I got a sneak peek at a show debuting tomorrow night on Discovery Life Channel called "World's Worst Mom." It's ironically named after Lenore Skenazy, the creator of the Free Range Kids movement; she got the nickname "America's Worst Mom" after letting her then-9-year-old son ride a New York City subway by himself.
This is how Skenazy describes the reality show, which airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays starting tomorrow (January 22): "Think 'Supernanny,' except instead of taming bratty kids, I tame super-anxious parents." In the premiere, 10-year-old Sammy has a mom so afraid that her son will hurt himself that she tries to remove all aspects of life that could lead to danger. She won't let him ride a bike, or stay at anyone else's house, or even cut his food with a knife (she does it for him—and, in one scene, feeds him, too). Her husband is ready for things to change (to put it mildly), so along comes Skenazy, who arranges for Sammy to take steps toward independence and act his age. His mom is truly tormented through it all, until... Well, I won't spoil the surprise. It's worth seeing for yourself.
Skenazy told me about a scene in an upcoming episode that I can't wait to watch: She helps a 16-year-old, 6-foot, 2-inch boy take a commuter train for the first time. As he's leaving the house, his frantic mom runs after him, bringing him an Elmo juice box.
But these parents aren't caricatures, Skenazy insists: "They're more nervous than the average helicopter family, but they're part of a society that has chosen to focus on worst-case scenarios. We're living in a hysterical society, and it doesn't strike me as odd that people feel rational being very, very afraid."
By the end of the 13-episode series, 12 of the 13 families Skenazy worked with underwent a dramatic transformation. And yet it's not anything she said, or even really did, that led to the change. "It's the kids who convince the parents. When a child rides a bike for the first time, and is so happy and proud and grateful, the image his parents had in their brain and heart—of a vulnerable, sweet baby they have to protect—just pops," she explains. "And into that space comes a competent, grown-up young lady or young man. And there's no place left for their fear."
You might be thinking, Yeah, but this is reality TV. How do you know if the parents changed for good, or just for the cameras? Turns out that the crew—minus Lenore—returns to the home a month later for a checkin. And Skenazy has heard from the families in many cases; everyone is continuing to make progress. Which doesn't surprise her: "If you start to walk, do you go back to crawling? If you see your child be 16 years old, do you make them go back to being a 2-year-old?"
At a time when parents are increasingly getting in trouble for acts like letting their children walk to a park alone, "World's Worst Mom" raises a lot of questions about the level of protection we should provide for our children, and for how long.
Kara Corridan is the health director at Parents. She has two daughters, ages 9 and 6, and wrote an essay for Parents called "Worry Doesn't Equal Love" that touches on the themes of protection and overprotection.
Image courtesy of Discovery Life Channel