I have a preteen son who is fascinated by some of the reality shows on TV. If he’s finished with his homework, I don’t mind him watching occasionally. As a pediatrician, I do what I recommend to my patients. I follow the Common Sense recommendations and have the TV in the family room where I can keep at least one ear open to what's going on with the shows. It's very important that we know what our kids are seeing and hearing in the media world.
My son receives quite a range of messages from these show, however. In SURVIVOR, the allure comes from watching the gamesmanship required to be the last survivor standing. I am troubled by what it takes to become the winner. Kids see many back-stabbing dealings during which contestants sabotage and pit fellow contestants against each other. It’s important for parents to understand what messages our kids are picking up from this. I recommend that you engage your kids in conversation. Ask them what they thought about a particular contestant’s actions. Was the gain worth the unsavory behavior? Would they do the same? How would they feel if someone did that to them?
Handling competition is a necessary part of a child’s development. Almost all the reality the shows -- from AMERICAN IDOL to FEAR FACTOR -- feature different ways of handling elimination. Last week on the final episode of the THE APPRENTICE, the two finalists were both examples of very capable women. The consistent observation about the woman who ultimately missed the opportunity to become Trump’s next apprentice was that she was not always respectful to her team members and/or employees. The winner was a strong leader who clearly valued and appreciated her team’s efforts. What did your kids think about that match-up? Ask your kids about the cut-throat versus the collaborative forms of competition. The important part of the discussion comes from having them realize that not all examples are created equally -- there are positive and negative role models.
Finally, it’s important for your kids to have a “reality check” about the reality shows. Especially when it comes to those shows on MTV that are aimed directly at teens and preteens. Of particular concern to me as a physician is I WANT A FAMOUS FACE in which young adults contact MTV to get their plastic surgery documented. This show glamorizes the irrational influence of celebrities. That is worth a dialogue. Ask your kids why they think people would give up who they are to become someone else. What do they think these people expect from their transformations? Why are good looks so crucial? This is a great opportunity to talk about what's going on in your child’s social life without asking directly about it (which, as we all know, is a sure-fire conversation stopper!)
Perhaps you can contrast I WANT A FAMOUS FACE with MTV’s more positive show, MADE, in which kids are given a “coach” who helps them achieve their dreams, not by a “makeover”, but by focusing more on skills and finding the heart to achieve the task.
Our kids have been bombarded by so many reality shows. As parents, we would do well to take advantage of these opportunities to talk about the attitudes and behaviors of contestants on these shows. Talk with your kids about what they're seeing and about what you think about it, too.
Dr. Mikiko Huang is a pediatrician and mom.