Putting children on reality competition shows is the latest trend in television. On Fox’s “MasterChef Junior,” pint-sized chefs slice and dice up some pretty appetizing dishes. On Lifetime’s “Project Runway: Threads,” kid fashion designers battle in the offshoot of the long-running fashion competition show “Project Runway.”
When it comes to more academic pursuits, “Jeopardy!” has long had its annual kids’ and teens’ tournaments. And the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee shows the pressure that young participants face.
Combine a little bit from each of those shows and you get “Child Genius,” a competition reality show that premieres Tuesday on Lifetime (10 p.m. Eastern time, 9 p.m. Central).
The show features 20 boys and girls ages 8 to 12, who are competing for a $100,000 college fund, as well as the title of Child Genius 2014. As with many reality shows on U.S. television, the concept is an import: The show is based on a popular British version of the same name.
But the U.S. contestants won’t have to know their British monarchs to succeed. Over eight episodes, the youngsters will be quizzed on two topics per week, including mathematics, spelling, geography, memory, the human body, U.S. presidents, vocabulary, current events, zoology, astronomy and space, inventions, literature and the arts, Earth science, and logic.
The show is not all about the rounds of questions, in the way that watching the National Spelling Bee can be quite tedious. No, this is a reality show, and that means the producers give us the back stories of a few of the contestants each week and tightly edit the drama of the competitive rounds.
Some of the little darlings come across as more likable than others. The tone is struck in the first moments of the premiere episode, when a mother notes that her daughter has “self-taught herself” in several subjects.
“Mom, ‘self-taught herself’ is redundant!” the child interjects.
Several of the children are home-schooled. All have parents who push them to study, perhaps to excess. The first episode is titled “I Am Not a Tiger Mommy,” which is based on a quote from the mother of 11-year-old Ryan, who seems to be just that.
An observer from the American Mensa Society notes that some of the parents of genius children are like “hovercraft—they leave ‘helicopter parents’ in the dust.”
The Mensa group is involved in the show, apparently in the selection of the contestants and in the questions. We learn the IQs of the children and many of the parents.
Among the other contestants highlighted in the first episode are 10-year-old Tanishq, who already has a high school diploma; Graham, also 10, who is a geography expert; and 12-year-old Vanya, a veteran of the National Spelling Bee whose father gave up golf to devote himself to coaching his daughter.
The first episode’s subjects are math and geography. In math, the contestants have to think on their feet to answer questions from moderator Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut, such as “Calculate 17 times 2, minus 25, times 5, divided by 3.” (The answer: 15.) Several contestants are eliminated at the end of the first round. In a modern American tradition, they receive “certificates of achievement” for their participation.
One young contestant chides the show from the lectern by asserting that “addition was not on the sample” questions. Her parents shake their heads in horror.
“Child Genius” may have noble intentions—to highlight youth smarts and to award scholarship money. But as long as reality TV show producers are in charge, we are bound to get more delicious and subversive moments like that one.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.