As readers of my writing here may know, my wife and I are huge fans of reality shows. These shows aren't just wildly entertaining, they are edifying and informative as well. I have previously hailed "Teen Mom" for the fascinating window it provides into the lives of the young and struggling, as well the strange reassurance it provides non-teen parents anxious about their ability to provide for their children.
But if reality TV can accidentally teach worthwhile lessons, it can just as easily accidentally teach the wrong lessons as well. For example, my wife and I are unhealthily obsessed with the show "Intervention," a reality TV fixture where a deeply drug or alcohol-addicted person agrees to let cameras follow them around for what they believe is a show about addiction but is actually a pretext for an intervention.
The show has a fairly rigid format and in damn near every episode the subject of the intervention is shown to be an unusually beautiful, smiley and radiant baby. This is partially because babies tend to be beautiful and magnetic to begin with, but the subjects of "Intervention" also tend to be unusually attractive—at least before their addiction robbed them of their looks and vitality, as well as their will to live.
But the show really does obsess about how adorable these addicts were as babies, and how beloved and how much light and joy they brought into everybody's lives. Of course, it doesn't really work the other way. I have understandably never seen an episode of "Intervention" where a parent remembered their now drug-addicted progeny as a ugly and dull baby so widely disliked and unpromising that it's not surprising they ended up living in a dumpster and huffing paint thinner.
No, television is all about drama, and hammering home just what a beautiful, special, gorgeous baby these profoundly troubled adults once were makes the gulf between who they were and who they are when the show's unflinching cameras tracked them down seem even more tragic and dramatic.
This part of my psyche is convinced that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a baby being adorable and growing up to smoke crack.
The rational part of my brain understands the mechanics and requirements of show-business and reality shows. But the irrational part of my brain, which is unencumbered by logic and common sense, seizes upon an unseen but profound connection between being an unusually adorable and beloved baby, pampered by parents and beloved by relatives, and appearing on a reality show where you shoot junk in a Wendy's bathroom while explaining that heroin is the only lover, friend and companion you will ever need.
If the irrational part of my brain was more rational, it would rightly draw a cause-and-effect relationship between traumas like sexual abuse, physical abuse, the acrimonious divorce of parents or the death of loved ones and adulthood addiction.
But the irrational part of my brain is impervious to logic.
This part of my psyche is convinced that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between a baby being adorable and growing up to smoke crack. And this irrational part of my brain frets irrationally, "Oh my god! THAT baby was ridiculously adorable and grew up to be an addict. MY baby is ridiculously adorable! What if MY baby follows down that path?"
In the end, there is no relationship between being an over-the-top beautiful baby and a drug addict. No, the trick is to keep children from experiencing the kinds of deep, profound, almost irrevocable traumas that will send their lives spinning in wrong direction and get them featured on "Intervention" or true-crime documentaries. That is the challenge as parents, and one that, scarily enough, we cannot control entirely.
It's impossible to shelter our children from the totality of life's cruelty and randomness, but at least we can play a role in steering our babies into safe waters and secure futures, ones where they don't feel the need to prostitute themselves for crank or huff paint thinner in a bathroom stall.