It may not be illegal to dress a 4-year-old in Pretty Woman regalia or like a mini-Dolly Parton -- breast pads and all -- but it would seem to border on immoral. And yet there are many parents who have been doing just that -- while millions more were watching.
I know I am not alone in my aversion to reality shows like Toddlers and Tiaras. I couldn't bring myself to get through even one full episode of this TLC series, which recently ran its grand finale to end their fourth season. But I did read articles about it here on HuffPost and in the cover story of People Magazine.
Harvard sociologist, Hilary Friedman, described one scene in "The Grand Finale," that confirmed why the show is both riveting and reviling for its 2 million fans. She wrote about a mom who was overheard harshly coaxing her 5-year-old daughter to focus on her practice routine. With her back to the camera, she said "Don't you dare tell me 'no' one more time. Do you hear me!? We are on national TV. Everybody's going to see this. Do you hear me?" At which point the mom slapped a smile on her face, turned to the camera and said in a kinder tone, "Okay. We're doing the Cruella de Vil run-through." The little girl, trying to cooperate, began practicing, only to become exasperated and said, "you are driving me crazy" for all of America to hear.
From the mouth of babes, "crazy" is right! And yet, it was not this particular interaction that bothered me, but rather how much it reminded me of other Mommie Dearest scenes being played out elsewhere in our country -- more private ones with no camera in sight -- that include daddies as well. Have you sat among parents at a children's soccer tryout recently? Or in the waiting area of a kid's chess tournament? How about on the steps of nursery schools right before parents enter for their child's Pre-K interview?
What is different about the interactions on Toddler and Tiaras is that they are exposed for all to see. We have the opportunity to view families willing to let us in on their world, party because they are caught on TV and in part because of their narcissistic desires to be watched. In real life, unlike reality television, parents are quietly coaching, cajoling and pushing their kids to excel in all sorts of ways these days -- academically, in the performing arts and at every sport imaginable.
And the earlier the pressure starts in a child's life the better. A humorous commercial for GEICO Insurance makes light of this issue -- with a mom and dad talking about how they plan to secure their future by setting their son on the path toward professional basketball. Their 5-year-old boy dribbles the ball, dunks, but gets stuck on the rim of net, hanging there while the parents keep talking to the camera about their precocious son's talent -- their insurance policy.
Not so funny when parents are doing 'crazy' things in real life to ensure their child's extraordinary success. Parents today have begun to genetically test their toddlers for athletic potential. With claims to be able to determine a child's ultimate capacity for speed, agility and power, these tests appeal to parents who are eager to determine which sport their child should focus on and if their prodigies will grow into sport stars.
In the NY Times piece, "Born to Run? Little Ones Get Tests for Sports Gene ," Boyd Epley, a former conditioning coach at the University of Nebraska, encourages testing, saying it is regularly being used in other countries, like China an Russia, in their quest to create Olympic teams. Identifying talent early on, he says, helps whittle down the pool of athletes until only the best remain. Genetic testing "is how we could stay competitive with the rest of the world."
While the parents of toddlers in tiaras may be hyper focused on enhancing their children's beauty -- narrow as that 'talent' may be -- is it really that different from the dynamics involved in other children's competitions? Years ago, we watched Joe Montagna in the film, Searching for Bobby Fisher, poignantly portray the true story of a father's struggle with his young son, a chess prodigy. The boy -- in real life, Josh Waitzkin -- ultimately opted out of the tournament circuit to avoid Fisher's destiny, a life of isolation and unhappiness in spite of his great success. More recently we watched another parent-child struggle in the film, The Black Swan. A talented ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, is driven toward her destiny by her pathologically narcisstic mother. We all know how that story ended.
What about the young boys and girls in Jig, the documentary about the competitive world of Irish Dancing? Forced smiles, elaborate costumes, strange wigs and huge trophies were interesting fodder for the film, but some of the family interactions were pretty disturbing to watch. No doubt there will soon be a documentary about youth travel team sports in America exposing the intense dynamics between parents and children on those fields of dreams.
Madisyn Verst, the little 5-year-old on Toddlers and Tiaras was being coached by her mom who said, "if you're going to compete, you have to do what it takes." For her that meant false eyelashes, spray tanning and relentless rehearsing 'mature' dance routines over and over. But really, how does Madisyn's mother differ from stage moms of most child actors? Or parents of musical prodigies? Do the kids who compete in National Spelling Bees have parents who sit back, uninvolved?
In his autobiography, Open, Andrew Agassi made it clear that his tennis career was navigated through a tortured relationship with his coach/dad. More recently, at Wimbledon, Marion Bartoli considered banning her father from watching her tournaments because of similar overly involved family dynamics. Maria Sharapova's father has rarely been seen court-side since the USTA condemned the throat-slitting gesture he made toward her while losing the Australian Open.
Do we really think the Tiger moms and dads of everyday children behave any better?
To single out families in Toddlers and Tiaras is to neglect that fact that there have been, and continue to be, narcissistic parents who view their children as extensions of themselves, pushing their kids to achieve in ways that meet their parents needs, not necessarily their own -- sometime with positive results, but leaving most with a distorted experience of childhood.
But perhaps now, more than ever, all parents -- narcissistic or not -- are faced with difficult choices. Do we equip our children with the tools they need to compete with "Super People " -- the current species of highly successful kids identified by Jim Altas in his recent NY Times opinion piece? He writes that we live in an "hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society" that has "finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts."
So, here's the question: Should we be training today's children to win -- beauty pageants, sports competitions, spelling bees or in any arena they 'play?' And at any cost? Or do we support them to be the best they can be, letting them develop into their genuine true selves and hope they turn out just fine? I think you know my answer.
What are your thoughts about this parenting issue?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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