These shows are popular because of the ages old appeal of vicarious living. The ability to live a life, to experience an adventure, to undergo a trial, or to find romance without leaving your home had traditionally been provided by fiction or documentary, in books, films and television. Reality TV ushered in a new and more personal way to connect.
I've watched and enjoyed a few of the these shows over the years without necessarily becoming a devotee. Mostly, I've avoided them because either I found them too morbidly addictive, dull, or offensive, but when I find something I like, I'll commit for a season, and my attachment is based on two things; people and philosophy. Although I understand how heavily edited these programs are, and how manipulative such editing is, I still find the shows interesting and entertaining because of the characters, both their personal stories and how their worldviews play out in life.
The latest reality show to hit Australian screens is Parental Guidance about which I'd heard nothing until I saw an ad for it while I was watching a James Bond film on the Nine network. It's marketed as a social experiment, which is fair enough because it isn't exactly a reality TV show, although it does have elements of the genre, and I like it...a lot.
Co-hosted by prominent child psychologist Dr. Justin Coulson, the show brings together ten couples with different parenting styles, examining the strengths and weaknesses of each methodology through group discussion and a series of family challenges. Irrespective of what you might think about any of the various parenting styles, one thing is clear: these parents really love their children and are committed to doing what's best for them. They may chose different paths but their broad goals are identical. The environment in which these discussions take place is one of respect and openness, which has no doubt been engineered by the structure of the show and the careful selection of participants, but it makes for compelling, albeit occasionally uncomfortable viewing.
In most families, it is unlikely that any particular parental style has been intentionally chosen and pursued by the parents. Most people muddle their way through child rearing, as they do through life, doing the best they can However, any parent watching this show would certainly be able to identify with some or all of the parental practices displayed. Most parents use a mix of strategies to achieve their goals for their children and to ensure a healthy family life. The difference with the couples on the show is that they are very intentional and consistent.
I've found it impossible to keep my mouth closed while watching Parental Guidance. Whether I agree or disagree, praise or criticise, I'm fully engaged as watch and I'm sure I typify the reaction that the producers of the show desired. The show is about the conversation, about learning from each other, inspiring each other to be better parents and better people.
I would argue that Parental Guidance is not only a clever and entertaining show, but also a necessary one. Does anyone not agree that parenting is the single most important job any person will ever have? Who doesn't want to be a better parent? What parent does not want the very best for their children? Who doesn't find parenting hard at times?
Although I find it tedious to have one same sex couple, or a same sex attracted person included in every show now, I think having Brett and Tony in Parental Guidance is important and valuable. I'm also pleased they included a single mum. I don't believe these are optimal parenting scenarios, but I do think good parenting should be acknowledged and supported no matter who is delivering it.
I only have three criticisms of the show. Firstly, it's too short. Opinions are delivered in 'grabs' designed to have maximum emotional impact on the viewer, but it doesn't go deep enough for me. However, as with most shows you can visit their website for additional content. Secondly, the disparate ages of the children skews the results of some of the challenges, and thirdly there is no accounting for, or representation of blended families. It is one thing to raise children from birth with a particular parenting style, but what happens when your parenting journey begins with an eleven year old and a thirteen year old, for example, as mine did. Perhaps the producers would consider a spin off which focusses on step parenting, which is unquestionably harder than parenting.
Parental Guidance ticks a lot of boxes for me as a viewer and a parent of four children. It's manipulative but not excessively, and it's controversial, but not for the sake of controversy I'm very much looking forward to the second week of the series, and I encourage you to check it out. Tune in, and take a look into the mirror. Do you like what you see?