Opinion: Why TV Talent Shows Damage The Likelihood Of Children Leading Successful Lives (And What You Can Do About It)

Talent shows have always been a big hit, and today they occupy prime time slots on our most watched TV channels. They’re a network executive’s dream format. They’re cheap to produce, they’re wildly popular with adults and children alike, and many see them as good clean fun, because surely nothing as innocuous as a TV talent show could damage your child’s future, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I’ve come to a very different conclusion, and it’s all based on the concepts of fixed versus growth mindsets popularised by Carol Dweck in her best-selling book, Mindset.

Now, I’m not against talent shows as such, and I’m not against people competing with each other, or kids competing against each other for that matter. I’m not against Simon Cowell and his ilk. I’m not even against the fact that there seems to be little else on TV at the moment (although I do admit I rarely watch them). Instead, I’m against the meta-messages that TV talent shows inadvertently send out. What’s a meta-message, I hear you cry, well it’s the message behind what’s actually being said, and meta-messages can have a very powerful impact on both children and adults, especially if they are continually re-enforced.

So what meta-messages are talent shows sending out? And what on Earth does it have to do with mindsets? Let’s start with the meta-messages themselves. The first is that almost all praise heaped on those who do well on talent shows is based around their supposed innate or natural talents. This may not seem surprising (that is, after all, why they are called talent shows), but it carries with it a powerful message: if you weren’t born with a talent, then you’re out of luck and there’s nothing you can do about it. This encourages children in particular, to see themselves and their talents as something that is fixed, rather than something that can be changed and improved with a bit of hard work.

The second meta-message sent out by talent shows is that success is down to luck rather than hard work. You’ll often hear talent show competitors saying things like ”I’m so lucky to have got through these auditions’ rather than ‘I’m here because I’ve worked so hard to nurture my talent’. I know why they say this, they want to be deferential and not appear conceited, but the meta-message they send out by doing this is that success is down luck and not hard work, so there’s no point in working hard.

These two meta-messages leave children with the mistaken impression that talent is something you’re born with, and that success is down to luck. In both cases, these are things that children will feel that they have no control over, and no ability to change, and the result is that it encourages them to develop what Dweck calls a fixed mindset. This is a way of thinking which leaves the person believing that there is little they can do to change their lives, so there’s not much point in trying to do anything, and it’s incredibly debilitating and damaging.

By contrast, a growth mindset is one where a person believes that they are in control of their own destiny, and that with a bit of hard work and effort, they can eventually succeed at anything. They don’t see luck and natural talent as the key to getting where they want to go in life, but instead see effort, persistence and learning as the way forward. This, then, is the mindset that children need to have it they are to grow into happy, successful adults.

So, if TV talent shows encourage children to develop such a damaging fixed mindset, should we simply ban them from watching such shows? Here, the simple answer is a clear and resounding no. This may seem surprising, but when you think about it, such an approach would be incredibly naive. TV talent shows are not the route cause of fixed mindsets, rather they are a symptom of modern society that continuously praises perceived talents over effort, and luck over hard work. Thus, if children aren’t getting this message from talent shows, the chances are they’ll be getting it just as strongly from somewhere else, or indeed many other places.

However, I think there’s a way we can change the meta-messages that TV talent shows, and indeed the wider society of which they are part, send out from negative ones that encourage children to develop fixed mindsets into positive ones that encourage the development of the much more valuable growth mindset. How? It’s as simple as talking to your children about what’s happening on the screen as you are watching the show. Point out the many hours of hard work that a contestant has had to put in to get where they are; get your child to think about how the contestants have nurtured their supposed natural talents over time to improve it; ask them to consider whether a person has been truly luck to have succeeded, or whether this success was down to persistence, effort and good old-fashioned hard work.

The truth is that no one succeeds on a TV talent show without a great deal of hard work. It may not be visible, and it may not come across on the screen, but it will, none-the-less, be true. It’s often said (but may not be completely true) that it takes an average of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become proficient at something, and I’m betting that almost all winners, or indeed finalists, of TV talent shows have put in at least this amount of time into developing any natural talents they were born with. They may not make it public, and indeed if they really enjoy doing what they do, they may not even realise how much time they have put into it, but still they’ll have put in the hours. All we need to do to change the meta-messages that such shows are sending out is to make sure that our children understand all the hard work behind the apparently effortless success they see on their screens.

If we can do this, then TV talent shows can go from being something that sets our children up for a future filled with unhappiness and failure, by encouraging them to develop a fixed mindset, to being the perfect example for teaching them that hard work and persistence pays off, and so providing them with the foundations of a growth mindset on which they can build whatever future success they wish to build. Thus, through something as simple as a conversation, TV talent shows can go from being a symptom that reflects the failings of modern society to a shining beacon that will provide children with the armour they need to succeed in a world, where apparent luck and natural talent are all to often feted, rather than the hard work which really lies behind almost every modern success story.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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