The new reality show 'The Parent Test' begs the question, is there a 'right' way to parent?

Ali Wentworth and Dr. Adolph Brown host ABC's The Parent Test, a reality show that dissects different parenting styles. (Photo: ABC/James Clark)
Ali Wentworth and Dr. Adolph Brown host ABC's The Parent Test, a reality show that dissects different parenting styles. (Photo: ABC/James Clark)

The debate over the “right” way to parent has raged for decades. Some parents prefer a helicopter style; others like to let their kids have more free rein — and there are plenty of other parenting styles in between. Now, a new show on ABC has set out to determine which parenting style is best.

It's called The Parent Test, and it’s gotten plenty of attention on social media. “As a childfree [person] who recreationally judges parents … The Parent Test is the perfect show for me,” one person wrote on Twitter. “The Parent Test needs to do another show in 20 years about how the kids grew up and how they fared and any trauma they feel they had. That’s what I want!” another said.

Whatever their opinion, a lot of people seem hooked on the show. “I 10/10 encourage everyone to watch The Parent Test,” one fan tweeted.

But a show that judges … parenting? How is that even possible? Is there actually a “right” way to parent? Here’s the deal.

What is The Parent Test about, exactly?

Airing on Thursday nights, The Parent Test is a reality show that features 12 families with different parenting styles. Each family identifies with different styles of parenting, including disciplined, traditional, child-led, new age, helicopter and free-range. In the episodes, four families are put through a parenting stress test, like getting kids to go off of a high-dive or fine dining with their children.

The tests are later discussed with co-hosts Ali Wentworth and Dr. Adolph Brown III, and debates can get heated among the different parenting types. Eventually, the other families that didn’t participate in the test vote on which parenting type they found most effective in that particular challenge. Ultimately, the show will choose a winner.

Where did this come from?

The show is actually an Americanized version of the Australian show, Parental Guidance. “It was conceived as a new way into some evergreen classic parenting conversations, which are, ‘How do we raise our children the right way and what is the right way?’” Charles Wachter, executive producer of The Parent Test, tells Yahoo Life.

Wachter says he and his team looked for a “diversity of parenting styles” and people who had “clear takes on what it takes to raise kids” when choosing the show's cast. But no matter the parenting style, Wachter stresses that “they all adore their children — that was important across the board.”

What’s the point of The Parent Test?

Wachter says that the show isn’t necessarily introducing something revolutionary. Instead, he says, “we’re taking all the conversations that take place on the playground and having them with America.”

While a winner will be chosen at the end of the season, Wachter says the goal of the show is more about demonstrating that there are a lot of different parenting styles — and that some styles do better than others in certain situations. “If you watch the show with an open mind, you start to see different ways to navigate a situation that maybe you’ve been doing unconsciously,” he says. “There are tools and tricks and new ways to look at how you parent in certain situations.”

Wachter, who is a father to 13- and 16-year-old boys, says he learned a lot about parenting during filming. “I certainly went into this thinking I knew parenting and I learned an enormous amount,” he says. “[The show] is really designed to open up a conversation about parenting — not close it.”

So, is there actually a “right” way to parent?

The idea that there’s a right way to parent is “controversial,” Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. “If you surveyed 20 parents, you would likely get 20 different answers,” she says. “Parenting style is deeply personal. Parenting style may be shaped by culture, trauma, upbringing, temperament of both parents and child and knowledge.”

However, Ammon says, there is research that shows certain parenting strategies and qualities increase the odds of having children who are confident and relaxed. “Effective strategies and qualities may include setting boundaries, providing empathy, understanding and respect, and helping your children problem-solve and learn how to cope,” she says.

The show puts families through a parenting stress test to see how they navigate a challenge with their children. (Photo: ABC)
The show puts families through a parenting stress test to see how they navigate a challenge with their children. (Photo: ABC)

Effective parenting styles also depend on the children, Melissa Santos, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. “To say that there is a right way to parent would mean that every child is the same — feels the same, reacts the same, thinks the same — and that just isn’t true,” she says. “All parents want the same things for their children: for them to grow up healthy, for them to be successful in whatever they want to accomplish and that they reach their full potential. How we help a child get there is going to vary by the child and the family.”

Santos stresses that, for parents, “it’s important to be flexible and be able to pivot while staying committed to the goals you have for helping your child be the best version of themselves.”

But “parenting is not a contest,” John Mayer, clinical psychologist and author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “To present parenting as such is harmful,” he continues. “It increases the stress level of parents by the messaging that there is a better way for them to parent and they are failing at parenting because they don’t fit into these categories presented on this show.”

Still, experts say there is value in seeing other styles of parenting and keeping an open mind. “You aren’t given a ‘How to Parent’ book to help you through all of life’s ups and downs,” Santos says. “Raising a kid now is very different than how your parent may have raised you. Seeing how others handle situations, seeing tips or little tidbits you can take from others might give you more tools and tricks to try when you are trying to parent your child at times.”

Most people tend to stick with what they know when it comes to parenting styles, Ammon says, and they’re often shaped by the way they were raised. “It’s important to recognize that your parents’ parenting style was likely shaped by experience, culture and sometimes trauma,” she says. “I think that it can be helpful to reflect on your parents’ parenting style and ask, How did this style help me thrive?, What would I do differently? and Just because it worked for me, does that mean it works for my child? Sometimes exposure to other parenting styles may help you realize there are other strategies that you can use that may better help the needs of your child.”

Overall, Ammon says, this should be the takeaway: “It’s OK to be flexible and blend parenting styles if that’s what is best for your family and the development of your child.”

Wachter agrees. “Really, it’s a mix [of styles that are best],” he says. “Many parents would say, ‘I’m a mix of things.’ And, the truth is, we all are.”

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