Super nanny or super meanie?
Have parents really become clueless wimps who allow children to ride roughshod over them and dominate household affairs? Annette Binger polls the parenting experts.
If you’ve watched reality shows like Super Nanny or Nanny 911 you’d be forgiven for thinking parenting is a dying art and all 21st century kids have lousy social skills. But in an age when bookshop shelves are bulging with parenting manuals and reality shows expose dysfunctional families on prime time television, many of us are left asking: whatever happened to good, old-fashioned common sense?
‘Parenting is a skill learned on-the-job; kids don’t come with a manual,’ says Warren Cann, Director of the Victorian Parenting Centre. ‘Sure, it’s important for parents to follow their instincts but a parent’s instincts are also born of their own parenting and culture. If an adult has been poorly parented themselves, is depressed, isolated or simply isn’t coping, there’s no shame in getting help.’
The 2004 Australian Childhood Foundation’s report, The Concerns of Australian Parents, supports Cann’s view: three out of four parents interviewed did not believe parenting came naturally, and over half lacked confidence in their skills as parents. Of the 500 parents interviewed, a staggering 80% wanted more information on how to improve their relationships with their children.
‘Parents are so isolated these days,’ says Jo Winther, Senior Psychologist with Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital Mental Health Service. ‘Parenting information no longer gets handed down from one generation to the next, there are more single parents, and people’s weeks are so jammed they end up spending less time with their children. Of course, many parents end up feeling lost.’
Consider the appalling behaviour of the children in the shows. They’re shown acting out, throwing tantrums, not eating and refusing to sleep. Although many consider Super Nanny’s practices barbaric – time out and the naughty chair – her recommendations also involve parents’ time and attention, which are integral to her seemingly miraculous cures.
According to Andrew Fuller, clinical psychologist and author of Raising Real People, the success of the program indicates there’s a real hunger out there for parenting information. The information on Super Nanny, however, is not the kind of information he thinks people need. ‘The behaviourist techniques she uses might be good for training a dog,’ he says. ‘But she teaches people to control their children’s behaviour, which gets confused in what parenting is all about – a loving caring relationship.
‘We treat childhood like an ailment that needs a remedy,’ he adds. ‘We forget that kids need to be kids. They don’t understand their actions have consequences…they don’t understand planning or forethought. Now that families are spending less time together children are left too much to their own devices – it makes sense that children get into trouble and family relationships suffer.’
The chaotic families descended upon by television’s super nanny Jo Frost are certainly suffering…big time, which is unfortunately the nature of prime time reality television: audiences demand extremes and miraculous makeovers satisfy viewers’ appetites. Surely, kids and families aren’t all descending to the miserable levels these shows depict?
According to Judy Radich, National President of Early Childhood Australia, parenting and children’s behaviour have both significantly altered in the 20 years that she’s worked in child care. ‘It’s not that the problems Frost deals with are new,’ she says. ‘But I have seen a steep rise in the number of children diagnosed with behavioural problems like ADD and ADHD. I wonder if much of it is environmental.
‘Parents are continually under time constraints so children are always rushed. Kids are exposed to social groups earlier and have to compete for adults’ time at child care, which can make children more aggressive in order to get the attention they’re craving. Everyone is under enormous pressure and parents end up resorting to quick fixes, like giving in to nagging, because they haven’t the time or energy to give children what they need most – their attention.’
Although Jo Winther has some reservations about the show, she applauds if for promoting community discussion about child rearing. ‘Because the show is heavily edited to fit the one-hour format you only see snippets of the strategies she employs. But the advice she offers is based on sound principles – consequences for actions, routines and relationship building.
For those of us who grew up under authoritarian parents who worried little about our childhood opinions, the warm fuzzy approach to parenting – offer children choices, listen to what they’re saying and discipline in a positive way – is considered a quantum leap forward in human relations. But has this backlash gone too far?
‘I believe the parenting industry has got something to answer for,’ says Warren Cann. ‘It’s great that every generation refines its approach, but people are now made to feel like the task of caring for children is as complicated as rocket science. Somehow the messages have been taken too far. For instance, constant negotiation with a child is a recipe for acute unhappiness and parents end up utterly powerless.
The beauty of Super Nanny according to Cann is that the program exposes these issues and shows people alternatives – you don’t need to negotiate with your child like you’re at Camp David and nor do you have to resort to physical punishment.
Andrew Fuller believes parents have been duped by the parenting industry that has spawned too many books telling them they can always find a solution. ‘People do need to rely more on their intuition because no-one knows your child like you do. If people were led more by their hearts than their heads, then I’d see fewer children at my practice.
‘Parents do want to do the right thing and genuinely want to advantage children. Children will learn what’s right and wrong when their emotional intelligence is developed. The only way parents can help develop emotional intelligence in their children is to actually spend time with them and model good behaviour.’
‘I don’t believe there is the parenting crisis these shows are leading us all to believe,’ says Warren Cann. ‘Parents are doing what they’ve always done: adapting to an ever-changing world. When I compare today’s parents with parents of past generations, I believe they’re the most tolerant, problem-solving group ever.’
The expert’s tips on raising children and creating family harmony
‘Set up family rituals where the whole family spends time together. It doesn’t have to be complicated – Friday night dinner together or family walks with the dog. Kids also need ‘mooch time’ when they’re not taking part in a structured activity…all kids need time to play and dream without being rushed hither and thither.’
Psychologist and author
‘People have lost confidence in their common sense because so many experts telling us what to do. Give yourself time to tune into your child’s needs. You’ll find their needs are simple: love, attention, consistency, structured limits, and support to do the right thing.’
National President, Early Childhood Australia
‘We need to stop constantly asking children what they want and stop offering children so many choices. Kids want structure and clear boundaries – sometimes they simply have to be told what needs to be done. And ‘no’ should always mean ‘no’, not ‘maybe’.’
Senior Psychologist, Royal Children’s Hospital Mental Health Service
‘Super Nanny has a no-fuss approach to discipline and uses a number of strategies that really do work – commenting when children have done the right thing, frequently praising children for good behaviour, creating consistent routines and setting clear rules.’
Director, Victorian Parenting Centre
by Annette Binger
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, October 2005.