Reality TV Shows Offer Parenting Moments
Lisa Race, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Portland, Ore., sees shows like American Idol as great opportunities to explore your child's perspective. "Our job as parents is to help kids think critically about the messages they're receiving from popular culture. It's not so much what they're exposed to, but how they make sense of it," she says.
Cathy Bless, a full-time working mother of three, agrees that it's important to take advantage of any opportunity to communicate with your kids. "TV shows give me a chance to talk to my kids about all sorts of things, and since I can use someone else as an example, the kids are more likely to listen."
Susan Orenstein, licensed psychologist and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary and Chapel Hill, says reality TV shows are a fun indulgence for families that give children and parents an opportunity to see people exploring their passions.
As an example, her son, who enjoys cooking, has an opportunity to see real-life cooking challenges on the Food Network. "He cooks and he's quite a perfectionist," Orenstein says. "The reality TV really shows how much blood, sweat and tears go into it. And that it's not always perfect and, at times, everybody messes up."
Use the following tips to open communication with your children about reality TV, draw important life lessons from the show, and help your kids make sense of what they're watching:
* It's hip to be brave. It takes courage to sing or dance in front of a crowd, much less in front of a panel of judges waiting to critique every flat note or false move. Ask your kids, "What would it feel like to take that risk? Would they have the guts to do it?" Talk about what small steps could they take in their daily lives to become more courageous. As a parent, consider how you could help.
Race suggests using the frequent commercial breaks to ask questions. "Be curious about what they are seeing and thinking," she says. "What is their perspective?" Encourage your kids to respect the effort, not just the outcome.
* Learn to bounce back. Sooner or later, your kids will meet a real-life Simon Cowell — someone who relishes the opportunity to burst your child's bubble. Whether your kids suffer a scorching critique from a panel of judges, a coach or teacher, or even a close friend, the key to bouncing back is to separate constructive criticism from just plain meanness, learn from your mistakes, and keep moving forward.
After a poor performance, ask your kids what the contestant can learn from his or her mistakes. Which part of the critique is constructive? Which part should be tossed aside? Bless uses the opportunity to talk with her kids about empathy and personal responsibility. "We feel terrible for the ones who do badly, but I try to remind my kids that you have to take responsibility for your failures and move on," she says.
* Be honest but kind. What if the tides were turned? What if it were your child's job to comment on a poor performance? When a contestant flops, ask your kids how they would deliver the bad news. Is a blunt-edged approach called for, or is it best to soften the blow? Encourage your kids to critique the judges: Which judge does the best job providing feedback that is honest but kind? Orenstein notes that comments by judges give children a chance to understand the difference between the generalized feedback and really constructive criticisms.
Race suggests offering kids an alternative perspective. "This is a great way to practice collaborative problem-solving with your kids," she says. "Talking together now about your different approaches to a problem will help down the road, when there are more confusing messages to help your kids make sense of."
* Be a doer, not just an observer. The contestants on television shows are willing to work hard to achieve their dreams. Ask your children what inspires them in the same way: Is it music, a sport, a love for animals, for books? Encourage kids to explore their interests by joining a team, taking lessons or volunteering.
"I bought a poster for one of my daughters," Bless says. "The poster says, 'Find your stage door and open it.' It's a reminder to get out there, to do something you love."
One of the most positive aspects of reality TV shows is that watching them is something kids and parents can do together — and that helps open the lines of communication. "It's a fun way to connect with our kids," Orenstein says.
Julie Ann Barber is a freelance writer and the mother of a teenage daughter. She writes from Portland, Ore.