It’s really hard to say what’s right and wrong when raising kids. There is so much that’s weird and random about life that setting rules and passing judgment is pointless; even though we all do it, most parents with a child older than three have learned not to say anything out loud.
So I don’t judge Billy Ray Cyrus. He got his daughter involved in show business, and now blames the pressures of it for tearing his family apart. And yet, we all know families under stress where the only Disney involvement was a trip to Orlando.
The track record of child stars isn’t great. For every Neal Patrick Harris, Jody Foster, or Ron Howard who manages the transition to adulthood with grace, or at least enough dignity not to share all of their personal traumas with the world, we have the graves of Gary Coleman and Dana Plato to show just how ugly the results of early fame and bad management (often by parents) can be. Justin Timberlake appears in classy Oscar-nominated movies and makes light of himself on Saturday Night Live while his ex-girlfriend Britney Spears causes more train wrecks than the Troublesome Trucks on the Island of Sodor.
So here’s my quasi-judgmental MBA analysis: a family is supposed to be a hierarchy. It may be a steep matriarchy ruled by an iron hand, a la the Tiger Mother, or it may be a hippy commune where the parents serve as tie-breakers and little else. Still, someone is in charge. Someone sees to it that the light bill gets paid and that there is food on the table, no matter if the bill is paid through online auto-pay or a panicked trip to the Commonwealth Edison office; whether the food is nutritionally balanced and free of preservatives or a cold Pop-Tart.
And, in almost all families, the people who run things are grown-ups. They have the money: maybe a lot, maybe a little, but more than the kids have. Money is power.
For too many child stars, though, the hierarchy gets inverted. They become the source of financial support for their families, which gives them power they aren’t mature enough to handle. How can a parent set a curfew if the child can dock the parent’s allowance?
That’s what makes the Cyrus situation interesting. She wasn’t even named Miley when it all started. She was Destiny Hope Cyrus, and her father was the bigger star. Billy Ray wasn’t naive, either. He had some income from endless replays of Achy Breaky Heart at country and western nights all over this great land of ours, and his acting career wasn’t too shabby, either. He had a nice run as the star of Doc, which ran on the Pax network for four years, more than most aspiring actors enjoy. When Destiny got her TV show, Billy Ray got a job on it, too. He comes across as a man who saw performing as a family business, a la the Carters or the Winans, rather than as someone with a desperate personal or financial need to make his child a star.
Had Hanna Montana flopped, Billy Ray probably would have found another sitcom or movie of the week in need of his inoffensive country charm. He could have made a decent living on the summer state fair circuit, enough to keep everyone clothed and fed and living in Tennessee, if not Beverly Hills. Unlike Lynne Spears or Dina Lohan, he would have found a way to be in the spotlight on his own merit.
Billy Ray is now blaming the Disney machine for destroying his family. My guess is that he is premature; Miley Cyrus is not jumping into that handbasket to Hell, at least not yet. Drinking beer and covering Nirvana songs might offend the squeaky-clean Christianist contingent, but neither is especially wild and crazy behavior for an 18-year-old pop star. She’s not shoplifting (or at least not getting caught), nor is she marrying men she’s known for three weeks. So far, she shows more sense than fellow Disney alumnae Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, and for that, Billy Ray should be relieved.
Billy Ray Cyrus says that he tried to be a friend to Miley. The standard child-rearing advice says that you have to be a parent and not a friend, as hard as it is sometimes. Still, better for a parent to be a friend than an employee. Friends can gently keep each other on track, but an employee has to do whatever the boss wants.