Babies Raising Babies

“You can be the daddy.  I'll be the mommy.  And we can pretend these are our babies.”

Nope, it's not a conversation between preschoolers playing house.  It's the premise of The Baby Borrowers, NBC's latest exercise in exploitation entertainment, or “reality TV,” which premiered last night.  Unlike childhood variations of the game, however, the babies involved are real and the “mommies” and “daddies” are unmarried teenagers.   

Producers invited five teenage couples who think they are ready to become parents to set up house for three weeks and to experience care giving for people in all stages of life: infant, toddler, pre-teen, teens and the elderly. 

NBC is hailing the show as a public service, running ads saying the series is “not TV, it's birth control.” The pitch is timely, given the increased teen birth rate and the news out of Gloucester, Massachusetts that teen girls are deliberately getting pregnant.  

NBC's Ann Curry promoted the series on yesterday's Today in an interview with one of the show's teen “mothers” and a woman who loaned her six-month-old and two-year-old to the show.   Labeling it “a series with a serious message,” Curry noted to real-life teen mother Natalie Nichols, “some people might call you crazy to do such a thing.” Nichols replied, “I felt it's my social obligation in that, if I made all these mistakes as a teen, at least getting that message out there would be beneficial to somebody, and it wouldn't be in vain.”

Curry did not ask Nichols whether she was concerned about the care and safety of her baby, or whether “getting the message out” that young parenthood is difficult is more properly the responsibility of parents.

Kelsey Lampman, the teen “mother” on the show, reinforced Curry's assertion that the show conveys a “serious message”:  “The reality of it is I got to give back the baby after three days. Teenagers, even just young mothers they can't give their babies back ever. I was lucky and got to have this experience and learn from it. I mean it changed my whole life. It seriously has.”

Unsurprisingly, seeing that The Baby Borrowers is a NBC production, the Today show did not bring in experts to discuss what effects the experiment could have on the children and teenagers involved or whether this show truly provides any social value.

Ginia Bellafante at the New York Times bought into NBC's promotion efforts, saying “this six-part series…has the cleverest conceit of any reality show in a long time and almost feels necessary.  With no preachy subtext about chastity, The Baby Borrowers presents a strong argument for shunning the path of Jamie Lynn Spears.” 

Tom Shales from the Washington Post noted in his review that, “the preordained moral of the tale [is] that parenting is a tough job, rife with potholes and pitfalls.” In Shales's view, a “structural weakness” of the show is that the audience doesn't “get to know enough about the kinds of couples who would lend their infants to a piece of exploitainment like this.”   He also reminded readers of the editing that goes on behind the scenes of reality series that make things more compelling for television, but not necessarily “real.” 

Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today, didn't think the show has any value. He wrote “Even if societal improvements were the goal, and it's not, Baby wouldn't do much to achieve it.  Any teenager who had watched a reality show knows these kids were chosen to fail, and to be ill-behaved brats while doing so.”  He also bemoaned the fact that Americans, “have now turned caring for our children and aged parents into a game, and their suffering when the care falters into entertainment.” 

The reviewers failed to note that NBC is effectively promoting teenage cohabitation.  These teenage couples live together, unsupervised, for two days before the babies are turned over to their care.  In last night's premiere, three of the couples shared beds at night.  Lampman even told the camera “so far, this has been pretty much like a honeymoon.”

Second, the show's promotional efforts have focused on teens caring for young children.  However, when the show reaches the teenage phase, teenagers will be caring for other teenagers.  That sounds more like an adolescent utopia rather than a “learning experience.” 

Third, the teens used vulgar language with shocking frequency during the premiere.  Teens dropped the f-word, b----, s---, and a--, sometimes in front of the babies.  It could be argued that babies wouldn't pick up on such language, but what about the kids watching the show?   

Baby succeeds in illustrating how difficult parenthood truly is and why it should not be entered into lightly without a committed spouse.  But the question remains, will the show drive these teens too far in the opposite direction, where they see parenthood as nothing more than a hassle?

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter