By now, most parents have heard of Supernanny, the reality-TV show in which a British nanny teaches naughty children (and their often clueless parents) how to behave. Jo Frost, a nanny with 15 years' experience, has become a celebrity. Her book, Supernanny: How to Get the Best From Your Children, spent 17 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list last year. And her show -- in which Frost spends two weeks with a family, observing parents and coaching them on how to raise their kids -- now airs in 47 countries. But Frost, 35, has her share of critics, who complain that Supernanny exploits children, offers simplistic advice, and makes American families look more dysfunctional than they are. Why does Frost think her show has become so popular -- and controversial? What exactly is her method for disciplining children, and does she truly believe it's possible for parents to transform their families in two weeks, as the TV show suggests? In a recent interview, Frost answered those questions for Child.
Q. You've visited both British and American families. What do you see as the biggest challenges for American parents?
A: American parents are dealing with the same problems as British parents: how to find enough time to be with their children, establish a sleeping routine for their kids, get them to eat properly, and make sure that both spouses are on the same page in terms of the rules they expect their kids to follow.
There are many reasons for these problems. Some come to parenting with emotional baggage from their own childhood. Also, many parents don't have extended family nearby to help and give advice, so they're not feeling confident about the childrearing decisions they're making. They're also trying to cram too much into their lives. Many need to rethink their priorities as parents to have the kind of family life they want. But what's encouraging is that after just a couple of days, I see people completely turn around their situation. The parents recognize that something is not quite right, but some aren't aware of what the issues are until I go into their home and observe their family. Other parents know what their problems are, but they don't have the tools to deal with them effectively.
I've just left a woman whose kids weren't going to bed; there was no routine in her house. This lady just smiled because she said if she didn't, she'd cry. But she persevered with the techniques I suggested. Her patience, consistency, strength, and love turned the situation around. It was very inspiring to me.
We just did an update show, and every family I visited had evolved and made progress. With enough dedication and commitment, parents watching the show could make these improvements on their own.
Q: It seems that so many kids are rude to their parents or whine constantly. Why, and what can parents do about it?
A: Parents need to have self-respect! Their kids say, "I wanna drink," and the parents run off to get the children a drink. You wouldn't expect an adult to talk to you in that manner; you shouldn't allow your child to, either. You must teach your child what's acceptable. First, you have to set a good example. If you never say "sorry" or "please," then don't expect your children to say those words. You have to teach your child and set an example for how you want him to behave. Communication -- between parents and between parents and children -- is also very important. I've seen parents who shout at each other and at their kids, then wonder why their kids are doing the same. You need to really communicate -- speak eye to eye, listen, and allow the other person to express his thoughts. When your child whines, don't give in, or you'll be teaching him that the behavior will get a result. Instead, say, "What you're doing is called whining. If you would like a drink, please talk to me properly. Say, 'Mommy, please may I have a drink?'" Repetition is key; you have to reinforce good manners all the time.
Q: Another recurring problem on the show is mealtime. Why are so many kids fussy eaters?
A: Dinnertime is often chaotic. I know parents who are in such a hurry that they only give their kids 10 minutes to eat. Don't rush a child! Let her sit down, eat, and digest her meal. Sometimes picky children have picky parents who don't let their kids explore and taste different foods from an early age. Also, children go through spells when they have a small appetite or when they want to eat the same thing over and over. Parents should offer the rejected food another time; eventually the children will broaden their tastes.
Sometimes food is symbolic of a lack of control parents have in many areas; the child is controlling everything else in the house and wants to be able to control mealtime too. There was one little boy in London I visited who wouldn't sit at the table; he'd get up whenever he felt like it. It turned out that he also had his parents sitting with their winter coats on, with no heat or lights on, because he didn't want the heat or lights on in the house. The parents let him decide everything, including dinnertime. Parents need to assess where the problem comes from, then change the dynamic.
Q: You also say that parents need to set the house rules together. Can you explain?
A: It's very important that parents are on the same page. That means you and your partner need to discuss what's acceptable behavior. What do we expect from our children? What are we prepared to be more relaxed about? Sometimes parents have very different ideas, and they never realize that until they have a child. But if you don't present a united front, children learn to play one parent against the other and it becomes impossible to enforce any rules.
Everyone in the family needs to know when discipline is warranted. In my experience, consistency and follow-through are key. I see many parents who use empty threats, so the child learns there won't be consequences, and the bad behavior continues.
Q: Some parenting experts say that you rely too much on the "naughty chair" and that this method can hurt a child's self-esteem. What's your response?
A: Everybody is entitled to an opinion. But if a child is spitting or hitting, for instance, I believe you've got to back up the lesson with discipline. It's a place of reflection, where a child can recognize what he's done wrong and get ready to apologize. Sending a child to the naughty spot shows her she's crossed a line, but I think it also keeps parents from losing their cool. The naughty chair enables the parent to walk away and remain calm, while his child takes time to reflect. I think a child as young as 2 1/2 is old enough to be given a time-out, after one warning, but the parents also need to understand her stage of development. For example, a 2 1/2-year-old is curious, so she might want to bury her treasure in the mud, then she'll bring mud into the house. Mom has to learn that her child isn't purposely getting mud in the house. I've gone to homes where the parents send a boy to a naughty chair simply because he's making a lot of noise! Children will make noise when they're having fun.
By the way, I also strongly believe in lots of praise. It's all very well to discipline kids, but you must give them an incentive to do what you want. Praise and rewards also build self-esteem and confidence. A little girl says, "Mommy, look at my picture." Mom should praise her but make the praise descriptive and specific. Instead of saying "Good job," say, "I love the colors that you used!"
Q: Some say your show invades kids' privacy and they aren't old enough to give their consent. What do you think?
A: My priorities are these families. There would be no way I would do this program if I thought it was going to be harmful to children or the family. We always have a psychologist on hand to meet with the families before and after to make sure they understand what's going to happen. I also work alongside a production company that is very sensitive. And the crew takes directions from me on when to move in with their cameras and when to back off.
The reason I'm doing this show is to use television in an effective, positive way so that parents understand they can improve their family life. Parents need to take responsibility, figure out what needs to change, and do what's necessary. There are families that are doing very well, but there are families out there that are struggling. For those at their wits' end, there is this program to help. I hope that people will watch and think to themselves, "Well, if that family can make those changes, so can I."
Pamela Kruger is a Child contributing editor. Her book, A Love Like No Other: Stories From Adoptive Parents, was published in November.
Copyright © 2006. Reprinted with permission from the March 2006 issue of Child magazine.