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Image: TLC crew filming Gosselin child
Winslow/Meinelt  /  Splash News
TLC's camera crew filmed the young Gosselin children at the family's Reading, Pa., home for "Jon & Kate Plus 8," which was later renamed "Kate Plus 8."
TODAY contributor
updated 9/19/2011 12:24:28 AM ET 2011-09-19T04:24:28

Few topics can get heated faster than discussing how parents raise their children. Want to start a full-out conflagration? Try discussing how parents raise their children on reality TV.

Recently, viewers have seen tots dressed up like a prostitute and primped like Dolly Parton on "Toddlers & Tiaras," which ends its season on Sept. 21. Ever-present cameras captured spotlight-loving mom Kate Gosselin and her eight children’s last hurrah on "Kate Plus 8," which had its series finale on Sept. 12. The public even had to consider how a 5-year-old girl's appearance on reality TV might impact her after her father, the husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, committed suicide.

5 most outrageous moments from 'Toddlers'

Calling the shots
What's striking is how wide the pendulum swings in opinion over having children featured on reality TV at all. Those on the outside tend to react with outright horror at some of the more outrageous moments. But those on the inside insist they — being the parents — have the best interests of their children in mind.

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Alexis Bellino, one of the "Real Housewives of Orange County," introduced her three children to reality TV when the oldest was 3 and the twins weren't yet 1. She said she and her husband, Jim, decided it was OK to do the show with their kids after undergoing "grueling therapy."

"They're busy, active children," said Bellino. "Their lives don't revolve around the camera. Bravo is willing to listen to the parent. If (the children) are cranky, I tell the crew we should do it another day."

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Bravo did not respond to a request for comment.

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Candi Wingate, owner of Nannies4Hire.com, helped Kate Gosselin find a part-time caretaker in 2007, and said she saw nothing worrying on set of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.” (The show’s title changed to “Kate Plus 8” after the Gosselins separated.) "The kids were so natural with the camera crew. They didn't act any different; it wasn't a set-up thing. I think it's a great way for the kids to look back on their childhood."

Kate would put kids on TV again

The main thing, said Annette Hill, owner of Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant — which "Toddlers & Tiaras" has visited for six shows — is that the parents call the shots.

"The parents are parenting the children," she said. " 'Toddlers & Tiaras' is not the parents. What better way to showcase your child than in a child beauty pageant? What is wrong with being onstage and having family bonding?"

'Toddlers & Tiaras' are here for boobs, too

Train wrecks in the making?
It seems the decision to give young children a role on a reality TV show is a reasoned choice based on good parenting skills and a complete comprehension of what being filmed regularly does to young minds and emotions. But while the first part may be true, the second is harder to believe. Those on the outside may feel that watching reality TV series starring children can be like being witness to a slow-moving train wreck.

"Reality TV can be a good thing for children, but we don't see it often," said educational consultant and psychotherapist Russell Hyken of St. Louis. "Kids overcoming difficult circumstances that role models success, means kids can benefit. But when children are showered with attention because they're on TV, that creates behavioral problems because they become more attention-seeking."

Bellino has noticed it with her son, but finds it amusing: To keep him happy during filming, cameramen know to put a mic on him even if he's not in a scene. "My son is definitely a big ham," she said with a chuckle.

But whether cameras create the ham or not, their departure can create as much chaos as their presence, said Robert Galinsky, founder of The New York Reality TV School. He added that the eight Gosselin children will now have to fill their days without cameras following them for the first time in years, and that may be a jarring experience.

Story: Kate Gosselin 'freaking out' over 'Kate Plus 8' cancelation

"The children are so accustomed to the camera that they're going to need affirmation," he said. "The camera will no longer be there to shine a light on them, and that light was never authentic anyway — it was just there to suck the life from these children. They're going to seek other ways to be fulfilled."

TLC, which airs both “Toddlers & Tiaras” and “Kate Plus 8,” declined to comment for this story.

Jon Gosselin 'relieved' 'Kate Plus 8' is ending

In scripted television, that spotlight withdrawal hasn't always gone so well. Former child actor Paul Petersen said the withdrawal of showbiz adoration from children can shape the rest of their lives. But what riles him up most is that he sees these children as working without any authority to look out for them other than a parent or guardian.

"What is the concept of child labor?" asked Peterson, who is the president of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit group that lobbies for the rights of child actors. "Children being filmed for commercial purposes are working. The effects will come home to roost."

And as Petersen pointed out, there is no guild or union representation specifically for child reality-TV stars. That leaves everything up to the parents — who may not be equipped to understand the wider repercussions of their contracts. (Child actors do have the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.)

"Kids who grew up on television supposedly had a guild keeping them safe. And even on sets of TV shows with rules to protect those kids, many of those child stars still wound up going to jail, getting stuck on drugs or alcohol or having destroyed relationships," said Galinsky.

Little guinea pigs
Ultimately, no one is sure whether the Gosselin kids will miss the cameras beyond a surface level, whether the beauty pageant toddlers are changed by their experiences, or if what is cute, hammy 4-year-old behavior now will turn into a vortex of destructive attention-seeking later on. Today's reality TV children are de facto guinea pigs.

"Reality TV took the entertainment industry by surprise," said Galinsky. "No one could have predicted that it would last this long, with no end in sight. Guidelines have to be drawn up at some point to protect these kids, because there's nothing now."

Petersen is working on it, though it's a slow slog to get change put into effect. "No one seems to be looking 20 years down the line," he said. "If people think there are no consequences to being a child in this business, they should look at Brooke Shields or Jodie Foster, both of whom had stalkers. The permutations of this kind of early fame are beyond our ability to imagine."

Family to investigate 'Housewives' suicide

He pointed to the recent suicide of "Real Housewives' " Russell Armstrong: "If adults can't handle (the fame and attention), how do you expect children — especially children who have no training in the performing arts or character to cope with rejection — to? This is not an endeavor without consequences. And that's what slays me, because people know it."

Should children ever be filmed for reality TV? Share your thoughts on the Facebook page for our TV blog, The Clicker.

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”

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Photos: Jon and Kate Gosselin

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  1. CHICAGO, IL - JULY 22: Kate Gosselin takes part in the 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon at Grant Park on July 22, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images) (Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. (Health Communications, Incorpora) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Back to work

    Reality TV star Kate Gosselin has a new job -- working for a money-saving coupon website. She will be contributing blog posts to offer money-saving advice and shopping tips to CouponCabin.com. Gosselin is seen here on her first day at the new job, Nov. 11, 2011. (CouponCabin.com via Splash) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Kate Gosselin and her eight children on "Kate Plus 8." (Clark Mccarthy-miller / TLC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A fresh start

    Gosselin appears on stage Thursday, April 8, 2010, in New York to introduce her new show "Twist of Kate." TLC said the show will revolve around Gosselin "meeting real families in the middle of their own extraordinary challenges." (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ***EXCLUSIVE*** DANCING WITH THE STARS - "Episode 1002" - In week two of "Dancing with the Stars," all of the couples returned to dance their second routines in a two-hour show, MONDAY, MARCH 29 (8:00-10:02 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Kelsey McNeal/ABC via Getty Images) TONY DOVOLANI, KATE GOSSELIN (Kelsey Mcneal / ABC via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Showing a new side

    Gosselin, left, and her partner Tony Dovolani perform on "Dancing with the Stars," on Monday, March 29, 2010 in Los Angeles. In order to compete on the ABC show and spend as much time as possible with her kids, she built a dance studio in her basement of the family's Pa. home. (Adam Larkey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Turning the page

    Gosselin is shown on the cover of her memoir, "I Just Want You to Know," which was released by Zondervan Books. In the book she opens up about her marriage to Jon Gosselin and talks about the pressures of motherhood and the hardships of stardom. On the TODAY show in New York on Tuesday, April 13, she told Meredith Vieira that she wanted to write it to give her kids "advice for the future." (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lending a hand

    Jon Gosselin and girlfriend Morgan Christie attend the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 22, 2010. The two are shown visiting Resource's Sky Suite Lounge, where he participated in the Blanket America campaign to give blankets to poverty-stricken Americans. The couple reportedly split in March. (Jerritt Clark / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Time to pay up

    Jon Gosselin walks past reporters after he exited the Montgomery County courthouse in Norristown, Pa., on Oct. 13, 2009. In the court proceeding, Gosselin was ordered to repay $180,000 that he took from the joint account he shares with estranged wife Kate Gosselin. Kate and Jon's divorce was finalized in December 2009. (Matt Rourke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rough seas?

    Kate Gosselin and her children ride a ferry during an episode of TLC's "Jon & Kate PLus 8." The network shut down filming of the show on Oct. 1, 2009 after receiving a cease-and-desist order from Jon Gosselin. The reality dad told Larry King he had “an epiphany one day” and realized his 5-year-old sextuplets and 8-year-old twins shouldn’t be filmed at the family’s Pennsylvania home while their parents are going through a divorce. (TLC) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Milestone moment

    Jon and Kate Gosselin help their sextuplets get ready to board a bus for their first day of school in Reading, Pa., on Friday, Aug. 28, 2009. The 5-year-olds -- Alexis, Hannah, Aaden, Collin, Leah and Joel -- are attending junior kindergarten three days a week. (Splash News) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kate's dudes

    Kate Gosselin sports a pink cowgirl hat while visiting a dude ranch in 2009 in Wyoming with Collin, Aaden and Joel. The boys rode horses, chased goats and were utterly fascinated by the ranch, musing that the horses looked like cows. (TLC) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Reduced to tears

    Kate Gosselin dries her eyes during her interview on the TODAY show in New York on Monday, Aug. 10, 2009. Kate said her marriage to Jon would have failed whether it played out in the glare of a reality TV show or not. (Richard Drew / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Public affection

    Jon Gosselin and girlfriend Hailey Glassman are spotted together in Harriman State Park in New York on Monday, July 20, 2009. The two were hugging each other, holding hands and at one point Glassman put a flower behind Jon's ear. Glassman is the daughter of Harry Glassman, the doctor who performed Kate Gosselin's tummy tuck. (Splash News) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Unwelcome spotlight

    Celebrity magazines featuring Kate Gosselin are seen on a table in Lotus Salon in Wernersville, Pa., on May 28, 2009. The Gosselins have attracted a huge television audience with their TLC program "Jon & Kate Plus 8." As news of marital trouble gained traction, so did the tabloid coverage. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Seemingly happy family

    Jon and Kate Gosselin -- with twins Cara and Mady in center -- celebrate the fifth birthday of the sextuplets on May 17, 2009. Jon and Kate reportedly arrived separately. ''Marriages can crumble very easily. I'm not dumb," Kate said. "Ours has 500 times the stress of a normal marriage.'' (Michael Pilla / TLC via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Her reality

    A TLC camera crew shoots footage of one of the Gosselin children at the family's Reading, Pa., home. Pennsylvania's Labor Department opened an investigation in the summer of 2009 into whether "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is complying with state child labor laws. TLC said it "fully complies" with state laws and regulations. (Splash News) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Eight is enough

    Kate Gosselin attends a signing for her books "Eight Little Faces" and "Multiple Bles8ings" at Barnes & Noble in Glendale, Calif., on April 14. (David Livingston / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Ready for their closeup

    John and Kate Gosselin attend a Discovery Upfront presentation to promote their show in New York on April 23, 2008. Five seasons of the much-watched program follow the Gosselins through their daily lives and the challenges of raising multiple children. (Thos Robinson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Before the storm

    Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight kids appear on the TODAY show in New York on Oct. 2, 2007. Almost two years later, with her marriage in pieces, Kate told Meredith Vieira, "I am as well as can be expected. I’m determined to hang in there. What life hands me, I’m going to do. My focus still is the health and well-being of my children as well as myself." (Heidi Gutman / NBC NewsWire) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Aloha

    Jon and Kate Gosselin renewed their wedding vows in Maui, Hawaii, in August 2008. The couple originally married on June 12, 1999. On June 22, 2009, proceedings were initiated in Pennsylvania to end their 10-year marriage. The episode announcing their separation and divorce drew a record 10.6 million viewers to "Jon & Kate Plus 8." (Mark Arbeit / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: BESTPIX - 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon - Chicago
    Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images Contributor
    Above: Slideshow (22) Jon and Kate Gosselin
  2. Image: Cast of "Teen Mom"
    Louis A Raynor / MTV
    Slideshow (18) Young stars of reality TV

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