Melissa McCarthy is on the cover of PEOPLE’s Beautiful Issue. In the cover story, she discussed everything from her marriage to actor Ben Falcone, how they balance each other out when it comes to parenting their two daughters, Vivian and Georgette, 15 and 13, to being what her family calls ‘Midway Mom’, and how she tries to help her daughters navigate social media. Keyword: tries.
"We keep track of it. I think it is still something to be really, really watched," she says. "I'm sure I don't do half as good a job as I should because I'm so bad with it."
Hearing how even she, a rich celebrity with money and resources, struggles with navigating social media with her kids is reassuring for moms everywhere. But she also described using her celebrity as a way of painting the picture about the “smoke and mirrors” surrounding social media for her kids – a relativity tool that I and those same moms everywhere simply don’t have.
“We're always kind of reminding them, 'Keep this in perspective. This is not real,'" she explained. "I keep saying this is smoke and mirrors and entertainment, which is fine. I've said, 'It's as if somebody takes a character I've played and assumes that's the real me.' But that's an ongoing fistfight that concerns me all the time."
The age of her daughters is right around where, according to research, your brain adds value to social rewards. According to this article, receptors for “happy hormones” like oxytocin and dopamine start to multiply and can make attention and admiration from others seem way more rewarding and significant for preteens.
So imagine the shock and horror when I was reading a book about feelings to my five-year-old, and at the end of the book, the author prompted parents to ask their kids what makes them feel certain emotions.
“When do you feel happy?” I asked my kid.
“When people tell me I’m beautiful or cute,” she said with a grin.
I tried to laugh it off but inside, I immediately started calculating the implications of this.
Over the years, we’ve seen so many celebrities post their kids on social media. Sometimes it's as early as a birth announcement, other times it’s when they’re just a little bit older. I’m thinking of Kaavia Wade, who boasts an impressive 1.9 million followers on her Instagram account, run by her parents Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade. Or Olympia Ohanian, whose shenanigans and animated facial expressions are documented on her Instagram page. It's as if they hit a certain age and immediately, they just become staples on any given app and their careers as influencers begin.
I’ve written before about the implications of being a child star, but have we talked about the implications of being a child or teen influencer? Despite social media being around for years, has there been enough research done on what it means to rise to prominence on platforms and apps that offer instant gratification, increased visibility – and often, money, sponsorships and free sh-t based on how well you “perform”? There’s been a bit – and it suggests the effects are similar to those that come with being a child star.
Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, PhD, spoke about being a social media influencer before hitting the age of 25, which is the age when the “rational” part of your brain fully develops in this Insider article.
"Your ability to assess risk, your ability to make some cognitive judgments to plan ahead — all of those things are cognitive skills that develop over that period of time."
She went on to suggest that experiencing fame during adolescence, as the children of many celebrities do, can make it even harder for celebrities to keep a handle on reality. "Everyone wants to be famous. But in fact, for most of us, that's not the real world."
Melissa also spoke about how she teaches Vivian and Georgette about beauty, saying it's been a lesson in self-confidence for her, too.
"They both really like makeup, but it's really used as this tool for expression," McCarthy says. "It's not to look older or other than. So I really let them experiment with it and with their hair. They both colored their hair, and I was like, 'It's hair. As long as you are not trying to suddenly look 19.' I think it's more, 'This would be fun.' I dyed my hair in high school, and I did think it was fun. I think they have a good perspective."
Melissa says the best part about having her girls is looking ahead – something that I’ve also found myself incredibly excited about.
"Watching the next generation," McCarthy says. “There's such hope in that they're so much more evolved than I was at that age. My world was so tiny. Watching them navigate a world that's so much more complicated and so much harder. And to do it with such grace and love and care and such empathy for other people...I learn from that every single day."
I agree that her kids have a good perspective, and I think that’s a direct result of Melissa having a good perspective, too. She doesn’t take it too seriously. She’s not over-concerned or over-involved, she acknowledges areas she can do better but she’s not so hard on herself in the meantime. She’s also not operating out of the same place of fear that I and a lot of other parents are. She’s trusting in the kids she and Ben raised.
When my kid said she likes receiving compliments and my brain took the express train to the calculation station, why didn’t I just pause and ask myself, doesn’t everyone like receiving compliments? When I hear Melissa, a mom who is as laid back as I want to be, I’m reminded that while the dangers and desire to overthink parenting will always exist, this is one of those times I’m lucky to not be a celebrity. I don’t have to worry about my daughter growing up to be an influencer and what the implications of that might be – at least not right now. I also have way more control over access – something a lot of celebrities who struggle with the paparazzi and swaths of fans on a daily basis simply don’t.
Melissa is reminding us that whether you’re a celebrity or not, parenting is about enjoying the process. Let the kids be kids and cross whatever bridges may be when you get there and not a moment before. Let them try things out and try things on. And most importantly, trust in the kids you raise.