We were lucky. We had an amazing cast and crew and the actors’ families are all really nice. But every show will inevitably have its own culture and that culture is created by the people that are there ALL THE TIME and Disney to an extent. One of the most defining sub-cultures is the parents.
One of the greatest achievements for a young child actor is to book a series regular role on a Disney show. Okay, there are other networks too, and truth be told, to crack the industry at all takes a gargantuan amount of work and sacrifice.
So, your child has made it and you report to your amazing show set where you have your child in sight from between 9 hours a day to 10 ½, depending on their age. There is a parking space and a dressing room for your child. It’s very exciting. You’ve given up your job and moved away from your husband and other (in my case, 3) children. You meet all these lovely people: the parents and their children. The overwhelming sensation is gratitude. For the first week.
My analogy is when parents freak out about early reading. Whoever is the best early reader in pre-school, or, reading chapter books as a kindergartener is revered! OMG the parenting! Oh, little Charmaine is going places where her reading of Henry and Mudge chapter books will get her into Harvard. But here is the fact -the overachieving kindergartener is NOT the one who will be the class valedictorian. Same for the awesome 6-year old soccer star who is not going to the World Cup. Life changes things. Everything. So, the parents who believe that this is their child’s moment and the racking-and-stacking and viewpoint of their child as an actor is important and unfolding NOW, will inevitably act badly. Your child is not peaking as an 11-year old, even if it is a Disney show.
My first tips for surviving because your life has become a gong show-
1) Let karma take care of it. Honestly, I’m not lying. There are a million times when a well meaning (for their child) parent will abandon all decency so their child is viewed in the best light possible. This can be anything from secret gifting, gossiping, communication with the powers-that-be (whoever that may entail at the moment) about some situation on set, kissing up to Corporate, or, counting lines, or the way certain scenes are portraying or not portraying their child. The possibilities are endless. You have to just step back and realize drama on the set is TOXIC and should be left to the writers. I’m not saying, just swallow it and take one for the team. Go to your person on set (see point three: set buddy) and complain until the other person’s ears are bleeding.
2) Balancing family sacrifice. Someone has to work. The parent that is not on set needs to be included, even if you don’t like them. Since a parent must be on set with the minor while they work, someone is giving up their job. The one that is working feels like they are missing out. They are earning money because no parent I know wants to take any money from their child’s earning, no matter the families’ sacrifices. There are laws that limit what parents can take, but this is for the exceptions. Almost all parents I know want everything to be put away for their child for ‘the future’.
This family sacrifice also shows up as drama for the geographically split families; the mom (in my case) is commuting and trying to keep the other kids back home feeling parented and valued. My kids are energy vampires. They have no mercy on me when I miss things. One daughter said, “All the other moms managed to make it to Parent’s night.” Another said, “If I get my period and you are not here, I will never, ever forgive you. Ever.” This is why I am eternally confused with the term happy hour. For me, a glass of wine, hopefully with another cast mom who has the same issues, is a sanity check. I need validation that I’m a good mom even though I leave my other kids and the school counselor recommends my child for a mental health assessment because “your mom is never home. It must be stressful for you and your family.”
3) Have a ‘set buddy’ you can vent to because you will need to, and often. Life isn’t fair. If you want fair, well I can’t think of where to tell you to go. Even hell, because I’m assuming it’s not fair there at all. Take a walk with your set friend and realize that while the In’n’Out burger and coffee truck provide an enormous amount of comfort, talking to a real person who ‘gets it’ is invaluable. The venting is critical! You’ll be spending about 40-50 hours with this circle of people.
Set buddies are critical because parents can cover for each other- with children under sixteen, there has to be an adult (guardian or assigned) with ‘eyes on’. This means the parent (or guardian) has to be able to physically see the child. If my child is in the B plot with a cast mate and I have to go to the airport to pick up another child or go to an appointment, I can assign another parent to be in charge of my child while I’m gone. The ADs and teachers help with this as well. This is critical. So have set friends and you can have each other’s backs.
4) Enjoy this chapter as much as you can. It’s a chapter in your child’s life but also yours. Come away with some friendships and great memories. Our family lived in Seoul, South Korea for four years. As an expat, I became fast friends with people I would not normally meet. It’s amazing how much I had in common with people who were very different than me. I worked to develop friendships on the set. I see them outside of work– the other parents (some I’m closer to than others) and also some other people like the teacher, AD, wardrobe, production crew and many more. I value those friendships and they are an important part of this chapter.
Encourage your kids to do the same. The cast will all grow up and move in different directions, but this group will always have the memories; make as many good memories as possible. They know each other well. After all, they’re growing up together. It would be great if some of them could be lifelong friends.
5) Remember your child is a child. Being on a show is a very unique situation. About 80 adults’ livelihoods are riding on your child’s shoulders. The goal is very clear – produce a good show, one episode at a time. We were lucky to have a seasoned and truly nice production team. They’ve worked together and seen about every scenario possible, so they helped guide us newbie parents.
Always remember, you are still the parent. You have to continue to shape your child’s value system with good parenting. Things that happen on every schoolyard are now in your face, so you have to react; just don’t overreact. And vent to your set buddies about inevitable frustrations; do not vent to your child. Kids put everything out there; they don’t have filters. If you tell your child that another mom is a ‘competitive bitch and a stalker’ (I’m making this up), the child will say it at some point, and probably after you are over it. It might be to the teacher or the make-up person, but it will get repeated and it will cause drama.
Have a great day. Part Two of Survival Tips for Set Parents is coming next Tuesday!
With Aloha, Eileen