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Strict Mom Takes On Spoiled Home for TV

Md. Woman Tries 'Swap' With Miss. Family

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page B08

At Shelley Elliott's home in Mitchellville, her children know the rules.

Justine, 15, and Javier, 11, do chores and walk the dog. They do homework every day, and friends are allowed only on weekends. They receive no weekly allowance; if they need or want something, they ask their parents.


Shelley Elliott, with son Javier, said the swap was fun but exhausting, in part because the television cameras were ever-present. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Sue Burkhalter, of Natchez, Miss., does things a bit differently. Daughters Nancy, 22, and Laura Beth, 18, do no chores, while their mother cooks and cleans for the family. Both girls got a car for high school graduation, and neither works. When they want to go shopping, they take their father's credit card.

For 10 days the two women switched places, part of a new ABC reality show called "Wife Swap" that showcases mothers from different backgrounds, different approaches to child rearing and, in this case, different races trying to run each other's households.

The experience, featured on tonight's episode, surprised both women. Elliott, 46, an investigator with D.C.'s inspector general's office, found herself wondering if she should lighten up on her kids a little. Burkhalter, 46, a health administrator at a prison, left the Elliott children feeling that perhaps she had done her own daughters a disservice by being so lenient.

The program focuses on the changes the women make to the other's routine and how the families respond. Burkhalter eliminated Justine's and Javier's chores, put televisions in their rooms and took them on shopping sprees.

"My kids were jumping on the sofas," Elliott said. "They were loving it."

Burkhalter's children had a tougher time. They both broke down in tears as Elliott divided the household chores between them, eliminated weeknight partying and stopped Nancy's boyfriend from spending the night in her bedroom.

"They didn't get it," Elliott recalled in an interview this week at her Prince George's County home. "They would make smart-mouthed comments to me like, 'Why are you giving us all the work? What are you going to do?' "

Burkhalter, who does all the chores in her Natchez home, said she fell in love with the well-disciplined Elliott children and enjoyed her time with them and their father Carl. "I had a good time getting to know them," she said.

The paths that brought the women into each other's homes were as divergent as the way they run their households. Elliott learned about the show from the director of a science and technology program in which Justine is enrolled. Burkhalter heard about it last March from a friend of Laura Beth's who worked in a tattoo parlor.

"The show was calling local businesses, and they called the tattoo parlor and Laura Beth's friend told them, 'Do I have the family for you!' " Burkhalter said.

Elliott said she e-mailed the show's production company and asked for more information. Instead, she got a telephone call from a producer. "She asked me if I had rules for my children. I rattled them off. She told me she had a family that was opposite."

After both families were accepted, the parents and children had to undergo psychiatric interviews, physical examinations, even blood tests to identify any conditions that might affect their performance on the program. Each wife and her husband also had to sign an in-depth contract. The families are not paid for their appearances.


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