Last week Lucy asked if she could have some school friends over to play and, because for once we had a free weekend, I said sure. She chose two kids and I called their parents to see if they were free on Sunday afternoon. The first little girl's father said she would come (without consulting her, which I found a little disturbing), but the mother of the second girl informed me that her daughter is busy on Sunday afternoons because - wait for it - she is a cheerleader.
She is six.
"Wow," I said, "I didn't know six-year-olds could be cheerleaders."
"Oh, they start them at five," she assured me.
"Wow," I said again, not wanting to be rude but not being able to think of anything else on short notice.
"Maybe they can get together when football season is over," the mother suggested. Apparently her daughter doesn't cheer for the basketball team.
"Right," I said, and hung up quickly before I could say something I, and Lucy, would regret.
But now I can say it: five year old cheerleaders? Seriously? Is this a good idea? I mean, I accept that cheerleaders are part of a certain high school culture (although that culture is entirely outside of my own experience, cheerleaders at my large urban public high school having been related to Sandra Dee the way Navy Seals are related to the swim team). But in kindergarten?
It seems that cheering, as it's called by those in the know, has become a competitive sport. Participants are thrown into the air to do various kinds of somersaults and other airborne feats before they are caught again by a teammate. Except when they're not. The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that more female athletes suffer catastrophic injuries from cheering than from any other sport. A 13-year study in the journal Pediatrics found a 100% increase in the incidence of pediatric cheering-related injuries over the course of the study. It's not exactly safe, is it? And while I imagine (hope) that the pee-wee squad is not doing the kind of acrobatics that result in quadriplegia, I also imagine that those acrobatics are their goal, the pinnacle for which they are reaching.
And then there's body image. Although young female athletes on average have better body image and lower risk of eating disorders than other girls their age, this does not hold true in sports like gymnastics, ice skating, and dance, where a certain body type is expected of participants. My guess is that cheering falls into this category, although it has yet to be studied in this respect. At best, cheerleading is highly sexualized, making it a questionable choice for the prepubescent set.
Luckily, Lucy shows no interest in her friend's cheering career, so I don't have to have this conversation with her. But it makes me wonder what else is coming down the pike. Will there be belly dancing in second grade? Pole dancing in third? Why can't we let kids be kids and just pretend to be cheerleaders (or astronauts, or firefighters, or belly dancers, or whatever) for a while longer?