Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween scare: The Pageant Moms from Hell

In honor of Halloween, I thought it would be appropriate to write about something scary. And I can think of few things scarier than pageant moms.

I was blissfully unaware of their continued existence in the post Jon Benet era, until a regular reader suggested I Google "Anderson Cooper" along with "toddler" and "tiara."

Watching the segment was like watching the proverbial train wreck. I wanted to walk away and pretend I never saw it, but I couldn't tear my eyes from the spectacle on my screen.

Let's step back a bit. The three pageant moms featured on Anderson's show star, along with their tarted up tots, on a popular so-called reality program on the most ludicrously named network on cable television. Of course, the producers edit and encourage extreme behavior. What scared me most was that, even dialed back fifty per cent, these parents would remain utterly reprehensible.

Evidently, a segment of the population sees nothing wrong with dressing kindergarten age girls like hookers.

Why mince words?

These moms were giddy with the excitement of parading their daughters on national television in outfits including one called "Vegas showgirl" and a mini-version of Julia Roberts' now iconic streetwalker get up from the blockbuster Pretty Woman. That dress, with its bare midriff, and the shiny over the knee boots are almost as recognizable as Michael Jackson's Thriller garb. Not that the third mom was any better. She had her pre-kindergartner prancing on the stage in a costume reminiscent of a sexually pliable bar wench.

All three moms freaked when accused of sexualizing their daughters. One went as far as to make retching noises at the assertion that her kid might be garnering the wrong kind of attention.

The moms unanimously defended the pageants as a way to teach their children poise and as venues to practice music and dance. Right. And I'm Miss Universe. These kids were precocious - no question.

However, none of the three featured kids could carry a tune. And they'd clearly learn more about poise by trying out for a play, or dance by enrolling in ballet class.

One of the girls elicited an unforgettable face from Anderson when she did a song and dance about "shake my booty." Her mom defended the act as harmless fun. The third girl prowled the stage like a stripper eager for tips.

It seems so obvious to me that these girls are motivated by a need to please their mothers, a trio of washed up women who would have been better off purchasing Barbie dolls than reproducing.

Indeed, these kids are so desperate to please their mothers that they submit to physical pain to satisfy the demands of this twisted world.

For the record, if you cannot swat your kid in public for misbehaving, you should clearly NOT be allowed to WAX your toddler for cosmetic effect. I'm pretty sure that if I marched the Grape to the playground across the street and started yanking his hair out by the roots, some bystander would alert a police officer.

Therefore I'm comfortable going on the record saying that waxing a toddler or elementary schooler, even a tragically hairy one, is child abuse.

These girls aren't just waxed in the name of beauty. They're spray-tanned. They endure marathon hair and make-up sessions. Some wear fake boobs. (But the moms don't think this sexualizes them, so it must be okay.) And let's not even talk about how much outdoor and/or imaginative play time these kids waste primping and preening.

Some of audience members criticized the moms for the cash outlay required for pageant participation. Yes, the numbers sounded obscene, but I'm not going to bash them for investing in kids' interests per se. Plenty of parents of artists, musicians and athletes make great financial sacrifices to support their children's pursuits. The parents of true prodigies sometimes relocate the entire family to be close to the virtuoso, coach or ski hill that will take their prodigy to the elite level. (Important Side Note: If you have to ask whether your kid is a prodigy, he or she is not.)

What troubles me about the six figure cash outlay for pageants is the disgusting message these little girls hear from the cradle (all three girls started out in infant pageants)onward: Your most important asset is your sex appeal.

I'm normally a fan of live and let live. I believe there are horses for courses, so to speak. If adult women want to objectify themselves, I suppose that's their prerogative.

But kiddie beauty pageants exploit little girls in a vile way, and in my view, the world would be a better place without them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Grape goes carpet bagging

In less than two weeks, voters in Mississippi will vote on a "personhood amendment," declaring that human life begins at conception. Sponsored by anti-choice extremists, proposition 26 would outlaw not just abortion, but also most forms of birth control.

If question 26 passes, it won't be the first time we in the coastal metropolises roll our eyes at the backwardness of that particular state. The personhood amendment will be immediately challenged on constitutional grounds, and could be stricken down by the courts in an expedient fashion, rendering the only real damage the colossal waste of taxpayer's money.

(Note to proponents of austerity: All amendments are really expensive).

So why do I, secure in my oasis in the heart of blue state America, care? Why am I suddenly encouraging carpet bagging?

I have three main reasons:

Because if the personhood bit passes in Mississippi, other states will be more likely to try similar initiatives. Because any interference with a woman's right to choose makes my blood boil. And because the presumptive nominee of one of the major political parties doesn't seem to have a problem with legislating that life begins at conception.

The trouble, as alert Iowan Beth Schopis observed at a Romney town meeting this week, is that the most popular forms of contraception don't necessarily prevent conception. They avoid pregnancy by preventing implantation.

Anti-choice extremists believe that interfering with the implantation of a fertilized egg constitutes abortion. Lunacy, I know, especially when you consider that over 99 per cent of sexually active heterosexual women have used contraceptives (according to the Guttmacher Institute). But there you have it. Mississippi's question 26 would outlaw the pill, the IUD, and various other hormonally based methods of contraception, as well as the morning after pill (which is already tough to come by in many parts of this country).

The amendment's fallout wouldn't even stop there.

IVF? Forget about it. Fertility clinics are death camps for embryos. Sure, you can put the good ones on ice for years, but anyone who's ever read the first thing about assisted reproductive technology knows that the clinics fertilize way more eggs than they use. So what becomes of the B-list blastocytes? Down the drain.

Should the state really be calling this homicide?

What about fetal stem cell research? I'm guessing that's to be outlawed as well. Not that Mississippi was really in the hunt, in terms of attracting world class researchers to their state anyway.

Would rendering all abortion homicide have a chilling effect on the professional discretion of doctors faced with terminating a pregnancy in order to save a patient's life? What about the other frequently cited exceptions in abortion jurisprudence? Do we really want to classify the dispensation of the morning after pill to a rape or incest victim as murder? Isn't this starting to feel awfully Orwellian?

What makes me angriest of all is that Romney, the proponents of Mississippi's question 26, and indeed a huge majority of the right wing in general and self-described Christians in particular, seem to espouse as Gospel Barney Frank's old quip that the republicans believe life begins at conception and ends at birth.

Mississippi is one of the poorest places in America. It has a lousy education system, high unemployment and inadequate health care. A staggering 38 per cent of the state's ACTUAL CHILDREN live below the poverty line. Will this personhood amendment do anything to alleviate their suffering?

Should any major party candidate, but especially one who's running on his economic prowess, endorse such an idiotic, nonsensical, and hopefully Constitutionally doomed measure? And why am I hurling all these annoying questions at you from atop my soapbox?

Because the fact that a major party's presumptive nominee (and his main rivals, for that matter) seem to feel ambivalent at best about not just a woman's right to choose, but her right to prevent pregnancy in the first place.

Even if a caveman dresses in designer suits, speaks Harvard MBA and lives in a $12 million dollar beach house, he's a still a cave man. One no feminist should feel the least bit comfortable with.

Here's the link to Rachel Maddow's fantastic segment:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why bother with the crazy elf language?

The Grape and I speak Finnish exclusively when nobody else is around, and I try to keep it up when others are in ear shot as well. I find myself providing a running narration for onlookers, such as the Grape's preschool teacher. "I just told him that I'll see him after school," I explain after saying my goodbyes in Finnish, which someone in my family - I can't recall who - dubbed the "crazy elf language" years ago.

Finnish, unlike the Romance, Germanic or Scandinavian languages, is utterly incomprehensible to English speakers. It's therefore unlikely to serve the Grape in any significant manner, unless he wishes to converse with really elderly Finns or plan a career as a Finnish game show host. He won't need it to navigate Helsinki, since every Finn below a certain age speaks some English. Before I started my mission to inflict the crazy elf language on my kid, I used my Finnish while in Finland, when writing to Finnish friends and as a not-really-that-neat party trick.

Furthermore, it's an uphill battle to impart an obscure tongue spoken by less than six million people. English is everywhere, though I make an effort to translate many of our picture books, and to repeat the Grape's utterances in Finnish when he makes a remark in English. A guy at a party once asked me why I bother. "Wouldn't it be better to teach your kid Mandarin?" he asked, seemingly puzzled. I told him I don't know Mandarin and he muttered something about that being beside the point.

Except it's not. It's hard enough to have two languages going at all times. I can't imagine trying to learn Chinese along with my toddler. I presume such a folly would prove a total non-starter, since adult and child language acquisition work differently. Children learn through immersion, context and experience. That works for adults, too, but adults can also learn by drilling grammar and vocabulary.

The critical difference in my admittedly anecdotal experience: children who grow up in bilingual households think (and dream) in both languages. Kids who learn a language in school rarely do. Those who achieve total fluency without the benefit of immersion do so after many hours of hard work. Most people I've met in this situation say they rarely think in the second language. Their minds just get super fast at translation.

Kids exposed from the get go don't struggle with thinking, talking and expressing ideas in either language. And there's some evidence that bi-lingual kids may have an easier time acquiring third, fourth and more languages. Juggling two or more tongues from the start seems to activate some part of the brain that monolingual people don't really use. A different study earlier in the year noted that people who speak multiple languages are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

Yesterday the New York Times reported something that moms in my shoes already know: babies react early on to the languages they hear regularly. Um, duh. Like any multilingual person, a very young child's ears prick up when he detects familiar sounds. Even before they're verbal, kids can be bilingual.

The Grape is fully bilingual. He spends a lot of time translating things for R., and he pays attention to the language being used by others before choosing which one to deploy. He talks in his sleep, in both languages. And when he doesn't get what he wants by using one, he'll always try asking in the other. He speaks each language without an accent from the other. I'm hopeful the phonetic skills will stay with him, even if the omnipresent English eventually takes over.

Once in a while, someone asks why I bother with Finnish. I don't have an easy answer. Sure, it would be nice to think I'm inoculating my kid against dementia or ensuring an easy A for him in high school French, but the body of research isn't so cut and dry. So I'm left with, it's just what we do. I speak it, so why wouldn't I want my kid to have the same ability? Maybe it's some primordial urge to connect one's offspring with their roots, to have a connection to the rapidly dying older generation. Maybe it's an instinct that more is somehow better. I really can't say, but I'd love to hear from other families where one parent is bilingual and the other isn't. Why do you teach the second language to your kids? Or why not?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Why such a pack of therapy hounds?

Many of us first world parents have too much free time. I know it doesn't feel that way, but how else could one explain the massive amount of "intervention" to which many modern, healthy, normal children are subjected?

Case in point: a grandmother with whom I'm acquainted mentioned this week that her two-year-old grandchild is seeing a therapist because, wait for it: she doesn't like to get dressed in the morning. The kiddo in question is a healthy child with an average activity level and average vocabulary.

Had I been sitting in a chair when I heard this, I would have fallen out of it. I assured the granny lady that the Grape pitches a fit about removing his pajamas at least every other morning. He's two. He's asserting himself. For no good reason by adult standards.

Most mornings, we need to get out the door. So the Grape hollers like a drunken banshee while I pluck him from his crib, disrobe him and get him dressed for the day. Is the behavior annoying? Of course. Is it worth seeking professional help? Not so much.

Evidently much ado is made about the pencil grip exhibited by four-year-olds these days. I know several tots whose teachers have referred them to therapy because of nonconformist crayon holding. I have, to this day, the most awkward pencil grip of any person I know. I think it's because I busted my hand in the first grade.

Fortunately for me, my teacher was too busy dealing with the kid who ate paste until he yacked to make an issue of my little pencil rebellion. That is, if she even noticed, which I kind of doubt.

Yesterday, in the sandbox across the street, a mom was pleading, in a whiny voice that made my skin crawl, with an apoplectically hysterical toddler who was screaming, hitting, flailing and throwing toys. She kept trying to ask the girl how she would feel if someone (some imaginary abstract person, I guess) struck her.

Meanwhile, the normal afternoon crew of nannies sitting nearby rolled their eyes and muttered to each other that the poor kid just needed a nap. Indeed.

The kid continued to flail, and the mom continued to grovel for civility, for at least fifteen minutes. Other children stopped and watched the spectacle. The mom's mommy friend asked, in the middle of the tantrum, if tantrum girl was autistic, and started urging the lady to switch pediatricians. I removed myself from the vicinity before something scathing could escape my lips.

Most toddlers who throw tantrums are perfectly normal, developmentally speaking. Empathy, i.e. this how-would-you-feel line of inquiry, isn't their strong suit. The Grape is a super verbal kid, but he doesn't, even in his best and brightest moods, show a lot of evidence of abstract thinking. He, like most toddlers, experiences glimmers of empathy when actual events unfold in front of his well-rested eyes. Not when presented as hypotheticals. And certainly not when he's already mid-meltdown.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's wonderful that we have intervention for those who truly need it. Speech therapists help thousands of pre-school aged children who literally don't speak at all. A range of services exist for kids who actually present with autism or attention disorders. But I wonder how much pushy parents of healthy children siphon strained public school resources away from those kids who actually need early intervention for one or many real issues.

And then there's a twisted minority of parents who actively push to have their offspring diagnosed with some learning impediment, so that Junior can be held to a laxer standard. That makes my blood boil. What favor, exactly, are they doing their kid by insinuating a fake handicap?

But I digress. The rush to find a cause for every setback and every tantrum leaves me cold. They're toddlers. They get tired faster than we do. They're asserting themselves as independent beings for the first time in their little lives. That they do so over things that, to our adult minds, seem trivial only underscores the point: Kids don't need therapy just because they don't behave like mini adults.