Children and Reality TV | Television for Kids | Children and Media

Why I let my kids watch reality TV.

by Elizabeth Blackwell

March 9, 2010



“Do you think he’s going to be bad?” my 7-year-old daughter Clara asks me.

“Probably.” I have to admit, things don’t look promising for the frizzy-haired American Idol wannabe, with his goofy grin and gangly arms. I have seen enough of these audition episodes to know that a person shown dancing awkwardly during a pre-interview with Ryan Seacrest rarely makes it past the first round.

Surprisingly, he’s not terrible. But that doesn’t stop Clara from brandishing a dramatic thumbs-down. She tends to deliver Simon Cowellesque putdowns to most of the male auditioners, since she wants a girl – any girl – to win.

I turn to my 3-year-old twins for their input. Alan, snuggled under a pile of stuffed animals, gives me a thumbs up. James, grooving to the singer’s rendition of “Let’s Get It On,” puts his thumb up, then down, then sideways. While he may not have the whole judging thing down, he’s clearly enjoying himself.

And I’m OK with that.

Yes, I let my children watch reality television, the pop-culture phenomenon that’s seen as a microcosm of all that’s wrong with modern society. It glorifies narcissistic, oafish behavior (I’m talking to you, Big Brother!), focuses on appearance rather than substance, and shrinks our already limited attention spans. If you let your kid watch reality TV, you might as well toss them a bag of Cheetoes and some Cool Whip and call it dinner.

Within the vast reality genre, there’s plenty of genuine trash. Do I want my daughter watching the perma-tanned posers of Jersey Shore? Re-enacting the catfights among the so-called “real” Housewives of Orange County? No way.

But “reality” also covers shows that don’t elevate drunken brawls into moments of high drama, shows that broaden my children’s view of the world and expose them to lives utterly unlike their own, shows that (unlike, say, Caillou or Dora the Explorer) actively engage me as well as the kids, leading to conversations we would never have otherwise.

Take Dirty Jobs, the show that initiated Clara into the world of reality TV. On each episode, affable host Mike Rowe mucks his way through filthy, cough-inducing tasks alongside real-life workers. On the one hand, the program taught my daughter valuable lessons about the hard work that makes our everyday lives possible. Look what those farmers have to do so we get fresh milk and eggs! Watch what happens to our recycling when it gets to the dump!

At the same time, Dirty Jobs satisfies a primal urge – no matter what your age – to gawk at something nasty, like the time Rowe helped replace a pump at a sewage-treatment station and walked into a room literally coated with squishy brown matter. Before long, both my husband and Clara were shrieking “Poop!” – proving that kids and middle-aged men have the same sense of humor.

Another Discovery Channel show, Man Vs. Wild, is also a win-win for both me and the kids: I get to watch a hunky guy with a British accent named Bear face various life-threatening situations (which sometimes involve taking off his shirt), while my kids enjoy being grossed out as he eats live bugs or wades through thigh-high mud. But the show’s underlying message – how to survive in the wilderness – is a valuable one. We watch, cozy on the couch, and imagine ourselves trekking across the frozen Alaskan tundra or scorching Sahara Desert, building shelters out of palm fronds or stray twigs. For a half-hour or so, we have escaped into another world. American Idol, Survivor, and Dancing with the Stars are often the most family-friendly programs in their time slot.

That ability to be transported into another life can last long after the TV is turned off. After watching a few episodes of So You Think You Can Dance last summer, Alan and James started performing their own routines on the family-room rug. Their technique – which consisted mostly of leaping and crashing into each other – might get a thumbs down from qualified judges, my husband and I were thoroughly entertained. So You Think You Can Dance has been off the air for months, but “dance shows” are still performed regularly in our house.

Even American Idol, which I would never claim to be “educational,” has gotten Clara and me talking about how to project confidence and take criticism gracefully. It has also exposed her to a far wider range of musical styles than she’d get from my dated 1980’s CD collection.

No parent wants to admit that their kids watch anything other than PBS, but I’m not the only one flipping the remote to reality fare. One friend, whose 8-year-old daughter still hasn’t outgrown the “why?” phase, reports that her family bonds while watching How It’s Made, a show that reveals how everyday objects are manufactured. My neighbor, who loves to cook, cuddles with her preschooler while watching the Food Network. For another friend, watching American Idol means a chance to hang out with her 9-year-old son, who enjoys having Mom all to himself after his younger siblings have gone to bed.

There’s a reason reality staples like Idol, Survivor, and Dancing With the Stars pull in big ratings, year after year. Despite their bad rap, they’re often the most family-friendly programs in their time slot. They’re shows parents and kids can watch together, debating who should win and why. Curling up on the couch together on a Sunday night, watching a show that entertains both me and my kids, is a reward for all of us.

And contrary to popular belief, I don’t think reality television is killing off my children’s brain cells. Consider my daughter Clara, who got caught up watching Top Chef with me a few months ago. No, it didn’t teach her to make tuna tapenade with truffle-oil vinaigrette and asparagus reduction. But one night, she trotted downstairs to show me a paper covered with writing, which she’d been working on quietly in her room on her own: a list of imaginary Top Chef contestants (all girls, of course), the food they cooked and whether they won or lost.

Who says TV kills creativity?

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