available when working with young actors. Nope. My son was the only minor on set. I knew if we left, he would likely be released from his agency and risk not being hired again. I took a few moments to talk to him about my feelings regarding the artist’s “body of work,” and whether he still wanted to do the video. He tried hard not to look amused, but he’s not that good an actor. “Don’t worry mom. It’ll be fine.” I had to allow him this moment. He’d earned it.

As the day wore on…and on, I realized he was in no imminent danger of being scarred for life. His segment was shot separately, and his focal point was on a guy in a red t-shirt. There was no interaction with the starlet. It was an impressive set, complete with the director perched atop a huge crane yelling “Action!” We enjoyed catered food, a private tutor, and he even learned to juggle between takes. We left that night not much wealthier monetarily, but richer for having had a positive experience – or so I thought. Then the video came out.

It was a mother’s worst nightmare, and it was all over YouTube! What appears to millions of people is that my then twelve year old son is being flashed by said pop star. My inner stage mom burst into tears and I called my husband. He struggled to put a positive spin on it. “Well, when we show this clip at his wedding someday, we’ll all have a good laugh.” I hung up on him and called the agency.

Their response to my distress was, “It will make him the coolest kid in middle school.” That so irritated me because it was true. My son’s street cred soared, but mine suffered serious damage. I had many painful conversations with curious parents explaining what had actually transpired and how it all came about. Ironically, their kids watching the video saw far more than we did on set. But once it’s out there, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

Ultimately, I managed to use the situation to broach otherwise seriously awkward topics with my son. I was able to check in with him about what he was watching when he thought I wasn’t watching, the music he was listening to, and puberty related issues.

While this train wreck somehow turned out to be a win, I knew I had to make some changes. This time I knew how to navigate. We signed with a new agency, one that understood my concerns and confirmed we would never be asked to commit to an audition (or job) prior to having a script, storyboard, or compensation information. True to their word, they sent over a scene for my son in a major studio film with a warning it contained some pretty raw language. I read the entire script, and decided to ask my son how he felt about swearing in a feature film. I must have done something right, because he said he was not comfortable with it. While the agency likely wasn’t as elated as I was, they took the news with good grace.

Many in the business of entertainment, from the casting office to the parking attendants, seem to tolerate parents of child actors, but fear we might burst into flames at any moment. There’s outliers in any business, as well as congenial or difficult parents. Lumping them all together isn’t fair. Prior to having firsthand experience, I believed “stage mom” meant pushing your children and their handlers to succeed at any cost. But there’s also those of us who just want to be involved parents, and ensure people don’t put our children in situations they are not ready for. I liken it to the equally unflattering term “helicopter parent.” If looking out for your children and trying to help them reach their dreams with some innocence still intact means I’m one of those moms, so be it. I’m not planning to burst into flames over something insignificant, but once in a while you have to…parent. Even if it makes you wildly unpopular.

While I have been drawing life lessons from our experience in the acting arena, this issue applies to any competitive endeavor children seriously pursue. Situations that challenge their integrity as well as ours can happen whether it’s on a movie set, playing field, or recital stage. The lure of popularity, let alone fame, is a powerful thing. It can make children and adults alike behave in ways that go against who they really are.

As COVID restrictions ease and we enter into our “next-normal,” our kids will be dipping their toes back into more activities. As involved parents, we can help make decisions with our kids, not just for them, with regard to safety and personal boundaries. Until they’re mature enough to forge their own way, teens still need our guidance, stability, and reason. Agents, coaches, trainers, and teachers are all essential, but ultimately they are doing their jobs. We are raising our children.

I still cringe when I view the infamous video. I wonder if this former tween star, regardless of her monetary success, feels content with the choices made during her early career – and those that guided them. When the time comes, I hope she can explain some of these choices to her own kids with confidence – in addition to how to exit a vehicle with your dignity intact when surrounded by the paparazzi.

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