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And, the winner is….

There was a lot of controversy recently over a Kids Pageant (official title: Universal Royalty). The event was  scheduled at the Bracken Court hotel in Balbriggan. The hotel cancelled the booking and the competition was eventually held in a bar/nightclub, Corrigan’s Kitchen in Castleblaney. The pushback against this, and similar events, is that kids wear costumes and make-up which is age-inappropriate. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald described it as the “sexualisation of very young children”. Strong stuff indeed.

Psychological Payback:
Watching the debates from a distance, I was particularly  interested in why the parents put their kids forward. Behaviour has a psychological payoff, even if we are not always consciously aware of it. We know that 3 year olds don’t enter themselves into glamour competitions, so how can we unravel and understand the parent’s motivation? Tentative Conclusion:  At least some of the parents are trying to find success through their children, fame which they didn’t achieve in their own lives.  Now, this is never openly stated. In fact it’s heavily disguised by comments like “It’s great for her confidence” (referring to the child). The fact that there is an element of good intent in the mix (they genuinely want the kids to be confident) makes this somewhat confusing.   Stay with me on this…

Child Stars:
While working in the US,I watched a TV programme called Hollywood Babes.  It focused on children, aspiring actors, looking to break into TV and movie roles – specifically targeting new or ‘pilot’ shows in Hollywood. These kids came from all over the USA and spent months on end, completing endless rounds of photo shoots and auditions. Interestingly, there were no ‘Dear John’ letters. You either got called back or you heard nothing. There was zero feedback – so the kids/parents had no idea if they were doing well, missing the cut by 1%, or terribly i.e. they were hopeless cases.  The families were surrounded, and exploited shamelessly, by an industry of agents and photographers who didn’t even know themselves when they were lying. Every kid was ‘gifted’ and they were all going to be the next BIG stars – according to the agents – who were paid up-front for the promotional work.

Real Stars:
In essence, the kids were just doing what they were told. The real stars of the show were the overbearing parents, who spent months on end living in motels and poor quality accommodation to shave costs (average cost = $6k per month).  A lot of these were poorer families, chasing the dream in the same way that the unemployed disproportionately buy Lotto tickets.

Future Elevation:
The sad part was the elevation of the future over the now. The children defined themselves as what they were not (stars) rather than what they were (great kids). And, for sure, some do get discovered, morph into the next Miley Cyrus, become famous and make big paydays. The parents belief was that ‘someday it will be my child’. But in the here and now it was difficult to see much joy in the kids as they were dragged from motel room to hairstylist – continually being told to “keep yourself tidy”, “speak up” and so on.

So What?
When we see this stuff on reality TV or read about it, we tend to ‘tut tut’ – or perhaps comment on pushy Americans (stereotyping 300+ million people in the process). But, we need to look inwards, not outwards here. Are you like those parents, chasing future fame in your kids? Waiting for them to be discovered? It may not be as a Movie Star but it may be completing a 500+ points Leaving Certificate to become a Dentist or getting up at 05:30 am 5 mornings a week to swim for the Irish team.  And this point doesn’t only apply to kids – but to each of us. The key question: When does ambition (a good thing) spill over into zealotry?

Mindfulness:
Living and being happy in the present moment  (now often referred to as Mindfulness) is one of the keys to mental health. If you keep pushing happiness onto a future timeline, you live an unhappy life. For sure, ambition is an important part of the mental health mix. It allows us to set goals, to strive, to grow and make the most of ourselves.  But, if the result of this is to continually postpone your (or your child’s) happiness then ambition and ultimately success, is secured at too high a price. And some people are, without doubt, ‘success-a-holics’ who continually need to up the gas on their own self-esteem by proving how smart and successful they are.

Dual Timeframe:
A couple of years back, a client brought me a wall hanging with the following motto: “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way” (The Buddha).  It sits above the desk as a reminder  to blend the ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ aspects of my own life. We can’t just live in the NOW.  Most of us have already tried that – when we were 19 – planning the next party or weekend. We are all grown up now, with acres of responsibility and have to plan forward. But, if we only plan for the FUTURE, we simply postpone our happiness. Like a cartoon Donkey, we continually push the carrot in front of our nose, never quite getting to eat it.

The key to mental health is to be able to toggle between these 2 timeframes. Having fun, enjoying the here and now while, at the same time, planning for a better tomorrow. This is tricky. It’s much easier to have a single idea and lock onto that.  As we get older (and hopefully, wiser) we need to balance today alongside tomorrow. That’s the real challenge!