For those of us who were fans of Will Smith back in the days of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and The Fresh Brince of Bel Air, the megastar is, and always has been, all smiles all the time— with a side of goof and a dash of old-school rap, but again, on the jolly side.

So while it’s hard enough to fully process Will Smith in the more serious roles he’s played in recent years, it’s even more challenging to imagine him with a real-life family dynamic that’s much of a struggle.

Think you know Will Smith’s family?

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In case you only know his famous youngest kids, Will Smith actually has three children.

His first wife, Sheree Zampino, gave birth to their eldest, back in ’92, making Willard Carroll “Trey” Smith III, 27 years old today.

With his current (and fellow movie star) wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith fathered Jaden Smith, now 21, and Willow Smith, 18.

While much is known about Will and Jada’s shared parenting style thanks to their social media presence, less is known about what Will went through in learning to be a good dad to Trey.

Willow and Jaden’s unorthodox upbringing

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Will has been vocal over the years about his and Jada’s approach to parenting Jaden and Willow.

They do not punish their children, having decided that children should be accorded responsibility for their lives from a young age. They encourage creative expression, full-disclosure style honesty, and don’t resort to the usual gendered double standards when it comes to their daughter’s freedom.

Nor do they give any of their children fashion advice, which the media has had a field day with, as Will’s two youngest do indeed express themselves freely and creatively.

One thing’s for sure, Will’s parenting philosophies have brought some very creative youth into the world. While Jaden is a rapper, singer, songwriter, and actor, Willow is a singer, songwriter, record producer, actress and dancer.

And Trey, who appeared in the music video for Will Smith’s 1998 single “Just The Two of Us”, has since followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in the music industry as well.

What Will learned from Trey

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Since the media have often focused on the lives and styles and enterprises of Will Smith’s younger children Jaden and Willow, fans and followers of the star have expressed their respect and approval for his willingness to publicly open up about his relationship with his eldest, Trey (Willard Junior!)—his truest namesake.

Will has admitted that the pair haven’t always shared such a smooth relationship—in fact, it’s been kind of rocky.

The loving reunion after the struggle

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 06: (L-R) Trey Smith, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jaden Smith attend Paramount Pictures’ premiere of “Gemini Man” on October 06, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Will has never been one to shy away from public displays of emotion. He shares his ups and downs with the world as he feels them.

Last year he demonstrated this with real integrity when he posted a tribute to his eldest son Trey in an Instagram post, writing: “It has not always been like this between Trey & I. We STRUGGLED FOR YEARS after my Divorce from his Mother. He felt betrayed & abandoned. It is a Wild Blessing to recover & restore a Loving Relationship with My Beautiful Son!” 

In the post, Smith included a video explaining that he and Trey had been spending quality solo time together in Abu Dhabi, when Trey confided:

You know what dad? I just realized you’re not just my dad. I’m pretty sure you’re my best friend.

Trey shared his own feelings for Will on his dad’s birthday, saying: “To the keeper and distributor of the best (life) and worst (women) advice I’ve ever been given… I want to wish you a very happy birthday.”

If the endless positive reactions to his post have anything to teach us, I’d hazard a guess that being willing to show vulnerability as a parent can go a long way toward your children knowing and loving you, not just as a parent, but as a person too.

Thought of the day: when you give your children the kind of unheard of respect and freedom that Will gives his—it has a sort of equalizing effect, in the sense that, where everyone is treated as an adult, everyone is equal.

With that sort of dynamic, vulnerability is part of the territory. We are far less likely to hide emotions from an equal.

The power of vulnerable parents

Being vulnerable with your family in general, and your children in particular, is one of the best ways to grow your bond and show how much you love and trust someone.

I can’t help but recall the old Richard Back-derived adage: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were.”

This applies just as much to family as it does to romantic love. Setting your kid “free” can mean a lot of things, from admitting your own wrongdoing, to apologizing for a prolonged absence, to letting them pursue their own path in life—even if it’s not one you would have chosen for them. 

Will Smith’s words and actions let the world know he’s just as much human as he is parent, and his relationships with his children seem to reflect the positive side of that.