Crossing the Line

I've been thinking a lot lately about the critical line that separates parent from child, thanks in part to TLC network's "Toddlers & Tiaras."

If you've never seen this program, congratulations! "Toddlers & Tiaras" is a guilty-pleasure reality show focused on the world of child beauty pageants. Each episode features two high-strung, frequently miserable little girls who are forced to wear sequined glitz wear, make up, wigs and "flippers" (don't ask) by their even more highly strung, highly competitive stage mothers. The producers try to include one semi-normal mom on each installment as well, who has a child who appears to genuinely enjoy the pageant life without stressing over its demands, no doubt to ensure the continued cooperation of the pageant folks.

Like many reality shows, the success of "Toddlers & Tiaras" lies in part in its ability to make viewers feel good about themselves at the expense of those willing to expose their quirks and foibles on national TV. So you were exhausted and snapped at your three-year-old when she spilled orange juice at breakfast? At least you didn't strip her down to her skivvies, blast her in the face with freezing cold spray tan solution, and ignore her cries for mercy. The other compelling draw, especially for me, is trying to make sense of the behavior of other human beings. What drives parents to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a rhinestone cowgirl pageant costume for their daughter vs. saving that money for college? Why would parents line up to have their five-year-old judged publicly on her "facial beauty?" What kind of person tells a little girl that "you've got to smile and win that trophy for Mama?"

Maybe people not so different from you and me.

A recent episode I saw featured a pretty young stage mother with her own pageant background; she wanted viewers to know that she'd once competed against the actress Eva Longoria. About the time I grew thoroughly disgusted with the way this woman was driving her three-year-old daughter to tears with hair and make up, she looked into camera and said something like, "As soon as I knew I was having a girl, I was so happy. I always wanted to have a little girl to do pageants and cheerleading like I did."

I can't imagine wanting my daughter to enter a beauty pageant, but still, I found myself strangely sympathetic. This mother wanted to share something that had been a huge part of her life with her child, but somehow she'd gone off the rails. When Mommy is growling, "You will wear this wig!" at her weeping toddler, she's definitely lost sight of where she ends and the child begins.

I think most parents struggle with that boundary between our stuff and their stuff more than we care to admit.

The other night at a barbeque, for example, I watched as another mom struggled to get her eight-year-old son to thank the hostess and exit the party. The rest of the kids were crowded around the TV playing video games, and the boy whose mother wanted to leave couldn't keep his eyes off the fun long enough to comply.

"You're embarrassing me," the mom hissed. Her frustration felt a little over the top, since his behavior seemed totally normal to me, and no real reflection on her.

Thirty minutes later, my own eight-year-old son was pretending he couldn't hear my announcements that we were leaving, and instead kept kicking a soccer ball over and over against the side of the house as our hostess stood by with a frozen smile, waiting to see us off. As my frustration grew, I resorted to stealing the ball and grabbing my son's arm to get his attention. "You're done," I whispered coldly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our hostess wince.

Like that other mom at the party, I felt my son was embarrassing me, just by acting like a normal kid. Like the hyper moms on "Toddlers & Tiaras," when I got furious because my kid would not "perform," I ended up embarrassing myself. Thank goodness nobody put it on TV.

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