For better or worse, kids often know up-to-the-minute news about the famous teens they idolize. Last year, pop prince Justin Bieber was in the headlines with an out-of-wedlock paternity scandal (later dismissed). Actress and singer Demi Lovato has talked openly about going to rehab for bulimia, cutting and depression. And Miley Cyrus, of Hannah Montana fame, has seen her reputation plummet: kids aged nine to 15 voted her the worst celebrity role model in an AOL poll last year. Before her show went off the air in 2011, Cyrus’s on-air personality had shifted as well.
Mom Dana Vento says Cyrus’s changing personality and more adult behaviour affected her then nine-year-old daughter Kallie, a huge Hannah Montana fan. “On the show, Miley got a little more attitude and more assertive in her lines,” says Vento. “And then Kallie got more ‘assertive’ towards us.” When Vento saw an episode where Cyrus’s character told her father she hated him, Vento felt she had to address it. “I said, ‘You can’t talk to your parents like that. She’s not real, and that’s not real life.’” But Kallie still imitated Hannah, and Vento was torn. “We went back and forth on it. Was it really worth her watching it?”
Seeing a child’s role model take a few wrong turns – or grow up too fast – can be a tricky situation for parents. Will discouraging a celebrity’s headline-grabbing behaviour make her even more irresistible to impressionable tween fans?
Be open about answering questions
“Teaching kids to ask questions is most important,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at the Ottawa-based Media Awareness network. “Celebrities should be looked at as lightning rods for talking about certain issues.” How pop culture icons solve problems, and how their behaviour is rewarded or punished, can easily be related to your kids’ lives, he says. “Remind them that we don’t see the whole picture; we see a very narrow slice of a celebrity’s life.”
In the end, Vento didn’t have to take a stand on the issue. Kallie’s Miley worship subsided after she found an online video of the actress’s TMZ-worthy actions. Kallie showed the video to her mom, and asked her if it was real. “She couldn’t believe her eyes,” says Vento. Kallie was so disappointed, she retired her Hannah Montana microphone and announced she never wanted to hear about Cyrus again.
Johnson’s final piece of advice for concerned parents is to remember that ultimately, your child’s primary role model is you – mom and dad are still the ones with the most sway.
A version of this article appeared in print in our May 2012 issue with the headline “Tween idol” (p.88).