TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras (Wednesdays at 10/9c) is often criticized for exhibiting bad parenting, but this week's episode is garnering the opposite response. We were introduced to Brock Ritter, a now-8-year-old, self-described "diva," who lives in Michigan and pursues his interests in dancing, pageantry and occasionally dressing up like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, despite teasing and what society dictates as gender-normative behavior. (Watch a clip of Brock in action.)
We spoke with Brock's mom, Tori, about letting her son be himself, pageantry criticism and what Brock's father thinks of all this.
How has the feedback been from the show?
Tori Ritter: Extremely supportive. I've gotten emails from strangers, and I just opened a message from a friend about what a great mom I am. I'm just Brock's mom. I've always been his mom and I don't think I do anything differently from what any other parent does or should do. I love my kids and I nurture them and try to bring them up in the best way possible for them.
It does seem that when some parents see their kid exhibiting gender non-normative behavior, they push back and force him or her to conform. Was that tempting for you, say, when Brock started dressing as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz?
Ritter: Not really. He loves The Wizard of Oz. It was Halloween. It's not like he was [at] home dressing up like that every day. He did wear it to school; he wore it to dance. It wasn't a big deal. And as far as his dancing, he's not the only boy that we know who dances. It's not out of the norm. His dad and I played sports growing up. I never danced, I was never into the pageant thing. I support what his ideas are and what he wants to do because people say you have to open your kids up to opportunities and let them try different things. We've both played soccer. We've kicked the ball around with him in the back yard and he has no interest in doing that.
It's very bold of Brock, himself, not to give into how society is telling him how to be as well.
Ritter: He has a very strong character and personality. That's just him. That's the way he's always been. His sister's the same way: very determined and they're not going to let anything bring them down. I guess where the parenting comes in is what you teach them about when things come at you negatively. Brock has come to me if something's bothered him, be it at school or whatever, and we'll talk to the teacher and hit the thing head-on. That's where it stops if there ever is a problem. Other than that, I tell him to ignore it. Some of it's ignorance. Some if it could be jealousy. I say, "You're the only boy dancing with 12 girls. What boy wouldn't like that?"
Regardless of how it's done, standing out from the crowd is not an easy thing to do. Do you worry about the hard time Brock may face as an individual?
Ritter: No. He's strong enough, and he's got us to fall back on for support. He's got his teachers and his dance family. I've dealt with negativity and I've told Brock, "There are people out there saying this stuff," and he goes, "I don't care. I'm who I am." He doesn't let it bother him. He's very comfortable in his skin. He's not a typical 8-year-old where everything bugs him.
Has the criticism ever entered the realm of hatred?
Ritter: I don't think so.
You referenced some teasing when boys in his class found out Brock danced. How common is that?
Ritter: It happened the one time in kindergarten. He had been dancing for three years by that point. We had moved and once some boys who were into flag football found out Brock danced, they said, "Boys do this..." The teacher said, "Wait a second, don't you know that those football players you look up to most likely took ballet for their agility?" After they realized that, it wasn't such a big deal. There's never been any issues since.
What do you say to the general criticism pageantry faces: that it's bad for kids, emphasizing appearance is damaging, etc.?
Ritter: It would be interesting to take a poll on how many of those people have sat in an audience or have had hands-on experience in a pageant. I think the people who are bashing are on the outside looking in.
What would you say to people who criticized the scene in which Brock was spray-tanned?
Ritter: Spray-tan washes off in a couple of days. It's makeup, like everything else. It's not like I'm sticking him in a tanning booth or frying him outside with no SPF. It's part of the dress-up.
Earlier this year, there was a child on the Today show dubbed "Princess Boy," who loves wearing dresses. Did you see that and relate to it? It seems like that child and Brock are part of this bigger cultural zeitgeist of kids who are allowed to be what they are, regardless of gender.
Ritter: I didn't see that, but I did see a What Would You Do?, in which they had a little boy go into a toy store [and pick out a "girls' toy"]. One dad supported it, and the other criticized it to strangers. Regardless of whether I had kids or not, I'd feel the same way: No parent should be saying anything about their child. If there's an issue with it, take care of it in the home and say, "You're not wearing the tutu out," or whatever. If you're uncomfortable as a parent, confine things to the home, and that's more for the protection of the child.
Brock's father wasn't featured on the show. Is he supportive of Brock's pageantry?
Ritter: He is. He and my parents aren't into pageants, but he is the one who cuts and mixes all of their music. If no one's taking stage shots, he'll go. He sits back in the audience. He supports them, but just more behind the scenes.