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Advice for raising a child star

Actress Ari Graynor’s parenting-coach mom talks about bringing up children with high drive

Ari Graynor, a veteran of 22 films at age 29, had her first starring movie role this summer in “For a Good Time, Call. . .” She is also in a new Broadway play titled “The Performers.”

Ryder Sloane/Focus Features

Ari Graynor, a veteran of 22 films at age 29, had her first starring movie role this summer in “For a Good Time, Call. . .” She is also in a new Broadway play titled “The Performers.”

I am a lucky parent. Not only has my daughter become a successful actress, she has taught me much along the way that has helped in my own career as a parenting coach.

After 22 years of working her tail off, after appearing in what seems like countless movies (I know how many but won’t bore you with the details — OK, it’s 22) in which she has been the best friend, the sister, the daughter, the girlfriend, or the roommate, Ari Graynor is finally the star. And I am in Mom Hog Heaven.

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I am yelling from the virtual rooftops. When the movie “For a Good Time, Call. . . ” opened in August, with Ari in one of the lead roles and serving as an executive producer, I e-mailed and texted, tweeted and Facebooked, telling people about it. Did I mention Ari has two other recent movies out? — “Celeste and Jesse Forever” and “10 Years,” plus a new play, “The Performers,” now on Broadway . If that weren’t enough, Ari was on “The View.” Hello, Barbara Walters!

During my 30 years as a clinical social worker, I have worked with hundreds of parents, first as a traditional “sit in the office and let’s have a session and see you next week” kind of therapist, and now as a parenting coach who meets for coffee (I always hated sitting in an office). I advise parents what to do with a specific issue that is troubling them. Sometimes parents come to me worried that their kid hasn’t “found his passion,” or that their child has lost her mojo. Sometimes parents know exactly what to do, and sometimes they feel as lost as their kids. I try to help them find their way.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Joani Geltman

The Geltman-Graynor family had to find our own way.

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Ari had dreamed of this moment — reaching the stars — since her first Wellesley Players production of “Annie,” at age 7. (She played the youngest orphan, that cute little Molly.) But being the star, being famous, has never been important to her, or to me and my husband. What is important, what has motivated Ari all along, is being appreciated and respected for her talent, and having roles that challenge her. Katie Couric I think said it best, in a magazine interview: “Fame is not what drives famous people. What fuels them is feeling passion about something, then focusing on it and being good at it.”

I should have known that I had an actress on my hands from the start. The early memory is so clear: Ari is 3, and I am standing in our suburban-Boston home outside the door to her bedroom on a sunny afternoon. I hear soft murmurs and wonder, what is she up to and who is she talking to? I crack open the door. The shades are drawn, Ari is sitting on the floor, and scattered all around her are her “babies” — a flock of dolls and stuffed animals in various stages of slumber — her little hands stretched out over as many as she can reach, rubbing their backs and soothing them to sleep.

Ari sees me and yells-whispers, “Shut the door, you’ll wake the babies!”

“Honey,” I whisper back, “it’s a beautiful day outside, how about we go feed the ducks, get some ice cream, buy a Barbie?,” anything to entice her out of the darkness.

But she turns and gives me “the look” that communicates it all: “No, not now, I’m very busy and you can leave.” And I did. This would be my initiation into her world as an actress, the boundaries she needed to set, and the intensity and focus with which she pursued her passions. I got her message, and I got it early: “There are some things I need to do all by myself.”

DAVID LANZENBERG/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Ari Graynor with Eric Christian Olsen in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

Having a determined child makes it really easy for a parent to know how to guide him or her. Ari may have been only 3 years old, but if you believe, as I do, that personality, talents, and passions are hard-wired, you just need to follow your child’s lead and they will take you where they want to go. Obviously all kids don’t become professional actors, NFL football players, Olympic gymnasts, or Nobel laureates. But really, who cares? Are they happy and fulfilled? That is the true marker of success.

I can tell you that when we chose to follow Ari’s lead, it wasn’t ever with the idea that we would be sitting in a movie theater someday, watching her on the big silver screen. In fact, I tried to interest her in piano, ballet, French horn (we both thought he was the cutest teacher), and soccer (to be honest I didn’t really push so hard for the soccer; I hate sitting outside in the cold).

I thought, as a parent, it was my responsibility to encourage her to participate in a variety of activities to keep her well-rounded. But when your kid at 7 years old says to you, “I want to be an actress when I grow up” and you say, “Really?” and she clearly and definitively says, “This is what I want to do!,” you give it serious consideration.

My husband, Greg, and I said, “OK, we’ll do what we can to make it happen.” So what did we do? We gave her our belief that it was a reachable goal, and we gave her enough opportunity to get to the point where we could let go.

Ari was always in the driver’s seat. There were boundaries, unspoken but abided by. We were not her managers, directors, or agents; we were her parents. We were her chauffeurs, chaperones, food service workers, appointment secretaries, and her most ardent supporters. But we did not coach her on scripts, give feedback on her performances, or tell her what project she should do; that was not what she needed from us. She had her own mind, and eventually, “her people” for that. What we could do, as her parents, was give her the freedom to follow her dream.

People often thought we were crazy, that we gave our daughter too much freedom and control. They thought we were crazy when, in eighth grade, she missed 56 days of school to go on a professional “Annie” tour in Korea, and then on returning from that amazing experience went right into a production of “Into The Woods” at Trinity Repertory Company.

Handout

Ari Graynor as an 11-year-old ina Wheelock Family Theatre role.

I mean, Korea! Trinity Rep!

Some people thought we were crazy sending her off at 12 to work and travel with a group of professional adult actresses doing an all-female version of “King Lear.” (She played the Fool.) I mean, Shakespeare at 12! They thought we were crazy letting her go off at 15 to visit her 26-year-old stage “brother” whom she had met doing a play at the Huntington Theatre, and who lived in NYC with his boyfriend. Now 29 and 40, Ari and he are truly as close as brother and sister — what a gift for our only child.

Those decisions we made together as a family, with respect for each other’s point of view.

Ari knew intuitively from an early age what she was meant to do, and we listened. She was confident about handling situations that scared the hell out of us, but we listened. She was realistic about the realities of the acting profession, which we all knew was full of the highest highs and the lowest lows, and we listened. It was so hard for us as parents, yet at the same time, so simple: We listened to what was important to our daughter, respected her boundaries, and gave her ownership of her career.

As a parenting coach and therapist, I am as passionate about my work as Ari is about hers, and I know that my experience raising my dedicated, extraordinary daughter informs much of what I teach parents.

Now don’t get me wrong, my husband and I are not perfect parents (who is?), but we got this one right, simply by letting our child become the person she wanted to be.

Joani Geltman can be reached at: joani@joanigeltman.com.
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