How Watching Trash TV Was Good for My Kids (And Me)

My kids had never even heard of beauty pageants until a fateful visit to my mom's house last summer, where one evening, she unapologetically announced it was "time for trash TV!" and clicked on the latest episode of TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras. My then 6-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son -- who have been carefully weaned on PBS Kids and are forbidden to watch most Disney Channel shows -- were mesmerized.

I was horrified.

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I'm not a fan (understatement) of reality TV, which, in just 22 minutes, can turn a complex individual into Flat Stanley while breathing (years of) life into the human equivalent of paper dolls. All the Big Lessons I try to teach my kids -- that looks don't matter, that winning isn't everything, that happiness is more important than money -- are exactly opposite in Reality TV Land.

"It won't hurt them," my mom interrupted my diatribe. "Sit down and watch."

Reluctantly, I did, although I watched my kids more than the screen. I saw my daughter's delight when she learned the girl who won that episode's beauty pageant would take home a puppy. Then my son crowing over the fact that not only did the girls scarf down Pixie Sticks and soda, but their parents made them. Neither one of them paid any attention to me sighing in the corner. Years of limited screen time and careful viewing habits -- my kids have never even seen SpongeBob SquarePants! -- undone. Not to mention, by my own mother.

"Wasn't that good, Mommy?" my daughter asked afterward, as we all watched the winner of the pageant -- a big-haired, heavily mascara-ed girl in cowboy boots -- haul a bewildered Chihuahua into her family's minivan. 

Before I could answer (and the answer would have been "no"), my kids began sashaying up and down the hall, mimicking the same robotic smile and wave the contestants had used during the pageant. In between fits of laughter, though, they questioned what had just happened on the small screen: Did the little girl really want a dog? Did she know how to take care of it? Does it hurt to get your eyebrows waxed? Why did a mom make her 3-year-old perform when she said she was tired? Did the rest of the family have to sit around the hotel all day long? 

This is when I realized two things. One, I seriously needed to lighten up and stop being such a TV snob. My kids were having a blast. And two, maybe the occasional viewing of "trash TV" can be a useful parenting tool. It's kind of like gossip. Sure, technically, it's not nice to talk about others, but the reason we're driven to do so is to bond with the people we care about and reassure each other that we're all on the same page. 

And sure enough, my kids picked up on the same wacky things I did: the pushy mom who seemed to want to win the pageant more than her daughter did; the bored siblings, yawning from the audience; the terrified look in the Chihuahua's eyes as it went off to its new home.

It's totally possible -- even probable -- that the episode we'd just watched was a marvel of editing, and the family we'd seen was far more like us than the producers let on. But really, it doesn't matter. I get now that it's more about us than them.

And I reminded myself of that (over and over) as the next show my mom turned on was ... Secret Princes.

Do you let your kids watch reality TV?


Image via SplashNews/Corbis

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