The spiritual discipline of Project Runway.

The spiritual discipline of Project Runway.

It started when my friend came over for coffee. While we chatted in the kitchen, and Sarah kept bringing in fashion sketches to show me. She’s obsessed with design: she’s filled all the pages of her fashion sketchpad, she’s practicing the concepts in her fashion design workshop, she’s refashioning my cast-offs into original outfits. This is nothing new.

But her fascination kicked into high gear when she read The Mother Daughter Book Club series this winter. One of the girls, Megan Wong, is an aspiring fashion designer. In Much Ado About Anne, 7th grade Megan stages her own runway show. In Pies and Prejudice, Megan starts a fashion blog. In Wish You Were Eyre, Megan goes to Fashion Week in Paris.

The series has captured Sarah’s imagination. After she brought us her third detailed dress design in an hour, my friend waited until she left the room and said, Tell me you’re watching Project Runway.

I’d never seen it, not even a clip.

She described it as American Idol for fashion. Every season a fresh group of designers compete; every episode brings an unusual challenge (like make a dress out of a parachute). The designers sketch their pieces, sew them up, dress their models, and send them down the runway.

dress form in the making

 making a dress form out of pink duct tape. nevermind the dirty mirror and the clothes on the bed

My kids are pretty sheltered. The older two only learned the bad f-word recently. At church. I wasn’t sure Project Runway was a good idea.

Despite my reservations, Sarah and I started watching season twelve together last week. Pretty soon all the kids were watching.

Sarah loves the fashion. Jack (age 12) is fascinated by the show’s social dynamics. Silas and Lucy just want to join in the fun.

There are drawbacks to watching a reality show with your kids: the harsh critique, the language, the drama. My kids have so many questions. 

There are surface-y ones: Why does she have so many tattoos? Why didn’t they bleep out that word? Am I allowed to say that word? Or that one? Or that one? (Some people do. They don’t have to but I wish they did. No. Nope. Yes, but not in front of Grandma.)

And deeper ones: Why is she mean? Why is he mad? Why is she acting like that?

That’s the big one: Why is she acting like that? This is the reason I’m still watching Project Runway with my kids, despite its drawbacks. Every episode we have rich discussions about why she’s acting like that.   

The first time my child asked why a contestant was freaking out—and I mean epically freaking out—I paused the show. We talked about mean people, and kind people, and people who are just plain crazy.

We talked about what it feels like when you don’t sleep well, when your brother messes with you, when you can’t make the long division work. That’s what Project Runway feels like to these designers, I explained, with their tough challenges, tight deadlines, and clashing personalities. They have a lot on the line, and it’s all on display on national tv.

We talked about how people act when they’re stressed out, and how it takes a lot of practice and self-discipline to remain levelheaded, kind, and gracious under that kind of stress.

I have a kid who tends to be anxious, who gets cranky when he’s nervous about stuff. He nodded and let out a big sigh. I get it, he said. Then: I’m never going on Project Runway.

I’d go, Sarah said. My designs would get to be so good. And besides, isn’t it like what we talked about at church last Sunday?

It took me a few minutes to figure out she was talking about the spiritual disciplines. Lent—the traditional season of self-examination and self-denial—is almost here. During the Lenten season, many Christians undertake specific actions and activities for the purpose of cultivating spiritual development. The usual suspects here are prayer, meditation, solitude, fasting, and the like. (I’d add to my list: long walks, sleep deprivation, parenting toddlers.)

Sarah’s argument boiled down to this: an experience like Project Runway shapes your inner being. Not because of the design. Because of the discipline it requires.

On childhood obsessions and reality tv and unlikely spiritual disciplines.

I don’t know about her theology, but she’s right about one thing: stress changes the way people act. Watching the show with my kids—and watching one or other of the designers lose their cool every week—has launched a hundred discussions.

And so when they ask their many, many questions, I resist the impulse to get all preachy, strong as it is. They want answers, but they shut down fast when I get didactic on them.

Sometimes I find myself explaining phrases, or social dynamics. But more often, I let them see my genuine emotions as we watch—the delight and the dismay–and I answer their questions with my own.

• Do YOU think that was a good apology? Why not? What would you have said?
• What do you think he should have said? What do you think she should have done?
• Why do you think she yelled at him? Do you ever feel like that? Did she feel better afterwards? What do you think she wished she’d done instead?

(When we need a mood-lightener, there’s always one handy: Which is your favorite dress? Do you agree with the judges? Who do you think should have won?)

Thanks to Project Runway, we’ve had surprisingly good discussions about emotional intelligence and self-control. We talk about “soft skills” and deliberate practice. We talk about—and practice—the difference between helpful criticism and just being a jerk.

We see our fair share of drama and meltdowns (the real-life kind) around here, and the designers have given us a language to talk about anxiety and anger in a non-loaded way. It’s much easier for a kid to discuss the mean girl on tv than the one in her neighborhood, the designer’s epic meltdown instead of his own.

We’re only halfway through the season; maybe I’ll change my tune as we get further in. But at this moment, I’m happy to be watching reality tv with my kids.

I never thought I’d say that.

photo source

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  1. Janet says:

    I used to watch Project Runway, loved it. Then each year it became clearer that Heidi was picking the winner and make the choices to see that it happened. I quit watching.

  2. Kayris says:

    Have you followed the story of Mayhem, the 5 year old who has gone from making paper dresses to having her own J Crew collection? Pretty amazing. Her mom is on IG as 2sisters_angie.

  3. Erica M. says:

    This is so, so wonderful. So many parents (in some ways my mom included) want to put their hands on their children’s eyes and ears and shield them from the world. It’s understandable, but not very productive. Your daughter is also a very perceptive girl! I never would have thought of the show in terms of mental and emotional discipline. I think I’m going to wind up pondering this for a while!

  4. Tim says:

    My daughter and I watched Project Runway when she was still at home. I became so impressed with Tim Gunn. He’s a wonderful encourager and mentor.

    On the behaviors, I see it in other competition shows like on Food Network. Going through hours of competition (that boil down to a 30 or 60 minute show) must be physically and emotionally draining. I understand the meltdowns, and I am so pleased for those who manage to keep their poise.

    • Anne says:

      I’m glad to hear that about Tim Gunn. That was my impression from the first few episodes I’ve seen, and I was crossing my fingers they were indicative.

  5. Sarah R says:

    You’ll have to share the story of how they learned the f – word at church! That’s so funny. I grew up pretty protected, and most of the time, I’m thankful for that. However, when I went off to college, I had some rude awakenings! It seems like you have struck a nice balance with protecting your kids and opening their eyes as well.

  6. Jeannie says:

    I love your post, Anne. Isn’t it amazing where our teachable moments can come from? The neat thing, as you observe, is how your kids did so much of their own teaching in this instance. I agree too that issues can often be discussed much more easily if they’re a response to something kids see/hear rather than directly about their own lives. My daughter & I discussed misogyny after hearing lyrics about how a girl “can’t be compared to your neighbourhood ho’ “; we discussed homosexuality after listening to “Same Love”; we even dealt with mother-daughter issues by writing a mom-daughter novel (she wrote 1 chapter, I wrote the next, etc.). There’s a lot of garbage out there in the media, but there are also some good portals into real conversation and sharing.

  7. Karlyne says:

    Good for you! We miss a lot of stuff, by not having cable/satellite/whatever, but we have managed to catch the Master Chef Kids (although I’m not sure that’s its name!), and it’s amazing. No f-words, though, to explain…

  8. Nancy says:

    Anne, I wish that I had known what you know when I was raising my children. You and your children are really so lucky that you and your husband are finding so many great ways to introduce them to the world and are able to converse with them — each at the level that they are right now! Keep up the good work.

  9. Teresa says:

    I never miss an episode of Project Runway 🙂 I don’t enjoy watching sports, so the finale shows are my version of the Super Bowl. I thought the All Stars finale that just aired last week was great because the three competitors were extremely talented, and I liked all three of them so much that I would have been happy for any of them to win. I’ve never watched a finale that made me feel that way before. It’s neat that the show is working as a teaching tool for your family.

  10. Patty says:

    We watch “Face Off” on SyFy for some of the same reasons (and because we’re a geeky family!) It also helps the kids see how some of the creatures and characters in movies and TV shows are made. Most of the bad words are beeped out. Most of the contestants on the show are really talented, and the producers include just enough drama to keep things interesting.

  11. Pat says:

    Project Runway is fantastic! I used to watch it with a friend, and then we would look up any designers who were mentioned on it. And really it is one of the less drama-filled reality shows out there. The only ones I know that are nicer are Face-Off and Master Chef Junior.

  12. Angela Mills says:

    I watched a few seasons with my daughters until we finally got tired of the drama. (It does get old after a few years.) We had lots of the same conversations and lots of yelling at the TV 🙂

    The funniest thing that happened is there was a woman that had been a soldier in Afghanistan on and one day she was crying and saying, “I’m going to need therapy after this.” My daughter yelled, “You’ve been to war! This is just clothes!” Lol!

    I always reminded my girls that in addition to the stress, there’s a huge lack of sleep for these people. Challenges are back to back, not a week apart like we see. And stress + your dream on the line + no sleep = some crazy people!

  13. Kate says:

    Project Runway and Top Chef are the gold standard of “reality” competition shows that do a great job showcasing what some amazingly talented, creative people can do. What a clever way to guide your kids through the show!

    Also, Tim Gunn is the nicest person on earth 🙂

  14. Julie R says:

    We’ve also had discussions like these watching cooking shows. The Taste is one of our favorites, and it plenty of examples of inappropriate language, attitude, etc.

    We’ve also been watching The Great British Baking Show together. My girls have told me that they like it better than American reality cooking shows because the people are nicer and aren’t potty mouths.

      • Kim S. says:

        I’m obsessed with that show. I hunted down “caster sugar” and if this cold ever stops, I’m making a Victorian sponge. That’s one of those shows where I constantly take notes.

        • Jules says:

          If you can’t find castor sugar an acceptable substitute is to blitz regular sugar in the food processor until it is very fine. The fine granules is the difference between the two. However, do not confuse it with confectioners sugar, a totally different thing again.

      • Jules says:

        It is absolutely the top cooking show on television! In the early series there was an historical segment explaining the background to what ever they were baking. Everyone on the show is competitive but nice to each other. They will criticise their own work but not anyone elses. The judges are constructive and the two hosts are worth watching the show for alone. One of the hosts, Sue Perkins, was in another show on the history of food which was also fascinating –

        The Supersizers Go… and The Supersizers Eat… are BBC television series about the history of food, mainly in Britain. Both are presented by journalist and restaurant critic Giles Coren and broadcaster and comedian Sue Perkins.

    • Esther says:

      I recently watched an episode of the British Baking Show and you’re right that it’s so much better than the American reality cooking shows. I wouldn’t hesitate to let my kids watch that one–it’s really quite enjoyable!

  15. Kim S. says:

    Project Runway also had a kids competition, called Project Runway:Threads. Each week had three young designers compete in one or two challenges. But they were allowed a “helper” – usually a parent. Because each show had different competitors, it wasn’t as intense and was more about making clothes.

    And I do recommend MasterChef Junior. I watch with my future mother in law. We marvel at how much we don’t know and the wonderful sportsmanship they have. Too bad the adults don’t.

    • Karlyne says:

      I like the way the judges on Master Chef Junior are still serious and honest with the kids. They don’t tell them that a dish is wonderful when it’s not, and they treat them with respect. And the kids have such camaraderie!

    • Marianne says:

      I agree about Master Chef Junior! It is a show that’s inspiring and our whole family can gather together to watch it. The kids learn how to take constructive criticism and treat others even when it’s a competition. I think adults could learn a lot from these littles. 😉

      • Liz K. says:

        I was very happy with Zac Posen on Project Runway because his criticism was almost always constructive, and I really liked how he asked technical questions about fabric and sewing methods. In older seasons, Michael Kors could get harsh. Some of my friends missed the dramatic judging with Michael, but I thought Zac was much more charming.

        MasterChef Jr. is the first reality show I’ve watched with my kids. Season 2 was very charming. Currently Season 3 is running. I like it because it shows my kids other kids who are very talented and able, but are still normal, nice kids. I don’t like how loud and intense it gets with dramatic music and sentences split in half for commercials, but that’s what you get when kids programming and reality tv are combined, I think. The imitable Linda Holmes at the NPR Monkey See blog turned me onto it:
        P.S. Linda Holmes is the lens through which I observed pop culture. If there’s a movie out and she doesn’t mention it, I might never hear about it because I pay so little attention otherwise. I recommend her highly as a filter.

  16. Jennifer H says:

    Sometime Samuel watches just the runway show with me. Even when I watch by myself, I find myself fast forwarding a LOT. You picked one of my favorite dresses of all season from the “rainway” challenge for your photo 🙂

  17. Jules says:

    The other thing to perhaps mention to children, and remember ourselves, is that these shows are highly edited. Many, many hours of filming is discarded. Someone makes the choices about which bits will stay. That the worst moments are kept in is a reflection on society’s appetite for seeing people at their most unbecoming. Don’t get me wrong, I watch these shows when they involve decorating houses (currently a series called The Block is on here in Australia). The premise is similar, a ridiculously short space of time to completely renovate a room a week, this week it is a main bathroom from total demo, design, choosing and installing fittings and tile to finished and styled for judging in seven days. Anyone who has done renos will know how crazy this is! We’ve been working on our kitchen for a year and it still isn’t finished! Then edit the film to show about 40 mins for five days it airs during the week and an hour on the seventh day, including the judges comments. You know there is so much footage not used but the only worst moments make it to the screen.

  18. Angie says:

    I’ve always watched Project Runway, and I really enjoyed the first season of Threads, which only ended about a month ago, so it may be hard to find until some more time has passed. It’s amazing to see kids, some as young as eight, make REAL clothes that are beautiful! And they deal with unexpected challenges and mishaps much better than the adults 😉

  19. Esther says:

    What’s your take on the Mother-Daughter book club series? I read the first one thinking that my 8 year old and I would read it together, but it just didn’t resonate. I found it to be rather shallow. I would rather read the books they mention (i.e. Little Women) with my daughter than the series. Just curious what you thought. Thanks!

    • Anne says:

      The Mother Daughter Book Club might read the classics, but it would never be mistaken for one. It’s more like The Babysitters’ Club than Little Women, but I think there’s a time and place for each kind of book, and my 9yo happily reads both. (Plus, I have a soft spot in my heart for The Babysitters’ Club… 🙂 So many girls fell in love with reading through that series, and the same is true for TMDBC.) The books also gave us a great entry to talk about girl drama, boy stuff, Jane Eyre, divorce and separation, and all the issues kids that age deal with.

  20. We LOVED the Mother Daughter book club series. It actually inspired my daughter to go after her dreams when she’d previously thought she was too young to “really” start. In addition, my daughter wrote to the author and we were thrilled when she emailed back within a day. What made it so special, though, is we read it with another mother-daughter duo. Mother-daughter book clubs rock.

  21. Emily says:

    Thank you for writing this! Good thoughts, and something to consider as my kids grow and want to watch tv shows. I like all your examples of how to have good conversations about what is happening on screen.

  22. Gwyn says:

    Your style of parenting is so similar to my own. My children range from 26 to 16. You want to protect your children, but using those “teachable moments” is so important. It is hard to find anything on TV that doesn’t have content that you have to explain.

    And about hearing that word at church….I am so glad your children asked, because believe me no matter how protective you think you are, your kids are hearing questionable language and even questionable subject matter. Keep the communication open so they will come to you and talk to you about it.

  23. Delphine says:

    You’re a great Mom! Engaging your kids in these kind of conversations, encouraging their interests… Just thought I’d pass that on. 🙂

  24. Victoria says:

    You have to get the BBC iplayer (I hope you can get that in the states) and watch The Great British Sewing Bee. It’s a sewing version of Bake Off and has just started its new season. This season there is a (male) soldier who’s fought in Afghanistan who makes most of his wife’s dresses, sweet old grannies, a young guy, a lawyer… Such a mix of people and the drama is much more British and restrained. And they are such good challenges. Last week they had to make children’s fancy dress costume. It’s judged by a Savile Row tailor and the head of the Women’s Institute (don’t know what the U.S. Equivalent would be. Have you seen Calendar Girls?). It has proper sewing techniques and is a great watch. Wow, long post. I’ll be quiet now and let you go watch

  25. Liesl says:

    OK, I love Project Runway – love seeing all the creative fashions, and the drama is slightly entertaining as well 😉 (loooooved that dress by Sean, by the way!).

    A show that is more kid friendly that you might want to check out with your daughter is Threads. It is affiliated with Project Runway, but is specifically for kids/teens – they have 3 kid designers come in and compete against each other on a challenge, and the winner gets a cool prize package. There’s no language and the drama is at a much lower level, but you still get to see some cool things. Your daughter might even want to try out! 😉 They finished the first season, but it might be available on demand or online? If you check it out, let us know what you think!

  26. Anne says:

    I love how you made this show work for your kids. Also, that photo of your daughter in the mirror is so darling. Look at her happy face! So sweet. I love how you encourage her designing!

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  28. Bekki says:

    Project Runway is a little too raw for me, but I adore The Great British Sewing Bee. I’ll have to try using that as an opening to discuss emotions and stress…great idea!

  29. Cindy says:

    Great post, Anne! And a great advice for parents on how to watch tv with your children, how to teach them as you go, in the midst of life – and especially how to deal with stress and difficult people, as there will never be a shortage of negative role models, and hopefully positive ones also!

  30. Really an amazing dress which is made from pink duct tape. We can make so many beautiful and useful things from raw material. Its really an amazing craft. God bless you and keep it up.

    ~Dr. Diana

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