(The Root) — Reality television has been taken to task for being a wasteland of contrived situations, abhorrent behavior and the exploitation of women, children and poor people. Finally, a television network has managed to pull together a reality show that focuses on women and children without being exploitative in nature; instead, TV One's Save My Son, hosted by educator Dr. Steve Perry, attempts to intervene in the lives of boys who are at risk of becoming statistics — either serving time in prison or lying six feet underground because of criminal behavior.
At the heart of this show are Dr. Perry's efforts to tackle this subject by including the family, most of whom appear to be single women trying to raise young men without the presence of a father in the home.
Dr. Perry introduces viewers to the child and the child's family dynamics, carefully laying out the problems he is facing. Perry includes celebrity mentors such as Steve Harvey, Jalen Rose, Derek Anderson, Ruben Studdard, actor Pooch Hall and self-help guru Iyanla Vanzant. The host has candid conversations with parents who may be doing more harm than good because of an unwillingness to see what's going on in the lives of their children or their role in perpetuating dysfunctional behavior.
Save My Son is a powerful show because it truly demonstrates all of the factors that come into play when children go wrong. Each story starts out the same — essentially a great, outgoing, loyal and loving kid who slowly becomes someone else during his tween years. While many of the mothers feign ignorance about the chain of events, Dr. Perry walks them down the path of how this happened and what needs to change so that the child's life can be saved.
The show does an excellent job of showing the gifts these children possess. One episode features Justin, suspended from school multiple times. He has anger-management issues and has been disrespectful toward his mother. During an intervention, Justin begins to play classical piano effortlessly, having said that he wants to be a music producer. Without the proper guidance, preparation, boundaries and mentorship, Justin is headed for a life of crime or imprisonment instead of the world's stage, where he could easily land.
We learn that Justin is devastated by his father abandoning him, and his mother is hesitant to impose restrictions because she is afraid of him and doesn't want to lose Justin's love.
Another boy, 14-year-old Malik, is seriously in trouble; he's missed 50-plus days of school, joined a gang, bought and used drugs and disappeared for days at a time. Malik is completely disconnected from his effect on his family. His mother and grandmother are in denial about the crisis he is in; his grandmother literally runs out of his intervention because she cannot or will not believe he has bought drugs with money she has given him, even though Malik tells her multiple times he bought drugs with the money.
This episode and others highlight the role parents and the extended family play in the undoing of children. Many of the boys are suffering from abandonment issues with absentee fathers, some of whom have served jail time and battled addictions of their own. In one episode, Dr. Perry tells a father he needs to "Man up!" after the father laments he doesn't know what to do to help his son.
The show also highlights the fact that black women are not superwomen and don't always know what to do or how to raise children. Furthermore, black women are tired from being sole providers in many cases and need help raising children. In watching Save My Son, it becomes clear that parenting classes should be mandatory for all parents, because many don't have the skill set or role models needed to raise successful, well-adjusted children.
Save My Son does a good job of showing the complexities of raising male children without demonizing black women. The show highlights the fact that all children need positive role models — boys and girls — because when they don't have them, not only are they personally at risk, their entire families are also at risk. This is a show that asks hard questions and deals with difficult answers, taking to task everyone involved in the downfall of the children. Fathers need to be present and accountable in the lives of their children. Mothers need to impose boundaries and follow through with consequences for bad behavior, no matter the cost.
Missing from the show is the presence of counselors or psychologists, who are needed; some of these kids, like Malik, are clearly in crisis. These children's needs are also emotional and psychological and warrant the support of a mental-health professional. If a child is engaging in self-mutilation and saying he doesn't care whether he lives or dies, then he is clearly in need of mental-health services. Perhaps such support is happening behind the scenes but not being included in the show.
Save My Son is a reality show that faces reality head-on. What are the real consequences of having 70 percent of black children raised in households without fathers? What does it do to the self-esteem of a young person abandoned by a parent? Why are black mothers afraid of "losing" their sons but unwilling or unable to do what is necessary to save them? Why are gifted and talented young black boys willing to throw their lives away so easily?
Save My Son is a reality show worth watching because it challenges our reality in an effort to improve the lives of those on the show and those who are watching. Save room on the DVR for Save My Son.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.