Where are kids on television?

Children are part of society. In a purely functional sense, they’re the next generation, the people who live after us. But they’re also all around us — they’re in grocery stores with their parents, at reading groups in the library, riding the subway to school. Yet, the notion that children should be seen and not heard, and preferably out of sight, out of mind, is extremely pervasive in society. That holds true in pop culture as well, where children on television only appear in very specific contexts, and it’s of particular concern in primetime, where they’re effectively fridged.

The only place kids, especially young children, really consistently show up is family dramas set primarily in the home, usually with a female parent who either stays at home with them or is their primary caregiver. They almost never show up in primetime shows aimed at adults, except for very brief periods of time when they’re used to service the plot. A character has a baby and the child is never seen again — where did Baby go? Does Baby still exist? Who knows! A character adopts or fosters a child, who again just drops off the radar. On primetime, there are only adults, with kids showing up in the context of Crime Victim Number One, Cancer Toddler Number Two, etc.

This is a problem.

People who watch primetime have children — in fact, some of them are sitting down to enjoy some television after spending a day caring for children or putting their kids to bed or having a couple of fun hours of play. Other people don’t have kids, but like hanging out with them, or should maybe get used to seeing them around. I don’t have children and don’t plan to, but I don’t live with the belief that children shouldn’t be an open part of society. Parents and children deserve full access to society just like everyone else and when all I watch is television with invisible children, it sends a sinister message about children and parenting.

Relegating kids to family shows firstly shunts them off as a ‘family thing’ and an issue that’s only relevant to a subculture. Parenting and families aren’t a subculture or a niche market. They’re part of society. They don’t need to be hidden in a corner, and in fact, while many such programmes are aimed at being cross-generational, it’s totally ridiculous to frame them as being entirely ‘for kids’ when adults might actually get something out of watching them too. Furthermore, the tendency to use women as primary caregivers is deeply disturbing, because it implies that women should bear the responsibility for childrearing, whether it’s actually taking time off or just being in charge at all times when they’re not at work. Everyone needs to be involved in childrearing as a cooperative activity.

These programmes also very rarely deviate from the heterosexual, coupled family structure. Some branch out into same gender parenting, which is a progressive step and one that’s only recently developed on the television landscape. But as for poly families, intentional families, kids with multiple parents, kids with open adoptions, these kinds of family structures aren’t represented at all. Which is terrible for kids in these kinds of families, who never see themselves represented in media, but it’s also bad for adults, because pop culture reinforces their attitudes. If you never show a given kind of family, there’s an implication there that those families are wrong and bad. If they were acceptable, they could be shown on TV!

But the fridging of kids on primetime carries its own troubling load. I understand how difficult it can be to balance characters and plotlines, and how challenging it is to manage a growing cast and keep the focus of a show tight on something like solving mysteries, dealing with supernatural events, and so forth. However, what about the real world, where parents also have to balance their lives with their children, have to incorporate raising their children into their world? What kind of message does it send to just magically disappear children when they’re not convenient? It makes parents feel like they have to erase their children, and it also creates a world where non-parents assume that’s possible.

It’s infuriating because it dehumanises children. When we don’t see what happens to the children of Grey’s Anatomy or other shows, we miss out not just on part of character development and a chance to see people like Bailey interact with their children, we also miss seeing those children themselves. When Tuck is only trotted out for dramatic tension, it doesn’t really work very well for me as a viewer. I want to see him consistently, to have him incorporated as part of the narrative. I want to see Bailey with him at home (where do surgeons go when they get off shift?). I want to see her trying to balance work and life. I want to see her making tough choices as she asks whether she should put her son in daycare to stay a few more hours at work, or try to keep him in her office, or what. I want to see him growing and changing as a person.

Children belong in the world and they belong in pop culture. Often they’re so thoroughly erased in primetime that viewers have to be reminded that they exist at all — people may not be able to even say how many children parents on TV have, let alone reference their names, unless they’re diehard fans with an encyclopedic knowledge. That doesn’t work, for television or the real world.

Image: Kids on Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala, Adam Baker, Flickr