Who Owns a Childhood?

Hilary Levey, a sociologist and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, raised some poignant questions in an op-end piece for USA Today. In light of cases like “Balloon Boy,” the sailing Abby Sunderland, the Gosselins and others, she wondered if children used in reality shows should be protected by current labor laws.

I have spent the past decade studying children’s competitive activities — from child beauty pageants to chess to soccer — and children’s work, so I know that concerns about parental exploitation are nothing new. After making child labor, like factory work, illegal early in the 20th century, reformers tackled the problem of child performers. In 1939 California passed the Coogan law (named for famed child actor Jackie Coogan) to protect the earnings of young actors; today 15% of child performers’ earnings must be placed in trust accounts. But only four states have Coogan laws — California and New York, where most child performers work, along with Louisiana and New Mexico. New Mexico passed their laws after controversy in 2007 when the CBS reality show Kid Nation, which featured 40 children and no adults, filmed near Sante Fe.

So what’s different when it comes to kids and reality television? These kids are not classified as performers, denying them the protection of Coogan laws. In fact, the children are not even classified as workers, also denying them the protection of child labor laws. Kid reality stars fall through the cracks of the protections crafted by early 20th-century reformers, who likely never imagined that someone would consent to potty-training their children on camera (Season Three, Episode 4 of Jon & Kate Plus Ei8ht).

Additionally, children’s roles on shows that change their parents’ lifestyles raise the question of whether parents should be the ones to consent to have their children filmed. These parents are famous for simply being parents in unusual families, a role they could not publicly play without the participation of their kids. They have a vested interest in making sure that five-figure per episode paychecks continue to arrive.

Here’s the kicker:

Also of concern are children’s identities. Unlike, say, Miley Cyrus, who played the role of Hannah Montana, reality TV parents essentially consent for their children to “play” themselves. Children’s personalities are dissected by viewers, and any embarrassing activities, like that potty training, are preserved on the Internet — or in syndication. The consequences of having to perform their identity for millions are simply unknown.

So, who “owns” a childhood, the child or the parents? At what age should a child’s consent be required to have their lives edited and broadcast to millions? You can’t have a Facebook account until you are 13, but 6-year-olds can be the “stars” of reality shows?

Good questions. What say you?

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Brave Parenting?

One of the contributing editors at Outdoors magazine wrote this op-ed piece that touched a nerve with me.

Remember Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old girl from California who attempted to sail solo around the world, only to be rescued by a French fishing vessel? Not surprisingly, her parents have received a lot of flak for allowing their daughter to sail alone in the first place. Bruce Barcott, editor at Outdoors, said the opposite. The Sunderlands were simply exhibiting a rare virtuous trait: “brave parenting.”

Read on:

Now that Abby’s OK, the inevitable storm of criticism is raining down on her parents, Laurence and Marianne, who wished their daughter bon voyage when she cast off from Marina del Rey, Calif., in January. Allowing a 16-year-old girl to sail alone around the world — were they insane?

Not at all. Unusual, yes. But hardly “the worst parents in the world,” as I’ve heard them called recently. In fact, they may be the opposite. Like Paul Romero, the father of Jordan Romero, the  13-year-old Big Bear Lake teenager who climbed Mount Everest last month, the Sunderlands are practicing something bold and rare these days: brave parenting.

Raising kids today (I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old) is like working on a construction site with an overzealous risk manager. Everywhere you look there are signs reminding parents that Safety Is Job One. We’re told to cut up hot dogs and grapes to prevent choking, to lash the kids into car seats, to never let them out of sight at the park. A certain amount of this is progress, of course. I’d rather my kids not launch through the windshield like human missiles in a head-on, thank you.

But in our obsession with safety, we’ve lost sight of the upside of risk, danger and even injury: raising bold children prepared for adventure and eager to embrace the unfamiliar.

Okay, I will stop right there. First of all, Abby Sunderland’s parents were also reluctant to allow their daughter to sail around the world solo. But she insisted so they caved. “Brave” parenting? I don’t think so.


But I digress. My main beef with this article is the way Barcott equated prohibiting your kid to sail solo around the world to never letting them play outside.

It’s true that child obesity rates in this country are up, partly due to the lack of outdoor activity. Barcott listed some disturbing statistics such as how children today are less likely than previous generations to ride their bike or walk to school, or even play in their neighborhood parks alone. But I really do not believe this is emblematic of helicopter parenting — but the opposite.

With more parents working outside the home and for longer hours, sadly for many children in this country, there isn’t an adult to make sure that kids engage in healthy and safe afterschool activities. In many urban centers, traffic and crime are legitimate concerns.

But rules and regulations such as the choking label on hot dogs are emblematic of another sad reality in our country, that of our lawsuit culture. Unfortunately, there are parents out there that if their child did choke on a hot dog, or fly out of the windshield of a car, they would sue for not having been told this information in the first place. I think in some of these instances the parents simply do not have insurance to cover medical bills and/or funeral expenses, so they lash out at the companies instead.

But you can’t blame corporations, the government, or even parents, for this reality.

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Monday Morning Open Thread

Good morning, MTs. Hope you had a good weekend. I’m typing this as I’m listening to DH and my dad play Monopoly Jr. with Jess. Ah, memories; good ol’ fashioned Monopoly was one of the first board games I learned as a kid (after Candyland and Chutes and Ladders) and it’s a family rite of passage I’m delighted to share with Jess. As you can probably surmise, this visit has been really excellent!

In any event, two pieces that caught my eye: new research suggests that as we get older, we may need less sleep and may feel less tired during the day with less sleep.

Healthy older adults need less sleep than their younger counterparts and, even with less sleep under their nightcaps, are less likely to feel tired during the day, a study published Monday showed.

The time spent actually sleeping out of eight hours in bed declined progressively and significantly with age, the study published in SLEEP, the official journal of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, said.

Older adults, aged 66-83, slept about 20 minutes less than middle-aged adults (40-55 years), who slept 23 minutes less than young adults aged 20-30, the study said.

The older adults woke up significantly more often and spent more time awake after initial sleep onset than younger adults.

Deep, or slow-wave sleep, thought to be the most restorative phase of sleep, decreased with age, the study said.

But although older adults slept less deeply and less overall, and their sleep was less continuous than their younger counterparts’, they also showed less need for a quick kip during the day.

Interesting, for sure, but I’m still hoping for a return to eight-hour sleeps some time in 2010, sigh.

And in a quick follow-up to a story I wrote about last week, a girl who wanted to challenge for the title of youngest person to sail the world has had to drop her bid for the moment because of issues with her solar panels:

US sailor Abby Sunderland has halted her bid to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world after less than a week at sea.

Sunderland, 16, said in her blog on Saturday that she would have to head to Mexico for repairs as she was not able to generate sufficient power from her solar panels and wind generators.

Her team will meet her in Cabo San Lucas bringing fuel and more batteries to help her run her two alternators.

But fear not, Sunderland will try again as soon as she can. Well, uh, yeah.

So what’s going on with you today?

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