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Bravo's 'Extreme Guide to Parenting': Why do we love to judge bad parents?

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Extreme Parenting
Eugene Gologursky/Bravo

There are two things that reality TV fans love more than anything else. One is judging people who behave badly. (Think: Real Housewives.) The other is anything “extreme.” (Think: Extreme Makeover.) So it was only a matter of time before Bravo used the word “extreme” to target what might be the most judgmental audience alive: people with kids.

Get ready: The Extreme Guide to Parenting premieres on Bravo tonight.

Has there ever been a more perfect cultural moment for a show like this to exist? Extreme Parenting arrives at a time when many people—especially women—get a certain masochistic thrill from hearing that we’re doing things the wrong way. Eating? We’re doing it wrong. Breathing? We’re doing it wrong. So why not parenting? As Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker a few years ago, we’re living in an age that’s particularly suited to anxiety over whether we’re raising our kids the right way. She writes:

In 1850, more than one baby in every five died before its first year. By 1920, infant mortality in the United States had dropped to one in twenty. By the Second World War, accidents had replaced disease as the leading cause of childhood death. Today, infant mortality is at one in two hundred. Historians once assumed that when childhood mortality was high people must not have loved their children very much; it would have been too painful. Research has since proved that assumption wrong. Now that children are very likely to survive to adulthood, you might think parents wouldn’t worry so much. This is wrong, too. We love even when that spells grief, and we worry even when that means worrying about nothing.

In her excellent book, The Mansion of Happiness, Lepore explains how that type of worrying created a boom industry for parenting advice in the 21st century. She profiles George Hecht, the founder of what later became Parents magazine, who promoted the type of journalism that exaggerated childhood illnesses and hidden household dangers with the goal of scaring mothers into subscribing. “To protect their babies and children,” Lepore writes, “[mothers] would buy anything, so long as they could be kept good and worried.”

Now, I’d guess that Extreme Parenting might be peddling a similar type of fear, and for the same reason, I’d imagine that the show might be pretty attractive to advertisers who cater to mothers. Let’s say you’re watching the first episode, which focuses on The Masterson-Horns, a gay couple who aim to spend 24 hours a day with their daughter. Their parenting style is described as “all baby, all the time,” and they’re painted as overprotective dads. It’s no accident that, on Bravo’s website, a sneak preview video of the Masterson-Horns is embedded with an ad for Luvs that praises a more laid back style of parenting. (A mother lets an auto mechanic hold her baby, even though his hands are probably pretty dirty.) If viewers can be convinced that wanting to spend every possible minute with one’s daughter is “extreme,” they might be more likely to buy products that cater to a more laissez faire lifestyle. Of course, after watching Extreme Parenting, you might see yourself reflected in every commercial that features a mother. As Mad Men‘s Don Draper once said, “You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells.”

As you might imagine, Extreme Parenting made me feel a whole lot of somethings. But mostly, I found myself sympathizing with the parents on-screen. Along with the Masterson-Horns, the first episode features Shira Adler, whose parenting style is described as “eco-kosher, shamanistic, aromatherapy.” That means she sprays her kids’ faces with pleasant-smelling concoctions and tries to read their auras. “My mom told me that my aura was, like, lavender,” Shira’s daughter explains. “And I don’t really know what that means, but it kind of sounds cool.” Shira claims that her hyperactive son, Yonah, is an “indigo child,” which suggests that he is very creative, has a greater purpose—and might be more likely to have ADHD. Yonah attends a special education program at school, and doctors want Shira to put him on medication. But Yonah doesn’t want to take pills, and as it turns out, Shira has a good reason for resisting that choice: both her mother and her daughter were mismedicated in the past. A bad lithium prescription caused her mother’s liver to fail. So Shira’s interest in special diets, aura-reading, and aromatherapy makes sense: They’re forms of alternative medicine. What parent wouldn’t explore every possible option, including face-spritzing, when she’s trying to cure her kid? To me, that just makes Shira a good mother.

The Masterson-Horns also seem like pretty good parents. Sure, they spoil their 3-year-old a little, buying her pricey Marc Jacobs outfits. But their daughter, Simone, doesn’t sound like a brat. When her dads ask which fancy handbag she’d like to bring to her grandma’s house, she replies cheerfully, “I don’t need purses!” When Dad #1, Scout, allows her to bring a few more items to grandma’s than she should rightfully stuff into her suitcase, she says, “Thank you, daddy.” Yes, she has a meltdown in the car, but what kid hasn’t done that? If the Masterson-Horns have raised a daughter this sweet, they must be doing something right. As for the idea that they’re ruining Simone with their “all baby, all the time” mantra, well, it could be worse. Scout’s mother acts as Simone’s nanny during the day, so it doesn’t sound like they’re smothering her. And Scout and his husband have created a boutique PR company so that they can work from inside the house and occasionally check in on their daughter. “We changed our careers to be around Simone,” Scout explains. That sounds like an ideal work/life balance to me.

The word “extreme” used to mean something. When The New York Times wrote about “extreme television” years ago, they featured genuinely shocking shows like I Was Impaled and My Giant Face Tumor. Even Animal Planet’s The Most Extreme is pretty extreme. (Check out the episode about creatures that literally break their own backs to give birth.) But now that we’ve had shows like Extreme Mardi Gras Cakes and Extreme Couponing, the stakes are pretty low. To include some pretty innocuous parenting choices in that category just feels silly. Shouldn’t these moms and dads at least strap their babies to their backs and go kayaking through a bodega or something? In its description of Extreme Parenting, Bravo’s website says, “These moms and dads believe their parenting techniques are the best and everyone else is doing it wrong.” The message behind those words is clear: We’re not looking down on these moms and dads—they’re looking down on us! But the Adlers never say they’re better than anyone else. Neither do the Masterson-Horns. They’re just doing the best they can. Maybe that’s the only thing about Extreme Parenting that’s truly extreme: its call to judge parents who probably aren’t that different from the rest of us.