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Debate: Banning child performers

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Should children be allowed to work in the performing arts or professional sports?

Background and context

Child performers (actors, singers, figure-skaters, gymnasts etc.) often form an exception on the ban on child labour existing in most countries. Provided with on-set or on-pitch tutors they can train or perform for many hours each week on top of their schoolwork. For some this results in Olympic medals or multi-million dollar movies before they reach adulthood. Others are less lucky, gaining little success for their hard work and suffering physical or emotional damage that hampers their later life. There are many high profile cases of child actors, like Drew Barrymore who go off the rails with drink and drugs and equally high profile are the dancers, gymnasts and skaters who struggle with eating disorders. However successful young football players like Wayne Rooney often attribute their prowess to training from an early age. Some say removing payment or limiting hours would provide a means to limit the pressure on child performers while others argue that only an outright ban can truly protect their rights.[1]

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Learning: Does performing deprive children of valuable learning experiences, such as time-spent on education?

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Yes

If children are working or performing they are not spending their time in formal education. Regardless of what kind of work they are doing this deprives them of something so important that we make it compulsory for all children. Although the minimum legal requirements can often be provided by tutors on the set or sports academies it can be hard to keep performance and education in proper balance when one appears to bring so many immediate rewards both in terms of fame and money.[2]

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No

A bit of work and performance is important for children in giving them a taste of "real life" early on. In the end, education is designed to prepare children for their adult lives and careers. Working in a profession like acting, or training as a football player may be a better preparation for some children’s future than school-based learning. Provided they fulfil legal minimum levels of education why shouldn’t they start their career early? After all, almost every country allows parents to opt to home-school their children even if they have no teaching qualification. Almost all child performers have well-qualified tutors and some child stars go on to achieve high grades in university (e.g. Jodie Foster).[3]

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Individual representation: Are children unable to sufficiently represent their interests in performing?

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Yes

Children are less able to make decisions for themselves and to represent their interests. This leaves them at risk of exploitation in the workplace. While parents can represent their children’s interests to their employers but there is always a danger that parent’s interests do not align with their children’s. Discrepancies in interests can arise when the child’s earning power far outstrips that of the parent or the activity fulfils the ambitions of the parent more than the child’s.[4]

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No

Banning child performance will not prevent the possibility of exploitation; it will merely place it out of reach of scrutiny. At the moment, child performers are official employees and as such their pay, hours and conditions are all monitored by government departments (i.e. the Inland Revenue, Education Ministry, Health and Safety, etc.) and as such must conform to specified standards. When children become amateurs, part-timers or are completely banned there is an incentive to push these limits and hide the extent of children’s involvement. This is only likely to reduce the conditions for children involved.[5]

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Pressure: Is an undue amount of pressure placed on child performers?

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Yes

Stage fright and the pressure of performance can be difficult to handle for even the most experienced adults. It is therefore irresponsible to place these pressures on children at anything but the lowest amateur level. Once children come to realise that financial and competitive success depend on each performance the expectation can become too much. While the child may enjoy it to begin with as the pressure mounts they may feel it’s too late to back out.[6]

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No

Children feel pressure to succeed in many fields, not simply in performances. They feel pressure to succeed at an early age in exams, on the school football beach or singing a solo in the choir’s Christmas concert. While the stress may be greater for a professional child performer this increase is usually proportional to their talent and aptitude giving them a greater ability to deal with the pressure.[7]



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Bodily strain: Do some forms of physical performance demand too much from the bodies of children?

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Yes

Young bodies are not well protected against the rigors of regular physical training. Children’s bones are softer than adults and therefore more prone to stress fractures and disfiguration. The desire to stay small and light for acrobatic moves can lead to eating disorders. The effect of this malnourishment is particularly severe among teenage girls who’s menstruation can stop resulting in a reduced calcium up-take and an early onset of the brittle bone condition osteoporosis. Not only are these risks uniquely acute among the young but children are also in a poor position to correctly assess and accept risks. If they feel unable to stand up to their coach or parents when feeling ill or over-worked they are at more likely to compound existing injuries by not reporting them and continuing to train.[8]

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No

Children's bodies can be damaged by many forms of physical performance. Just as certain scripts call for the casting of children, particular tricks require long light bodies to perform. While no one would encourage abuses of the body (such as eating disorders) why shouldn’t smaller, lighter and often younger competitors use these qualities to their advantage. Similarly early well-regulated training can help to condition a body for a life time of rigorous use. Training while young can help build strength and muscle development into an athletes body that will improve their performance and protect them from injury in later life. Similarly by professionalising and regulating training you give the child access to a whole range of support staff from physios to nutritionists that should prevent the worst abuses. You are unlikely to stop a driven child from training therefore making it as safe as possible is in the best interest of the child.[9]

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Maturity: Does child performance cause children to grow-up too soon?

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Yes

Allowing children to perform pushes them to grow up too soon. They are exposed to levels of responsibility, sexuality and temptation (e.g. drink, drugs) without the maturity to cope, and it is no wonder that so many child stars go off the rails. At the same time, child performers lose out on a normal social life and may find it very hard to adapt once their brief career is over. Many young sporting, stage and musical starts have "burnt out" by the time they reach twenty and are left with little education or money (which has often gone to agents, parents or been wasted), and few prospects.[10]

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No

Children have had to mature rapidly for ages; child performance fosters this. Modern attitudes to children are a recent cultural development; for centuries children had to go out to work and were treated as adults from a much younger age than today. We should not impose this cultural bias upon those with exceptional talents and supportive families, providing the law prevents them being exploited. Ultimately we must trust loving parents to know best for their own children. A few scare stories should not be taken as representative of the happy and successful performing careers of many talented young people.[11]

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Consequences of a ban: Would the consequences of a ban on certain types of child performance be minor or insignificant?

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Yes

The consequences of such a ban need not be severe. Young adult actors often portray children on stage and in films or television. Nor are there many essential roles for children in the classic dramatic repertoire - the intense focus on children in the media is a modern phenomenon. Sports don’t need to suffer much either, just to change and adapt; gymnastics and tennis have already raised the minimum age at which children can compete professionally, with no negative impact upon the success and popularity of these sports.[12]

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No

The wider consequences of a ban on child performers will be severe. Some sports, such as gymnastics, tennis and ice-skating may collapse without appropriate early training regimes. Television, film and stage dramas would become radically different, and unable to portray society realistically, if they were not able to use child performers. Established classics with key roles for children would have to be dropped or totally rewritten. In film and television, production companies may even go abroad to find a more sympathetic jurisdiction, removing investment from the domestic economy and exposing children to risk in a completely unregulated environment.[13]

See also

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