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The curious case of cooking competitions for kids

Children on reality shows. Generally, the phrase strikes a chord of unease in lots of television viewers. With certain shows, like Toddlers and Tiaras, you wonder what the adults—not specifically the parents, but the producers—are thinking when putting kids under such scrutiny. You wonder how the reality aspect will affect the children in the long run. Those shows with obviously uncomfortable themes make the audience feel like there are a lot of moral implications at work. But can the same be said of children on reality cooking shows?

It seems like cooking competitions for kids can go under the radar when it comes to people feeling outraged. Maybe it’s because the kids aren’t doing potentially harmful actions such as being forced to base their life outlook around something as superficial as beauty, but in some aspects, cooking competitions for kids can be just as exploitative as kid beauty competitions. At some point, the game quits being fun and entertaining and just turns into, “Should I get entertainment out of watching kids struggling?”

Perhaps I’m just a very conservative television watcher at times, but watching children compete against each other on television makes me feel sad. Like, I get it; I grew up in the ’90s, which was the tail end of the “dust yourself off and try again if you fail” mentality. I still remember being on playgrounds skin-searingly-hot metal slides and without rubber; instead of being told not to get in the rocks and on hot metal, the teachers would tell us to “be careful,” watch us skin our knees and melt our thighs, and then give us band-aids afterward. That was it. When we competed against each other in P.E. or with academics, if you lost, you lost. Rarely did you get a participation prize—and when you did get one, you still felt like a loser (or at least I did).

This is all to say that the children on these shows are competing for a title, and I understand that all except for one will win. The kids participating are likely cognizant of this fact. However, that doesn’t stop me, someone who’s now a young adult who’s old enough to have her own kids if she so chose, from feeling sad when I see these kids realize that they haven’t met the mark on a challenge. If only she had cooked her pizza for longer, or if only he baked his cupcake with more sugar, would they have been the one on top? Would they have been able to save their emotions from national scrutiny?

Losing does build character. Again, coming from the tail end of the “dust yourself off” mode of life, it was steeped into my mindset that a loss only means failure when you decide not to try again. For sure, the kids in cooking-competition shows know what they’re up against. There’s only one winner, and all of them are competing in a cooking “Hunger Games” for the trophy.

But when a kid loses in a cooking competition show, it’s less about character-building and more about ratings. Nothing illustrated this more clearly to me than a recent episode of Food Network’s Kids Baking Championship. Apparently, the contestants were tasked with creating an intricate mound of macarons. One of the contestants, a young girl, was trying her hardest to make her stack of macarons stand up, but they kept falling down. After about the third try, feeling defeated, she burst into tears. The hosts—chef Duff Goldman and actress/home cook Valerie Bertinelli—were upset for her, as was I. But I was also upset because this girl’s meltdown was on national television, for a whole host of audience members to have pathos or (if you can believe it) criticism for. Having kids under that level of scrutiny just seems like too much.

But, there’s a flip side to things. Perhaps the kids themselves wanted to be on the show. As some Chopped Junior contestants have said, they’ve waited all of their lives to compete on the show. These kids are old enough to know that things on television aren’t as glossy as they appear to be once you get in front of the cameras. They know that there will be a lot of quick decision-making, disappointment, and probably loss at the end of the day. These kids have chutzpah, and their derring-do is what has propelled them to national competition status. Their accomplishment of getting on a Chopped Junior, Kids Baking Championship, or MasterChef Junior should be celebrated. Their ability to get as far as they might get in their competition is an achievement.

But again, there should be a question of where the line is drawn between “healthy competition” and “exploitation.” What constitutes the exploitation of a child and their emotions for the sake of television ratings? When does “healthy competition” between children become difficult to watch? When does a child crying on television stop qualifying as “entertainment”? That line in the sand is different for everyone, but I’ll say that for me, the line is drawn pretty early in the game. In short, I can watch adults battling for a title all day. But if the contestants are still too young to vote and drive, then consider me outside of the target audience.

This is just me, but what about you? Do you like watching children compete against each other for cooking supremacy? Sound off below.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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