Savvy Parenting

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Using Celebrity Downfall as a Teachable Moment

When idolized celebrities act negatively, young worshipers need guidance.

Justin Bieber’s latest exploits have made news all over the world. Before him there were stories of Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears…the list of young celebrities behaving badly goes on and on. And now we see with the latest fall of Philip Seymour Hoffman, that it’s not just celebrity youth who are vulnerable to tragic acts in life and death.

In contrast to this dark side of celebrities, children and teens often assume that celebrities are people to look up to and emulate. 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.

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:

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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 negative behavior. 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.

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 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 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.

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 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. 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.

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.

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. The message here is it’s easy to be seduced into thinking a great performer is great in every respect.

 

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a consulting school psychologist and former professor of psychiatry at Brown University.

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