Correspondent Natalie Morales ended up in tears when she put herself and her 8-year-old son through the same parenting test that "Dateline NBC" is subjecting others to for a series that starts Sunday.
Using hidden cameras and actors, the network set up scenarios to see if kids really follow their parents' instructions to avoid strangers, don't get into a car with a drunk driver or don't cheat.
The results will probably depress you.
Time and again, children gave their names and addresses to a "stranger" who had taken their picture and talked about putting them on TV. Promised free ice cream, they climbed into a van driven by an actor who could easily close the door on them and speed away. Parents watched it all on monitors nearby.
"I would have lost my money if I put a bet on it," one cringing parent said after watching a youngster climb into a car with an actor pretending to be drunk behind the wheel.
For four consecutive Sunday nights, "Dateline NBC" will show the scenarios, which also test whether kids would cheat or discriminate if given the opportunity. NBC hopes parents and children watch the programs together and discuss them, said Liz Cole, executive producer of "Dateline."
Four mothers who work at "Dateline" came up with the idea, an outgrowth of a show on bullying that aired last year. Not "news" in the strict sense, these types of shows tend to do well for newsmagazines: ABC's "What Would You Do" series on "Primetime," which sets up various social experiments, is particularly popular among younger viewers, which news shows have trouble reaching.
"It's reality TV at its best," Morales said, "because these are truly teachable moments."
During the special on driving, several teenagers swear to their parents that they never text or talk on their cellphones when behind the wheel. Their cars were equipped with cameras for a few months, and even though they knew they were being watched, most youngsters exhibited the behavior they said they would never do.
The teens were also set up with actors who pretended to be drunk or high on drugs. Despite the doubt on many faces, most let the actor grab the keys and get behind the wheel. It's the power of peer pressure; too many youngsters go along with the crowd unless someone is strong enough to take a stand. In the "Dateline" episode, a girl whose uncle was killed in a drunk driving accident was the strong one.
Parents need to be persistent and specific with their instructions, the "Dateline" experts said, and be mindful of their own behavior. If you don't want your children to text and drive, don't do it yourself.
"We've all had that moment when kids are throwing back what you should or shouldn't do to your face," Morales said.
Aside from not getting into vans or giving out personal information to strangers, one tip "Dateline" offers regarding strangers is for children to stand up and look straight into the person's eyes. Confidence could scare away someone looking to prey on a vulnerable person.
Watching their children via the hidden cameras is frequently nerve-racking and emotional. "Dateline" dials up the drama, with Morales saying it "could be their worst parenting nightmare or their proudest moment."
She doesn't shy away from the experience herself, setting up her son Josh in the experiment with the actor driving the ice cream truck. "It's hard for me to watch," she said, before the tears flowed.
Did she cry because her son had learned his lessons well or forgot them?
That's a "Dateline NBC" mystery to be revealed Sunday.