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 — hard.
Francis, now 40, has detailed her mother’s relentless driving in a memoir, “Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter” (Weinstein Books, $26). 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 said. “It was very difficult as a child to untangle the positive from the abusive.”
That same 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 art worlds.
What prompts 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 said she doesn’t know of any research focused on the stage parent but speculates that there are different factors for different people.
“There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and energy around these activities,” Lengua said. “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 component, she added, 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 also was in several 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. 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.
What can be done?
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 asked. “I might say to them something about what I see in the child. I might make a comment, ‘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.
There’s a delicate line between helpful and harmful behavior, Francis said, particularly for a child. “There were many times where we were a happy, winning pair,” she said. “I was a very successful actor, and a lot of that was attributable to her.”