Is Winning a Pageant Worth a Lost Childhood?

Article excerpt

The death of JonBenet Ramsey has turned the spotlight on beauty pageants for young children. One might think that a 6-year-old girl who wears $1,000 gowns, is constantly praised for her beauty and is lavished with attention is a privileged child. But if she is a 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant, the reality is quite different. Not only is she not privileged, but many experts on child development would consider her deprived.

Such children are deprived of most of the childhood experiences necessary for normal development. In addition, they have experiences that are abnormal for their developmental stage. A 6-year-old beauty queen is put at risk for problems in most major areas of development: cognitive development, peer relationships, adult relationships and self-concept.

Between the ages of 5 and 9, a child's life revolves around academic and social opportunities at school. Children whose focus is directed away from school, such as beauty pageant contestants and elite athletes, often miss out on these critical aspects of development. No one realizes that, however, until it is quite late, when they come to the attention of mental health professionals. It is important for young children to develop a healthy balance of competitive and cooperative social relationships with their peers. This is a time when friendships play an important and rewarding role in children's lives. Learning how to be a good friend lays the foundation for a child's ability to develop intimacy, trust and empathy. Given the intense competition among beauty pageant contestants, it is unlikely that contestants will befriend each other. Children who consistently compete in beauty pageants miss the chance to make friends during and after school, and are at risk for developing problems in their social interactions. Relationships with others are also important. Children who feel good about their interactions with others tend to feel good about themselves. Children have rich and diverse self-concepts. The self-concepts of 5- and 6-year-olds are based on relationships with others, achievement at school and feelings of self-control. Children this age who are high achievers also tend to feel good about themselves. But children need many different areas in which to try out their skills, so that they have ample opportunities for success. Those who concentrate exclusively on one thing - especially if they fail - feel unworthy and bad about themselves. The amount of chaos and stress in a child's life is predictive of their degree of self-control. Children who see the world as relatively calm and predictable usually develop healthy self-control. In contrast, children who feel that their world is chaotic and filled with stress tend to feel out of control. They try, unsuccessfully, to gain control by lashing out when they feel provoked (whether they are or not). Riding the emotional roller coaster of beauty-pageant competition is likely to make children feel like lashing out in an attempt to control the amount of stress in their lives. Given that most children at this age are developing a greater capacity for self-control, these young beauty pageant contestants will be viewed as immature and "difficult" by peers and teachers. …