The Parent Test Stokes American Parenting’s Worst Impulses

The reality competition show reinforces an isolationist vision of family life that is fueled by fear.

Four couples and one single man sit on couches in an amphitheater.
James Clark / ABC

If you are an American parent, you are mired in contradiction wherever you look: Children are too coddled, a strident Facebook post might shout at you, right before you read an article about the dangers of letting kids go outside alone. It takes a village, you are told, but also, everyone hates it when you bring your toddler on a plane or into a restaurant. You read that modern American parenting is uniquely isolating and expensive, then watch in befuddlement while Congress lets the expanded child tax credit expire.

The Parent Test, a new reality-TV show on ABC, promises to throw confused parents a lifeline and identify “today’s most effective parenting style.” The show is hosted by Adolph Brown—a clinical psychologist, motivational speaker, and father of eight—and the actor Ali Wentworth, mother of two. It follows 12 families, each embodying a different style of parenting, and assesses each style for its likelihood of producing eventual adults who are “emotionally whole,” and able to have “healthy relationships” and “navigate today’s world.” Each family is filmed doing a series of parenting challenges, and the rest of the parents analyze the footage, voting one style out after every round. In the finale, the families choose one parenting style to rule them all. It’s American Gladiators gone domestic, set in a cozy amphitheater. But the battle metaphor ripples outward, painting a lonely picture of American parents fighting for their children’s success and safety in a dangerous world while everyone watches, judges, and weighs in.

The parenting styles are “Intensive,” “High-Achievement,” “Disciplined,” “Free-Range,” “Natural,” “Helicopter,” “Child-Led,” “Routine,” “Negotiation,” “Traditional,” “Strict,” and “New Age.” This taxonomy is fairly meaningless; some styles are about actions while others seem purely based on vibes. “Helicopter” has a more concrete meaning, in terms of daily parenting decisions, than does “Traditional,” and some of the parents struggle to define the parameters of their own practice. This show will not teach you what “Routine” or “Natural” means in the context of a 4-year-old melting down at Arby’s.

Apples-to-apples comparisons are impossible between these families, whose children range in number from one to six, and in age from toddlers to young adults on their way out of the nest. It’s unfair to measure, as the show does in one challenge, the performance of a group of preteens and teens asked to cook a meal on their own against that of a 6-year-old wielding a knife between his anxious mom and dad. And the children’s individual personalities are barely acknowledged; each child is treated by the show as a small, malleable lump of clay.

Moreover, the contestants live vastly different lives. This is The Parent Test’s main strength: the way it showcases the diversity of American families. The show features, among others, an interracial Mormon couple, a family of Iranian Jewish Americans, several Asian American families, a Black mom raising her deceased brother’s biological child, a gay Black single dad raising a son. Yet, paradoxically, the show’s diversity highlights the futility of its primary goal: trying to divine universal lessons by comparing the experiences of families in very different situations.

Many of these parents are clearly working against something—whether it’s their own painful upbringing or their panic over what their kids face in an unjust society. Dennis, the High-Achievement dad, who is Black and gay, and sometimes criticized by the other parents for pushing his son too hard, speaks with painful openness about his hope to raise “the personification of Black excellence.” This causes Hashim, the Helicopter dad, who is also Black, to weep as he describes what it’s like to watch a “superfit, superhuman Black man raising another Black man.” Hashim and his wife, Johnetta, imply at another point that their Helicopter philosophy is motivated by their need to protect their six Black children from a racist world. During a contentious conversation about spanking, Elisabeth, the mother of the Free-Range family, shares that she “grew up in an abusive home” and speaks with vulnerability about her conviction that hitting a child is wrong.

And yet, with all this explicit evidence that families bring tremendous specificity to their child-rearing, the show acts as though parenting occurs in a vacuum. Viewers don’t learn a lot about families’ communities or social networks—we don’t see the kids’ schools or much of their neighborhoods; we don’t see their child-care providers or extended family members. When people outside the family appear in footage, they are typically treated either as set dressing (other patrons at a restaurant, service workers helping facilitate a challenge) or, in a few stark instances, as a threat.

Several challenges stand apart from the others for their ethical dubiousness and sheer shock value. In the first, about “stranger danger,” the parents tell their kids they are leaving (or going upstairs, etc.) for a few moments. While they are gone, an actor in a utility-worker uniform rings the doorbell. If a child answers the door, the actor asks if parents are home and whether they can come in to check the gas. The kids who “fail” the challenge are those who credulously let the faux gas-utility employee inside, where, the implication is, they would assault and/or murder them if this were real.

It’s hard to express how much I hated this exercise. Wentworth defends it with a breathless evocation of her teenage girls and life in New York City, where she claims “crime is up” and you “can’t prepare them enough.” The main threats to kids are of a much different nature than a kidnapper pretending to be a utility employee, and most child abductions are by someone known to the child. But Brown insists: The nameless criminals out there pose “an urgent child-safety issue.” The parents of the kids who failed the challenge sob as they watch the footage. One parent, a father from the Routine family, refuses to let their segment be aired, and excoriates the show for its traumatic role-play of this nightmare scenario. The other parents tell him it’s necessary for the common good, and soon, he and his husband are voted out of the running.

The show acknowledges the statistical unlikelihood of stranger danger in a later segment that stokes a different fear—a challenge wherein a family friend comes and tries to pick up a child from an activity. Setting the stage, Brown explains that most abductions “are carried out by people known to the victim.” But this, too, may contain an elision: From 2006 to 2014, 43 percent of Amber Alert kidnappers were the child’s father, and nearly 25 percent were the mother. When several parents mildly point out that trust and community are important, the Strict mom says emphatically, “We are in a war,” arguing that parents must (we assume metaphorically) “arm” their children. One of the Routine dads pushes back, Strict mom doubles down, and war is left to stand, mostly untroubled, as the correct analogy for raising children. In a later episode, the show mashes the “Fear” button again with a dog-walking actor who tries to lure the children away from a playground to see some puppies; even when the kids don’t go, there are tears and dramatic shots of empty swings to hint at the consequence of parental failure to prepare.

The show justifies these exercises with an ironclad logic—you would do anything to prevent this; you would never forgive yourself if you didn’t—and I admit that the first segment got in my head, leading me to devise a mnemonic for my younger child (“Only Known Growns”). But this fetish for stranger danger (and close-family-friend danger) is perverse given all the more common dangers kids face that the show ignores entirely—such as traffic violence or opioids—or ones it mentions only in passing, such as gun violence, briefly invoked after a highly engineered challenge about bullying.

Amid these challenges, The Parent Test treats its contestants with gentleness that is perhaps unusual among reality shows; for one, the parents who are voted out get to stay on and discuss with the group for the rest of the episodes. But it’s ultimately mediated by the reality-show gaze, with all the flourishes of the medium: dramatic music and cuts, selective editing to emphasize the parents side-eyeing each other or furiously scribbling notes. The mild subversion of the show is that the parents end up being mostly kind to one another. I was moved by the way they located strengths in their peers’ styles, even when you could tell they found their approach to be batshit.

I rooted for all the parents, even the ones whose views are antithetical to mine, because parenting is hard, and our society loves to judge parents while withholding material support. The show itself is part of that tradition, disguising voyeuristic competition as a vehicle for empathy and reinforcing an isolationist philosophy of family life. You and your kids are all alone in a hard world, it seems to tell the contestants, and some of you are honestly kind of weird.

People can become better parents in all kinds of ways. I’ve taken parenting classes; I go to therapy; I click on Dr. Becky videos. As I watched the show, I listened to Brown’s advice and took notes from some of the parents. But I’m suspicious of the idea that every child is just a few “style” tweaks away from a wonderful life. I reject the implication that if some awful tragedy befalls a family, it’s because they missed a parenting step along the way, especially in a society that the show tacitly admits is unfair. I believe that a view of the family as an optimizable unit that must individually perfect itself runs counter to the collective enterprise that is human life.

One night, after I watched four episodes of The Parent Test in a row, I went out with two of my mom friends from the block. Among us we have five kids, and come from different backgrounds. All of our kids have rummaged through the fridges of one another’s houses. I’ve picked these kids up from school; their parents are my emergency contacts. This network we have formed is born of luck, pandemic desperation, and cultivated effort. As we drank beer, shared fries, and exchanged exasperating stories of our beloved babies, I realized how anxious it had made me to watch the show’s parents squirm alone under the camera’s eye. How for all its talk of optimizing, the show ignores one of the main things that has helped me be a better parent: a little help from my friends.