CHICAGO — In the late 1970s and ’80s, Melissa Francis was all over TV. She appeared in almost 100 commercials and spent two years in the cast of “Little House on the Prairie.”
But Francis, now an anchor on the Fox Business Network, didn’t reach those heights by herself. Her mother was right behind her, pushing. And pushing hard.
Francis, now 40, has detailed her mother’s relentless driving in an excellent memoir, “Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter” (Weinstein Books). And although her mother ultimately destroyed their family (the two have been estranged for several years), Francis looks back with mixed feelings.
“I have great memories, wonderful things she did, and other things that were very difficult,” she says. “It was very difficult as a child to untangle the positive from the abusive.”
That same stage-mother or, more accurately, stage-parent mentality can be seen at dance recitals, school plays or children’s concerts everywhere, and is not confined to the highest echelons of the entertainment and arts worlds.
Todd Denning has seen it. He’s an actor and director and an instructor in Marquette University’s performing arts department. Before Marquette, he worked in children’s theater, where he says he encountered several parents who got carried away.
“I think a level of involvement is required, and a level of support is required,” Denning says. “There can be cases of being too involved. … Parents wanting to push kids, and the kids aren’t as interested. It’s more the parents’ desire than the child’s. Parents rehearsing lines and attending performances, that’s fabulous. But it goes to extremes sometimes.”
What prompts a parent to have this all-consuming drive?
Liliana Lengua is director of the University of Washington Center for Child and Family Well-Being, an interdisciplinary research center in Seattle. She says she doesn’t know of any research (focused on) the stage parent and speculates there are different factors for different people.
“There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and energy around these activities,” Lengua says. “Parents may think they’re highlighting the wonderful talents of their children. And there may be a reflective glow: If my child is well-liked, I may be doing something right. It’s pretty complicated. I doubt there’s only one factor.”
Another factor, she adds, may be that the parent sees the time involved as proof of commitment or devotion to the child. Francis understands that point of view.
“I think in acting it’s almost impossible (to succeed) without a stage parent. It’s not like sports, where kids go after school. It’s an all-day thing. They have to take the kid out of school, sit on the set all day and get no pay. It’s a peculiar role; they’re in this supporting position that they don’t get paid for or get credit for.”
One thing for certain about this sort of behavior: It can be detrimental not only to the child but to siblings as well. In Francis’ case, her older sister, Tiffany, who was also seen in numerous commercials, ended up neglected and rejected by their mother as Francis’ career flourished. (Her sister suffered from a string of emotional and physical problems and died in 2002.) Francis, meanwhile, eventually rejected her mother’s methods and rebelled. She quit acting, wound up going to Harvard against her mother’s wishes and got a degree in economics.
A domineering parent can also be detrimental to the artistic endeavor by bringing negative energy to rehearsals and performances, Denning says.
“In a perfect world, we’re all working and focusing and thinking so the show will be as good as it can,” he said. “Certainly, any (negative) energy that is brought in affects things backstage, and it can lead to (problems). It’s certainly not received well (by) other children.”
What can be done about a stage parent?
Ann C. Stadtler is director of site development and training at Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston, which works to promote the health and well-being of infants and young children. She suggests approaching the person on a nonconfrontational, parent-to-parent basis.
“If we see a stage parent being very harsh on a 5-year-old and transferring all that pressure on a 5-year-old to be the top ballerina, how do we come alongside that parent and give them support?” she asks. “I might say to them something about what I see in the child. … I might make a comment, (such as), ‘I see how hard the child is working.’ They may say she doesn’t work hard enough, or she really works too hard and she doesn’t have any friends. Then I have a window in. We want that window in, rather than criticize the parent. If we give them the message, ‘I think you’re trying to do the best for your child,’ we can get a window in.”
And through that window, a parent might be able to reason with the stage parent, who often doesn’t realize how overbearing he or she is.
And while a parent may seem overbearing to some, there’s a delicate line between helpful and harmful behavior, Francis says, particularly for a kid. “There were many times where we were a happy, winning pair,” she says. “I was a very successful actor, and a lot of that was attributable to her.”
Denning says a parent should be supportive and participate in the arts with their children. Parents need to identify and correct problems that may develop. But they also need to keep their child in focus and always be aware of a need for change, Lengua says.
“Look for signs. If a child tells you … they don’t want to do it, ride that wave, but if a child is well past getting anything out of it, it may be time,” Lengua says. “Parents can make the call too. If they think the child is more adversely affected — stress, a lack of self-esteem — a parent can evaluate whether to stop the activity on their own.”
Francis, who has two young sons, believes it goes back to the parents. She says they need to get a grip, to determine what’s important by employing a guiding set of values.
“Success is not what society deems as valuable,” she says. “It’s not being the most recognized or the highest paid, it’s being able to sleep at night, to be content with who you are.
“That’s my No. 1 goal, to teach my kids to be happy with who they are and be content. In today’s society that’s a hard thing to teach kids.”
SIGNS OF TROUBLE
Is that dad or mom a stage parent? Worse, are you? Some clues:
Is the parent showing favoritism to one child? Kids are sensitive to cues as to favoritism, Liliana Lengua says, so parents need to be careful they’re not devoting more time to one child. “Children are aware of that,” she says. “They are left feeling less loved by their own parents.”
Is the child overanxious or depressed? Those are signs that a parent may be exerting too much pressure to perform on the child, who may no longer be interested in the activity but continues merely to please mom or dad.
Is that a stage parent, or a parent justly protecting a child? “A level of concern for the safety of a child is important,” Todd Denning says. “But it can be taken to an extreme. If taken too far, it’s hard to solve the problem.”
Who is this for, the kid or the parent? Sometimes, being part of a performance is more for a parent’s ego gratification than the child’s well-being.
Is the parent inhibiting the child’s emotional growth? A stage parent often fails to nurture a child’s emotional development in areas such as making friends or learning empathy, Ann C. Stadtler says.