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The Kids Aren’t Alright

Mar 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In NBC’s new reality series “The Contender,” each episode climaxes with an intense boxing match between two men who by fight time are highly motivated to win. It’s not just the million-dollar prize they are competing for but also the approval of teammates and, perhaps most important, their families.

To help draw in a wider audience, the show provides a detailed backstory for each boxer. The producers flew in their families or significant others and their children. The cameras follow the boxers home and tape as the fighters interact with their spouses and children.

It makes the boxers more sympathetic, which is fine. What has troubled me is that when the conclusion arrives, there are the kids, big and small, among adult boxing fans at the match. Once the fight begins, the fans become excited and demand action, lots of punching and even a bit of blood.

Watching episode two, I was taken aback seeing the reactions of the children of the two boxers, Jesse Brinkley, 28, who has two small children; and Jonathan Reid, 32, who at the time the episode was taped had four children (and a pregnant wife, who has since given birth to a healthy child). In attendance were Mr. Reid’s daughters, ages 8 and 9, and sons, ages 2 and 3.

Watching children watch their father get pummeled by another boxer, often with their faces crunched up in a cringe, my heart went out to them. That may have been what the producers were after, but it set me off. I didn’t feel it was right for those kids to be there. I wondered how many would end up on some shrink’s couch. Can a 3-year-old really understand why someone is pounding away at his beloved father?

That set me on a quest for answers. I brought my questions to Dr. Shari Tarver-Behring, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, who teaches educational psychology. Her students train to do school and community counseling for children.

She had not seen “The Contender” and doesn’t like reality shows in general, because she feels they distort reality. “They’re hardly a representation of real life,” she told me.

When I explained that young children were watching their fathers box, she said there was no way to discuss how it would affect all children. However, she did think it could be harmful to some. “Young children need to feel safe, stable and secure,” she explained. “I don’t think they are going to feel that way if they see dad getting the crap beat out of him.”

She said it would be particularly problematic if there is any domestic violence in the family. “That would make it a very unhealthy thing to be around,” said Dr. Tarver-Behring. “In this case, it is structured. But it is still not a good idea. I don’t think children should watch the dad get beat up, even in a boxing ring.”

She said children may not be able to express their real feelings. She said some won’t be impacted at all. Others, however, may later act out in other ways, from bed-wetting to misbehaving at school, without knowing the real cause. And for some, it may take years before the issue rises to the conscious level.

I placed a call to executive producer Mark Burnett, whom I have long admired for his smart shows, new economic models and willingness to take risks. This time I had questions, and not just about low initial ratings.

What about letting children as young as 2 or 3 watch their father box?

“We thought about it,” Mr. Burnett told me. “And we let the boxers make their choice about what they want to do.”

The boxers are mostly lower-middle-class men who are eager for the shot of a lifetime. That would make them highly motivated to please the producers in any way possible, even by involving their children.

“They are living with their families so they can be close to them,” Mr. Burnett said. “If they want them to be part of it, they can. Most [family members] are just glad to see the men of their families, who have been toiling in obscurity, making nothing for years, being beat up in the ring, to finally have some recognition. They’re doing it for their families. That’s what they are responding to. If the question is, ‘Were there any ill effects on the kids?’ then it is best to speak to the boxers.”

That led me to Mr. Reid, who after losing on episode two returned to his home in Nashville, Tenn. “I want my children to know what their dad does for a living,” he told me. “Sometimes they come to the gym and see what it takes to prepare. It helps give them an understanding that fighting is OK as long as it is controlled. What I mean by that is, this is what I do for a living. It is what I call controlled anger inside the ropes. But once I step outside, I can show them how a man is supposed to act once he’s done his job.”

He said he always asks his children if they want to come watch him fight, and “almost always” they do. He said he doesn’t think they were there just to please him. He also discusses it with them afterward.

After one fight last year Mr. Reid said his daughter, then 8, asked, “‘Daddy, why did the man hit you in the stomach?’ And I said, ‘He just saw an opening and took the best shot.’ And that’s all that came from that. You want them to ask questions so you will be able to see what they are thinking as far as what is going on.”

Mr. Reid volunteered that he could see where watching dad fight might be a problem if there is domestic violence in the boxer’s home, but that is not his story. He considers it important for his children to know what he does. “They have show-and-tell at school,” he said. “I don’t want my children to have to go to school and feel they have to lie about what dad does for a living.”

In the ring, even in losing, Mr. Reid was a courageous gladiator. His total focus was on doing the job. He also seems to be a role model as a father.

But I still can’t get out of my head the image of those children cringing when their dad was being pounded, bloodied and publicly branded a loser. And I can’t help but wonder if sometime, some place, faced with some other incident, those images won’t come back to haunt them. That’s my reality show.