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Reality TV offers valuable lessons for children. Really.

Seven productive conversations parents can have with their kids about one of TV’s most maligned genres.

Survivor: Ghost Island’s first tribal council.
CBS

My family doesn’t just watch Survivor; we scrutinize it.

Whenever the CBS hit is in season, my wife Donna, our 16-year-old son Archer, and our 13-year-old daughter Cady Gray all join me after every episode for some post-game analysis. Sometimes we don’t even wait for the closing credits.

During “tribal council,” before all the votes are cast and one of the show’s contestants gets sent home, we’ll hit the pause button and take a few minutes to speculate. What would be the best strategic move here? And what are the castaways likely to do in the heat of the moment?

We don’t just do this with Survivor. We pick apart The Amazing Race, Project Runway, Kids Baking Championship, and every other reality competition we watch. We’re gamers by nature. We have board game tournaments during holiday breaks and enjoy watching game shows together. Archer in particular, who has an autistic spectrum disorder, finds rules and results reassuring and likes to talk through how and why players win or lose.

Over the years, I’ve found that I can pivot off our children’s interest in reality TV and open up our conversations to talk about the people we watch on television as people, not just as competitors. Because we watch a fair number of these shows (basically everything but the “let’s follow around a celebrity” and Bachelor subgenres), the topics of our little chats have been pretty broad, encompassing everything from poverty and privilege to what a blast chiller is.

But no matter the show, there’s almost always the seed of a productive discussion that allows Donna and me a chance to pass along some of what we know and believe, including…

It’s important to understand cultures and experiences different from your own

The Amazing Race can be overly aggressive in shoehorning geography and history into its globe-hopping challenges. But the shtick works! Whenever the racers encounter the extreme poverty of India and Africa, Donna and I take a moment to talk about economic inequality with Archer and Cady Gray.

And when the trip around the world passed through old Europe and ultramodern Asia, that presents an entirely different but just as welcome opportunity to talk about cultural variance.

Contestants compete in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on The Amazing Race.
CBS

Even the contestants’ backgrounds — on Amazing Race and other shows — allow us to consider how Americans differ, from New Jersey to Kentucky to California. Reality shows like Amazing Race and Survivor like to slap labels on the participants (“the Boston Firefighter,” “the Cheerleader,” etc.), but the people themselves often defy easy description.

Cady Gray and I are fans of History Channel’s extreme survival series Alone, which strands hearty souls out in the wilderness completely by themselves, without even a camera crew, seeing how long they can last before asking for extraction.

The kind of people who take on Alone’s challenges don’t have a lot in common with our soft suburbanite selves. They’re often ex-military or back-to-the-land-ers. They’re folks we don’t meet every day. Hearing them monologue to themselves about how to turn a tree into a boat, or how they’re coping with PTSD, gives us a chance to see beneath the stereotype of the drippy hippy or the hyper-aggressive soldier.

And since reality TV producers have become fairly committed to casting gay or lesbian competitors in each season, our kids have come to know, and root for, a healthy number of LGBTQ contestants. Some shows are more open than others. Cady Gray has watched a lot of Project Runway with us, where the vast majority of the male designers are gay.

She’s become used to seeing same-sex couples during the reality competition genre’s common “weepy call home” scenes. Archer, meanwhile, has a chauvinist tendency to cheer for the all-male teams on The Amazing Race, which means that more than once, his preferred racers have been two men who are married to each other.

One of the great arguments that conservative parents’ groups have levied against the mainstreaming of queer culture is, “How am I supposed to explain any of this to my kids?” But reality TV answered this question long ago. If you give children a chance to get to know men and women with different sexual preferences, it’s really not that difficult for them to understand.

Interpersonal dynamics can be tricky

Some of the most fruitful discussions we’ve had with our kids have sprung from what is, frankly, one of reality TV’s worst traits. By and large, producers want the contestants to beef at each other because it makes for more dramatic television.

But on the shows we watch regularly, the jerks are rarely framed as role models. So we get to talk about what they’re doing wrong. Why should a woman who’s partnered with a controlling, condescending boyfriend on The Amazing Race get as far away from him as possible? How counterproductive is it when a chef on Top Chef or a designer on Project Runway starts sniping at teammates or rivals? Is there a better way for these people to get what they want?

It’s telling, too, that our kids — like most of the world, it seems — have been touched and impressed by the genuine camaraderie of the cooks on The Great British Baking Show. The same is true of the youngsters competing in the Kids Baking Championship and on Project Runway Junior. Seeing people supporting each other and helping each other inspires them as much it does us.

There are different kinds of leadership

Similar to interpersonal dynamics, there are opportunities aplenty while watching reality TV to talk about leadership: either of the macho, alpha male variety seemingly favored by Survivor host Jeff Probst, or of the humble, poised, versatile kind that does well on a real survival show like Alone.

Brashness may draw more attention on television, but my wife and I can always find moments to point out the effectiveness of “soft power,” when a player gains an advantage through a timely conversation or a gesture of good faith.

Contestants compete in a challenge on Survivor: Ghost Island.
CBS

One of the more fascinating shows to watch in the context of “leadership” is Shark Tank. We don’t care so much about the investors and their diverging personalities. It is useful, though, to examine the would-be entrepreneurs as they pitch their products and to talk about what makes their ideas and pitches good or bad.

Shark Tank features slick business school grads who know how to sell but don’t have a valuable product or service and home inventors who haven’t done their homework on how to take their concept to the next level. These strengths and weaknesses are broadly applicable to any child’s understanding of how the world works.

Gamesmanship matters

As mentioned, my children’s interest in reality competitions stems from their love of game shows, which aren’t as plentiful on TV as I’d like (or at least, these days, aren’t as family-friendly as I’d like). A lot of the fun for us in watching Survivor or The Amazing Race is to see it as a game and to admire whenever a player executes an especially crafty maneuver.

Because of that, we get a little irritated whenever contestants on these shows act like elements that are integral the game — like the “U-turns” on Amazing Race and the “immunity idols” on Survivor — are somehow beneath them.

“I don’t want to play the game this way; that’s not who I am,” some competitors say, as they squander a perfectly legal and openly encouraged advantage. Watching these people refuse a boon is a lesson in itself: Play shrewdly, kids, and don’t take it personally when your opponents do the same.

That’s why one of our favorite competition (whenever it’s airing, that is) is Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. It’s nearly impossible to win that game without sabotaging the other chefs, which makes planning and strategizing as important as the actual cooking.

That’s not to say that we want our children to learn to be cruel. There are good reasons not to take advantage of an opportunity to hamper the competition, ranging from simple compassion to currying favor. But I do think it’s important to know the difference between playing a game hard and actually hurting someone, and these types of shows offer an opportunity to make that distinction.

There is accounting for taste

When we watch cooking shows, we can’t actually taste the food, some of which looks weird and unpalatable — especially to a picky teenager. When we watch Project Runway, our understanding of fashion pales next to that of the judges, who are often looking for something different in the clothes than we are. But that’s okay! That’s what makes these programs educational. Learning what experts think is good about design, cuisine, music, and dance has helped broaden our kids’ sense of the finer things.

Along the same lines, whenever friends ask me how I can watch shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance — which they presume to be trash — my answer is that on any given week, a performance competition can show me something amazing, unlike anything else on television.

What could be better than seeing and hearing a talented amateur entertainer seize his or her moment in the spotlight? Isn’t this one of TV’s greatest functions, to unite us in our awe at what our fellow humans can do?

Contestants perform a contemporary routine on So You Think You Can Dance?
Fox

This is what I try to share with my daughter in particular, who’s more artistically inclined than my mathematical-minded son. Watching some 18-year-old from Oklahoma sing his heart out at an American Idol audition, we’ll analyze his technique and weigh his originality, and I’ll explain a little about whatever pop, rock, or R&B traditions he’s honoring. But we’ll also just marvel at the courage it takes to step into a spotlight, to try to express something.

Pop trends can unite us

It used to be true that “these kids today” would know far more about the latest music, celebrities, and fashions than their clueless parents. That’s not so much the case anymore. Thanks to the fragmentation of the media audience and the rise of nontraditional platforms like YouTube, the younger generation doesn’t necessarily share equally in the zeitgeist.

As recently as 10 or 20 years ago, adolescents might’ve shared a common awareness of whatever was on MTV, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, or the Disney Channel. Today they’re just as likely to have highly individuated niche interests, from video game “speed run” videos to Dungeons & Dragons podcasts.

My daughter, for example, knows artists like Bruno Mars and Beyoncé primarily because she’s heard their music on American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Cady Gray hardly ever listens to “the radio” per se. She gets her music primarily from Pandora and YouTube. So it’s reassuring to me to know that at least TV is giving her some common touchpoints with her peers … if only so she’ll know what to feel nostalgic about in 20 years.

In this day and age especially, it’s important to be media-literate

Did I say that reality TV is best at teaching “interpersonal relationships”? Well, that’s true, but only inasmuch that those are the lessons these shows are actually trying to teach. But I can’t over-stress the importance of sharing with children a deeper understanding of what television isn’t showing.

Isn’t it odd, for example, that so many competition series follow the same basic format from episode to episode, even though in theory they’re supposed to be documenting an unpredictable real world?

Pointing this out is a good way into talking about editing and how TV creators construct stories. Just because The Amazing Race cuts between two teams running to the finish line doesn’t mean they were actually racing to the end at the same time the episode was shot. Just because Survivor includes scenes of castaways discussing a possible blindside vote just before tribal council doesn’t mean the outcome of that episode is actually in doubt.

Television misleads us all the time for the purpose of keeping us in suspense. It’s a well-meaning lie, but a lie nonetheless.

Thanks to the past few years of American politics, we’ve learned that not all of the media’s little misdirections are benign. It’s good for kids to learn early that the lines between information and entertainment are closely intertwined, and that sometimes in the name of constructing a compelling narrative, television creates misperceptions about what’s actually happening in the world.


True, this lesson — like all the others above — could be taught without ever watching a minute of Project Runway or The Amazing Race. But teaching kids values doesn’t always require reading morally upstanding literature or watching G-rated faith-based movies. There’s a lot to be learned from studying real people, in all their devilish complications.

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