Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Baby boom

Child advocacy groups are getting diaper rash, but we're riveted to Baby Borrowers, the first reality show I've paid any attention to since the salad days of The Apprentice. (HGTV, the home design channel, is usually on in the background, but there's only so much renovation and staging I can take before I tune out.) There is no game in this BBC adaptation, or, rather, there is one very important one--the game of life, as five teenage couples are obliged to figure out and cope with the demands of infants, pre-teens, young teens, and the elderly, in a weekly progression.

Most parents our age tune in for the laughs--the caregivers and the cared-for do their share of bozo things--and the opportunity to feel relieved that, hey, we're not doing such a bad job after all. For us, it's a kind of training exercise. As the notion of round-the-clock child care becomes very real to us, we feel the teens are getting a bad rap; How does anyone, at any age, in this situation know this stuff on the first go-round? There are plenty of books, and lots of received wisdom, but much of it comes down to high-wire improvisation learned on the job. The show calls itself "the ultimate in birth control," designed to dissuade the feckless teens to reconsider sexual experimentation, early marriage, and unplanned pregnancy (not in so many words, as NBC doesn't want to put off viewers to the right or left of mass audience tastes).

The strength of the show is that the kids (who spend three days in each parenting role, with the actual parents watching via closed circuit TV) continually frustrate our low expectations for them--after all, no one expects anything from teenagers, who operate in a fog of hormones and variable self-esteem. Somehow, they cope, sometimes wisely, and sometimes cunningly. The trained nanny who is standing by is rarely deployed, at least on the telecasts. The theme seems to be: Whatever works, within the boundaries that the teens come to set as suddenly responsible authority figures. (Kelsey and Sean are pictured.) Amusingly, when the teens fall out amongst themselves, they regress to the level of their charges, turning sullen and obstinate and locklng themselves in their rooms--bad behavior that, come to think of it, can be repeated at any age.

At the end of each show, the real parents meet the faux parents for a heart-to-heart. There are no bad guys on the show; even the worst children are adorable when silent and not throwing pillows. What the parents, who are our age and tend to lecture in a schoolteacher-ish way, don't seem to grasp is that their little darlings will someday soon be teenagers, with their own sets of challenges. Their attempts to "relate" are a little clueless; in tonight's episode, a white father gave a black teen "props" for helping his daughter with her math homework, a friendly yet somehow tone-deaf expression of solidarity. They would do well to look at the teens, who manage to curb their laziest impulses and do the work, as good role models for the future. We sure do!

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