Yesterday, on my very lively Twitter timeline a bunch of handles got into a bite-sized brawl (which I think is called a debate these days, if not a twibate) on the issue. One bunch of people, who I believe enjoy cooking and the show itself, saw nothing wrong in these kids in being cast in a reality show. That faction believed that it was okay for the kids to do so as long as it wasn’t a reality show where the kids were being judged on their dancing/singing skills. This was a “life skill” and these kids were “prodigies” is what was being said. That may be so. I can’t decide. (I honestly believe no one starved because they couldn’t cook. Not in recent times anyway.)
The other side, as I see it, argued more than one thing. That these kids were “competing” and “being judged” and “rejected in front of the whole world.” Another thing that came up was that they would be better off spending time studying/in schools instead of missing weeks of “normal” school-going time.
I feel very strongly about this kids and television/reality show issue. I’ll tell you why. First let me make clear that it is not the competition issue that gets me all in a twist. Ideally, of course, I’d be happy with minimal competition but that’s probably a perfect situation if I am living on a far flung island with its population being only my family. Even then it’s probably unavoidable. If, as a parent, I can inculcate a sense of self in my child that allows her or him to deal with competition without thinking that’s all that ever matters, then I’d not only have done part of my job as a parent, I’d have probably helped create a less unhappy person. My beef, then, is not with competition.
My objection is to putting kids in a situation that is very obviously harsh for them. Being in a studio or on a filming set is not easy. Starting from something as basic as the set lights being extremely harsh (for adult skin and hair among other things, leave alone for kids) to being closeted for weeks on end in an atmosphere that is not only unnatural on many levels but is also blinkered. Someone on the timeline argued that kids going to schools and giving exams are not natural either. I don’t entirely disagree but I don’t entirely agree either. I have two kids of my own. As someone with a curious enough mind, I’ve tried with experimenting by breaking rules (the ones that I was aware of and didn’t see as the “natural” thing to do, at least) as far as parenting is concerned; I’ve experimented with what the books told me, just to see if parents around the world and parent-authors around the world were trying to create cookie-cutter children. One of the things I experimented with is the notion (one that comes highly recommended by paediatricians, parenting books and generally any parent who has gotten past the toddler age sane) that routine gives you happier, more relaxed, healthier (?) children. One needn’t have absolute regimentation; the books say if the child knows what to expect next — that after bathing her in the evening, she’s going to get into pyjamas and then a story’s going to be read after which you will cuddle… — then a child feels more at rest, has a greater feeling of security and is generally happier.
I tried to shake that up a bit; I changed order around, timings were shunted this way and that, routine was twisted in every conceivable way. I tried it for a few weeks – this controlled mayhem. It was me trying to reinvent a wheel by making it square. My kids, people, were pissed off kids in the weeks that their routine was tossed aside. The weeks with routine? My kids responded beautifully. They were less clingy, they were easier to get along with, ate better and all of that. My point, then, is that something like a school provides a part of the routine that kids can predict and be secure with. It’s like sleeping and waking. If you’re going to argue that sleeping and waking are also conditioning, give me some credit and please take your argument elsewhere. You and I both know, your waking mind and body do better with sunlight than your sleeping one. So while a school setting may not be the most desirable or natural setting for a child, it provides the comfort of predictability. Apart from a whole lot of friends with people exactly like you.
In addition to being subjected to the tough conditions of a TV show, the kids are then faced with judgement. Sure, kids get judged all the time; by their parents, by their friends, by the kids they go to school with. But there’s a kind of humiliation that is bigger than all of the above when you’re judged for the rest of the world to see. A child has the right to privacy even when it’s being told off or in some situations, depending on your parenting style, being humiliated. Reality shows take that right away. Moreoever, going back to school after being eliminated in a show cannot be easy — kids are cruel, I’ve always maintained — and the kids who don’t do well will go back to face a fair amount of bullying, if not some idol worship for having been on TV. All this could happen to someone who didn’t go on TV but you’ll agree the intensity is multiplied when you’ve been a “star”.
I once read a piece on how kids hanging out with adults was a good thing. I am still undecided. I am not too fond of precocity, a personification of which lives in my own home. But that has never stopped me from answering any question that my daughter has put forth. In a way, that could be counted as treating a child as an adult but I am confused about that. I think if she’s smart enough to ask a question like the ones she asks, she may also figure out a way to process my usually carefully-worded answers and understand it temporarily, till she later figures out loopholes and elaborates. On a filming set, there are other kids, sure, but there are more adults than there are kids. After a point, adults that aren’t part of the family grow immune to the presence of kids and behave like…well… adults. I strongly believe that can’t have the best influences on a child, especially if that behavior is radically different from what the child has seen in his or her home environment. You might ask can you control your child’s environment all your life? Of course not and I hope no one ever will. But go to a set where stuff is shot; spend some time there. Maybe you’ll agree with me.
Masterchef Junior aside, there are shows closer home in India that are by no means set to any standards. Whether it is a code of conduct that states what a child can perform/do on stage or the amount of time a child spends at a set acting in a show, there are no rules. In the latter case, I am yet to discover why making a child act in a TV show or a film isn’t considered child labour (just to be specific, I do not talk of the Masterchef show here.) And that’s my problem with reality shows in particular and children acting in TV shows specifically. How long are these kids spending in studios, what kind of conditions and codes of conduct are laid out for them, how are the parents treating all the competition, do they feel normal when they go back to their life, do their aspirations take a different turn once they’ve tasted fame to whatever extent? I don’t know. And I believe those answers, in general, might be uncomfortable ones.
My take: if it’s healthy competition and the child’s virtuosity that you want to encourage, then aren’t school, interschool, state or national-level competitions enough? What extra thing are you getting from putting her or him in a studio or a set and then their perhaps-humiliation/jubilation being telecast on TV? I do believe being part of a shooting schedule that focuses on a child entirely takes away a little bit from your childhood. The examples are many. You may eventually turn out to be an adult, one that has got all the rubbish and rehab out of the way, but you’ve pretty much lost much of your childhood, one that you had every right to, had your parent understood that a parent’s responsibility is to know one’s child and nurture the capacity to make decisions by increasing subtly and gradually the scope of where a child can make them. Till such time, a parent bears the cross for making a decision that may not have placed the child as the most important factor in the decision.