The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t watch ‘The Parent Test’ for the competition. Watch for the conversation.

Hosts Ali Wentworth and parenting expert Adolph Brown on ABC's “The Parent Test.” (James Clark/ABC)
7 min

I can think of few things more torturous than broadcasting one’s parenting skills on prime-time TV. Heck, even public access.

No one needs to see how I barely survived a flight alone with two squirming small children. Even I don’t want a replay of the time I got the 5-year-old to try ramen but didn’t get the 3-year-old to the potty in time. These are the small wins and losses most of us would rather keep buried deep in the junk closet (you know the one).

ABC’s new reality show “The Parent Test” has that scoreboard.

The premise of the series sounds practically medieval. Throw a dozen families in the ring, toss in a bunch of challenges meant to test their respective child-rearing philosophies, then judge. The endgame is to crown today’s “most effective parenting style.” Does that sound ridiculous and impossible? Yep. But does the show still manage to poke a necessary hole in the growing pressure balloon of pandemic parenting? That too.

Hosts Ali Wentworth (mother of two) and Adolph Brown (parenting guru, father of eight) preside over a court of parental opinion. Families in the front row are judged by the grown-ups seated behind them on challenges that underscore the difference between a Tiger Mom and a Dolphin Dad. Every few weeks one parenting style gets voted off the island until one family is crowned. All the flavors of child-rearing are present and accounted for, including some you imagine were engineered by a group chat: New Age, traditional, natural, intensive, free-range, strict, high-achieving, child-led, negotiation, routine and so on.

It’s almost too easy to write each one off with an eye roll. What kind of parent hangs a tree swing in the living room? Why is a 6-year-old doing eighth-grade math and not, like, being 6? Who thinks home-schooling four kids in an RV is a good idea?

Then you remember last Wednesday when you let your kindergartner have a dill pickle for breakfast because it was 8:35 a.m. and Why doesn’t anyone have shoes on?! Or how the Disney Stories app on Alexa has read your kids to sleep about as many times as you have (fine, more). Parents, especially those deeply committed to a particular “style,” can be an intractable jury while simultaneously shredding the evidence of their own shortcomings.

Families are tasked with the type of seemingly banal daily milestones that underscore how they raise their kids, like convincing a tiny human to leap from a high diving board, eat unfamiliar food at a fancy restaurant and design their very own “yes day.”

But as the challenges add up, so do the shifts in perspective. Sure the New Age parents seem new agey, but try not to get chills when their eldest daughter shouts the word “powerful” with her whole chest. The “high-achieving” dad is no doubt “a lot,” but his 8-year-old can read an analog map better than I can. Imagine crying happy tears as you watch someone else’s son overcome his anxiety to scale to the top of a climbing wall. The wins are obvious and easy to celebrate, especially at a time when so many adults tasked with training the next generation are struggling themselves.

The losses are less clear because a parenting fail is only a fail if left unexamined. Having those L’s blown up for the whole class to dissect is where “The Parent Test” differs from previous versions of similar shows like “Wife Swap” and “Supernanny,” which focused on fixing a family’s problems. It’s a competition show where the actual competition takes a back seat. Instead the series tests a familiar maxim: It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. (That very concept is one that the show’s “intensive” parents would find useless.)

“One hundred percent of losers — homeless people — complain about their parents,” says mom Willa, describing how her 6-year-old, Juliette, thrives best on negative reinforcement. Mmmkay. Her child might be Mensa-bound, but whether she’s prepared for the big bad world remains to be seen. Despite Willa’s directive to “Just jump” during “the high-dive challenge,” little Juliette, cold and scared, climbs back down to safety. Was it a mark against intensive parenting as a whole, or are diving boards simply terrifying?

“Our girls wouldn’t jump off of that thing,” I told my husband as we watched together, debating the benefits and drawbacks of each decision during the commercial breaks. He agreed, but still found value in pushing kids to reach their personal best. I nodded. So would we have failed that challenge? Yes and no.

The pause button becomes central to watching. Debates need to be had at home. “The Parent Test” proves no one is doing it right, and everyone is doing their best. If you think of the series as a conversation, not a competition, it represents the best of what television can do: Break us out of our silos to sit down in a (forgive me) safe space.

The first parenting style to get the ax was my personal favorite — the “routine.” Well, not the style, but the dads practicing it. The Maghen-Dekels have dessert for breakfast. Full stop. Their daily lives are built on top of predetermined blocks of time for everything, which means breakfast is at 6 a.m. sharp, and most mornings their 6-year-old twins eat cake.

“We feel like that ends up putting them on a better footing during the day. Oh, also, we like cake,” explains dad Alex. The Tiger Mom in the room, who’s read all the research on sugar, is visibly scandalized. I am too, before remembering that pickle breakfast. Plus, the sugared-up Maghen-Dekel boys both jumped from that diving board with healthy encouragement from their parents, who despite keeping a literal scoreboard at home, lead their family with incredible heart.

It proved Wentworth’s directive from the show’s premiere “to be nice to each other, as you will be in the hot seat soon enough.” Judge not lest you be judged, and all that.

Yet that is what the families are here for. If not to be judged, at least to be weighed. Take “high-achievement” dad, Dennis Williams, who seriously called himself “the Black Panther of parenting.” His 8-year-old son has been learning three languages since he was 3. Williams’s goal is for his kid to be the personification of Black excellence. It’s a style that could seem harsh because it is. But, as “helicopter” dad Hashim points out, it’s also necessary.

“You see this superhuman Black man raising another Black man. You see the love and passion. At first, I disagreed with him,” said Hashim, before adding, “You have to make a superhuman to endure this world that we’re in.”

The most difficult-to-watch challenge thus far involved “stranger danger.” The pit in my stomach started before the footage rolled. Almost every parenting style failed that test. It was a frightening reminder for all caregivers, “natural” to “intensive,” and raised questions about why it’s important to teach your children how keep themselves safe from potential predators, whether they live in a city or the middle of nowhere. That segment even prompted me to drill my own kids on what they would do when confronted with an unfamiliar person promising candy or puppies.

The 3-year-old was adamant that strangers were a no-go. She got a high-five, and I gave myself one too.

But then it was her older sister’s turn.

“Weelll,” she began, softening the landing. “I do really like candy.”

I was horrified.

My parenting style is a mix between whatever works and “Please, for the love of all that is holy, put your shoes on.” Faced with a challenge, my fallback is usually honesty. The three of us spent the rest of the walk home from school yelling out the word “No!” loud as our lungs could muster as practice.

It was one L we turned into a W that I wouldn’t have minded cameras capturing.