Entertainment TV Unstructured or unethical? Kids are the real losers of reality TV experiment Wife Swap Australia
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Unstructured or unethical? Kids are the real losers of reality TV experiment Wife Swap Australia

Wife Swap Australia pits the ultra-organised against the ultra-slack. Photo: Seven Network
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Whether you consider it to be a “social experiment” (as the marketing team have cleverly labelled it) or just regular trashy reality TV – Wife Swap Australia will have you arguing with your significant other during the commercial breaks.

The format has been tried and tested internationally for years: two extremist families voluntarily swap wives and force them to live by the other’s (often polarising) standards.

After three days, the wives take control and bring on their own rules.

It’s the kind of TV that makes you feel better about yourself, and makes you want to call your parents and thank them for not raising you on a bus.

But who are the hidden victims in a show that exposes young children to such extremes, and then broadcasts it nationally?

Psychologist and social commentator Lyn Bender said the premise of the show allows us to indulge in judging the parenting styles of others, but its often the children that lose out.

“They enter an environment and the kids are exposed to such an extreme separation of their lifestyle,” Ms Bender told The New Daily.

“It’s such a crude intervention … they tend to exploit the participant.”

Meet the families

The premiere of Wife Swap Australia introduces us to Tenille and Rip Duncan – your classic privileged, gym-obsessed family whose teeth are so blindingly white you can only look in short glimpses.

Their house is equally white, which is immediately suspicious for a family with six children (of which Tenille only birthed four, and apparently this is important because she has put it in her Instagram bio).

Tenille is swapping lives with Angeline Walker, who lives on a bus – not a caravan or RV, an actual bus – with her husband Bob and their eight children (unclear how many she birthed herself).

The point of contention between the families is that the Duncans are so disciplined and regimented that it would be believable if their toilet breaks were scheduled too.

The Walkers follow a philosophy of “unschooling” which, in their case, is code for ‘we can’t be bothered home-schooling’.

“It’s got connotations of, ‘Are you exposing ‘the poor’ as inferior, or to be gawked at’?” Ms Bender said.

And while we may be tempted to sit back and judge the equally oppressive lifestyles of each family, spare a thought for the kids at the centre of it.

Is unschooling unfair?

Unschooling requires the child to direct their own learning based on their interests, and aside from the obvious issues with that (the younger Walker children were unable to count to five), Ms Bender warns it could rob children of more than just an education.

“It’s setting them up to be very isolated, and not be connected to their peers,” she said.

“And whatever the family pattern is, they’re more stuck in it and they can’t see any other way to be.

“Education is improving all the time, and most teachers have a university qualification plus a teaching qualification. Unschooling is just anther way of taking away your children’s opportunities.”

Does the Walkers’ carefree lifestyle border on neglectful? Photo: Seven Network 

On the other hand, living in a military-style home where your every move is pre-planned by your white linen-wearing, “drill sergeant” father and germaphobe mother seems like an entirely different kind of hell.

By the end of the first episode, you’ll likely be left wondering whether child protective services should be called on at least one of the families, but that’s why we tune in.

Many of us secretly love judging other people’s families, homes and parenting styles, a phenomenon Ms Bender puts down to being protective of our own identities and experiences.

“We are defensive by our own parenting, if we are parents. If we aren’t parents, in theory, we can be the best parents in the world. 

“For a lot of people, it’s saying, ‘I am a product of this lifestyle, and look, I turned out OK’,” she said.

“Parenting is a very sensitive issue, you have a massive amount of power as a parent, but some might say you actually don’t have any power at all.”

Wife Swap Australia premieres 8.30pm, February 11 on Seven Network.

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