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Apr 24 2013

Why “Bet on Your Baby” is Bad for the Babies

By at 4:15 pm

baby watching baby on tv

Were you among the millions who tuned in to watch  ABC’s new primetime show Bet on Your Baby, which premiered earlier this month with 2.36 million viewers? This past Saturday the show increased its audience by 17%, with 2.92 million viewers. But it’s actually one show you shouldn’t be watching.

Bet on Your Baby is a game show with the vibe of a real-time America’s Funniest Home Videos. Five families appear in each episode. The parents come out one after another to chat with comedian hostess Melissa Peterman before deciding who will lead their child in a task inside something called the “Babydome.” After all the families compete for a chance to win a $5,000 scholarship, one representative parent comes back out to solve a puzzle for the chance to win a full college scholarship (valued at $50,000–which likely won’t cover a year of college by the time these tots are ready). Then those parents can smash up to five piggy banks to find the largest dollar amount possible.

Peterman emphasizes that these kids are just playing around. But, of course, the games they “play” are for sale at Walmart. Luvs has also sponsored the show, earning a mention when each child is introduced.  It’s all a bit too commercial, a bit too exposing, to feel comfortable watching these kids play–especially as the mom to a 15-month-old boy who would likely be overwhelmed by the Babydome experience. (When one toddler catches sight of a hidden cameraman in the Babydome he asks his dad, “What are those fingers crawling up there?”)

Take Dez, described as an aspiring wrestler at only 3 1/2. His dad joined him in the Babydome in a game to see if he could hold onto a beach ball for one minute. His mom bets against her son, assuming that he’ll be too distracted by toys and sweets. But Dez follows directions well, even repeatedly telling the remote controlled car that drove in with a cupcake to tempt him to “Go away!”

Sweet Dez survives the minute, but because his mother bet he couldn’t do it, they don’t win the $5,000 scholarship. Dez’s dad is shocked when he finds out his wife thought their son would fail, declaring, “It’s not called betting against your baby!”

Dez’s task, and the whole show, is reminiscent of one of the most famous psychology experiments of all time: Stanford’s marshmallow experiments conducted in the 1970s by Walter Mischel. The simplest summary is that Mishel presented preschoolers with a single marshmallow. He then told them that if they waited 15 minutes and didn’t eat the marshmallow they would get another one. In a variety of longitudinal follow-up experiments, Mishel and other psychologists have found that those children who did not eat the marshmallow are more successful adults on a variety of measures (education, income, body weight, to name but a few) than those who couldn’t delay gratification.

Imagine if Dez had dropped the beach ball for the cupcake. That might suggest he won’t be successful someday–information that would be available to employers or potential romantic partners. But it’s possible that what did happen could be worse: knowing that his mother thought he didn’t have the personal grit to overcome temptation. Now he can always wonder if his own mom thinks he won’t be successful. Worse still, he didn’t even get any college scholarship money to help soothe his hurt feelings.

My husband and I often joke about the marshmallow test when our son isn’t patient (read: throwing his own little fit and crying). While we laugh it off, I do wonder if my son would be able to “pass” the marshmallow test when he’s a preschooler. I hope so, but I wouldn’t want to risk him failing on national TV to find out.

I do confess that I have put my son in baby experiments. As a sociologist I always knew that I would want my son to help contribute to scientific research from a young age, and living in Boston, this is easy to do. I wrote an article on the baby experiment circuit and a regional news station did a piece on it, featuring my then 13-month-old son doing an experiment at Boston College. But his results aren’t shared on air and we weren’t compensated at all. The point was to help spread the word to other parents that these opportunities are available.

Ultimately Bet on Your Baby perverts the purpose of scientific research that goes on in psychology labs like Mischel’s, and at hospitals. In fact these days what we need is research to look at the long-term effects of putting your child on a show, or even a blog, where the results are forever searchable on YouTube or the web. Until then, I won’t be tuning into Bet on Your Baby again.

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