After hearing about an episode of this show called “Wife Swap” from several people I did the unimaginable and actually went to ABC website, found the episode online and watched it. In this episode, Dayna Martin from Madison, New Hampshire, trades places with Cindy Avery-Lamb from San Diego, California. Each woman will live with the other woman’s family for a week. In the beginning, they go along with the ways of the hosting family, and later the visiting woman will get to call the shots.
How anyone thought of such a concept for a show and why anyone would participate – let’s not try to fathom right now. The television producers know how to entertain and never once bring up the subject of race. How ungraceful would that be? I laughed along and cheered for Dayna who was so obviously cooler than Cindy.
You know, it’s so annoying when there’s a TV show or an advertisement designed to make us feel good and someone comes along and ruins the celebration. Like that Dove ad telling us – meaning women – to recognize our beauty. And then along comes some upstart named Jazz (really?) who says the ad makes her uncomfortable and angry. Why? Or take a show like this that celebrates us – us meaning people with alternative lifestyles generally regarded as weird.
I believe the exchange was to last longer but gets cut short because Cindy is appalled by Dayna’s family. The feeling seems to be mutual. Dayna on the other hand seems to have had a rather pleasant time with Cindy’s family and hugs the kids goodbye.
This was not merely a contest of “strict disciplinarian vs mom with no rules” as it was advertised. There was also a bit of country mouse and city mouse – that we see as each woman makes a mildly disparaging remark about the others’ house (really? even before walking in?). And most of all but least remarked and most happily overlooked, a contrast between white privilege and minority striving.
We’ve all heard about how immigrants navigate American society by expecting their children to work twice as hard, take responsibility and make no excuses for anything less than outstanding accomplishment. Bashing the Tiger Mother became a popular sport a couple of years ago. No one could win, of course. You can only go so far finding fault with a family for being too achieving.
Now welcome our next target, an African American family, Cindy and Andrade, raising their son and daughter with strict discipline. ABC couldn’t have picked a more contrasting family, though almost any mainstream mother would sharply contrast with Dayna Martin, who takes “extreme” as a compliment. Let me be honest here and say that I don’t think she makes a particularly good advocate for unschooling, much less for radical unschooling – this has nothing to do with what her kids have or haven’t learned but entirely with her presentation of the philosophy. Still, I admired the way she suggested small things that they could do that would make the family she was visiting happy.
Cindy Avery-Lamb did not suggest small things. Huge things stared her in the face, such as 11 year old girl’s inability to read, and dog hair everywhere including the fridge.
While Cindy’s husband Andrade was willing to take a leaf from Dayna’s book, Dayna’s husband Joe appeared to be going along (to the extent that they did go along) for the sake of the show. Finally it was Joe who loudly ordered Cindy to leave his house.
Each mother is critical of the other. Dayna calls it cruel for Cindy to wake her children up with an alarm, disrespectful to hold them to high standards of cleanliness, and calls her strict routine with limited free time a “tight leash.” She does so in a sweet voice and is heard with a quiet smile. When Cindy questions whether Dayna’s parenting, Dayna’s son Devin leaps to her defense, “How dare you?”
Neither woman is impressed with the other family, and says so clearly to the father in the home she is visiting. Though one woman is sitting on the floor of the girl’s room admiring her artwork, and the other is standing at the kitchen table screaming and cursing, the message is the same – you have not fulfilled your role as a dad and as a man. In fact, Dayna says as much, “I think your wife is emasculating you.” In other words, you (black man) should not listen to her (black woman); you should listen to me (white woman) and do the following:
- frame the kids’ art
- give daily hugs
- improve communication
- invite their friends over for a party
Such fun suggestions! Contrast Cindy’s recommendations, far less gently delivered – clean the house, unplug the electronics, and go to school. These are things taken for granted in her home, just as hugs, expression and free time anytime are taken for granted in Dayna’s home. While Cindy’s family is able to try Dayna’s ideas, at least while she is there, Dayna’s family cannot follow Cindy’s rules even for one day. The reason we are given is that her rules are extreme, especially in contrast to the no-rule motto they have grown up with. True. Could the rejection of rules be a presumption of superiority that lies deeper than simply believing that “the rules don’t apply to us.” While they think their rejection of rules stems from their own personal choice to embrace freedom and what they call “radical unschooling,” they don’t tell us why they think othes aren’t as free as they are.
Not only is the Martin family white, but they live in a county where there are only 50 people / square mile, and 98% of those people are white. Their state, New Hampshire, is 95% white with only 1% black population. Most of the 5% nonwhite population would be in Manchester, far from rural Madison where the Martin children freely go out at all hours, as they proudly state. Try doing that while black.
If we are looking at learning, I have to say the Avery-Lamb family demonstrated greater ability and willingness to learn. Each member tries out something they have picked up from the Martin family. Cindy even tells Joe, “I am learning something new, I like this.”
What did Dayna’s family learn from Cindy’s? Only that they woudn’t change a thing?