Kids In The Pressure Cooker On 'Spelling Bee' - Hope 103.2

Kids In The Pressure Cooker On ‘Spelling Bee’

It’s captivating audiences, but is it good for the kids? That’s the question on some minds as Channel 10’s The Great Australian Spelling Bee takes flight.

By Clare BruceThursday 6 Aug 2015Hope MorningsCultureReading Time: 7 minutes

It’s captivating audiences, but is it good for the kids? That’s the question on some minds as Channel 10’s The Great Australian Spelling Bee takes flight this week.

'Spelling Bee' host Grant Denyer and two contestants

Charisma: Host Grant Denyer has a great rapport with the kids.

The program, hosted by Grant Denyer (Family Feud) and Chrissie Swan (The Circle) is formatted much like Junior Masterchef and The Voice Kids, where talented children are pitted against each other in a battle to the last-kid-standing.

Unlike other reality shows where the popular, good-looking kids are most likely to win, this time it’s the bookish, brainy ones with raw academic creds who take the spotlight.

Judging by ratings, the format works. Over 1.8 million Australians tuned in to the Monday night debut, and Tuesday’s audience was almost as big at 1.6 million.

A Rollercoaster Of Emotions

Mica takes the Spelling Bee  Speed Spell challenge

Under pressure: Mica, 10, in the Speed Spell challenge.

The show uses every trick in the reality-TV textbook, if there is one.

Competition is high on the agenda for the 26 finalists, aged 8 to 13 .

Ten-year-old Mica, after leading the pack in the Speed Spell challenge, describes her feelings: “It was like there were fireworks around me and I was just like a big bunny hopping around with excitement”.

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Shortly after, we watch her shocked reaction when Ben, 13, nudges her out of the top position.

Incredulous that he should win by only four 100ths of a second, Mica exclaims, “Like, four milliseconds! Dude, come on!  Four milliseconds?”

Ben enjoys the win. “I was really, really happy because it felt so good to be the best,” he says.

Failure is inevitable and many kids break into tears when they spell a word incorrectly. When West Australian contestant and aspiring pilot, Blake, falls down on the word “accelerator”, host Denyer points out the irony.

“For a boy who loves going fast, that’s one you should be able to spell,” he quips.

And like much reality TV, Spelling Bee even contains a little intimidation – mostly from the white-haired and bespectacled Chris Edmund, a former acting coach to Hugh Jackman, who plays the role of “Pronouncer”.

“That… Is…. Incorrect,” he says sternly, drawing out the drama.

Though he often smiles at the competitors with kindness, his seriousness at times brings back haunting memories (at least for this writer) of crotchety old piano examiners and eisteddfod adjudicators.

The Show’s Positive Values

Great Australian Spelling Bee Contestant Jye and mum

Close bond: The love between Jye and his mum is obvious in the back-stage scenes

Although there’s a lot of hyped-up drama, many lovely qualities are portrayed in the show too.

Encouragement is high on the agenda, with Denyer sitting on the floor like a school teacher, his class huddled around him. “You are the best young spellers in the country,” he says.

There’s also positive values like gratefulness (“I’m very grateful to be in this competition” says Harpith), equality (“I’m here to prove that country kids are just as smart as city kids” says Harriet), and diversity (“I wanna prove that no matter what you look like, kids can do anything they want, anything’s possible”, says hearing-impaired Jye).

Friendship shines, with some children wishing that they didn’t have to win, as it means they will oust their new buddies from the competition.

Mixed Views About The Great Australian Spelling Bee

Spelling Bee Prounouncer Chris Edmund.

Stern: The ‘Prounouncer’, Chris Edmund.

Hope Media’s Emma Mullings has mixed feelings about the show.

While both she and her kids are loving it, she worries about the impact on the young competitors being placed under so much pressure.

“I let my kids stay up to watch because they then start practising their spelling and try to compete with the contestants,” she said.

“But at the same time I really feel for the kids when they get it wrong. I actually tear up. A lot of them cry and I don’t know if that’s healthy for them to be in that environment.”

Hope Media chatted to parenting author and researcher Dr Justin Coulson, who said he was concerned that children are being exploited in the name of entertainment.

“It’s a pretty intense pressure-cooker,” he said.  “I don’t like it. I don’t think that our children’s educational and academic accomplishments should be turned into a gladiatorial contest in the coliseum of Channel Ten. It’s not fair on the children.

“I would hope that their wellbeing is being considered rather than just TV ratings.“

He these kind of competitions set the majority of the children up to fail.

“When they fail, all too often they’re going to go home and feel like they are failures,” he said. “They’re not going to feel like they’re successes.

“We would say they’re brilliant, but it’s not our perception that matters, it’s theirs. I’m far from convinced that this is a healthy way for our children to be exploited.”

Jessica Murphy, a story producer on The Block, told the Sydney Morning Herald in an article about reality TV that tears are par for the course.

“[Contestants] do cry more than they would in the outside world because they’re tired and it’s weird and there are cameras everywhere and we’re constantly asking them questions,” she says.

“They’re in a pressured environment.”

But Is Stress All That Bad For The Kids?

Great Australia Spelling Bee contestants

Intense: Some say the TV competition is too much pressure for kids.

Despite the concerns of experts, many viewers love the show and think the competition is healthy – including Hope 103.2 listener Tim Hickson.

“Healthy competition and healthy risk taking are things our kids are being increasingly sheltered from, and [that’s] not healthy and not good for their long term development as people,” he said. “Let them navigate how to win graciously and lose magnanimously.”

Another Hope listener, Wayne Wallace from Jamaica, said he competed in the Jamaican National Spelling Bee competition as a child.

“I did not win and yes I cried,” he said, “but like most things in life you get over it. It was a great experience practicing and to this day those skills I learned have served me well in life.”

Melbourne contestant Harrison, 12, made the same point in a Fairfax article .

“A lot of people say spelling bees cause a lot of stress for kids, but so does homework,” he said.

“If you want to cancel spelling bees you might as well cancel homework and everything stressful. If kids aren’t exposed to a stressful environment then they’re not going to be able to develop into an adult that’s used to a stressful environment and the workplace. It’s a really good show.”

It’s About Choosing Contestants Who Can Cope

Spelling Bee contestant, Hej

Well chosen: Contestant Hej is full of smarts and good humour.

Blogger Kell Ferguson, also known as The Realistic Mum, said she had conflicted thoughts but felt overall that the show was a great opportunity for children if handled well.

“I think if kids have a talent like this, then why not have the opportunity to go on TV and show it to the country?” she said. “Especially something like this that wouldn’t normally been seen by so many.

“But as a parent I think you need to prepare both your child and yourself for the outcome, reinforce the whole “have-a-go-and-it-doesn’t-matter” view, and be a constant encourager.”

She said lasting negative effects could result if parents and producers pressured the children too much, and believes that only resilient, confident kids should be chosen to compete.

“I think, so far, the parents and even the kids have been amazing to each other,” she said.

“I guess it comes down to knowing your child is ready to take on this challenge and be able to deal with it no matter the outcome.”


Grant Denyer’s Most Surprising Discovery

Spelling Bee Mums with host Chrissie Swan backstage

Cameraderie: The mums bond with host Chrissie Swan backstage.

Host Denyer told the Mamamia blog that he was surprised when he met the childrens’ parents. They weren’t pushy, and neither were they necessarily academics.

“I kind of expected that a lot of the mums backstage would be the academic version of soccer mums, but that wasn’t the case at all,” he said.

“The only common denominator was that… they all seemed to come from really loving homes, just wonderful supportive environments.”

Denyer told Fairfax that  he believed the show had its “heart in the right place”. His co-host Chrissie Swan, the aunty-figure who calms the children and parents’ nerves backstage, said she loved how the show was communicating that “being clever is cool”.

Parents, Don’t Compare Your Children!

The 26 'Spelling Bee' finalists

Lively bunch: The 26 ‘Spelling Bee’ finalists

In a warning to parents, Charles Sturt University’s higher degree researcher Tessa Daffern said in an AAP article that parents should avoid comparing their own children to the show contestants.

“Parents need to bear in mind this is not the norm, these are exceptional children who have a highly specific skill,” she said.