Officials in Pennsylvania recently revealed that they are investigating whether the popular cable-television show Jon and Kate Plus 8 violates child labor laws. The identity of the person who filed the investigation is confidential, but plenty of people who believe the complaint raises a legitimate concern about the Gosselin kids' well-being are not completely convinced the whole thing isn’t just a publicity stunt.
There's good reason to believe both things are true.
Most parents would never knowingly exploit their kids—but even the best parents will fail to see exploitation if they’re looking for it through a lens clouded by serious money. It’s hard to say whether Jon and Kate have crossed the line—but a few disturbing facts raise important questions.
The first episode this season was a banal bit about the sextuplets enjoying their fifth birthday. But past episodes have had some rather odd moments. Wait until the children get old enough to process the episode that showed them getting potty-trained. And how about when the kids we’ve seen picking their noses and having meltdowns become teenagers and have to deal with the cruelty of middle-school bullies with a lifetime of ammunition thanks to YouTube.
Mundane, sweet shows about large family life only last so long. The competitive series 18 Kids and Counting will surely get the ax unless one of the scary perfect Duggar cherubs pierces a body part, touches a body part, or at least mentions a body part real soon.
TV viewers want more and different stuff every time they tune in. And they want it to get ugly. Witness the huge boost in ratings when Jon and Kate's marital woes took center stage last month after Jon was reportedly caught sneaking around with a twentysomething young woman in town. Jon said she was just a "friend" but his "friend's" brother said he heard moaning and other such noises in sissy's bedroom that led him to believe they weren't playing Boggle.
If the Gosselin kids were babies, they might not be aware of such drama, but six of them are 5 years old; two even older. They understand now that they’re on TV, which means we have to wonder how they feel about the whole country knowing that Daddy’s making the walls shake in the bedroom of a young co-ed down the road.
And now that we know Jon may be on the prowl, we will watch with schadenfreudian glee for that gory moment when the marriage explodes. Or when the kids and Mom—oops— bump into Dad and his girlfriend at the movie theater.
Even if the marriage-on-the-rocks theme is a PR prank, we will keep watching because the possibilities of family crises are endless! We’ve already seen the boys hitting and kicking each other—so of course we wonder whether they might kick harder the next time and cause real damage!
The suits at the network know exactly why we’re tuning in—and why we rubber-neck our way through reality-show options, stopping the clicker only when it seems like a disaster might appear after the next commercial.
None of this would matter much if it were only a show about adults. Grownups can, and do, engage in self-exploitation all the time. We call it freedom.
But kids lack the legal capacity to consent to self-exploitation—and although the law presumes parents will act in their children’s best interests, the law becomes dubious, as it should, when Mom and Dad are raking in the dough on the backs of their little angels.
This is where child labor laws and child-protective services come in. When parents develop a powerful personal bias such that they might be inclined to put the best interests of their children second on the list, after cash flow, the government has a duty to get involved to ensure the kids are not treated like cattle at auction.
The problem is, even child labor officials aren't quite up to speed on what it means to protect kids from commodification. It’s hard to draw the line on such things, and not all kids who make money in entertainment suffer harm.
Labor agencies can only do things like limit the number of hours a child can work—and make sure kids get their education and medical needs met. Nothing in the law speaks to the harm that comes from using a child's potty-training as entertainment.
This type of reality show is relatively new, so we don't have good data on the long-term effects of such things on children. But we have more than ample evidence that too many child actors end up in self-destructive lifestyles as adults, in part because they struggle with the emotions of having been valued as an object, rather than a human being, at an important period of psychological growth and development.
Adults involved with the Gosselins’ show claim the kids are just being themselves, so it's less stressful than the experience of child actors. Maybe so. But how do we really know? If a child doesn't yet have the cognitive capacity to understand exploitation, how can he possibly find the language to express what it feels like? Former beauty queen Marilyn van Derbur lived a seemingly charmed life on her way to winning the title of Miss America 1958. Years later, she fell apart after recognizing that her internalized pain had been caused by years of child sexual abuse at the hands of her father.
Labor agencies can only do things like limit the number of hours a child can work—and make sure kids get their education and medical needs met. Nothing in the law speaks to the harm that comes from using a child’s potty-training as entertainment.
Of course, sexual abuse isn't the same as videotaping a child on the potty. The point is, Ms. van Derbur, like most children, couldn't express herself at the time she was being abused because she didn't understand what was happening. If a child is too young to process an experience, her happy face should not be seen as proof that she’s not being harmed. As noted trauma specialist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk demonstrated in a groundbreaking study whose title says it all: The Body Keeps Score.
So maybe the Gosselin kids are OK—but maybe not.
The real issue is, why would anyone gamble with the lives of eight defenseless children? Twenty years from now, the kids might all be thriving as rocket scientists at Harvard University and the family will have developed enough wealth to put all the kids through college and graduate school—and then some.
But if they're in rehab, instead, it will be too late for Jon and Kate to say, "It wasn't worth it." They can do some repair work on the adult versions of their injured kids, but they can't fix children who no longer exist as children.
Turning a blind eye to the risks is easy when the benefits are so tangible, and immediate. Who wouldn't want a huge new home for their family, plus free trips and big paychecks for doing nothing more than airing a little dirty laundry—and a whole lot of regular laundry—for the world to see.
Whatever child labor officials decide, it's good to know that someone without a vested interest is watching. But with a lot of money at stake—and a lot of power behind the scenes working to ensure a continuous milk flow from the Gosselins’ cash cow, the show isn’t likely to close up shop anytime soon.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the show has reached that point where the health of the family is now inversely related to the health of the cow.
We'll have the answer quickly if, in the next few episodes, we start to see more fighting than fingerpainting and more potty shots than trips to the zoo.
And we'll know that government agencies responsible for protecting children will have taken a dive for special interests if we hear one more word about "Daddy making noises on the bed with the lady down the street."
Wendy Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at New England Law/Boston. Her expose of the American legal system, And Justice For Some , came out in 2007. A former NFL cheerleader and visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, Wendy lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.