Will Smith Explains How Daughter Willow Changed His Parenting Style: 'I Discovered Feelings'

"I feel like Willow saved me from what could have been tragic in my life," said Will Smith of his daughter

Willow Smith and Will Smith
Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Will Smith recalibrated his parenting style after daughter Willow made him realize he wasn't taking into account anyone's feelings.

The movie star, 53, is dad to three kids: sons Trey, 29, and Jaden, 23, plus Willow, who released the song "Whip My Hair" back in 2010 to huge success. During a conversation at "Will Smith: An Evening of Stories with Friends" at Kings Theatre in New York City's Brooklyn Tuesday night, Smith recalled how he handled her rise to fame at the time, which came when she was 9, touring with Justin Bieber by 10.

"I was like, 'I am parenting the s--- out of these kids,' " Smith said with a laugh of his kids reaching career success at a young age. "I felt like I was doing really, really well."

She performed on the tour in Dublin, saying after coming off the stage, "Thank you, Daddy. I'm finished." Smith recalled 10-year-old Willow responding when he said she had to continue performing, "It doesn't matter to you that I'm done, Daddy?"

One morning, Willow arrived for breakfast having "shaved her entire head bald," surprising Smith, who then picked up on his child's feelings on the matter.

"I'm looking and I'm like, 'Got it. I got it, baby. I'm sorry. I apologize. You can stop,' " he said, adding, "It was terrifying. I felt like I had been texting looking at my phone and stepped out into the street in front of a bus and Willow snatched me back. As strange as it sounds, in that moment I discovered feelings. Because of my childhood, because of the way I was raised ... I didn't care about how I felt so I damn sure didn't care about how somebody else felt. My feelings didn't matter in my childhood home. You did what you were told to do. I had to really think about the question she was asking me. The question she was really asking was 'Daddy, does it matter to you how I feel?' It was so explosive in my mind. That was like a deep, existential question."

"My parenting style changed in that moment," he added.

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Smith — who also shared that he had always wanted to become a dad since he was 5 years old — said he had perceived parenting as "pushing and prodding and cajoling people into the vision that I had, demanding that people do the things that I had envisioned for them."

However, "After that moment, I started to realize ... a seed is already a thing: It's been designed by God and it already is a thing. It's not my job to demand it be a thing that I need it to be to satiate and gratify my ego. My job is to water and nourish and nurture that seed to become what it already is, and to align myself with that seed versus pushing and prodding.

"That was a major transition for me in my life," said the King Richard actor. "I feel like Willow saved me from what could have been tragic in my life."

Will Smith: An Evening of Stories with Friends
Will Oliver & Kings Theatre

Willow, who recently turned 21, previously opened up about this time in her life, saying on Red Table Talk in 2018 to mom Jada Pinkett-Smith, "I definitely had to forgive you and Daddy for that whole 'Whip My Hair' thing. It was mostly Daddy because he was so harsh at certain times."

"It was a couple of years, honestly. Trying to regain trust for not feeling like I was being listened to or like no one cared how I felt," she continued at the time, adding, "And I had to forgive myself because I felt guilty because everyone is trying to make me better, trying to make my dream. But I didn't really understand what my dream entailed."

Will is now available wherever books are sold.

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