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Supernanny changed parenting forever — but should we emulate her rigid methods, or seek connection over control?

Parenting is, let's face it, a tough gig. We want to do right by our kids and we want to stay sane and hopefully happy in the process, but none of us really know what we're doing. When we hit a roadblock — a situation or behavior we don't seem to be able to figure out what to do with — we may look to "experts" for help. 

Supernanny Jo Frost is one of those, and the parenting techniques she advocates are everywhere now, to the point that there's quite a few scientific papers about the sociological and even political impact of her show and the advice that came with it, papers that don't even touch the subject of whether her parenting advice is good or bad for families. 

As a show, Supernanny can be oddly entertaining. Non-parents get to see how much worse their lives could be if they did have kids, folks who are hoping to become parents vow that their progeny will never turn into "out-of-control little monsters" like those featured in the show, and fellow parents get to mentally kick others while they're down — "at least my family isn't as dysfunctional as theirs". Can you also, actually, learn something from Supernanny?

Are her formulaic, one-size-fits-all, parenting methods something we should seek to emulate? Or should we banish her naughty corners, reward charts, and rigid routines to their very own naughty step? 

What Supernanny does right

Writing about parenting is always tough. Over my own years as a parent, I've learned quite a bit — about what works in and for my family and what doesn't. I'm no expert, though, just a person being paid to write articles sitting behind my computer screen as my kids are watching YouTube. The idea of telling loving, healthy families how to rear their children makes me uncomfortable, and quite frankly, I don't like it when Supernanny does this either. 

We can, however, definitely learn from scientific studies — some of which confirm what is basically just common sense. Supernanny advocates some practices that have been shown to be beneficial:

  • "Naughty corners", or time-outs, certainly have their down sides, but one important thing Supernanny did was showing everyone who watched her show that it is indeed very possible to stop bad behavior in its tracks without resorting to spanking. Spanking has been shown to lead to brain changes and increase the risk of mental health issues later in life. What's more, it doesn't even have the desired effect — rather than making children want to work with their parents to behave in appropriate ways, it just makes them feel angry and powerless. 
  • As part of her love of fairly rigid routines, Jo Frost can often be seen instituting regular family meals during which everyone eats together. This practice has been shown to promote wellbeing in children, with those who regularly eat meals together with their family being less inclined to use alcohol and drugs, become depressed, or fail academically. This one is a win. 
  • Supernanny also encourages parents who are swamped with other daily responsibilities to make time to play with their children, something that promotes a strong and healthy relationship as well as physical and mental development in children. 
  • Jo Frost is nothing if not consistent! While this gets on my nerves at times, as different situations require different responses, children who know what they can reasonably expect from their parents in any given situation are certainly going to have an easier time than those whose parents will respond by yelling one day, and ignore a certain behavior the next.

Why Supernanny's parenting formulas won't be the answer to every question

As humans, we're all different — but we also have some key things in common. Our basic emotional needs are, for instance, quite similar. We thrive when we feel loved, safe, respected, and competent. We like to have some control over our lives, to be able to decide for ourselves rather than have others make all our decisions for us, and we like to be included in our social groups. 

Supernanny's parenting techniques seem to ignore the fact that children are people rather than Excel sheets who perform in certain ways upon the input of certain formulas, at times. Do her three basic ideas — offering praise for desired behavior, eliminating behavior we don't want to see by imposing temporary isolation and the withdrawal of attention, and putting rigid routines in place — foster connection and meet the emotional needs common to all of us, or do they just train children like circus ponies? 

I tried time-outs with my children when they were younger, and my now 12-year-old daughter shared that they made her angry rather than calming her down, that they made her say sorry to get out of the time-out rather than because she genuinely was sorry. They made her feel lonely rather than happy enough to naturally behave in ways that pleased all of us. I suspect reward charts, the removal of privileges, and things like avoiding eye contact and conversation as we try to get children to stay in their own beds, do much the same thing; condition children into behaving in certain ways because of externally imposed consequences, rather than because it's the right thing to do. 

When our children are struggling, which can be expressed through behaviors we don't enjoy, they sometimes need a hug. Sometimes, the situation requires harder work as we try to understand why they're feeling they way they do. Sometimes, it's us and not our children who need to modify our behaviors. Supernanny offers formulaic answers to questions that may, in fact, depend on deeper soul-searching to solve in some situations, while a simple "don't do that, that sucks" will suffice in others. 

In conclusion

You may enjoy watching Supernanny and may even find tips on her show that could be useful in your own life, especially because parenting isn't just about raising happy and healthy children, but also about meeting your own needs in the process. If your child's screaming or whining is driving you insane and you're about to burst, naughty corners and reward charts are certainly going to be better than whatever you may actually feel like doing, whether that's yelling, spanking, or just walking away. 

Jo Frost does appear to see only black and white where countless shades of grey are possible, her tips being nearly identical in episode after episode. If you don't parent like her, you're not a failure — children can and do thrive when raised with completely different child-rearing methods that seek connection over formulas, in the absence of time-outs, reward charts, and rigid routines

Parenting is can be a tough gig — as natural a part of life it is, it's also one of the most important things anyone can ever do. "Experts" may help you in your process, but many of the most important answers will, ultimately, lie in your own heart.

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