Child stardom, fade to adult
Three former young phenoms discuss what parents can do to guide their exceptional offspring
Tatyana Ali, who starred in "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" with Will Smith, recalls being chased by fans. "We were terrified," Ali recalls, laughing. "We ran because we didn't know why they were doing it — it took a while to figure it out. It was like the big wake-up call that my life had changed." (Angela Weiss, Getty Images / February 12, 2012)
She was 12, a newly minted star of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" with Will Smith, and the kids in the bus recognized her immediately. When the doors opened, they poured out, heading straight toward Ali and her mom, Sonia. Taken by surprise, the Alis backed off. The children advanced, and soon Tatyana and her mom were running down the street.
"We were terrified," Tatyana Ali recalls, laughing.
"We ran because we didn't know why they were doing it — it took a while to figure it out. It was like the big wake-up call that my life had changed."
Child stars experience fame that few adults will know, and walk a path littered with cautionary tales, from chess great Bobby Fischer to tabloid sensation Lindsay Lohan.
But if the phrase "former child star" has become practically synonymous with dysfunction, there are also sterling counter-examples: child wonders in a wide range of fields who have gone on to lead highly successful adult lives.
We talked to three of them — Ali, who went on to graduate from Harvard and star in the cable sitcom "Love that Girl!"; former science prodigy Andrew Hsu, who now pilots a tech startup; and tennis champion-turned- tennis commentator Tracy Austin — about what it takes to transition from pint-size sensation to well-adjusted adult, and what parents can do to help pave the way.
Among the common themes: All three said they were driven by their own childhood passions, not their parents' ambitions, and that their parents fostered a sense of balance and perspective.
"My dad kept his job as a nuclear physicist," recalls Austin, who appeared on the cover of World Tennis at age 4 and became the youngest U.S. Open winner ever in 1979 at the age of 16.
"My mom kept her job as manager of the pro shop at the (Jack) Kramer Club (in California) until I was 14 and she started traveling with me," she said. "I have three older brothers and an older sister, and they all kept their lives going. What I was doing on the court had nothing to do with them. We always tried to keep the normal balance."
Andrew Hsu was exceptional from the age of 2, when he built a Lego robot as big as he was. He finished high school at age 9, became a local celebrity when he enrolled at the University of Washington at age 12, even appearing on "Today" at age 16, amid comparisons to Doogie Howser and Albert Einstein.
His parents made accommodations for his brilliance, but they also emphasized modesty and social responsibility.
"Compassion is what I think is very important," Andrew's father, David, told "Today" in 2007. "(My sons) need to help other people. They need to put other people in front of them. In that way, they will never fail, because they are not self-centered."
Hsu's dad, a computer software engineer, and his mom, Joyce, encouraged him to pursue other interests and he did — becoming the No. 4 swimmer in the country (ages 12 and younger) in the 100-yard butterfly.
Academic prodigies tend to fare better than other child stars, in part because their expertise segues so smoothly into adult achievement, and Hsu, now 20, is no exception. He left the neuroscience doctorate program at Stanford University in 2011 to launch Airy Labs, an educational games startup. He wants to make learning fun for millions of kids, he says, much as his parents did for him.
"There's been a lot written recently about (hard-driving) 'Tiger Moms,'" he notes. "My parents are the opposite of that."
Children, even rich and famous children, need grown-ups to set boundaries and say no, says Ali.
Her mom, a nurse, and her dad, a police officer, made sure she had that. Sonia Ali was on always on the "Fresh Prince" set during rehearsals, not schmoozing or talking shop, just watching out for her little girl. Cast members called her Miss Sonia, and they'd look around nervously if they cursed or told a risque story: "Is Miss Sonia there?"