Are you the battle-weary parent of a terrible tyke who curses, kicks, and bites you? Do you respond by yelling at, spanking, threatening, insulting, bribing or ignoring the little troublemaker? If so, then you may want to join the thousands of parents who have auditioned for ABC’s Supernanny, a reality show that features British nanny Jo Frost as she descends on dysfunctional families for a week-long visit. But be forewarned: Supernanny may succeed in getting your kids to eat their vegetables and clean up their rooms without any bloodshed, but her manipulative approach to child-rearing is a recipe for a lifetime of emotional repression, insecurity and low self-worth. Her techniques for inducing short-term compliance with top-down fiats may be fine for training pets but, when it comes to human beings, her approach is dangerously oversimplified.
If you’d prefer access to a team of nannies headed up by a former nanny for the English crown, dial up Fox’s Nanny911 instead. (Note: Non-white, low-income and (dare I say it?) gay parents, need not apply).
The nanny shows, both of which are wrapping up their third seasons, have identical formats, beginning with footage of the foibles of parents squabbling with their aggressive, manipulative young children. There is stay-at-home Denver mom Colleen, who promises candy to three-year old Chase if he is a “good boy,” which would first entail unlocking the front door so as to allow Colleen back into the house. Then there is three-year old Jack whose mouth is permanently plugged with a pacifier. Jack is so scared of the toilet that he insists on peeing outdoors. His six-year old brother William has taken on the role of disciplinarian, spanking Jack when he is naughty while their mother stands by and watches.
The 911-nannies gasp and cluck their shocked disapproval; then, the appointed nanny dons a heavy burgundy cloak and rushes to the family’s home. Supernanny Frost simply snaps shut her laptop and speeds off in her Mini. The nanny spends the first day observing the family dynamic and, that night, informs the parents that their kids, while adorable, are well on their way to hell in a hand basket unless the parents do everything the nanny says beginning the next morning. At this point, the mom usually sheds a few tears or smiles with grim determination while the dad shifts uncomfortably in his seat as the prospect of playing an actual role in raising his children begins to dawn on him.
Though the entertainment value of outrageously rebellious children is high enough to attract eight to ten million viewers, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to see that most of the children (and a fair number of the parents) seem profoundly sad, enraged or anxious. But with only one week to cure the ailing family, the nanny does not waste time delving into the root causes of the child’s maladaptive behavior. Rather, she proffers a one-size-fits-all parenting prescription, the purpose of which is to train the child to behave in ways that please the parents (and the nanny).
So how do the prime time nannies deliver on their promise to magically tame “savage six-year-olds” and transform the home “from living hell to family bliss in one week”?· Through hands-on coaching of parents to manipulate their children with rewards and punishments, a time-worn approach that seeks to condition children to develop personality traits and behaviors that are convenient for parents and other authority figures—teachers, corporate managers, cops, military officers and corrupt politicians more than happy to govern an acquiescent, undiscerning electorate.
This kind of behavioral conditioning has for decades been the mainstay of American-style parenting; it lures parents along a shortcut to family harmony fraught with danger. The shortcut may lead the family closer to the illusion of the happy haven, but if the goals are genuine intimacy, love and acceptance of one another for who they are, not what they do, the shortcut turns out to be a detour. Manipulating a child out of unwanted behavior has short-term benefits for parents but inhibits the child’s ability to think critically, have compassion for himself and others and engage in moral deliberations more complex than, “What’s in it for me?”
The nannies reward “good” behavior with hollow praise, stickers and spare change. But their real expertise is in the meting out of supposedly benign punishments. “Time-outs” are the nannies’ disciplinary staple. Frost coaches the parent to threaten the child with a time-out and then enforce it by requiring him to remain in the “naughty room” for a set period of time. The time-out is concluded only after the parent coaxes an inauthentic “sorry” from the little inmate. For variety, Frost uses naughty stools, naughty mats, naughty circles, naughty corners and naughty steps.
Time-outs may be an improvement over spanking but, psychologically speaking, they are functional equivalents, instilling in their victims the image of themselves as bad boys and girls. Unless handled with empathy by a highly sensitive parent (more a “time-in” than a time-out), time-outs generate shame in the vulnerable psyches of young children. To emphasize this point, Frost gets down to the child’s eye level to tell him what a naughty boy he is. The message the child internalizes is that he is intrinsically flawed. By serving his sentence on the naughty stool, the hellion does penance for his badness.
Shame is among the most toxic and all-consuming of emotional states. To feel ashamed of oneself is to feel a core defectiveness that makes one unlovable and deserving of parental rejection. Shame is so painful as to be unbearable, especially for a young child in need of his parent’s unconditional love and acceptance. To the extent that Supernanny’s time-outs effectively deter ongoing misbehavior, it is not because the five or six minutes spent in the naughty chair are so boring but because the feeling of shame is so excruciating. When six-year old Bryce is freed from the naughty mat and limply submits to Supernanny’s obligatory makeup hug, you can tell from his dazed, lifeless expression that shame is already overwhelming his immature psychic defenses. Bryce isn’t likely to talk back to his mother again, at least not until the visceral memory of the shame begins to fade.
When a child is chronically shamed, she becomes shame-bound—that is to say that shame is no longer a transient emotion but a state of being. Shame-bound children anxiously free float in a perpetual state of meaninglessness and alienation. Without intervention, they will go through life lacking a secure sense of belongingness and burdened with unconscious doubt about their very right to exist.
Existential despair is a heavy load to lay on Supernanny. We live in a culture that vaunts materialism and hyper-individualism so unremittingly as to virtually guarantee disconnectedness and spiritual emptiness. But Supernanny and the millions of parents who shame their children virtually ensure another generation of adults who are as disconnected from each other and from the natural world as is the current one.
Supernanny and her Fox clones tackle not only the behavioral problems the parents are concerned about but take aim at such atrocities as children who have not cultivated proper table manners, refuse to nap, cry to be picked up and held and, most deplorable of all, prefer their parents’ beds to their cribs. The nannies don’t bother asking the parents whether such patterns are bothersome to them or whether there may be an unmet need for intimacy underlying the escapades of the crib escape artists. If the child’s behavior does not conform to the nanny’s preconceived ideal, it simply has to go. Such audacious overstepping is indicative of the nannies’ view of child-rearing and parent education as strictly top-down endeavors.
The nannies’ overriding goal is for the parents to show the child who is boss. A child who apprehends her place in the family hierarchy will, the theory goes, obey the parents’ commands. When the theory holds true, the child becomes a productive, apathetic, compliant consumer—he may be a little neurotic and depressed but, on the upside, his insecurity makes him more vulnerable to purveyors of an almost infinite array of mind-numbing substances and look-good, feel-good products and services, and to manipulation by fear and hate-mongering politicians. When the authoritarian child-rearing approach backfires, the parents may find that their “savage six-year-old” has become a rebel without a cause, prone to crime, substance abuse and other destructive behaviors. Either way, the child is unlikely to develop into a compassionate, free-thinking individual with the strength to resist materialism, the will to foment social change and the capacity to build lasting interpersonal and community ties.
The nanny shows are a window into the private worlds of desperation and disconnectedness in which so many families are trapped. Tens of thousands have applied to Supernanny, and those who make it on are not paid for their appearances. Millions more tune in, hoping for some free advice for dealing with their own troubled kids or seeking to bolster their parental self-esteem by way of comparison to the clueless parents on the show. Clearly, a huge number of beleaguered parents are crying out for help and support to realign the wayward course of their beloved children’s development. If only they had access to child development professionals who could show them how to approach their children with unconditional love and empathy. If only they had access to affordable, high-quality child care that would alleviate the strain of full-time parenting. Instead, they have Supernanny, who is overdue for a time-out from network television.
By Erica Etelson
Erica Etelson is a stay-at-home-and-write-mother and former public interest lawyer. She is writing a book about the social and political consequences of mainstream parenting.