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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Youngest SportsKids Ever?

The last issue of Sports Illustrated Kids highlighted the achievements of six-year-old Courtney Diemar. Courtney lives in Colorado and competes in triathlons.  She was first in her age group at the 2010 IronKids national championships, beating other six-year-old girls by more than a minute.  Judging by her picture, Courtney doesn't look very fierce, so I wondered how many kids she trounced on her way to victory.  I assumed not many six-year-olds compete in triathlons, but it turns out 32 of them competed in the national tournament-- and 13 of them were girls (note that three six-year-old boys beat Courtney).

Courtney was one of four kids featured as January/February SportsKids of the "month."  Along with Courtney 13-year-old Connor was honored for cycling, 10-year-old Makayla for soccer, and thirteen-year-old Kirran for golf. It's easy enough to nominate a child for this honor. You simply fill out an online form, detailing the child's sports, academic, and community service accomplishments. In the March issue of Sports Illustrated Kids, which I just received, this month's four honorees are all about the same ages, and they tend to participate in unusual sports (thirteen-year-old Lauren competes in archery, nine-year-old Jason in cross-country, fourteen-year-old Davon in football, and nine-year-old Alyssa in trampoline).

Sports Illustrated runs a similar piece each week, called "Faces in the Crowd," which has been a feature of the magazine since January 1956 (it's two years younger than the magazine itself, which Henry Luce started in 1954).  When "Faces in the Crowd" turned fifty, SI looked back at the 15,672 amateur athletes who had been featured up to that point [some of the results are in this Wikipedia entry, or you can look up the original in the December 15, 2006 issue entitled "Face in the Crowd (A Brief History)"]. A few of the fun facts include:
  • 5,706 Female Faces
  • 263 Faces Named John
  • 123 Faces Named Smith
  • 233 Sports Represented
  • 96 Countries Represented
  • 68 Faces who later appeared on cover of SI
  • 56 sets of twins that have appeared in Faces
  • 3 SI Staffers that have been featured in Faces (Dan Jenkins, Bev Oden, Candy Putnam)
  • 31 Women who were selected as Faces for being Beauty Queens

(One of my personal faves is Vera Wang's 1968 appearance for figure skating; of course, she went on to design figure skating costumes for my favorite figure skater of all time, Michelle Kwan.)

To my knowledge, no one has taken a similar look at the kids who have been honored in the SI Kids version. Not only would it be interesting to know the gender breakdown in the fully post-Title IX environment, along with the sports which seem to vary greatly, it would also be important to look at the ages of those who have appeared.

It's a common refrain in the media (myself included) that kids are more competitive in sports at younger ages than ever before.  This is enormously difficult to document with data though. By looking at the ages of SportsKids we would possibly see this downward trend-- think about six-year-old Courtney. I'm guessing no one like Courtney appeared in 1989, when SI Kids started.

SI Kids- call me!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

There She Goes... A Trailblazing Beauty Queen

Please note: This appeared on The Huffington Post on March 15, 2011 as "There She Goes: A Trailblazing, Feminist Beauty Queen."

This week women around the world observed the 100th celebration of International Women's Day.  We honored female trailblazers and leaders.

One woman not discussed was Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943, who passed away on Sunday night. Some of you may think that beauty queens aren't female leaders, and that they certainly aren't trailblazers.  But Jean Bartel was both.  Her reign illustrates how the Miss America Pageant was historically a transformative, feminist enterprise for American women.

When the Pageant started as a bathing beauty contest in 1921, no "respectable" women participated.  It wasn't until 1935 when the formidable Lenora Slaughter (a female leader in her own right) took over the Pageant that it began to become an endeavor for the nation's "ideal" young women.  Slaughter insisted that the girls competing could be something more than pretty faces, and she went on to establish some of the most distinctive and enduring characteristics of today's Miss America Pageant.  In 1938 Slaughter made the talent portion of the competition mandatory; in 1941 she got the name officially changed to “The Miss America Pageant;” and in 1945 she gave out the first scholarship to the winner. All of Slaughter’s effort were a calculated attempt to attract “ladies” to participate in the Pageant.

And Jean Bartel was one of those ladies. In 1942 she entered the Miss California pageant, after learning that one of the national pageant judges was a Broadway financier.  Bartel wanted to be a Broadway star and she figured this would be her chance to show of her singing chops, thanks to the talent portion of the Pageant.  She entered the state pageant-- won-- and a month later traveled to Atlantic City where she also won. The rest is history.

Jean Bartel made history for the Miss America Pageant, and pageantry in general, in two ways (all while selling more war bonds than any other individual in 1943).  First, after her win, Bartel said she would not pose for pictures in her bathing suit.  She was quoted as saying, "I use a bathing suit to go swimming in." For an organization that started out as a bathing beauty contest, and was sponsored by Catalina, a bathing suit company, this stance certainly upset the apple cart.  Bartel's actions paved the way for Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951, to take a stand for "propriety," and refuse to be crowned in her bathing suit.  Betbeze's decision was particularly fateful, as it led to Catalina pulling their sponsorship and starting their own beauty pageant-- what is known today as the Miss USA Pageant, part of the Miss Universe system, now owned by Donald Trump.

It is also thanks in large part to Bartel that the Miss America Pageant is reportedly the largest source of scholarship money for only women anywhere in the world. Yes, Miss America is a pageant, but it is also a scholarship program, and Jean Bartel was instrumental in that transformation.  When she was crowned Bartel was a student at UCLA.  During her year she met with various sorority sisters who suggested that the Pageant could help support women in earning their college degrees.  Bartel mentioned this to Slaughter who awarded the first scholarship shortly afterward to Miss America 1945, Bess Myerson (also the first, and only, Jewish Miss America).  

Imagine funds available in the 1940s to help women pursue higher education-- this was cutting edge at the time.  Recent Miss Americas, and their fellow contestants, have used winnings to pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees, and to specifically pay for medical school and law school tuition bills.  Today this may seem less extraordinary than it was in the 1960s and 1970s when women simply did not pursue graduate degrees in large numbers, both because of limited opportunities and finances. Miss America 1974, Rebecca King, was able to pay for law school because of her scholarship winnings, and is credited as being one of the first Miss Americas to use her winnings for graduate education. Yes, she had to wear a bathing suit to get the money, but thanks to Bartel and Betbeze at least she didn't have to wear it while being crowned.

With so many more opportunities available to women today-- both in higher education and in entertainment-- it's easy for many to dismiss the Miss America Pageant.  But Jean Bartel reminds us, particularly as we think about women's roles around the world, that it hasn't always been so easy.  While parts of the Pageant may seem a bit outdated today (like the swimsuit competition), those features evolved over time and women fought hard for progress when it came to baring their bathing suit bodies and supporting their minds. Who knows what changes the next seventy years will bring, and who the trailblazer who brings them will be.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Childhood is a Buffet

I love a good Sunday brunch buffet. I often sample lots of dishes, and then go back to get a larger serving of my favorite.

When people ask me about afterschool activities for their elementary school-age kids-- how many they should be in, which activity will help them get into college someday, etc.-- I explain that they should approach those afterschool hours the same way they approach that Sunday buffet.  Children should sample a lot of different things so that they can figure out their favorites.

Middle childhood, which is the time between ages 6-12 (or, for a rough equivalent, the elementary school years), is the time for exposure and exploration.  Parents make choices about which activities their kids should explore based on their own experiences and preferences.  Maybe mom played the violin, so she wants her daughter to as well; or, perhaps she never played a musical instrument and that's the reason she's so adamant that her kids learn to play music.  Other families emphasize physical fitness, so participation on an athletic team is very important.  Within those categories of music and sports there are more choices. A child can play a string instrument, or the piano, drums, recorder, or clarinet, and the list goes on.  Athletics is even more complex-- will a child play a team sport or an individual one? Will it be a popular sport, like soccer or tennis, or a more rarefied one, like lacrosse or squash?

Of course, this isn't an either/or enterprise. Many kids play sports and a musical instrument and do something else (like drawing, Mandarin lessons, theater, or chess, and again the list goes on). One mom evocatively described her parenting strategy to me by saying she is striving to raise "little Renaissance men." But not all boys will grow up to be Renaissance men and not all kids are destined to be "well-rounded."  While these are worthwhile goals, parents must also listen to their children.

Kids are an integral part of this process. In some cases, children will approach their parents with an activity that they would like to try out. Perhaps a friend at school is a skateboarder, or a girl saw Nastia Liukin win the gold in the Olympics and she wants to try to be a gymnast. If a child expresses interest in a particular activity it's a good idea to explore a class in that, or something very similar (perhaps biking if you don't like skateboarding, or dance or cheerleading if you don't like gymnastics).  Other times, like when an activity is parent-driven and a child wants out, or even wants more of it, parents should listen to their child's desires, especially before investments of time and money get too high.  What's important is that kids are exposed to a wide range of options when they are young so they can explore, be creative, and start to gain mastery.  This helps insure that kids will be intrinsically motivated and hopefully develop a genuine interest and passion in a given area.

Of course, what parents choose to expose their kids to is ultimately shaped by a variety of individual and societal factors.  To continue the buffet metaphor, not everyone will have grits or lox on their Sunday buffet, but most people will have eggs and bacon (some will have it free-range and organic, and others won't). For example, in certain parts of the country ice hockey is more popular, and in others Pop Warner football dominates.  On top of regional preferences parental background matters. More educated parents may shy away from activities they consider dangerous, like boxing, and instead push weekend math classes.  And parents of boys and girls tend to favor different sorts of activities, even within the same family.

There is no right way or wrong way to make these choices so long as you listen to your child and your own common sense.  There is no magic number of activities or number of hours of participation that will help your little one get into an Ivy League school ten years down the road.  There is no equation that tells us whether or not your child will rebel later in life is he or she goes to ballet instead of karate.  But there is a way to keep childhood fun, and full of creativity and exploration, while still training kids for the next steps in their lives. By allowing kids to explore within a structured set of choices, they'll be able to know what they really love as they move into middle school and high school, where those specific choices start to matter more. Until then, enjoy your waffles, pancakes, hash browns, Eggs Benedict, or whatever else you and your kids prefer!