Publicists for the Discovery Life Channel's new show World's Worst Mom should send a thank you note to the Maryland authorities investigating the parents who allowed their school-aged children to walk home alone from a nearby park — because that case brought the theme of the show and its star into sharp focus.
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are facing an investigation for neglect after allowing their children, ages 6 and 10, to walk home by themselves for about a mile. Someone called the police when they saw the kids and officers met them at the house and called child services to investigate.
Lenore Skenazy, the titular "worst mom" and host of the new reality show, was all over cable news channels this past weekend to comment on the debate of what's too little — or too much — childhood independence.
The reality show, which aims to help helicopter parents relax, debuts Thursday. Skenazy, a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, famously earned the title "World's Worst Mom" in 2008 after she let her then-9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone, and then wrote about it in her newspaper column.
The outrage it spawned opened her eyes to the growing paranoia that is modern parenting. Kids who get no sleepovers, no waiting at the bus stop, no riding a bike to school and no walking anywhere alone because kids can't be out of your sight for one second.
"I feel like that's a standard that is impossible, pessimistic and crippling," Skenazy said.
In the show, obsessive parents are subjected to an intervention by Skenazy, who whisks the kids off to do something crazy, like ride a bike or operate a lemonade stand with no adult around. The parents watch on video.
Some of the parents she helps include a mom who lets her son use his skateboard — but only on the grass. Another sometimes still spoon-feeds her son. He's 10. Or the mom who makes her kid come to the women's restroom with her. He's 13. age
While these examples may be extreme, the show then takes the kids to do things some might consider controversial, like the 10-year-old who is shown by Skenazy how to take a city bus by himself, and does it.
"Just a generation ago these weren't considered extraordinary achievements," Skenazy said in a phone interview from her home in Queens, "to wait 10 minutes after the coach is gone or to be left off at the bus stop to walk home after school."
In 12 of the 13 cases on the show, Skenazy said, the parents did a complete turnaround when they saw the joy and pride in the kids.
"Time and again when the parents saw their kids come home they snapped out of it," Skenazy said. "The terrified parents shake and cry and one of them kicked me. But when the kids come home flushed and happy and they say, 'Mom! I learned how to ride a bike!' Before you know it the parents start bragging, 'My son can ride a bike.' "
Skenazy compared her interventions to the kind of therapy where people are slowly exposed to their worst fear "and then the fear disappears because reality has taken its place."
Meanwhile, the Meitiv family's difficulties have sparked some intense digital debates. Within hours of the Meitivs' case going public, another Maryland parent, Russell Max Simon, who has never met the Meitivs, said he decided "enough was enough" and started the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids, giving a nod to Skenazy.
"We are more scared of another person calling the police on us than we are that anything bad will happen" to the children, Simon told the Washington Post.
Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.