'I Know My Kid's a Star': Televising Child Abuse

It was with a heavy heart that I watched, I Know My Kid's a Star tonight. Animals are treated better on sets than some of these children were on national television. I have to hope - and presume - that our animal protection societies are doing a better job than whoever is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of these children. I keep coming back to one word: appalling.

To be straightforward, I knew I wasn't going to like this show when I was asked to cover it. Whether it's sports, academics, or pageants - I hate seeing children pressured to achieve. Pressure undermines a child's natural inclination to learn and expand through play. Play by definition is not pressured. But as painful as it was to watch some of these children with their parents, it seemed even worse to watch them also being exploited for the benefit of the production company, advertisers and the adult "stars" who presumably were salaried to partake in this national display of child abuse.

For those of you who didn't see it, "I Know My Kid's a Star" is aptly titled. This really is about the adults. In the early scenes - a tour of Hollywood by bus - former child star and addict Danny Bonaduce, attempts to warn the mothers (there was one, shortly to be eliminated, father) about the risks to Hollywood's children. Was it intended to be ironic that most of this scene takes place in front of a club called, "The Viper"?

"Preparing kids and parents for the challenges" of child stardom is the show's thinly disguised rationale for exploitation of children -- many, perhaps most, possibly all -- of whom are already being exploited by their parents.

Any delusion that the bus tour for the parents might have had an impact is swiftly eliminated when Bonaduce asks, "How many of you still want stardom?" Every hand on the bus shoots up. One mother announces that her daughter, "wants this almost more than me."

To share the grisly details. There are three moms angrily engaged with one another, sounding at their best like 8th grade girls. For most of an hour, children are drilled, manipulated and harassed. There is an absolutely brutal scene when a little girl is "timed out" by her mother in the hall for being disrespectful. No matter what the child does, she can't seem to get it right as the mother is intent on demonstrating that she's the boss. Worse still, the "tough judge" - a female Simon Cowell impersonator- later tells her mother that her daughter is, "a pretty, pretty girl but seems like a spoiled brat."

This child isn't spoiled. She's being emotionally battered on national television.

Then there is the real "star" of this show: Halley's mom Rocky, whose behavior is so immature and needy that it's the one thing that everyone on the show and 99.9% of viewers will agree on. When the child shines once the mother is removed from the audition, the judges waste no time shaming her mother in front of her. Is this supposed to appear helpful to the child?

Is telling a mother who has "invested" $35,000 in her child's career that she is, "owed a lot of money" supposed to be in the best interest of the child?

Above and beyond the individual details, the pervasive message to these children from their parents is: you are being judged and I really, really, really want you to win. The message from the judges is: Someone is going home and it could be you. There's a lot riding on this.

Having watched these scenes, viewers then get to watch the one little girl who is eliminated, Devon, as she takes the walk of shame out the door. Her father is actually the only parent to say anything empathic during the entire show ("I don't like to see sadness in her eyes" ) but once eliminated, even on the car ride home, he is already suggesting that they go back and try again.

I wonder what would happen if every reporter, teacher, parent and therapist who sees this program contacted their state department for the protection of children.

Beth Wechsler has a master's in social work from the Smith College School for Social Work. She has more than 35 years of experience as a child therapist.
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