When Play Imitates Life: Are they growing up too soon?

Education Families - April 3rd, 2009

by Carolyn Hamer-Smith

I am greeted at the door by a furious flash of red and black—frills of lace and twirls of satin flutter and fly before me.

My nieces each have large flowers tucked behind one ear and they are tumbling around my feet looking wonderfully garish in miniature flamenco dresses inherited that day, I am soon informed, from family living in Spain. The dresses are identical and are a perfect fit on my two- and four-year-old nieces and they couldn’t be happier if they had been given a pony! When my brother and sister-in-law launch into a rather dubious version of La Cucaracha, on cue the girls immediately dive into a comical version of the flamenco, and I am quick to join in the hilarities.

Later, after the flamenco dancers are tucked up in bed, I mention in passing to my brother that his four-year-old looked positively sophisticated in her Spanish dancer get up. He smiles sadly and agrees, acknowledging that only that day, he and his wife were lamenting the loss of ‘doots’, his daughter’s very own version of the word boots. Somewhere in the clamor of reaching four years old, the precious little phrase had disappeared and been replaced by the very adult ‘boots.’ Boo-hiss! Bring back the doots! Happily though, I can report that ‘wabbit’ is still very much in vogue in the gorgeous madhouse that is my brother’s home…and long may it live.

So when I read recently about the new ‘Baby Loves Disco’ phenomenon, a series of organized events that involve disco parties for toddlers that is not only sweeping Japan but also apparently the world, I was mortified. The very name ran shivers down my spine. I couldn’t imagine there would be much room for a ‘doot’ in such an establishment, but rather a shiny, stiletto heel in a size two if you please. Fluffy pink feathers optional. I had ghastly visions of little madams dressed in halter tops and sequined mini-skirts, all too ready to be pushed into rehearsing for a life not yet lived. Was this what we wanted for our children? Was it really necessary to have them grow up so quickly and to what end?

More than anywhere, these questions have real importance in Japan. Having worked as a teacher with children as young as three and four years old, I have witnessed the grueling schedule some little ones keep with a rigorous rotation of baby gym, kindergarten, English lessons, and pre-school training. It was enough to make this thirty-something positively weary at the thought! Life in Japan gets pretty serious pretty early, so I had to wonder if this Baby Disco lark was entirely necessary. Surely more time as a kid might be the order of the day? Some more time making mud cakes in the sandbox perhaps rather than dragging kids along to something intended for adults?

With my ‘save-the-children’ breastplate on and my ‘leave-the-kids-alone’ armor in place, I took up arms in an attempt to know more. Several hours of research later and I had begun to feel quite differently about this Baby Loves Disco business. It was actually starting to sound like a lot of good, clean fun. Started by stay-at-home mom Heather Murphy in Philadelphia, the concept has a strong community focus, attempting to bring moms, dads, and kids together in a wholesome, fun environment that is also modern and contemporary. As one enthusiast explained, “It’s more than just something to do for the kids, Baby Loves Disco is fun for parents too, and we get the chance to mingle with other parents, dance with our kids, and have a Saturday afternoon cocktail to boot.”
The fun consists of bubble machines, balloons, roving entertainment, a chill-out room (with tents, books, and puzzles), baby-changing stations, a full spread of healthy, nutritious snacks, and lots of dancing. The event tends to recruit hip young DJs, incorporating their tunes and talent into the style of the event with a focus on lots of danceable ‘70s and ‘80s tracks. The main idea is to create an alternative to the pre-packaged world of entertainment for young kids with the real bonus being that little ones not only have a ball but the parents too. Groovy baby!

And the disco fever is spreading. The event now takes place in over 21 cities throughout the world and all without any traditional advertising, simply relying on word of mouth. What endeared me even more to the idea was that the concept remains a ‘mom and pop’ company despite its global success and supports other real-life mom and pops by employing others to host the event in their city, enabling parents to live the work-from-home dream.

I’m not even a parent and I like the sound of it! While I may not be a parent, I am fresh off the babysitting boat with a stint at home over Christmas involving some serious Auntie commitments. I am intimately acquainted with the numbing pain of endless Thomas the Tank Engine stories, of trudging wearily to the park for the umpteenth time (where said two-year-old promptly picks up the proud deposits of a local Labrador), or visits to the wildly anticipated play center, which just leaves you broke and tired and in my case, seething at a small boy called Max who punched my four year-old niece. (She punched him back.) This, in turn, leaves everyone in meltdown mode and calls for the inevitable joys of the electronic nanny—a divine respite for all involved. So the idea of a smart, stylish event that caters to kids and adults alike in a fresh and fun way is a welcome one and it has been a joy to discover that it doesn’t require children to become tacky grown-up versions of themselves but strictly encourages kids to be kids and parents to kick back, relax, and actually have fun! No Labradors allowed.

It does, however, raise more questions as to what is appropriate entertainment for young children and what can be classified as innocent childhood antics versus semi-adult behavior. And does it really matter? Who hasn’t, as a child, been enthralled by boxes of dress up clothes and danced with excitement around the living room in beaded glory, head-to-toe in something glittery intended for a thirty-five year-old? Strappy high heels with silver diamantes were never more exciting than at the age of five. But do we want to encourage this beyond the joys of a fabulous dress-up show? Or is it all good fun? I recently came across a television program that discussed the questionable designs of some zero to five year-old clothes available at large department stores across the country. Silky tops with spaghetti straps, mini-skirts, and off-the-shoulder numbers mimicked the fashions of young adult women and members of the public faced off against retailers and advertisers. Are we encouraging children into adulthood all too quickly? If this behavior is encouraged merely to line the pockets of retailers then is it not wise to consider the impact it is having?

It is a grey area. Where does childhood end and young adulthood begin? Consider the recent popularity of Kidzania, an amusement park that gives children ages 2 through 15 the chance to try up to 70 different career options and get a taste for real-life commerce in a pint-sized replica city. Kidzania offers all the hustle and bustle of big city life, with buildings and shops and pedestrian-filled streets and, to reward them for their hard work, children earn salaries in Kidzos, the official currency of Kidzania, which they can spend on goods and services throughout the park or deposit into their Kidzos bank accounts. Children can play grown up to their hearts’ content with the opportunity to be airline hostesses, bank clerks, construction workers, doctors, and pilots. They can go to a beauty salon and have their makeup and hair done, line up at a bank, sit in the emergency ward of a hospital, and do their weekly shopping in a supermarket.

Not surprisingly, it’s a hit among sponsors too, who can introduce their brands to this young demographic through an alternative marketing avenue and it has proved a successful marketing tool for players such as Coca-Cola, Mos Burger, and Sumitomo Mitsui Bank. According to their official website, Kidzania is a highly educational interactive experience that teaches children the value of work and earning money and enables them to learn the complexities of the adult world.

Hmmm…is it really crucial that my nieces cultivate an appreciation for the complexities of an adult world at the ages of two and four? I thought that’s what adulthood was for. Do we not look back wistfully on our childhood for the very fact that we were blissfully ignorant of life’s complexities? Surely there is more than enough of that awaiting them at some future point in time. For now, let them have their wabbits I say. For who amongst us couldn’t do with a little less complexity in life and a little more time on that disco dance floor? In a pair of funky doots.