By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Masha Godkin wanted to stay home and read. Instead, her mother hauled her around L.A. from audition to audition. There was the occasional high of landing a part in a show or a film. But, she says, "I felt if I didn't get roles, I wasn't good enough. Everything revolved around pleasing my mother." And roles she did get stoked peer jealousy and deprived her of social time.
Like millions of children across the country—pageants alone enroll over 3 million under age 16—Godkin was at the mercy of two of the most feared words in the English language: stage mother. "Picture overbearing women who make excessive demands on productions and agency managers, tell directors how to direct, insist on perks for themselves, and pressure their children, sometimes when kids don't even want to be in the business," says Jackie Reid, head of the bicoastal child talent agency L'il Angels Unlimited.
How much is stereotype and how much is reality? "It's 50/50," says Reid, a former stage mother herself. "I had a mom leave her own mother's funeral to go to an audition. That's a bad one." Ditto the mother who insisted on plastic surgery to correct what she deemed a droopy eyelid on her 8-year-old; three hours post-op, the woman hauled her bandaged kid off to an audition.
Whether pushed by their own dreams or pulled by a child's talent, stage moms drive the professional as well as personal life of their kid. Godkin's mother "wanted to be an actress. She assumed I did too." Now a psychologist specializing in counseling performers, Godkin maintains that "the desire to act must come from the child. Otherwise, his main goal is pleasing his parents." The degree to which a mother's desires override the developmental needs of her child is the sine qua non of stage mothering.
There are more stage moms than ever, largely because there's an abundance of casting opportunities for kids, from recurring TV and movie roles to Broadway plays. Commercials that air repeatedly are also coveted; further down the food chain are coupons for Kmart or voice-overs for Disney. "American culture now leans heavily on specialness in children," observes Vivian Diller, a psychologist whose work focuses on the problems of child performers.
As much as producers and directors dread them, stage moms have the biggest impact on their own kids. The source of their psychological power is the paradoxical fact that they introduce the stress with which they must help their children cope. It's an axiom of child development that the parent-child relationship is a child's main means of managing difficulty, so influential that it shapes adjustment for life.
Make no mistake, the performance world offers steady stress for kids: Auditions outnumber jobs; competition and rejection are facts of life. There are spoken and unspoken parental expectations and, in some cases, the burden of supporting parents, or at least recouping their investment of time and energy. Expectations heighten when a mother moves with a child to be near opportunities—breaking up the family temporarily or permanently. Even landing a role makes huge demands on children—their stamina, ability to remember lines, willingness to sacrifice playfulness to discipline.
Response to rejection may be the purest test of stage parenting. Reid recalls a visit from a woman whose shy 3-year-old was clinging to her legs. "I told her to feel free to come back in six months. The woman said, 'Hold on, we'll be right back.' " She took her daughter outside but didn't know the nearby window opened into Reid's office. "She told the girl, 'You're going to talk to her or else the clowns are coming to get you.' The child cried, 'No clowns!' The mother marched her back in—the child was trembling with terror."
The big psychological trap for stage moms is narcissism, says Diller, herself a former child ballerina and stage mother. It may draw them to showbiz glamour in the first place or develop along the way. Regardless, the child's spotlight sustains the parent's sense of self, often to the point where a parent has a larger psychological investment in the child's career than the child does. It leads the parent, too, to inflate her own importance and make demands on those around her. The narcissism sinkhole is greatest for women who live in a boring reality or carry frustrated desires left over from their own childhood, Diller says.
Basking in the reflected applause of a child's ability may keep parents from helping kids develop a future, one that typically arrives with puberty, when what's good for kids—the inevitability of development—may cool the spotlight. Such parents often do all in their power to delay physical as well as emotional growth. Parental narcissism can also undermine kids' psychological health. Instead of being emotionally supported by parents, children may feel the need to perform as a way to rescue them.
Most important, Diller says, these kids grow up with fragile self-esteem. "They feel loved only when serving the needs of the parent." When they stop receiving that reward, they can crash and seek solace in substances. Feeling that approval is ever-conditional, children of stage moms grow up constantly looking for accolades from others.
How to aid interest in performance while nurturing healthy development