Toddlers & Testing (and some Tiaras, too)

Testing and Tiaras are back. Earlier this month TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras returned with new episodes in Season 5. And last week Toddlers & Tiaras "superstar" Eden Wood premiered her own show on Logo; Eden's World follows Eden into her post-pageant retirement life (which still involves pageants-- as she and her mom serve as child beauty pageant mentors to pageant hopefuls-- but also includes Eden and her warring managers pursuing modeling and music opportunities in NYC).

Lest you think Eden and her pageant pals are the only pre-pubescent kids being pushed by their parents on television you should have tuned into Nightline on April 13th.  The episode featured families with preschoolers studying for the standardized tests to get them into a gifted classroom in NYC's public school system. Not only were these kids studying, but their parents were paying big bucks to help them prepare. Think thousands and thousands of dollars, hours of time, and untold stress. One mom suspects her daughter is purposely sabotaging herself and ultimately doesn't allow her daughter to take the test.

Why are stressed out families so willing to spend so much time and money to get their children into these classrooms (the question of why they are also willing to announce their children's standardized test scores on national television is a discussion for another time)? In the ever increasing educational arms race the pressure to perform starts younger than ever, especially if the goal is an Ivy-like education. This spring we've heard that Ivy League colleges had their lowest acceptance rates ever (a truly frightening 5.9% at Harvard and 6.8% at Yale).  These single-digit numbers create intense cultural anxiety even among those who don't yet have kids.

But it's not just the numbers "at the top" that are scary. The stats are just as bad when it comes to kindergarten-- at least in NYC. According to The New York Times this year nearly 5000 children qualified for only 400 slots in talented and gifted kindergarten classrooms. That's an 8% acceptance rate. But note that is only for qualified kids, not for the hundreds, likely thousands, more who took the test. People like to criticize these parents for pushing their kids too young, but with numbers like these at four, and then at age 18, can you blame them?  Moreover, it's not just kindergarten.  Middle school testing matters a lot too, and perhaps more so, if you think high school is the real entryway to higher education.

Many stories focus on the test prep companies that have sprung up to make a buck off of these anxiety-ridden parents (though note that many test prep entrepreneurs have their own kids facing the same issues-- one of the three families in the Nightline piece was a woman who started the "top" kindergarten test company, and even her own tot son had issues with the test, which he eventually overcame). And, it is true that test prep, especially at such young ages, likely exacerbates existing inequality, as I've written about before. But, at the same time, these companies are thriving because of a real demand. This demand is fueled partly by them, but it is also a result of demographic shifts in cities, like New York City, and cultural anxiety about class position.

When you really think about it, how different are the moms on Toddlers & Tiaras and the test-prep preschool parents?  They may be going about it in different ways, but most of these parents seem to want the best for their children-- helping them pursue particular hopes and dreams and goals (whether it be to get into Harvard and run for president someday, or get a Disney contract and become the new Britney Spears/Miley Cyrus) and willing to spend lots of money to help them pursue those dreams at a young age.  Amounts of money that others find ludicrous and distasteful.  While testing and tiara parents might find each other foreign in many ways they are cut from the same cloth of our ultra-competitive society, which now targets children in myriad ways.  And given the media's reach, their stories and issues impact, and inspire, families across the country and not just in NYC or the South.

Last week four-year-old Heidi Hankins made headlines around the world for joining Mensa with an IQ of 159 (though, shockingly she's not the youngest-- Oscar Quigley claimed that prize in 2009 when he joined at age two-and-a-half with an IQ of 160).  Based on her picture I'm not quite sure if she's right for Toddlers & Tiaras or shows like Nightline. Perhaps, in a true sign of the times, she's qualified for both?