The Balloon Boy Fallout: Greed, Not Reality TV, May Have Deflated the Heene Family

We're midway through day five of Balloongate, with reports that the Heene family, who allegedly tricked most of America into watching a Mylar balloon for two hours during the middle of a work day, may face felony and misdemeanor charges sometime next week. The official count will have to do with wasting public resources, but to many people, the larger crime is that the Heenes were allegedly using their children as bait for a potential reality show.

As CNN.com notes, there's been little conclusive research about the deleterious effects intense media exposure has on kids. What little evidence we do have is mostly anecdotal, and mostly damming. In the Denver Post, Jamie Huysman, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating reality show contestants (really!) noted that opening ones family to video scrutiny can compromise parenting skills:

"It is exploitation," Huysman says in the article. "Nobody wants to watch normal behavior. Kids have to be co-conspirators to get the camera to stay on ... As soon as you invite a camera in with a child, you're inviting in a competing value system."

But is parental exploitation really all that new and surprising? From blogs to Pulitzer Prize winning writers to that dad who makes his daughter sing and dance in front of relatives at Aunt Sylvie's 65th birthday party, kids are constantly in danger of being embarrassed, exploited, and put on display by their parents. Parents can't help it: it's their job to think their family is somehow extraordinary—with smarter kids and better values and more interesting familial bonds than everyone else.

So look: if someone wants to go on reality TV with his or her kids, it's really none of my business. I tend to think that most of people's fears about minors on reality TV are probably overblown. Weird kids are going to get picked on whether or not America watched their vaudeville magic act in prime time. Parents who are so in need of help that they apply for Super Nanny will likely make other blunders that might scar a kid for life. And whether it's on ABC or at the A&P, parents are always going to be scrutinized and judged for not doing right by their kids. (Telling other people how to raise their families is another favorite hobby of some parents.)

And what of kids being haunted by video evidence of their juvenile bad behavior? Will his job prospects dim because the boss can watch a 15-year-old clip of Junior throwing a fit? Please. In an era of camera phones and Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and 36 reality TV shows in this season alone, chances are that by the time Junior gets to be of job-seeking age, he won't stand out due to his fleeting fame—because everyone else in his class will have experienced something similar.

Fame these days is easy to come by, easy to lose, and virtually meaningless. Kids get this. But many parents—including, it seems the Heenes—are still playing by the old rules, wherein being on TV comes with a big paycheck. And that's where things get messy.

As soon as money becomes the deciding factor for a family's reality TV participation, the kids become nothing more than collateral, unwitting contract players in your bid to pay the bills. (Which, by the way, is not a kid's responsibility.) That's when parenting instincts get compromised, because how much better of a parent would you be with a few extra zeros at the end of your bank account? It's easy to justify decisions that might involve your child as a criminal conspirator if the payoff is that the very same child will be set for life.

Which makes the fact that there's really no money in reality shows that much more discouraging. Yes, Jon and Kate are currently arguing over the hundreds of thousands they earned from their show, but

a) Jon and Kate are should be no one's role models for how to conduct business or raise a family and

b) banking on the freakish draw of one's family to pay your mortgage is like insulating one's home with lottery tickets. Even if a family makes it onto a reality show for being kooky and offbeat, the chance that the family would get their own show, and their own fat "cooperation fees" are slim.

If parents want to go on reality TV because it's a way to see the world, or get some free housecleaning, or to introduce America to their views on child rearing, fine. But don't factor into the decision to seek out fame the potential for fortune, because there isn't one.

In fact—as the Heenes may be figuring out—lusting after financial success on reality TV can end up costing one's family dearly.

I originally discussed this topic on PRI's The Takeaway. Hear our conversation on their Web site. The Heenes aren't the first family to - allegedly! - pull a fast one on the general population. Find out who else tried to scam their way famous in our Fishy Family Gallery.

The Balloon Boy Fallout: Greed, Not Reality TV, May Have Deflated the Heene Family | News