Americans seem to have made a national pastime of parenting badly in the public eye. As for the rest of us? We spend our time playing social worker: A recent poll has declared that the Heene parents should lose custody.
The impulse to remove innocent children from their stupid parents simply because their parents are stupid is a strong one. But it sweeps broadly and often irrevocably. Was the Octomom showing good judgment when she had herself implanted with eight embryos she had neither the financial nor emotional resources to support? Do the preposterous Jon and Kate Gosselin really believe their children have thrived as a consequence of having their every burp and sniffle broadcast to millions of viewers? A clutch of children's-rights advocates and many outraged Americans argue that any parent who agrees to put a small child on a reality show should be, by definition, a child abuser. But our legal system doesn't agree. Despite data that show what happens to child stars, current laws are concerned only with protecting young celebrities' finances and making sure they stay on the right side of child-labor rules. Being willing to do virtually anything for fame and money isn't a crime in America. It's a vocation.
And so is judging the parents. The spate of shows showcasing stage and pageant moms, multiple kids and trainwreck starlets doesn't just cast a light on these parents (who, one can safely assume, wouldn't, in the absence of cameras, suddenly be parenting paragons) it also allows us to judge them - surely at least as much the point, from a commercial point of view.
The point has been made, and often, that none of this could exist for our censure without an unjudgmental network framework ready to exploit in turn, even if they can make the disingenuous argument that they're merely letting appalling folks hoist themselves on their own petards. In the case of Disney's child-star factory (sausage'd in appalling detail in the new issue of Time) the complicity is literal, and it's not as though the fate of Disney's prior products (Lohan, anyone?) is a secret to the House of Mouse.
As Lithwick points out, though, tossing "abuse" around gets dicey. In Colorado, at least (the Heenes loom large in her piece) to qualify as "abused" a minor must exhibit "evidence of skin bruising, bleeding, malnutrition…burns, fracture of any bone…soft tissue swelling, or death," and emotional abuse is defines as "an identifiable and substantial impairment of the child's intellectual or psychological functioning or development." Kids on TV is not in itself "abuse" - I doubt anyone's calling for child services to intervene on Little People, Big World 's Roloff family- and the truth is the Gosselins would probably have had their issues anyway. But it frequently draws attention to the more unpleasant side of parenting. In a way, it's not our fault: American Idol, Project Runway, various dance shows, have made us all experts on everything - and often literal judge and jury, too. We may want legal recourse, but bad parenting isn't a crime, and that's a very slippery slope. I think it's good - if good there is - that it starts conversations and makes us consider where interest stops and voyeurism ends. Because as Lithwick says, "whether and when to remove a child from the care of his completely nutty parents is a complicated legal question, not one that should be hashed out via online polls. State laws properly recognize that tearing apart a family is an extreme step to be taken when a child faces imminent danger, not when his parents make terrible choices." But we can moderate our own behavior, think about why we watch, and whether we secretly enjoy the superiority a little too much. That's legal.