Jada Pinkett-Smith has a new Facebook series called “Red Table Talk”, a forum she shares with her mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, and her 17-year-old daughter, Willow. Every week, they come together to talk about a variety of topics and the three generations of women give their thoughts and perspectives.
In one episode, the trio discuss loss — loss of loved ones and loss of ourselves. Unfortunately, just minutes before the episode was to start filming, she got a call that a long-time friend Shay — whom she thought was in remission — had just passed from brain cancer. Forgetting the news right before filming, Pinkett-Smith handled it very well, taking some time to gather herself before bringing her hurt and loss to the table, both literally and figuratively. Jada relayed the information to her mother and daughter, letting the viewers know that Shay was a very good family friend; “she used to braid our hair”, Pinkett Smith tells us.
The biggest surprise came when Pinkett-Smith asked her daughter about her biggest loss and after thinking for a moment, Willow states when she nearly lost her sanity. After the huge success of her single “Whip My Hair”, Willow went on tour, released music videos and was set to be cast in an upcoming remake of Annie. For a few years during her childhood, Willow was working with big names like Rihanna, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, giving interviews and doing press runs; and it just got to be too much for her. She told her dad, mega-star Will Smith, she just “wanted to be 12”, and in case no one thought she was serious, she shaved her head.
By then, Willow was three years into the music industry, something she started with all the excitement any child has when getting to do some new, usually inaccessible grown-up activity.
By 12, she was over it, and according to her, lost. “I had stopped doing singing lessons and was kind of in that grey area of who am I,” she tells her mother and grandmother. “Do I have a purpose? Is there anything I can do besides this?”
Putting aside that a preteen should not be asking herself what her purpose in life is, at least not in the way Smith was asking herself, she went to a dark place because she had thought she was a singer, and now she wasn’t.
“I started listening to some really dark music,” Willow explains. “It was crazy… like I was plunged into this black hole and I was, like, cutting myself.”
“What!!” exclaims Pinkett-Smith, as Norris shoots her a look of disbelief.
“Yeah,” Willow nods.
Her confession brought the episode to a standstill, as Pinkett Smith claims she did not know that. “Where?” She asked.
“Oh my wrist,” Willow nonchalantly replies as she holds up her arm.
This isn’t the first time Willow has mentioned her struggles in the spotlight. In a 2017 interview with Girlgaze, she called her time in the spotlight was “absolutely, excruciatingly terrible”. She said that because of her parents, people felt that they had an “entitlement” to her life. The lack of privacy got to her, adding more grief to her mental health. “I feel like most kids like me end up going down a spiral of depression,” she said. “And the world is sitting there looking at them through their phones; laughing and making jokes and making memes at the crippling effect that this lifestyle has on the psyche.”
From early in their childhood, the Smith kids and theirparents have been under a bit of public scrutiny for how they were being raised. There have been rumors, and then a flat-out accusation that Will and Jada Smith are Scientologists, which Pinkett-Smith has come out to deny. While Pinkett-Smith says that she just appreciates all aspects of all religions, the Smiths did fund a very prestigious California elementary school to the tune of millions of dollars ,so that the school would have a Scientology-based curriculum (the school has since closed) and they do hang around with many Scientologists, like Tom Cruise and Leah Remini (who has since left the church and been very vocal in her criticisms about the inner workings and teachings.)
But, let’s take the Smiths at their word that they aren’t involved: they’re still very Scientology-friendly and have studied and respect the teachings, which is not more evident than with their two youngest kids, Willow and her older brother Jaden. Scientologists see children as small adults, capable of making their own decisions and not needing much guidance and this absolutely played out in both Willow and Jaden’s world. They gave a rather bizarre joint interview to The New York Times back in 2014 talking about quantum physics and ancient texts they were reading and how they could control time. It was strange, but let’s not forget that these two were young teenagers with unlimited freedom and access to money and influence, due to their very successful, respected and well-known parents.
There’s also the colossal problem with America refusing to see black children and teens as anything other than big scary adults who should be feared. Black children/teens typically don’t get to experience a childhood the way that white children/teens do, they have to grow up a bit harder because of the daily, constant overt and especially covert racism they will face. They develop a sense of their life and environment at an early age because they have to be able to identify not just any type of threat, but any type of racial threat as well. It’s telling young black girls to not let any white people put their hands in her hair or switching to African American vernacular when speaking to a black person because you think that’s how all black people talk or assuming that a group of black people talking to one another must all be related. Those microaggressions surround the black community — who have to pass on the knowledge on how to combat it — to the next generation. Willow has a leg up in life being rich, but she and her brother are still black and were getting attacked because they were… weirdly endearing?
Let’s look at the interview: what were they saying that was so bad? Both siblings are into music and discovered that it made them feel some special way and wanted to explore that. So, they did and found other interests that made them start critically thinking about their life and what it means to live. They started reading up on quantum physics and philosophical texts (and whether they understood it or not, how many teens do you know that just go and do that?) and rationalized and reasoned how to incorporate that into their existence. Right or wrong, everybody has experienced this. Everyone has obsessively gotten into a new interest or hobby and annoyed those around them spouting off knowledge that they think is just as interesting to others as it is to themselves. By adulthood, we typically seek out others who hold our same interests, but for kids and teens, it’s hurtful when people are making fun of something you consider a part of yourself.
The point is that brother and sister are/were experimenting with philosophy and music the way that others teens might experiment with drugs, alcohol and sex. And, there are people who feel that it’s their job to comment about her life because those people think they have a clear picture of who she is. That’s super violating when you don’t know how to fight back. Thank God for the others who made it clear that they didn’t forget that she is a kid.
However, the teen years are — for young people — to figure out themselves and how life works, meaning that they are typically as curious as cats. Curiosity at this age is fine, but sometimes it needs direction and the Smith kids seem to get more encouragement rather than guidance (with their dad admitting perhaps they should have been more hands on.) With Willow stating that she lost her sanity, which is essentially the loss of one’s self, that hopeless feeling hit her hard, but she seemingly could not communicate just that.
It could be why Willow slipped into a depression after she quit singing. In Scientology, children’s underdeveloped minds, emotions and mental state are not acknowledged or taken into consideration concerning anything (the stories are horrific.) They believe that children are perfectly capable of making rational, logical decisions while behaving and following the rules like adults, and punished accordingly. Imagine being 10 years old and expected to make rational decisions about going on tour, which cities to visit, to be expected to practice and perform for hours, like an adult, and to understand the adult world when you’re barely tall enough to ride roller coasters. Now, imagine being raised with the idea that you’re an adult and anything bad that happens to you is on you and no one else. For many grown folks, that’s some heavy pressure, but being a kid who doesn’t understand nuances but thinks she has to do this? It might cause a young girl to spiral into self-harm or worse. It’s made even worse that no one noticed and that Willow didn’t seem to tell anyone.
The rise in anxiety in teens has jumped up over the last couple of decades. In 1985, U.C.L.A.’s Higher Education Research Institute asked incoming freshman if they felt overwhelmed by their new responsibilities with college life. 18 percent said they did, but in 2010, 29% said yes. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. This also coincides with the rise in children’s hospitals admissions for suicidal or self-harm thoughts. Anxiety affects one-third of adults and adolescents, making it the most common mental health disorder in America. The Generation Z kids are feeling more anxiety and more pressure to be the best, from society and their families, that when they fail, they break down. It’s even worse for adolescents like Willow, who are from affluent and rich families with matching affluent and rich parents because the kids feel “pressure for high-octane achievement.” Their parents succeed time and time again, so their children must as well or they feel like failures. The constant reminding of this turns these kids into walking pressure cookers, and around seventh grade, the first signs of internal problems start to show, just like they did with Willow. This has also contributed to the rise of adolescents being on medication for anxiety. Since Scientologist also don’t believe in psychology, who knows if Willow not being able to talk to someone also contributed to her self-harming.
That’s not to suggest that the adult Smiths are terrible parents, which again is evident in their children. After Willow shaved her head, her mom stated on her Facebook page that she kept getting asked why she would allow Willow to do such a thing and stated that Willow was being taught that her body was her own and belonged to no one else. Will Smith, who had been pressuring Willow to continue on her tour despite his daughter’s pleas, said that Willow’s head shave protest caused him to realize the way he was raised was not going to work for his own children and it made him reevaluate fatherhood.
In interviews and during the “Red Table Talk” episode, Willow comes across as a very level-headed and mature young woman with a giant heart of innocent goodness. Both she and her brother, Jaden, did another joint interview in 2016, this time conducted by Pharrell Williams. It’s a good read; considering she was only 15 at the time. Willow says she’s still trying to find her place in the world and how she felt she should be doing more and doesn’t see being famous for just being famous as a fulfilling goal.
Unfortunately, Willow’s story of self-harm isn’t uncommon and even though it’s tragic that she lost so much of herself that she needed to physically hurt herself, her story can help others. It’s also a reminder to parents to scale back on the “over achievement” philosophy and let these kids be kids. It’s great to instill a sense of accomplishment in children, but parents should also teach them their kids how to handle rejection and failure and how to take away the right lessons from them.
While Willow is still searching for what mark she wants to imprint on this world, you can praise her parents for keeping her enlightened and humble. She does seem to have some direction, whether she knows it or not. She wants to be bigger than her privilege or her namesake and we can see that this has been driving her for years.