WHAT WE THINK: It's time to end pageants for kids

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A clerical error is not the biggest problems with pageants that parade children for judging.

The brouhaha that came to light last week about a pageant contestant from Shelby County who was disqualified from competing for the state Little Miss title because she was too old is a sad moment for an innocent little girl. We feel sorry for her and wish that she not have experienced that disappointment. It’s a sad moment from society when a clerical error by an adult – although no one will take responsibility for that mistake – can take away a child’s beautiful smile.

Still, we think there is an even greater tragedy in all of this. The real problem here is that there are “beauty pageants” for children in the first place.

We don’t recall when someone decided that we as a society should take our little girls and boys, dress them up and shove them into a line for someone to judge based on the way they look and how still they stand, but we think this practice represents a bad idea that has grown to an outrageous and exploitative extreme.

We understand pageants for teenagers and young adults. Competitors in those events have the experience and usually some level of sufficient maturity to decide whether they want to compete and that competition’s affects on their self-esteem. And these older pageants also often provide college scholarships to the winners and can be springboards for careers in the entertainment or modeling industries.

Some national pageants have purported to include intellect as a focal point of competition, but we have seen far too many examples in which that nuance was lost on some entrants. For older students, we would encourage scholarship and academic accomplishment as opportunities to add merit to the pageants.

But children? Are they old enough to understand that they are only trying to look “pretty” or “handsome” and have a winning smile? What are we teaching them about life? That looks are the only thing that matter?

We understand that some may argue that poise and stage presence are developed by competing – important attributes, to be sure – but we would suggest there are far more useful ways to build those attributes, such as the performing arts or even standing and addressing a classroom or church group.

Must we judge our children as we do our livestock  to accomplish that goal?

Further we fear that allowing young children to be part of the pageant circuit also creates the opportunity for child molesters and pornographers who are increasingly and frighteningly rampant in our neighborhoods. Children on display in public venues can create all sorts of problematic situations and opportunities to future exploitation.

Some of these contestants are as young as 3 or 4 years old – we are setting aside baby shows for the moment – and we simply dislike the negative impact they are having as part of our national norm, especially given the popularity of the disturbing shows Toddlers and Tiaras et al. Then there were the ties to pageants that were a big part of the decades-old, unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder, Colo., a case that caused a national sensation.

Are we, by putting our young ones on display, not encouraging both that mentality and that potential tragedy?

This problem extends far past pageants at the Shelby County Fair and a single 8-year-old. We see the presence of these pageants as a topic that needs much greater scrutiny and review.

We understand why fairs like to have the little ones in pageants. They draw entries, who attract parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins through the gates to watch them. These spectators buy tickets and perhaps stick around to spend additional money. There were dozens of kids younger than 16 in pageants at this year’s fair, and they represented hundreds – perhaps thousands – of dollars in revenue for the organizers.

But it’s time to stop. Let’s draw a line and no longer exploit our young people.

Some years ago – during the period since the fair board expanded its pageants to younger groups – organizers also made a significant change with the Miss Shelby County Fair pageant – the one for the oldest entrants – by discontinuing public sessions in bathing suits.

We don’t know who made that suggestion and enacted that policy, but we wish those who showed such good judgment would step forward now and take charge of this new problem.

Children who are younger than 16 have no responsibility for being in a pageant, and the benefits are not measurably positive.

We think 16 is the appropriate cutoff age because of the scholarship money that can be earned and the understanding of the contestants about the significance of what they are doing. Anyone younger than that should be left to watch and wait for the right age to enter, just as they would for driving a car or voting for public office.

There’s nothing beautiful about these pageants for the young, and it’s time for this ugly practice to be removed.