Tatyana Ali appeared on “Sesame Street” when she was 6 and “Star Search” when she was 7, but nothing prepared her for the day when a school bus pulled up as she was walking down the street.
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”
“You have to be very careful,” Sonia Ali told The Boston Globe in 1999, when she was still accompanying Tatyana, at age 20, on business trips.
Sooner or later all child stars have to move on, but few as suddenly and unexpectedly as Tracy Austin.
At age 21, when she was the No. 2 women’s player in the world, Austin experienced a back injury that, coupled with a later car accident, basically ended her career. The transition period was difficult, she says, but her parents, Jeanne and George, were supportive and the sense of balance and perspective that they had instilled served her well.
“You have to let go of what you had,” when you move beyond an accomplished childhood, she says. “It’s important to realize that it’s something to be very proud of, but also to realize that it’s in the past and to strive for something in the future.”
She became a tennis commentator, most recently for the Tennis Channel, and threw herself into a consuming new endeavor: raising her three sons (now 15, 13 and 10) with her husband, Scott Holt.
“I raise my family with the same attitude that I played tennis: I try not to let anything slip through the cracks,” she says. “Whether it’s making sure that they’re all academically sound, or do they play enough sports, or are they playing too many sports. I’m trying to make sure their lives are balanced. I want happy, well-adjusted kids.”
RAISING A STAR
These guidelines for parenting a gifted child are just part of the offerings on the website of the Macomb Intermediate School District in Clinton Township, Mich. It includes several articles and myriad resources for parents of high achievers. Go to misd.net/gifted.
• Establish well-defined standards of discipline and conduct.
• Teach self-discipline.
• Do not let family life revolve around the gifted child.
• Value the child for who he or she is, not just his or her accomplishments.
• Help the child learn to manage the stress or tension they may experience over performance expectations.
• Balance social experiences and solitary experiences. Avoid overscheduling activities or programs.