Reality TV may often be silly, shallow, and trashy. But Top Chef, Project Runway, and other hits can help us teach our children about morality and values.
In the bestselling self-help book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, psychologist Wendy Mogel talks about using Jewish texts and folktales to raise self-reliant, unspoiled, non-materialistic kids. Mogel makes a convincing argument: The Book of Esther, the laws of kashrut, the story of Ruth and Naomi, they’re all rich sources of parenting wisdom. But you know what else is? Reality television.
You heard me. Rest assured I do have standards in boobtube-itude. I will not, for example, let my kids watch live-action Disney TV. But I enthusiastically encourage them to watch Top Chef and Project Runway, shows that contain a host of moral lessons.
This season, for example, we’re watching Top Chef All-Stars, in which promising but eliminated contestants from past seasons get another shot. The chefs’ very first elimination challenge involved having to once again cook the dish that got them booted during their first appearances. One woman made the exact same dish and defiantly insisted there was nothing wrong with it. But other chefs tweaked and recalibrated, learning from their mistakes. They weren’t combative with the judges but rather accepted what they’d done wrong the first time and showed that they could do better. Isn’t that how we want our kids to learn from criticism?
My favorite character so far this season is Carla Hall. The kids love her, too. She’s a great role model—she’s funny (she calls “hootie-hoo,” like an owl when she loses her husband in a grocery store), self-aware (she ruefully called her undercooked quinoa “un-duntay” instead of “al dente”), and sane in times of crisis. In the last episode, she accidentally cut off half her fingernail in a chopping-knife mishap, but unlike a certain other drama-queeny contestant who ran to the hospital with a lesser injury, she told the medic to bandage her up, then put on a rubber glove and kept cooking. In her first appearance on the show, she kept professing the importance of cooking “with love,” blending classic French technique and culinary education with soulful, joyful unpretentiousness. At first I was suspicious—irksome hippie!—but it turned out she had all the good aspects of hippie-dom without the annoying self-righteousness. When other chefs derided her desire to make an African ground-nut soup for a challenge at the U.S. Open (saying it wasn’t “elevated” enough for a fine-dining experience), Hall politely stuck to her guns, and went on to win. Again: a great lesson for kids.
The last season of the show, as Tablet Magazine’s Marc Tracy noted, was not good for the Jews. But it was very good for Jewish parenting: As we watched Jewish contestants steal, lie, and use cooking sherry in a lunch meant for children, we had many lessons to offer our children on how not to behave.
Then there’s Top Chef Just Desserts, in which a humble, heroic baker held his own, challenge after challenge, against schmancy pastry chefs. Not only did The Baker approach cooking challenges he’d never faced before, surrounded by people with far more pastry experience, he kept making simple, homey, comforting desserts—some the judges loved, some they didn’t. The Baker’s epic journey really resonated with Josie, my 8-year-old, who tends to be afraid to attempt anything she can’t be great at right away; he taught her it’s OK not to win. And there was Morgan, the guy with tons of technique but a sour, domineering attitude. He spewed homophobic insults at another contestant and treated a far more established pastry chef, Claudia Fleming, with sexist condescension. Sadly, he taught my daughters the disparaging use of the word “fairy.” (When you’re 5, fairies tend to be viewed as awesome.) Moral lessons galore!
I’d hoped that Top Chef would help turn my kids into less picky eaters. It didn’t. Still, viewing these shows as a family has been a great way for me to convey my values, and the values of our people. Family therapists often say that talking shoulder-to-shoulder, as opposed to face-to-face, allows conversation to flower in a low-pressure way. What we talk about when we talk about cooking isn’t really about cooking. It’s about treating others well, being able to recover after a setback, holding yourself to a high but not paralyzingly impossible standard.
Do I think every reality series offers such lessons? Of course not. Many are exploitative, stupid, venal. My kids will not soon be watching any Kate Plus 8, Bachelorette, or Real Housewives (sorry, Alana). But Project Runway? Bring it on. We’ve watched every season, ordered in crazed binges from Netflix. We love the show’s most creative, out-there challenges: Design an ensemble for $50 using only things you can buy in a grocery store! Make an outfit using parts of a car! Whip up a functional costume for a female wrestler! Create a garment inspired by a work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!
There’s opportunity for art education there, of course, as well as the chance to admire creativity and resourcefulness in action. But the interpersonal dramas create teachable moments, too. One contestant was kicked off for having pattern books in his room, which sparked an animated conversation: Was it right for another contestant to tell the producers about the books hidden under the bed? Is that being a tattletale? Should the contestant have been kicked off if, as he claimed, he didn’t actually know the rules?
We loved to loathe Season 5’s villain, the petulant, uptalking Kenley Collins, who was later arrested for throwing a cat at her boyfriend’s face. She was disrespectful to the show’s beloved educator/mentor, Tim Gunn; she laughed openly at other contestants on the runway; she refused to take any criticism or advice from fashion designers or editors; she had a persecution complex as big as Bryant Park. For a while, the catchphrase in our house was “I wasn’t going for elegance, Heidi!,” Kenley’s snotty retort to judge Heidi Klum. From then on, whenever Josie or Maxie kvetched Kenleyishly, the rest of us would snap, “I wasn’t going for elegance, Heidi!” (Josie turned the saying into a welcome sign on our door. It meant take responsibility and don’t whine.)
Reality shows can depict the choices we all face: whether to be collaborative and generous or whether to hide ingredients under the table so no one else can use them. They can encourage us to stand up to bullying and show us the distastefulness of being a mean girl. Reality shows prove that talent comes in all ages, races, religions, body types, and economic backgrounds, and that loving your work is more important than being irresistible to the opposite sex. These are emphatically not lessons one learns from the Disney Channel.
Of course, reality TV isn’t all blessings. We recently passed a newspaper box containing our community paper, a picture of Bill Clinton on the front cover. Maxine ran to the box, yelling, “Tim! Tim Gunn!” Oops. So, I’ll teach morality first, politics later. Reality TV is often more moral than politics anyway.
Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s seminal album, is more than a masterful piece of music; it’s a cry for redemption that Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, would have understood