Jo Frost, the London Supernanny who introduced her naughty zones into the sitting rooms of families on both sides of the Atlantic, has kicked the issues of parenting onto an international agenda. Supernanny reminds us of how inadequate we are with our children, how we have forgotten how to play, and how much we love a British woman telling us what to do.
With superstar Jo Frost wagging her finger and frowning from beneath her teacher’s specs on billboards across America, and Australian parents joining those across the UK and the US as they channel hop between Supernanny, Little Angels, Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, Brat Camp and The House of Tiny Tearaways, have we have lost our parenting instincts, or has Supernanny tapped into our very real need of being told what to do? Have the broadcasting gurus found our Achilles heel, or is it time for parents to simply grow up?
Two years ago Jo Frost was just another hopeful in the round of auditions for the ground breaking childcare series, a young nanny who had worked with children for fifteen years before she was catapulted to stardom in the UK in 2004 and then to universal acclaim on network television Stateside. With everyone from Oprah to the House of Commons acknowledging her success, and Supernanny becoming a by-word for authority in the family home, her childcare manual went straight to number one in the New York Times bestseller lists.
Penelope Leach, author of Your Baby and Child, has sold over three million copies in twenty-nine languages since it was first published in 1977, and was the inspiration for an award-winning cable TV series shown all over the world. She is not surprised at the success of Supernanny. “I think that parenting is only one subject covered in this enormously successful phenomenon of reality TV. We’ve had gardening, house work, and endless stuff about slimming. I don’t see this as a particular phenomenon in the child rearing debate. If you really need someone to tell you what to do about how you look – with or without your clothes, why not make the best of your children or your cooking?”
In fact Leach herself was approached by Ricochet Television to host the series, something she says as research psychologist, she could not even entertain. “I rely on confidentiality for my research, and blasting out your opinions on parenting behaviours would mark the end of your role as any kind of researcher. This is not a criticism of her (Frost) but I wouldn’t see it as ethical in terms of my profession”.
The rise in interest in child care issues can only be a good thing, but while Leach agrees, she is worried about the focus. “The good thing is that children are much more to the forefront now, but what is negative to me is that children are being perceived, produced and shown as disciplinary problems. That plays into the hands of the parents or ex parents who only notice children when they’re making too much noise on the bus or spoiling their nice peaceful dinner. This idea of children as disturbers is, I think, becoming more and more prevalent.”
She describes Supernanny as “crassly superficial repetitive stuff”, although its symbolic centre-piece, the ‘naughty step’, is something she says that she can claim some responsibility for. “The idea of time out began to come to the forefront when we were fighting the physical punishment battle, and it was the then more acceptable alternative to the people who would say ‘well what am I to do’ when faced with completely unacceptable defiance. The trouble with time out has always been that the concept of taking a break from one another in order to get rid of backing people into corners and facing each other down and preserving everybody’s dignity, is a good one”.
She prefers the idea of time in; “You’re not really saying to the child “go away and think about what you’ve done wrong and come back when you feel better”, and if you are, why shouldn’t the child go and run around the lawn or dance to some music? Furthermore, very young children don’t have the verbal understanding to get to grips with being on the naughty step for a minute for every year of their life. They don’t want to be separated from you; they want to be taken in by you. They need your control because they have temporarily lost their own.”
While Leach is adamant that psychologists in whichever field should not be handing out what she calls “quickie media stuff”, she congratulates clinical psychologist and presenter of TV’s The House of Tiny Tearaways, Dr Tanya Byron for her “clever” handling of some of the most important changes on TV’s parenting agenda. “The programme is becoming formulaic now but certainly earlier on, Tanya Byron seemed to be doing what is legitimate, which is making people think” says Leach. “She was taking people who were saying, ‘listen, I don’t know how to cope with this’, and helping them think through to their own solution. She has actually very cleverly campaigned against smacking without actually saying that it’s wrong. She manages to make it clear that it’s not a good way to go without saying so, which is partly why I’ve got a lot more time for her.”
But it’s not the clinical psychology of The House of Tiny Tearaways which has created an industry to deal with the demand for modern day child care advice. It is the Supernanny phenomenon which has produced a book, a website with online café, an international audience and very shortly, a glossy monthly magazine. “’Supernanny’ with Jo Frost, is to be turned into a fantastic, glossy monthly magazine” trumpets the ad on Supernanny.net, “and we want you to be involved!
Do you have…
· Pictures of your child on the naughty step (nothing serious… this is just for fun!)
· Stories or pictures of all the cute things your child does and says (to make us go Ahhh!”)
· Top tips that could help other mums”
Parading pictures of our children on our own naughty steps? Using children’s off moments to create entertaining viewing? Is this an example of pure exploitation of our kids to make ourselves feel better while we trip along the path of parenting? “I think children are always irresistible viewing” says Leach. “They always have bee