A new NBC reality show is proving to be as controversial as its British counterpart, with criticism from psychologists, child developmentalists, and related organizations pouring in long before the first episode aired two weeks ago.
The main premise of “The Baby Borrowers”, which airs Wednesdays at 8:00 PM, is simple: showing inexperienced teenagers the realities of raising children through, well, reality. NBC’s website for the “intriguing new social experiment” describes the process like this:
“The Baby Borrowers”…[is] based on the hit British program that asks five diverse teenage couples — ages 18-20 — to fast-track to adulthood by setting up a home, getting a job and becoming caring parents first to babies, toddlers, pre-teens and their pets, teenagers and senior citizens — all over the course of three weeks.
As the social experiment begins, the five young volunteer couples are asked to literally grow up overnight when they are each given a home in a quiet cul-de-sac outside Boise, Idaho and attend pre-natal classes as each “mother” wears a simulated “empathy” belly to prepare them for the arrival of their “baby.”
When a real baby (all aged six-11 months old) appears at their door — courtesy of five pairs of real volunteer parents (some of whom were teen parents themselves) who entrust their infants to one of the couples — the nervous, fumbling teens are in for three long, arduous days that make chilling out a distant memory. They must stick to rigid routines, handle the feeding chores, diaper duty and crying jags that might be shared by baby and teens — all the while under 24-hour supervision by nannies and the real parents who are stationed next door, watching via monitor, and able to step in at any time. Plus, one teen from each of the couples must start a job, ranging from working in a local vet’s office to a lumberyard, leaving the other alone as caregiver for the day.
Multiple advocacy groups, such as The Natural Child Project, Zero to Three, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, have issued statements calling for the removal of the show (follow the previous links to read them), on the grounds that separating babies and toddlers from their parents for three days is too traumatic and could damage healthy parent-child attachment. Furthermore, opponents of the show argue, parents who “loan” their children to “The Baby Borrowers” are not acting responsibly because they have no way of knowing whether their child’s teenage “parents” will be competent caregivers or not. (The “hit British program” was criticized for the same reasons, by the way.)
NBC has responded with this message board, on which some of the parents discuss their positive experiences with the show and entertain questions from curious viewers. One parent, Chet Nichols, describes the surprisingly lengthy and thorough-sounding evaluation process he and his family had to go through before their acceptance to the show:
“After making the decision to move forward, we were informed of the process of not only selecting the teens, but us (the actual parents) as well. We were informed that the teen couples, the parents and the children would have to all undergo a psychological evaluation, as well as a thorough background check. This included a very long, in depth psychological test, as well as the children having to go under psychological observation away from the parents. We were informed that all the houses would be professionally baby proofed, there would be a nanny watching the babies 24 hours a day who could only intervene if the safety and/or welfare of our children was being compromised, and that a psychologist would be watching what was going on as well. We were also informed that we could intervene at any time and remove our children at any time without any repercussions or breach of contract. Once we had a full disclosure of all the precautions that were put in place, we agreed to allow both of our youngest children, Etta age 6 months and Benjamin age 2 years old, to participate.”
Bill and Julie, who give no last name on the message board, feel that “people don’t actually care who we are, they just want to complain about us and judge without actually knowing who we are and why we participated. But the question keeps being asked without a real answer. Who would let someone “borrow” their baby?”
From what I read, the main goal of parents who submitted commentary to the NBC message board was to encourage would-be teen parents to think twice before having children; several of the “Baby Borrower” parents say they were teen parents themselves and want to warn others against making the same mistakes.
That’s all well and good, but it does seem ridiculous to me that the parents and NBC would willfully ignore and claim to know better than the experts on child development who have repeatedly raised concerns about the adverse effects “The Baby Borrowers” might be having on its youngest participants. It could certainly be worse — remember CBS’ slightly creepy “Kid Nation”? — but I’m still not comfortable with the way “The Baby Borrowers” works. As Zero to Three’s press statement points out, “Legitimate social experiments are not conducted on national television or on reality shows.”
I realize many of you have been discussing “The Baby Borrowers” already in the NeuroTalk communities, so, what do you think? If you have children, would you volunteer them for such a project? Are the concerns of such organizations as AACAP, Zero to Three, and the Natural Child Project valid? Or, as NBC and the participating parents would have us believe, are these professionals just big old wet blankets who don’t know a good teen birth control initiative when they see one?