The Psychology of the Parents of Balloon Boy
This past week we saw the news media captivated by the idea that a 6-year-old boy, Falcon Heene had been carried off by a weather balloon. That is until the boy was later found in his own garage attic and shortly thereafter it was revealed on a television news show that the entire incident was likely a hoax. In replying to a reporter’s question, the young Falcon turned to his dad on camera and said, “You guys said that, umm, we did this for the show.” Oops.
The parents — Richard Heene and Mayumi Heene — have all along claimed it was not a hoax or a publicity stunt. Now, according to The New York Times, the parents will voluntarily surrender to police as soon as charges are filed, which is expected to happen on Wednesday.
While the truth continues to unfold, the police in the investigation have concluded it was likely indeed a publicity stunt: “We have evidence to indicate it was a publicity stunt done with the hope of marketing themselves to a reality-television show sometime in the future,” said Larimer County sheriff Jim Alderden on Sunday afternoon at a news conference in Fort Collins, Colorado.
So that leaves us with the inevitable question — what could possibly psychologically motivate parents to use their child’s very life in order to further themselves?
We see clues to the answer in some other information that’s trickling out about the parents. ABC News noted that former business partner Barbara Slusser — who chased hurricanes and other storms with the Heenes — that they parted ways when Slusser felt that the Heenes often put their kids in harm’s way. Slusser told ABC News, “The last straw for us was when Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike were heading toward the Texas coastline and Heene wanted to go back there and take the kids.”
So we seem to have a set of parents who already don’t quite understand the idea of how to raise children in a safe, responsible and thoughtful manner, thinking nothing of storm-chasing hurricanes and tornadoes with their young children in tow. Storm-chasing, of course, can be a very dangerous and unpredictable endeavor. One of the reasons adults do it is for the thrill of the unpredictability of the storm — putting oneself in harm’s way to experience a ferocious component of nature. But your children? They aren’t old enough to make such decisions for themselves — they trust their parents’ good judgment and experience.
But an account on Gawker by someone who worked with Richard Heene sheds even more light on the Heenes’ motivation — money and additional fame. This was a family that had been on the television program, Wife Swap, and they had already tasted celebrity. They wanted more of it. And they may have needed the money sooner rather than later:
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think in this case the desperation was too much for Richard to bear. Richard’s construction business wasn’t doing too well. It’s hard to find people interested in spending money on the aesthetics of their home when they’re worried about their mortgage.
A lot of the work I did with the Heene family related to passing out fliers, putting them on people’s front doors. The fliers advertised a roofing business and a general handyman business. As the months progressed, Richard’s paranoia increased exponentially and my paycheck decreased exponentially. The work I put in for the ABC proposal was never compensated. Richard implied he didn’t have the money to pay me. But he would always reassure me, “It’s all going to pay off in the end.”
So simply put, the balloon boy incident was an attempt to drum up interest in “The Heenes,” helping forward their desire and efforts to have their own reality TV show. All at the expense of their children.
Could it be the taste of celebrity that causes a parent’s judgment to become impaired? Or the need for money to pay the bills? Or some combination of the two plus an adult’s own desires and need for attention in this world (e.g., a bit of narcissism thrown in)?
Most parents view their role toward their children as a caretaker, protector, guide, teacher, sometimes-confidante, sometimes-disciplinarian, but most of all, someone who will love them unconditionally and accept them for the human beings that they are. That’s why child abuse is so heart-breaking — the one adult a child has a natural bond to betrays their unquestioning trust with violence or neglect.
The only way a parent could likely use their child to further their own ends is through a lot of rationalization — “I’m doing this for our family.” Since the child is a part of the larger family unit, it may make sense in that parent’s mind that this is a reasonable use of their child. “After all, I wasn’t putting my child in any real danger. We were just going to have a little fun with the news media,” the rationalization might continue.
The need for money and a desire for more celebrity might have been an intoxicating combination to the couple, who, as it turns out, met at the Lee Strasberg acting school in Los Angeles. Actors, as a group, thrive on people seeing their work and people paying attention to them; an actor out of the spotlight is usually not a happy, satisfied actor.
I’m not certain we’ll ever know the full story or answer. What we do know is that the Heenes’ biggest wish was granted — they have been the focus of non-stop media attention now for a few days and it’s unlikely to die down for a few more. In fact, the story was the headline on BBC 1 News on Friday and Saturday while I was in Amsterdam, showing the global interest in what was originally a human-interest, child-at-risk story.
This story serves as a sad example of two parents’ very poor judgment in using their own child in this manner. Whether it was for money or celebrity, the end result is the same — these are parents who likely shouldn’t be in the role of parenting their children any longer.
Read the Gawker story: Exclusive: I Helped Richard Heene Plan a Balloon Hoax
Read the New York Times story on the latest developments in this case: Parents in Balloon Case to Surrender
Grohol, J. (2009). The Psychology of the Parents of Balloon Boy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 11, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/10/19/the-psychology-of-the-parents-of-balloon-boy/