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Toddlers Say the Damnedest Things

I’ll admit, I’m horrible. I like to watch the TLC show Toddlers and Tiaras. It satisfies my neglected inner Honey Boo Boo Child, because when I was a little kid, I would have loved to have been in a glitz pageant. LOVED it. For as long as I can remember, I was making costumes, sneaking makeup and dreaming of life as a Vegas showgirl, whatever the hell they were. Sadly, my mom refused to let me participate in my hometown’s “Little Miss Whitehall” pageant, held annually on the 4th of July, based on some vague feminist objections.

Whatever. I was determined to Sparkle, so in 1978, 3rd-grade me started working as an assistant to a much more mature 7th-grade magician. Tough luck, feminist mom. I didn’t care that I was just eye candy. I got to wear blue rhinestone earrings (clip-ons, BTW—I wasn’t allowed to get my ears pierced until I was 13), a silver lamé vest, and fishnet hose. Foxy! Plus, I actually did the most feminist thing I could have done by making sure I was well compensated—cash only, please—at the many glamorous McDonald’s birthday parties we worked.

It's humiliating, but it pays mom's bills.
It’s humiliating, but it pays mom’s bills.

Now that I’m all grown up, I can see why a young girl doesn’t need an opportunity to have the world judge her on her ability to “sparkle.” My mom ditched Little Miss for more refined hobbies like tap dancing and flag corps. I still got to wear sequins and lots of lip gloss, and I got a pretty good workout, too. Two points, Mom!

Still, I’m drawn like a moth to a porchlight to shows like Toddlers and Tiaras. I watch the show with the same morbid fascination as I give flipping through Victorian-era post-mortem photography—it’s creepy but fascinating. I love the show’s parental meltdowns over lost flippers (that’s the partial denture that some full-glitz pageant contestants wear to obscure their missing teeth) and expensive hairpieces, but I also love to see these kids act like little adults. I’m hardly alone in that respect. From Shirley Temple to Bugsy Malone to Eden Wood, there is just something a-goddamn-dorable about a kid pretending to be an adult. It’s exploitation of the naiveté of children absolutely, but somehow excusable when we view them as actors playing a part. Plus, it’s all okay if you end up with a big fan of cash, right?  Money is the great equalizer on this particular occasion. (Author’s note: money never makes anything equal.)

The cash prize hardly seems worth the effort. Contestants can spend thousands on dresses, custom hairpieces and travel all for a chance at a few thousand bucks at most. Even the parents who look like they may have the money to blow on this expensive hobby really don’t look like they have the money to blow on this expensive hobby. It’s not, like, dressage-expensive, but c’mon! And every time one of the moms claims that they are using the money to pay for college, I scream at the TV, “Try studying to get a scholarship!” More often than not, the Take Home Message is that the more you spend, the more you win.

Of course, objectifying anyone is total bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t like it. Besides, there is a certain faction of third-wave feminists who have all but convinced me that part of owning our sexuality is the reclamation of the type of burlesque demonstrated in Toddlers and Tiaras when it’s done for the enjoyment of women and girls participating.

All feminist rhetoric aside, at the end of the day, it’s “yeah, Team America” and “I’m on TV and you’re not,” so my righteous indignation is once again trumped by a show on The “Learning” Channel, and I don’t have one spray-tanned leg to stand on. As long as these kids play cocaine use with Pixie Stix (really, the parents keep tubes of it around!) and have epic screaming meltdowns, the show is golden. I do have dreams where Nanny 911 shows up backstage at one of these pageants and literally explodes at the amount of negative reinforcement, but my dreams are weird.

It’s with all of this in mind that I find myself a little baffled and somewhat amused at the controversy over a toddler cursing up a storm in a video that was originally posted on Facebook. Why doesn’t THIS kid have his own show?! He is like a Tiny Lil Wayne! But apparently, I’m way out alone in thinking that this kid was inappropriately cute. It’s okay to see kids imitating Vegas showgirls, but Sweet Baby Jesus, just do not cuss! It’s okay to tell your 5-year-old to sit still so mamma can pin some extra hair on (and you know those hair pins sting, right?) and slap some fake teeth in your mouth, but by all means, don’t repeat bad words! That’s EVIL!

This is totally ok—I'm wearing a tux.
This is totally okay. I’m wearing a tux.

There are issues here that are deeply concerning. Yes, the adults in this video are absolutely wrong speaking to a toddler in an objectifying and demeaning manner; it’s never appropriate to talk to a child as if she is your peer. Of course, if your mamma makes a mistake like having your tiny eyebrows shaved, well, that’s okay. We all make mistakes. Ooopsie!

Had this video just gone viral on Facebook, it would have been another case of stupid caregiving caught on tape, but it was also posted on the website of the Omaha Police Officers Association as an example of how kids end up in a cycle of violence. Naturally, because the toddler says that he’s “thugging in my diaper,” he’s destined to a life of crime. I checked out some causes of poverty in America, (Jesus H. Christ it’s on Wikipedia!) and as suprising as it may sound, teaching toddlers to curse didn’t even make the list.

I’ve watched this video many times. There are definitely examples of bad caretaking in it. For example, I wish that the caregivers would have immediately prompted this youngster to pick up the chair after telling him to do so. You have to follow through on your requests of children even if you have to assist them in the task. Oh yeah, and they really shouldn’t be exploiting the boy by asking him to cuss for their amusement. And “Fuck you” is, although somewhat satisfying, really a non-starter with a toddler. Fuck that dirty diaper, maybe.

We shouldn’t have our kids do anything for us. As much as it sucks, we are here for them. It’s part of the whole parental package. They shouldn’t have to dress like showgirls to please us, and they shouldn’t have to serve as examples to anyone for anything. So, find another way, Omaha Police Officers Association. How about starting with providing food for kids? Because where I live, there are kids who go hungry.

Personally, I think the Omaha Police Officers Association did a rash, racist and disgusting thing when they posted the video on their website, especially considering that they did nothing to obscure the identity of the toddler. To Protect and Serve, my ass. There are kids who live in homes without anyone who gives a crap enough to even take a video of them. Also worth mentioning is that the mother of this child is 17 years old, so how about attempting to help this very young woman instead of putting her in a position of defending herself?

I see parents do many things that aren’t in the best interest of the health and well-being of their children. Sometimes we satisfy our own egos as parents to the detriment of our kids, and the cops don’t care one tiny bit.

When I grow up, I’m going to have residual effects from this repeated head trauma.

Of course, most parents don’t intend to psychologically or physically harm their children by condoning their participation in a sport or pageant, or by videotaping them imitating our foul language, for that matter. We seek friendships, team-building, exercise, and on some level, we love to see our kids in the spotlight. Look at my kid—he’s adorable.

We know that there is a line that we cross with kids that goes from cute to crass. It’s one of those gut check, “I know it when I see it” type of things. If it were my kid flipping the bird in some internet meme, I might be as litigious as I could afford to be in an attempt to have it as erased as anything in digital form can be. Because somewhere in our lizard brains, we see images and create ideas about them, a schema, as your psychology teacher may call it, which are formed very early in our development and help us make sense of this ever-changing world. I know that you, genteel reader, are smarter than your brain, way ahead of evolution and better than your lizard self, but you would be in the minority aaaand a liar.

Start 'em young, raise 'em right.
I’m proud of ye, son!

We don’t really raise children. We raise adults who happen to be children for a long time. We want to have happy, capable, fulfilled and loving adults around to change our diapers when we are elderly children. It’s great to have kids that can sparkle, hit home runs, sing like a bird and run like the wind, and we can celebrate all these aspects of any individual. Just don’t allow these moments to define your kid.


Katie Anderson is a freelance writer and improv theater instructor. Her work has appeared in Alt Daily , HuffPost Parents and Anderson has written comedy for Panties in a Twist: All Female Comedy and a weekly live stage show, Second City This Week in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a practical guide for parents and caregivers of autistic individuals to be published sometime in the next few years (get off her back, it's hard to write a book). Katie holds a BA in Psychology from The Ohio State University. She lives with her academic rock star husband, one of her three kids and two very spoiled cats in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @ improvperson.

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