For years Jada and Will Smith’s unusual parenting techniques have come under public scrutiny. So when their son Jaden approached them with an equally unusual request, the couple was shocked. Here’s their story.
A Difficult Conversation
With a life that is often in the limelight, many have been critical of the Smith family. Whether or not those criticisms are warranted, even Jada's own mother has dubbed their lifestyle as "crazy."
But that didn’t stop Jada from being open and honest about her relationship with her husband and children. And in an episode of her web series Red Table Talk, Smith shared a moment that occurred between herself and her teenage son Jaden, where he made a request that stunned her.
Like many mothers, Jada had enough intuition that she wasn't too surprised by what Jaden had asked - but she was still taken aback. According to the 50-year-old actress, her son's words were "devastating" and culminated in "one of the most heartbreaking moments" she had yet experienced as a mother.
After all, Jada knew that she and her husband Will had fostered a strong and trusting bond with Jaden and his little sister Willow. So much so that the two teenagers enjoyed spending time with their parents as much as they did with their friends. How could she have not prevented this?
An Open Book
These kinds of candid family conversations on a global platform may sound strange to many of us, but it was par for the course for the Smith family and on Red Table Talk. In that room and around that circular table, nothing was held back - including this discussion Jada eventually shared regarding her son.
Though it may seem too honest for many people, it was how the Smith family had always conducted themselves. They were a supportive unit that strived to be open with each other and keep a close bond - just look at Jaden’s 2019 Coachella gig when he brought Will and Willow on stage. But where was his mother during all of that?
Back To The Beginning
But before we dive deeper into this mother-son dynamic, let’s go back to the start. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett had their first child, Jaden, in 1998, just two years before Willow entered the world in 2000. The couple made a commitment as parents - that they would never push their kids in the direction they wanted.
For them, the most important thing was to encourage both their young children to find their voices and follow their own ambitions, separately from their parents. Though they watched the pair with the careful eyes of guardians, both Jaden and Willow grew up with an unusual amount of freedom to explore and express themselves.
“We Don’t Do Punishment”
And as Jaden and Willow grew older and stepped further into the limelight, the public began to realize just how easy-going Will and Jada were as parents. This came to a front back in 2013 when dad Will told Metro magazine, in regards to their parenting style, “We don’t do punishment.”
"The way that we deal with our kids is [that] they are responsible for their lives… Our concept is as young as possible, give them as much control over their lives as possible," he elaborated further. "And the concept of punishment – our experience has been [that] it has a little too much of a negative quality."
Circle of Trust
But while the lack of any kind of punishment is surely welcomed by their children, it also requires them to be equally honest with their parents. And Jada and Will made it clear that honesty would be needed and expected as their children grew older. That’s where they came upon the concept of a “circle of safety.”
Will went on to explain the concept in his 2016 appearance on The Tonight Show. “[In the circle of safety, the kids are] allowed to tell us everything that they did, and they can’t get in trouble... The rule is, if we find out after the circle of safety that there was something you didn’t say, there was h*** to pay.”
A Little Too Open
And though the circle of safety worked initially, once their kids reached their teenage years, it took a turn for the worst. Willow and Jaden continued to be very open with their parents… perhaps more open than they needed to be. At one point, the Hollywood parents had to pull back a little.
“As a father, you do not want a circle of safety with a 15-year-old daughter,” Will explained jokingly. He even withdrew from their circle of safety at times! “You do not… I’m like, ‘Baby, you need to start lying! [I’m like,] ‘Nope! You and your mom can talk about that one!’”
Speaking of Willow, the Smith family felt their "circle of safety" begin to falter as their youngest child grew up. At just 11 years old, Willow released her first pop hit, Whip My Hair which quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. But Willow struggled with the track's success - and it even took a toll on her family relationships.
The young woman discussed this period at length in a 2018 episode of Red Table Talk. "I definitely had to forgive you and daddy for that whole 'Whip My Hair' thing," she told her mother, regarding the pressure she felt during that time. "It was mostly daddy because he was so harsh at certain times."
Unheard & Unseen
In trying so hard to create free-flowing, open dialogue amongst their families, Will and Jada found that, at times it seemed to be driving their teenage children further away. For Willow, in particular, it took “a couple of years” before she finally felt that she had reformed a strong bond with her powerhouse parents.
For the young woman, rebuilding her parental relationships meant regaining that security they had once had in the "circle of safety." "Trying to regain trust for not feeling like I was being listened to or like no one cared how I felt," she felt. It was a hard pill to swallow, but they had raised their children to be honest.
"As A Parent, It’s Scary"
Growing up with more freedoms and fewer consequences than the average children, both Willow and Jaden developed a strong sense of self and didn’t care what others thought of them. As a teenager, Jaden even joined a modeling campaign for Louis Vuitton wearing a skirt.
"Jaden is 100 percent fearless," Jada declared in 2016. Will agreed, saying, "[Jaden] will do anything. As a parent, it's scary; it's really terrifying. But he is completely willing to live and die by his artistic decisions, and he doesn't concern himself with what people think."
Living Life on the Edge
“There’s a really powerful internal quality as an artist that, as parents, we encourage,” Will continued. “You gotta get out on the edge, [and] you have to try things. You have to be comfortable doing things that people don’t agree with, and you have to be comfortable doing things that you could fail.”
And Jaden had grown up doing just that. At 11 years old, he was starring in blockbusters, collaborating with pop icon Justin Bieber, and living his best life exactly how he wanted. He even made the decision to become a vegan, dedicating himself to a diet with zero animal products. But this didn’t last long.
Forced To Step In
Although Will and Jada had always vowed to let their children express themselves freely and follow their own intuition, things came to a standstill when their son went vegan. In a 2019 episode of RTT, Jada even brought a health expert on and admitted that she and Will had put their foot down.
"Will and I had a bit of an intervention with Jaden because he's a vegan now, but we realized he wasn't getting enough protein… he was wasting away," she revealed. "He just looked drained, he was just depleted. He wasn't getting the nutrients." Will agreed, adding, "There was even a little greyness to his skin. We got really nervous."
A Painful Emergency
They had good cause to be concerned. Jaden had reached a point where he had to see a doctor due to his diet. "I was in so much pain in my stomach in the emergency room," Jaden recalled. Once he came home, Jaden gave into his parent's demands, reverting to eating eggs and dairy.
Jaden admitted on Red Table Talk that he still lapses back into his vegan lifestyle, though he keeps his diet in check and regularly eats protein to keep his parent's minds at ease. "I'll go vegan for a week or so but for the past year, I've been vegetarian," he explained.
Knowing Her Worth
Jaden wasn't the only one who was given the freedom to express themselves. Willow made waves in 2012 when she chose to shave her head at just 12 years old. Jada and Will caught a lot of flack, but Jada was adamant. "The question [is] why I would let Willow cut her hair. First, the [word] 'let' must be challenged," she shot back.
“This is a world where women & girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves… I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit, her mind are her domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair.”
Behind Closed Doors
By the time Jaden and Willow reached their teenage years, their parents were very used to receiving criticism about their parenting style. Regardless, they backed their decisions, endlessly encouraging their children to be expressive and independent. But when it all backfired, they began to wonder if their critics were right.
In a Red Table Talk episode entitled "Growing Up Smith!" Jada and her mother (the kid's grandmother) brought her son on to fill in the details of growing up as a young man in the famous family. The episode description read, "(Gammy) wonders if the kids may have been granted too much independence by their parents…"
The Moment of Truth
They began the episode at the Smith family's home, and Jada and her mother, Adrienne, talked while they waited for the children to arrive. Jada waved away her kid's tardiness by explaining, "Well, you know, they're working… [Willow] and Jaden have rehearsals."
So she summed up what the episode would cover with Adrienne instead. "We're going to be talking about parenting, the joys... and pitfalls of parenting." Once Willow and Jaden arrived and took their seats, it was time for some explosive truths to be dropped onto the famous Red Table.
A Proud Mama
"Jaden's my baby boy – my firstborn," Jada said once her kids had joined. "He's one of the most loving, gentle creatures that I know. Jaden's a musician, an actor, and an entrepreneur. He has a clothing line… his own record label, and a sustainably sourced spring water company because he cares about making the world a better place."
She continued on, saying, "I'm a proud mama when it comes to Jaden and Willow – of their successes and their compassion." And though she had many positive things to say about her beloved kids, she also began to touch on some of the struggles she had raising them. And then her own mother stepped in.
Too Much Say?
Adrienne gave her thoughts as both an "outside" observer and the woman who raised Jada, comparing how she raised her to how she went on to raise her own children. "We didn't give kids a whole lot of choice…" she recalled. "I felt like you guys had too much say over your own lives."
"[Jada] treated you like adults, and I just felt like, 'He's eight!'" Adrienne exclaimed. "He's going to tell me what time he's going to bed? It was their idea of parenting, [it] was so different to what I was used to. I was like, 'These people are crazy!'"
Her Side Of The Story
Jada responded respectfully to her mother, acknowledging the differences in their perspective but defending her and Will's unorthodox style. "I don't want to make decisions for you," she then told her children. "I want to prepare you as quickly as possible and start to give you as much power over your life as quickly as I can."
But as the conversation unfolded, it was clear that even Jada realized that sometimes their gift of independence to their kids could be a problem. Soon enough, she broached a topic that had occurred years earlier, where Jaden had made a shocking request. It was a sensitive subject, but they were going to tackle it then and there.
The Painful Truth
As it turned out, Will and Jada gave their kids such an immense sense of independence that teenage Jaden had gone so far as to ask his mother if he could move away from the family home and live on his own. "You got to a point where you told me straight up," Jada confronted her son.
" You were like, 'Mom, I have to leave here to live my life,'" she continued. The revelation that her own son wanted to leave home was heartbreaking, but she understood. "I remember thinking to myself, as devastated as I was, I was like, 'He's right. The time is now; he's 15. It's time for him to leave the house.'
A Mother's Intuition
Unsurprisingly Adrienne once again disagreed with her daughter's more 'new-age' approach to the parent-child dynamic. "I would have never agreed with that," she said disapprovingly. But Jada was insistent. And looking at it from Jaden's perspective made it easier to make the decision.
After all, she and Will knew from a young age that Jaden was unusually mature for his age. "I knew," she said. "I told Will – when Jaden was smaller – I said, 'We'll be lucky to keep him in the house until he's 16.' Because he was so mature. He was making films… he could really manage his own life."
Trapped In A Bubble
And Jada also realized that in a way, it was the privileges of fame and wealth that she and Will had provided that Jaden needed to escape from. He was more than ready to leave their "circle" and experience the real world on his own terms. "Being in this lifestyle – in this world – is a bubble," she insisted.
She knew this especially well because Jada and Willow had grown up so differently compared to her own childhood, where she had to be a "hustler." "He wanted out, and I understood that because I didn't have the bubble," she continued. "And I knew what – having my freedom outside of the bubble – what I gained from that."
“I Let Him Go”
So after weeks of deliberating and reconsidering her position on such a difficult topic, Jada finally made a decision. While most parents would never even consider the request, Jada acknowledged her son's unique situation. And so, she allowed him to be formally emancipated.
And in truth, Jada felt it might be better for their familial bond in the long run. "I knew that the sooner I let him go, the faster he was going to come back," she confessed. And on Jaden's 15th birthday, she and Will gave their son the only gift he really wanted - they filed their parental "divorce" papers.
Sticking Around... For Now
Despite the hurt, stress, and finally, acceptance, things turned out very differently than expected. Jada didn’t have to wait for their son to come back because he never really left. After signing the emancipation papers, Jaden made the decision to stay after all, according to his 2013 interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
He went on to explain his stance to the talk show host. “See, here’s the thing that you need to understand: I’m not going anywhere… The thing that people don’t get is [that] everything at this house is free! So I can get anything and everything at this house, so I’m going to be there [for] 20 [or] 30 more years.”
To his parent's surprise, it took another five years before Jaden truly decided to branch out on his own. Up until 2017, the 19-year-old was living in the family home before he moved into a mansion in Hidden Hills. His new home was rumored to be worth around $4 million dollars too!
Jaden decided to stay close to his family, and by the time he did move out, he was very much ready to start his own life separate from his family. But according to the young celeb, staying with his mom and dad for a few years more had been the right decision.
A New Approach
This realization of how much he appreciated and needed his family didn’t fully occur to him until he had finally left the nest and gained full independence. Though he didn’t discuss it much publicly, that particular episode of Red Table Talk seemed like the right time to share his revelation.
“It just makes you appreciate being at home, being with your parents [and] spending quality time with family,” he told his mother, sister, grandmother, and countless viewers. “You get out into the world, and then you just kind of just understand things.”
Growing Up In The Industry
Despite the years of judgment and criticism for their non-traditional parenting, it seemed like Will and Jada made a lot of good decisions when it came to Jaden and Willow. But not everything worked out perfectly - even their children had something to say about their unusually permissive upbringing.
After all, both were thrust into the limelight at a young age, and though they wanted fame at the time, both look back on it with regret as adults. In particular, Willow described her success in the music industry as a “terrible experience. The values of the people that were around me should have been the opposite.”
“In the Game Too Soon”
Jaden agreed and further cast light on what Willow was expressing, adding, "You're feeling about that was that you felt like you were put in the game too soon." He understood exactly what she went through as he himself became a household name in Hollywood at just 10 years old.
"I went through the same thing that Willow went through with 'Whip My Hair' with The Karate Kid. It was happening at the same time," he recalled. Jada chimed in saying, "he was in a full split, and he was in tears… He looked at me, [and] he's like, 'Mom, I'm good.' He got up, and he said, 'Let's do it again.'"
The Cost of Fame
Now, as a 21-year-old, Willow has been able to recontextualize what she was experiencing at that time and told her mother, “I think all that came with it was too much.” Though Jada understood exactly what her kids were feeling, she still stuck by her and Will’s decisions.
She wanted them to work hard and have a sense of ambition and independence, something that had been instilled into Jada and Will as kids. When they saw Willow break into the industry, they felt it was important for her future. "Your dad and I, we were like, 'Oh man, she'll be set up for life. This is her start,'" she recalled.
At the end of the day, people will always argue over the right and wrong ways to raise children, and perhaps no one will ever get it exactly right. But if there’s one thing that Jada Smith learned while raising her incredible children, it’s that “every child needs something different.”
But she also came away from the story proving something important - that perhaps if one believes in what they think is best for their child, they should stand by it. As hurtful as it was to hear her son's request for emancipation, her intuitive response turned out to be the best decision - for their whole family...