Please update your bookmarks to!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kin Ties: Coal, Coupons, and Conception

It's no secret that I love reality television. I don't really discriminate, I pretty much enjoy it all, which is likely the ethnographer in me. Three new shoes that have entered my rotation are Coal (on Spike), Pregnant in Heels (on Bravo), and Extreme Couponing (on TLC).

What could these very different shows possibly have in common? Kin ties. All of them demonstrate just how important kin, or family, connections still are in this country (Family connections have also been a topic on Lisa Belkin's Motherlode Blog this week, where the topic is whether or not it is fair that family ties can help young students secure coveted internships).

In the second episode of Coal (click here to see "No Easy Way Out" in its entirety), a "red hat," or apprentice coal miner, joins the night shift. The foreman is very skeptical about this new addition and gives him a hard time about his clothes, shoes, and ability to multitask. But the attitude changes considerably when the red hat, Jeremy, reveals that his father is Ricky. "Oh, you Ricky's boy?!" The foreman suddenly smiles and his body language changes as he says he went to school with Ricky.  Suitably connected to the other men, Jeremy heads off into the mines with them, now part of the coal mining family. You can watch the scene at the link above; it starts at 33:54 and lasts about a minute.

A world away, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, kin ties also remain important. In the first episode of Pregnant in Heels Samantha Ettus and her husband Mitchell Jacobs hire Rosie Pope, a maternity concierge, to help them name their son. They pay her to assemble a panel of experts, a focus group, and a dinner party with their friends so that their son can have the right "personal branding" from the start. All that work, but in the end the couple dismisses the feedback from others and goes with the name they like best-- Bowen Asher Jacobs (they also dismiss Rosie Pope, the star of the show, as "the help"). I looked up the mother, Samantha Ettus, who advertises herself as a personal branding expert, and came across Samantha and Mitchell's New York Times wedding announcement from 2005.  Really, is there anything more antiquated than a wedding announcement in the NYT? (Full disclosure, my husband and I had a wedding announcement in the Times this past May.) I mean, essentially, the purpose is to show your lineage, both your family's and your own credentials. If you haven't read David Brooks' discussion on the Times' wedding announcements in Bobos in Paradise, I highly recommend it.  In any event, all this shows that from the mountains of West Virginia to the concrete mountains of Manhattan, kin ties remain important as a way to connect to people and quickly place them in context, deciding if they are worthy or not.

What about Extreme Couponing? Well, all I've got here is that last night's episode featured identical twin sisters bargain shopping together, and a son with his mom. So why include it in this post? Honestly, I'm OBSESSED with this show. Can anyone teach me how to be an extreme couponer, buying $800 worth of groceries and only paying $10?! You don't even have to be related to me!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Brains vs. Beauty: Considering Kids' Participation in Beauty Pageants, Chess, and Football

In response to yesterday's post on child beauty pageants in Australia (or not) I received a variety of thoughtful comments. One of them was from The Family Factor who wrote, 

So what happens to the girls' views of the audience when they realize the[y] did not cut it? The idea that outward appearance is what gives you the edge in life is further entrenched and each time the girls become more self-conscious about what the audience is feeling about them compared to someone 'prettier'. To me this creates further insecurity rather than confidence.

Collett's point is a very important one.  We enroll kids in activities that are meant to be fun, educational, and constructive.  But what happens when the kids just can't cut it and aren't "good enough?"

When I was studying elementary school kids who play scholastic chess I confronted this question directly.  The following exchange is from an interview with a first-grade boy who played in local chess tournaments:

Hilary: Do you want to play at a really big tournament someday, like the Nationals?
Jun: Not really.
Hilary: Why not?
Jun: Well, because, I'm thinking that Nationals are good, right? And smart. So, right now, I'm not smart enough... I just feel it.

I was concerned by Jun's reaction and asked one of the chess coaches if this is a usual response (especially because Jun in fact was a talented chess player and a smart kid).  The coach told me, "Of course when you start losing then you ask yourself questions. Why do I lose? Maybe I am not smart." Because chess is a mental game, when you fail, you worry that you are simply not smart enough to participate and succeed.  

Parents were also aware of this issue. A chess mom told me she worried this notion could really damage her third-grade daughter's self-esteem, and in the process push her away from math and science. She explained, "Unlike soccer or baseball or a team sport, it’s just you [in chess]. You can’t blame it on a teammate...It’s your brain.  I think it could be a very weird thing and potentially devastating to say that my mind wasn’t working well."

Even though we celebrate athletic talent in our society, the brain still reigns supreme. I believe this is part of the reason why concussions have been the focus of so much media attention (which I've discussed before here). An ACL tear can heal, as can a broken bone. But a broken brain? That's something else entirely.  Should we risk long-term damage to the brain for fleeting athletic glory?

This one was one of many great questions raised in last night's Frontline documentary called Football High. The episode focused on Shiloh, a small, private, Christian high school in Arkansas that has rocketed to the top of national high school (American style) football rankings. In telling Shiloh's story the producers  illuminated important questions about the current state of youth sports: the rise of private coaches, the professionalization of high school sports on television, the use of elaborate ranking systems for middle school and high school players, and the recruitment of collegiate players younger than ever. What does all this mean? High school athletes spend more hours in practice than NCAA athletes, with basically no regulation and often under the supervision of adults who aren't properly trained to care for their health. The consequence? More injuries, like heat stroke and concussions.  We hear about the tragic stories of Tyler Davenport, a high school football player who died of heat stroke this past fall following a football practice, and Owen Thomas, a football captain at University of Pennsylvania who had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his brain after he committed suicide last spring.  When they were told to push themselves harder, to be "good enough," they did.

Given what I study people often ask me what activities I will enroll my own kids in someday, when I have them. I can say with 95% certainty that if I have a son, I would not let him play football, especially if the game and its safety standards don't change.  It's just too risky to the brain and future development.

Which brings me back to beauty pageants and the question raised by The Family Factor.  The truth is that I am also 95% sure that if I have a daughter I wouldn't let her participate in a beauty pageant (too much family history, given that my mother was Miss America 1970).  However, in terms of damage to the brain (both physical and psychological), I don't see how beauty pageants are much worse than football.

In fact, on the point of sending girls a negative message about not being "pretty enough," I'd like to raise two points essentially in defense of pageants.  First of all it would be nice to think we live in a society where looks and appearances don't matter.  Many people work to change the fact that looks, especially women's looks, are so consequential, and this is definitely a worthy enterprise.  But the fact is, for both men and women, how you look matters-- if you think how much you earn matters or who your partner is matters (I say this in seriousness as some people value different things, like happiness, which is not always related to income or romantic partnerships).  As a sociologist I believe standards of beauty are partly determined by our society; but I also believe that some of this is biological.  For a great discussion of these issues check out Nancy Etcof's Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of BeautyWe know from numerous studies by economists and psychologists that taller, and better-looking people are paid more and people are nicer to them. I'm not saying this is right, but it is the way it is.  That parents want to advantage their kids-- in this case mainly their daughters-- by emphasizing how to look their best starting at a young age is then not irrational.  Of course, spending thousands and thousands of dollars to teach that lesson is not so rational-- and girls could learn how to improve their appearance in various ways from other activities that aren't beauty pageants.

In terms of concerns about girls' self-perception, I think this is a serious issue around pageants, as I wrote about yesterday. However, somewhat paradoxically, when it comes to concerns about not being "pretty enough," I worry about this the most when it comes to natural pageants. In natural pageants a girl wears no make-up, doesn't wear super fancy dresses with lots of rhinestones, etc. Often at natural pageants girls walk on stage and model a bit, but the routines are not at all elaborate. At glitz pageants, by contrast, "total package" competitors do best. It doesn't matter if you aren't the most "facially beautiful," using only what you were born with.  Instead, you can work to "enhance" that beauty.  On top of that, and more important here, you can work to become a good model, practicing choreographed routines, and working on specific skills for the routines like triple turns.  In other words, girls can learn the value of practice and hard work from glitz pageants, rather than just coasting on natural good looks like in some natural pageants.

Given that I am a person who lives more of an intellectual life, I likely will teach my children how to play chess. I don't know if they will ever play in a chess tournament because I don't know if they will be any good. Of course, they can always get better through hard work and practice.  But some kids are just better suited to different activities with different skill sets. I'm determined to find out what my children enjoy and what they can be best at by exposing them to various activities (I intend to parent using my "childhood is a buffet" metaphor-- though football and beauty pageants won't be on my child's spread). I believe everyone has something they are good at, where they can "cut it," and it's our job as parents to help them discover their passion and what that might be-- whether it be chess, football, beauty pageants, or any other number of other endeavors like music and art.

What sorts of activities are off limit for your kids and why?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants

Over the weekend I was contacted by the group Australians Against Child Beauty Pageants.  I have been reading about their protests of a child beauty pageant that will be held in Melbourne in July for a few weeks now.

Basically a US pageant system, Universal Royalty (which I write a bit more about below), is hosting a pageant and bringing over Eden Wood, who has been featured several times on Toddlers & Tiaras (her mom thinks of her as a star in the child beauty pageant world-- I've written about her before here).  A group of Australians, upset over this development, have formed a protest group that is circulating an online petition and planning a rally. Others have have counter-organized, supporting the pageants in Australia, and Eden Wood.

[After watching Kate Gosselin and her eight in Australia for the past two weeks on TLC, I can't help but wonder if the producers of these popular TLC reality shows featuring kids have some sort of relationship with/affinity for Australia?! Don't get be wrong, Australia is definitely on my bucket list of places I must see in my lifetime, but it seems like a strange publicity coincidence.]

One of the organizations members sent me a thoughtful email, which you can read by clicking HERE.  Below is part of my response. Note that I can't say if Australia should or should not allow this event to be held, but I do not believe that by US law child beauty pageants are illegal or child abuse. Do people do things around child beauty pageants that could be considered illegal and or/child abuse? Sure. But I've seen the same things around soccer clubs and chess tournaments.


Thanks for contacting me and asking the questions you ask.  I really appreciate you pointing out that it is difficult to discern my exact stance on child beauty pageants! When I was doing this research as an academic  I went out of my way to be objective.  The purpose of my academic work on child beauty pageants was not to judge, but to really try to understand how and why people get started with child beauty pageants.  In this message I want to share some research with you, and also offer (part of) my opinion on child beauty pageants.

Essentially, Eden Wood's manager is correct. We do not have good data on the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This is also true for many childhood activities, like football, gymnastics, soccer, chess, dance, etc! The main problem, which I have written about a bit before, is that it is very difficult to get truly randomized experiments involving children, so it is then very difficult to figure out what the selection effects are and the omitted variables (essentially, we don't know if someone who participates in child beauty pageants might have lower self-esteem as an adult because they had lower self-esteem going into the pageants, perhaps because of an overbearing mother, so the cause and effect are all mixed up). Child beauty pageants are particularly tricky when it comes to "research" for another reason-- we simply don't know what the full population of all participants in child beauty pageants looks like.  You can go to a pageant and talk to all of the contestants and their families, but you are really only talking to people who participate in that pageant.  Because child beauty pageants don't have a national organization that regulates the events, or keeps track of participants, we don't know how many families participate, what they look like, etc. This also makes it near to impossible to track participants over time.

That being said, I know of one piece of peer-reviewed academic research that looks at the long-term effects of participation in child beauty pageants. This 2005 article in Eating Disorders finds that a small sample of women seem to have higher body dissatisfaction in young adulthood, but not more serious problems like eating disorders and depression. This result does not surprise me as I believe child beauty pageants can be problematic, but that they also can have positive effects on children.

What might those positive effects be? I think the biggest one is learning how to be confident in front of an audience.  When children start young, they never learn to be nervous.  While many moms do have aspirations that their daughters will end up as entertainers (about half of those in my sample who had ambitions announced at a pageant), this skill can also apply to other careers. One mom told me, "No matter what profession or role my child chooses she will more than likely, at some point, need to be able to speak and conduct herself confidently in front of others – whether it be on the PTA, as a stay-at-home mom, or in front of a Board of Directors of a large corporation."  Another mom explained, "Having done [pageants] as a child, you get the feeling that the audience is not the bad guy. They are your friend."  I believe that some children will never take to being in front of a crowd, but for many others participation in activities like child beauty pageants can help they overcome shyness and help develop skills that can help later in life.

Now, do you need to wear fake teeth (aka "flippers"), hair extensions, and false eyelashes to do this? No. Are there potential negative effects in wearing them? Yes. Do we know for sure? No. However, based on what we know about psychological development I can suggest two potential problems.  The first to think about is: what happens when a child (especially a young one) looks in the mirror and doesn't recognize herself? This could be confusing, and even psychologically traumatizing. Second, and a related point: what happens when a girl is constantly told how beautiful she is when she is wearing make-up, sporting a fake tan, hair and clothes done to the nines? When she does not wear those things, even if she is told that she is pretty, does she really believe this? Is it possible to believe "natural" beauty is acceptable when you win a prize for enhanced beauty?  And, of course, there are potential physical consequences to using make-up, hair products, fake-tans, etc. at a young age.

I want to emphasize an important point.  Despite tears (which you will always see if you are around kids this age), child beauty pageants can be fun.  It can be fun to get "all dolled up" for some kids. It can be fun to make new friends from different parts of your state and the country.  In the US one of the biggest parts of most child beauty pageants is getting to go swimming in the hotel pool. The girls are often more excited about swimming in January with their friends than doing the pageant.  But if you only watch television shows about child beauty pageants, instead of attending, you would miss this.  Plus, the pageants the shows focus on are, not surprisingly, the most extreme.  I call these high glitz pageants, but there are also hobby glitz and natural pageants. Not all child beauty pageants are created equally.

Of course, like most things in life, anything taken to an extreme is bad. I have met wonderful people who are involved with child beauty pageants and I have met some pretty nasty people. It is usually the moms who cause problems, not the kids, and that often takes place on the Internet after an event (also something only glossed over in most of the recent child pageant shows).

Now, as for child beauty pageants coming to Australia it's worth pointing out that, historically, the precursors to child beauty pageants were exported to the US from the UK back in the 19th century. So blame your fellow Commonwealth country! :-) No question though that since the mid-twentieth century the home of child beauty pageants has been the US. And, clearly, Universal Royalty is a US-based pageant. I have never been to a Universal Royalty event, but I can say that even before the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras, Universal Royalty's director went out of her way to be featured in the media. One example is an old A&E series called The Competition, which featured an Austin, Texas pageant in 2001. I mention this because I believe that while Universal Royalty isn't the "glitziest" on the pageant circuit, it does have a media focus that many others don't. I'm guessing your group might feel a little bit different if it was a more natural, and low-key, pageant system like Cinderella, proposing an event in Australia?