Are Stage Mothers the New Tax Collectors? Toddlers, Tiaras and Dieting 7-Year Olds

A couple of notable new volleys in the parenting wars world. Doubtless by now you’ve […]

David Zahl / 4.4.12

A couple of notable new volleys in the parenting wars world. Doubtless by now you’ve heard about Dara-Lynn Weiss, the New York City mother who set off a firestorm by writing an article for Vogue detailing her, um, zealous efforts to curb her 7-year-old daughter’s eating habits. Apparently the poor girl in question was failing to “self-regulate” adequately at the preschool snack table. Weiss has been publicly reproached on every website imaginable (“I’m pretty sure Weiss just handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders,” wrote one commenter on, and it’s hard not to concur with the outcry. And yet, at the risk of the pot calling the kettle black, one wonders if all the casting of aspersions isn’t indicative of something deeper and more universal. Emily Shire on Slate got to the heart of the matter with her prophetic take on the question, “Is hating the Toddlers and Tiaras Moms Classist?”:

Writing for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, Judith Warner likened watching the young girls undergo their pre-pageant regiments to witnessing a crime.” Yet, while many viewers have expressed (pleasureable) guilt over watching these girls, no one is questioning how we should feel when watching their mothers. Media sources have roundly censured the mothers of Toddlers and Tiaras—and not without good reason. From dressing their daughters in Lady Gaga meat bikinis to holding down tikes through involuntary spray-tanning sessions, there’s ample evidence for criticizing these women and questioning their parenting choices.

However, within the realm of parenting controversies, the media’s excoriation of the Toddlers and Tiarasmothers is disproportionately high and lacking in any dissenting opinions. The treatment of these women in comparison to others with harsh or unusual parenting tactics reveals a nasty kind of classism.

While not uniform among the pageant families, many featured on Toddlers and Tiaras are from poor, rural, Southern areas, which the show highlights with stark establishing shots of sparse and depressed towns. The “white trash” markers of the mothers—strong accents, ungrammatical speech, obesity—are also highlighted on the show, providing a classist subtext to the media’s judgment of parenting. It’s not whether waxing your young daughter’s eyebrows or depriving her of dinner is objectively worse. It’s that a Toddlers and Tiaras mother’s participation in supposedly “trashy” culture makes her a beastly parent, while DaraLynnWeiss is a merely controversial or micromanaging one.

The media takes a certain thrill in humiliating and hating the Toddlers and Tiaras mothers, and this would not necessarily be a problem (it is reality television, after all) were it not happening against the backdrop of the reaction to Weiss and others, like Amy Chua, a mother who also came forward with controversial parenting techniques and leveraged them for her personal success. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua admitted to denying her then 7-year-old daughter bathroom and water breaks until she learned to play a piano piece just right. She certainly faced criticism, but she was never vilified as the Toddlers and Tiaras mothers have been because her ultimate goal for her children, admittance to prestigious universities, is accepted as legitimate by bourgeois parenting standards.

The mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras are chastised for ignoring their children’s feelings, forcing their own desires upon them, and spending exorbitant amounts of money to do so. If the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras expended their funds and parental pressure on SAT tutoring, squash instruction, or foreign language immersion, they likely would not be dismissed as broad caricatures that are all too easy to hate. Because in reality, the main difference between a pageant mom and a tiger mother is just a matter of accessories.

We love Toddlers and Tiaras for the same reason we love The Real Housewives. They provide a spectacle and make us feel better about ourselves. Indignation and self-righteousness are intoxicating, after all. Law begets Law. But I think Miss Shire is absolutely correct: there is little difference between what these woman are doing and what the Chua/Weiss folks are doing – performancism lies at the bottom of each. The means are the same (the Law), it’s only the ends that are different. Of course, one seems more palatable to bi-coastal sensibilities or at least, easier to justify according to the “first use” of the Law. But both involve the objectification of one’s child – whether as a walking measure of a parent’s worth or as the opportunity to right past wrongs via a miniature stand-in (did someone say substitute?!). Original sin is evenly distributed, even when education and wealth isn’t.

C.S. Lewis once observed that, “there must be something good before it can be spoiled.” If he’s right (and we’re being generous), perhaps these maternal “crimes” are what happens when the loving urge to protect and provide for one’s child is overcome by fear for the child, and transformed into manipulation or narcissism. The compulsion to remake our children in our own image is not exactly a new phenomenon… What parent hasn’t struggled with a child’s turning out differently than we might have wished? I’m not sure any of us are innocent here – I know I’m not.

To be clear: the pageant mothers and their tiger sisters are perpetuating the “inheritance of sin” in a particularly cruel and contemporary way. This is not a neutral issue. But the internal and external judgment that drives such behavior is enormous. One can’t help but have a little compassion – for the children, certainly, but also for the mothers. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the New Testament contains so much adoption language. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure there’s a rerun coming on of Jon and Kate Plus 8