September 24th, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

Since learning more about Harlem Children’s Zone and its revolutionary Baby College, we’ve been wondering about how parenting is learned and taught, and how the skills of a good teacher and the skills of a good parent overlap. Recently, the Style network has been airing episodes of Supernanny, the ABC remake of a popular British parenting reality show, in bulk. Jo Frost, the show’s campy British star and childcare expert, bustles into the homes of American couples whose children scream, draw on the walls and won’t go to bed. Watching Frost work her magic is highly satisfying, and it’s obvious that parents and children alike respond positively to her commanding presence and no-nonsense tone. In this way, Frost is a lot like the best classroom teachers.

Though Frost observes every family closely before “implementing” her “techniques,” the techniques aren’t in and of themselves varied or complex. She coaches parents–often painstakingly and repeatedly–on how to set house rules and enforce consequences when they’re broken. She uses visual aids reminiscent of all of our elementary school classrooms, like big whiteboards with “House Rules” in bubble letters at the top. Good parenting, according to Supernanny, is a science, and the Wischmeyer mom–who you can watch struggling to get her children to go to sleep, below–agrees: “The bed technique is wonderful,” she says. “I think it should be manually written, handed out at birth, to every mother and dad in the world.”

Of course, there are subtler aspects to parenting and family that Supernanny addresses but ultimately glosses over. When Frost sits down with families for the first time, she’ll often make sweeping, arm-chair psychology assessments of “why” a mother can’t discipline her daughter or “why” a father focuses on his son’s negative qualities. But in the end, those deeper questions about how parents and children relate to one another emotionally go unanswered by a show like Supernanny, and it’s probably just as well–it’s much more pleasant to see a good set of house rules do their work. Those readers looking to probe the issue a little more should check out Alfie Kohn’s recent piece in the New York Times on whether parents should love conditionally or unconditionally–a riddle it might take the combined efforts of Mary Poppins, Jo Frost and Fran Drescher to solve.
Supernanny Official Site
When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’ [NYT, 9/14/09]
All Unhappy Families Need Mary Poppins [NYT, 1/17/05]
Getting Parents Involved [Taking Note, 6/1/09]

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