When the controversy sparked recently about a little girl on the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras being dressed up as Julia Roberts's prostitute character on Pretty Woman, I had to tune in to see what it is all about. And then the show made headlines again when one mom confessed to giving her daughter large quantities of caffeine and sugar, calling it "Go-go Juice" and "pageant crack," to keep her little daughter awake and competitive at pageants.
Toddlers & Tiaras should really be called Tweens & Tiaras, as the episodes I've seen mostly had 10 and 11-year-olds as the stars. Each 60-minute episode follows 3 different girls and their families as the girls compete in American beauty contests. Some families showcase the stereotypical stage moms hooting and hollering from the back of the room, their eyes brimming with tears when their daughters don't claim the top prize, their candid confessionals caught on camera.
There are also plenty of girls who don't seem to be enjoying the pageant process, despite their moms hiring independent talent "coaches" and vowing repeatedly their daughters "love competing in pageants." One little girl, 6-year-old Paige, turned her back on the coach, never smiling once, even while on stage. Yet her mom, with the same dull expression as her daughter, declared, "Paige is really excited to be here."
I expected to watch Toddlers & Tiaras and see a bunch of show moms living through their daughters. I did see that, but I also saw much more of the pageant world spectrum. And surprisingly, there are aspects of the pageant world and the families featured on the show I actually like.
At a time in America when kids are left alone with the TV or game console as their main companion, there is a lot of female bonding and attention the girls are getting from their moms and mother figures on Toddlers & Tiaras.
In one episode a 10-year-old girl named Madi has a pageant "Aunt" and "Grandma" with her every step of the way. These are women who don't have daughters or granddaughters of their own, so they've taken their friend's little girl as their own to introduce to the pageant world.
There are mothers and daughters who pray together; they laugh and share inside jokes. Many of the moms are likable, not annoying, shallow moms like I've seen on the Lifetime show, Dance Moms.
What I don't like about the premise of the pageant world, and the show, though, is at best these little girls seem destined to grow up to be self-indulgent, expecting an entourage to cater to them at every turn. One little 3-year-old (the only real toddler I saw in the episodes I saw) barked commands at her mom and coaches. Without knowing what she was saying, she'd mantra like a robot, "I'm going to get the crown and money."
It is definitely all played up for the cameras. This little girl's cheeks are so adorable, and she did end up winning the Grand Prize with her sassy attitude, but I kept flashing forward 10 years in my mind to the self-indulgent, Veruca Salt character I can just see in the making. Do we really need more shallow, self-centered people in the world?
None of the families look like they have the money to be competing in these pricey pageants, which consist of costumes, coaching and travel, either. This just adds to the argument that decadent beings are being raised instead of kind, altruistic ones.
I also worry about the way these little girls will feel when they're older, when their looks fade and they look around to see what else they have to offer. In one heartbreaking scene it was obvious a little girl, Desiree, thought twice about the enhancements that were thrust upon her. The message was clear her own brown eyes weren't good enough as her entourage struggled to get flashy green contacts to cover her own eyes instead.
When she asked her mother, "Maybe I should just use my own teeth," which were typically crooked of many 10-year-olds, her mother snapped, "No," and glued the broken mouth piece of perfectly fake white, straight teeth (flippers) in place.
The personalities, charisma and family dynamics outshine any of the sparkly costumes on Toddlers & Tiaras, though. And because of these winning combinations, I'd much rather see mom and daughter teams working for something really helpful to society, like walking to fight breast cancer or forging relationships with others to build schools in impoverished areas...something that would actually add value to the world.
Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom of 4 young kids and the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to children and family issues. Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com