When I saw a Facebook post about a new Bravo show called Extreme Guide to Parenting, I felt compelled to find out more. While Bravo is widely known as "the Housewives network," with James Lipton (of Inside the Actor's Studio) offering a dose of intellectually-artsy-seriousness to the eclectic Bravo family (AKA "Bravolebrities"), parenting has never been a series' focal point. It has been touched upon, murmured and gossiped about, as well as included in the drama that mesmerizes a Housewives' fan. Nevertheless, it seems that it is mostly the moms -- as Jersey housewife Melissa Gorga sings -- who are "on display." During a sensationalist summer that features Teresa Guidice coping with legal woes and realizing family drama is as yesterday as a signature Louis Vuitton tote, Bravo will portray parenting styles to the hilt in this new documentary series (premiering August 7, 9:30 EST).
Those featured on Extreme Guide to Parenting aren't your average Park Slope yuppies struggling with the Ferber method. Produced by Punched in the Head Productions, founded by Amelia and Craig D'Entrone, Brooklyn-based spouses who have their own little tykes at home, the series showcases methodologies that make for great parenting debates... and for sly comments from those who should generally mind their own business.
You might think that aromatherapy is no substitute for Ritalin, or that there is no way a teeny-tiny infant can communicate her need to go potty, but these parents have their own creeds. I fought back the urge to have my dad, a pediatrician, watch a sneak peek with me so he could weigh in as an expert. There are no experts featured on the show -- on purpose. The silent mantra behind Extreme Guide to Parenting, according to the D'Entrones, is "no judgment." The production team definitely saw some unconventional methods of parenting ('WHO would NOT want sweet Nana taking toddler off their hands for a date night?' I asked myself this of the "24-7 Baby" approach adopted by the Masterson-Horns). However, as parents themselves, Amelia and Craig say that they learned something for their own parental benefit from each family involved.
"If you saw our own household, with our two and a half year old and a six year old, you might judge because we do things differently," says Amelia, "What was really interesting about this project was seeing the conviction of these parents and how they go 'all-in' with their styles. Each family was wholly committed to the fact that this is the way to go. As producers, we didn't view anything as good or bad, just fascinating. With all the families, we thought that there was something to their style that was working, something that we might not take to the extreme, but that we could adapt to our own lifestyle in a positive way. We're curious to see how viewers will react and what they might do."
I personally wondered why Bravo wanted to take on Extreme Parenting, which conjured up an image of ABC's Wife Swap for me, and seemed an unlikely choice for the network.
Shari Levine, Senior Vice President of Current Production/Original Programming at Bravo explains:
"After TIME Magazine's 'Are You Mom Enough?' cover feature went viral, we decided to create a show based on extreme and unusual parenting styles in order to more deeply explore the conversation about parenting and values. The series examines unconventional approaches to raising children. Each family ultimately is faced with a moment that causes them to seriously evaluate their decisions and choices. The results are surprising and revealing...There's nothing quite like this on TV today!"
Shira Adler is one of those parents featured who is extremely confident in her unconventional -- "eco kosher shamanistic, organic, natural and for highest and best good" -- method. We see her struggling with her overactive son Yonah, an "indigo child" and free spirit as Shira describes him. She is seen trying to get him to settle down with homework and listen to rules at home.
"I am coming at parenting with a mind-body-spirit perspective," she explains in a phone interview, " I'm more esoteric than the average mom."
Of any parents I've come across (whether on TV or in day to day life), she sports the fanciest toolkit. Besides a host of aromatherapy sprays, she uses crystal singing bowls (you'll just have to tune in). She also believes in "past life regression" which she practices with her two children and describes herself as a spiritual soccer mom whose own conventional, rule-focused father was everything that she is not.
"Parenting is hard enough," she says, "and I love what this show is about. I think that even if we don't all agree, we don't have to judge. Parents should set their DVRs for a little escapism, but take notes! You can learn from the joyful chaos."
As "out there" as Shira might seem to those viewing, she has created a balanced blended family with her kids and those of Andy, her boyfriend of five years (who appears more keen to try conventional approaches). In fact, she tells me that Andy's ex-wife makes the blends for her aromatherapy line.
"She's even more granola crunchy than I am," Shira laughs. "It's really a lovely family. It takes work, but we all work together."
The D'Entrones, who have also produced award-winning episodes of True Life for MTV, felt that each family was extremely brave for coming forward and giving viewers a window into their worlds. "They all felt very strongly that they had something worth saying that we could learn from," explains Amelia.
Although I never had my own kids run naked at 16 months hopeful for "elimination communication" (as viewers will see with the Axness family), or hired a nanny when I plan to stay put (the Masterson-Horns), I think that something can be said for each style that strikes us as different or odd. The common thread across the series seems to be that fierce protective instinct over our children, to aid their development in the best way we, as individual families, know how. Each of the parents seemed intent on giving their children the best, whatever the best might be. As for how, we can all agree to disagree or for now, simply watch.