Kohn puts Supernanny in the Naughty Corner

I really admire Alfie Kohns work and advise everyone to take a look at “What does it mean to be well educated.”

In the following article he describes the parenting mistakes made in the television show supernanny which is teaching thousands of parents across the world how to raise children (I know its been screeened in the UK, US andBrazil).  For more of his work online see his website.

One of his arguments I found especially interesting was the fact that supernanny never considers wider issues.  In a recent UN survey the UK was found to be one of the worst places to raise children and I think Chomsky does a good job of describing why that is –

In the 1980s, the U.S. and Britain took the lead in the “triumph of conservatism,” accelerating processes already underway. They therefore lead the developed world in impoverishment and degradation, inequality, homelessness, destruction of family values, hunger, and other values of contemporary “conservatism.” A study by the British charitable organization Action for Children, founded in 1869 with the Queen as patron, concludes that “the gap between rich and poor is as wide today as it was in Victorian times,” and in some ways worse. A million and a half families cannot afford to provide their children with “the diet fed to a similar child living in a Bethnal Green Workhouse in 1876,” a “sad reflection on British society.” Britain has proportionately more children living in poverty than any European country apart from Portugal and Ireland, and the proportion is rising faster than any country in Europe, though the U.S. still holds the lead. Rollback, Noam Chomsky

The UK is rivaling the states for the poorest working conditions in the developed world.  We work the longest hours for lower pay and we need both parents in employment in order to survive.  All of these factors play a far greater roll than simply blaming “bad parenting.”  Supernannys solutions are quick fixes that might be doing more harm than good.

THE NATION
May 23, 2005


Atrocious Advice from “Supernanny”

By Alfie Kohn

[This is a slightly expanded version of the published article, which was titled “Supernanny State.”]

A despot welcomes a riot. Disorder provides an excuse to rescind liberties in order to restore calm. There are only two choices, after all: chaos and control. Even the creators of Get Smart understood that.

And so, too, do the creators of Supernanny and Nanny 911. Each week they poke their cameras into a dysfunctional suburban home where the children are bouncing off the walls and the parents are ready to climb them. There’s whining, there’s yelling, there’s hitting . . . and the kids are just as bad. But wait. Look up there: It’s a bird. It’s a plain-dressed, no-nonsense British nanny, poised to swoop in with a prescription for old-fashioned control. Soon the clueless American parents will be comfortably back in charge, the children will be calm and compliant, and everyone will be sodden with gratitude. Cue the syrupy music, the slow-mo hugs, the peek at next week’s even more hopeless family.

These programs elevate viewer manipulation to an art form. For starters, the selection of unusually obnoxious children invites us to enjoy a shiver of self-congratulation: At least my kids — and my parenting skills — aren’t that bad! More to the point, these anarchic families set us up to root for totalitarian solutions. Anything to stop the rioting.

We’re encouraged to pretend that living with a camera crew doesn’t influence how parents and children interact, and to disregard what it says about these people that they allowed their humiliation to be televised. We’re asked to believe that families can be utterly transformed in a few days and to assume that the final redemptive images reveal the exceptional skills of the nanny — rather than of the program’s editing staff. By now, a fair number of TV dramas, and even some sitcoms, refrain from serving up contrived happy endings. Sometimes the patient dies, the perp outwits the prosecutor, the jerk is unreformed. Yet here, in the realm of nonfiction programming, a tidy solution must be found before sign-off. Perhaps it’s reality television that’s most divorced from reality.

We might just laugh off the implausibility of these programs except that they’re teaching millions of real parents how to raise their real kids. To that extent, it matters that they’re selling snake-oil.

Consider ABC’s Supernanny. (Fox’s copycat Nanny 911 differs mostly in that a rotating cast of nannies shares top billing.) The show is rigidly formulaic: Jo Frost, the titular nanny and now bestselling author, arrives, observes, grimaces, states the obvious, imposes a schedule along with a set of rules and punishments. The parents stumble but then get the hang of her system. Contentment ensues.

The limits of the show, however, are less consequential than the limits of its star. Ms. Frost’s approach to family crises is stunningly simple-minded; it’s the narrowness of her repertoire, not merely the constraints of the medium, that lead her to ignore the important questions. She never stops to ask whether the demands of work and kids could be more gracefully reconciled if high-quality, low-cost daycare was available. She doesn’t even inquire into psychological issues. Are the parents’ expectations appropriate for the age of the child? Might something deeper than a lack of skills explain why they respond, or fail to respond, to their children as they do? How were they raised?

The nanny never peers below the surface, and her analysis of every family is identical. The problem is always that the parents aren’t sufficiently vigorous in controlling their children. She has no reservations about power as long as only the big people have it. Kids are the enemy to be conquered. (At the beginning of Nanny 911, the stentorian narrator warns of tots “taking over the household”; the children in one episode are described as “little monsters.”) Parents learn how to get them to take their naps now. Whether the kids are tired is irrelevant.

Supernanny’s favorite words are “technique” and “consistency.” First, a schedule is posted — they will all eat at six o’clock because she says so – and the children are given a list of generic rules. The point is enforcement and order, not teaching and reflection. Thus, rather than helping a child to think about the effects of his aggression on others, he is simply informed that hitting is “unacceptable”; reasons and morality don’t enter into it. Then he is forced to “stand in the naughty corner.” Later, the nanny instructs Dad to command the child to apologize. The desired words are muttered under duress. The adults seem pleased.

For balance, kids are controlled with rewards as well as with punishments. Those who haven’t been eating what (or when, or as much as) the parent wishes are slathered with praise as soon as they do so – a “Good boy!” for every mouthful. Sure enough, they fork in some more food. These children may be so desperate for acceptance that they settle for contingent reinforcement in place of the unconditional love they really need.

The little girl in one family is accustomed to having Mom lie down next to her at bedtime. Forget it, says Supernanny, and the tradition is ended without warning or explanation. When the girl screams, that only proves how manipulative she is. Later, Mom confesses, “I felt like I was almost mistreating her.” “Do not give in,” urges the nanny, and misgivings soon yield to “It’s working; it’s getting quieter” – meaning that her daughter has abandoned hope that Mom will snuggle with her.

On another episode, a boy is playing with a hose in the backyard when his mother suddenly announces, “You’re done.” The boy protests (“I’m cleaning!”) so she turns off the water. He becomes angry and kicks over a wagon. Supernanny is incredulous: “Just because she turned the water off!” There is no comment about the autocratic, disrespectful parenting that precipitated his outburst. But then, autocratic, disrespectful parenting is her stock in trade.

Supernanny’s superficiality isn’t accidental; it’s ideological. What these shows are peddling is behaviorism. The point isn’t to raise a child; it’s to reinforce or extinguish discrete behaviors – which is sufficient if you believe, along with the late B.F. Skinner and his surviving minions, that there’s nothing to us other than those behaviors.

Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie. We’re a busy people, with fortunes to make and lands to conquer. We don’t have time for theories or complications: Just give us techniques that work. If firing thousands of employees succeeds in boosting the company’s stock price; if imposing a scripted, mind-numbing curriculum succeeds in raising students’ test scores; if relying on bribes and threats succeeds in making children obey, then there’s no need to ask, “But for how long does it work? And at what cost?”

In the course of researching a book about parenting, I discovered some disconcerting research on the damaging effects of techniques like the “naughty corner” (better known as time-out), which are basically forms of love withdrawal. I also found quite a bit of evidence that parents who refrain from excessive control and rely instead on warmth and reason are more likely to have children who do what they’re asked – and who grow into responsible, compassionate, healthy people.

If you can bear to sit through them, the nanny programs provide a fairly reliable guide for how not to raise children. They also offer an invitation to think about the pervasiveness of pop-behaviorism and our hunger for the quick fix. “I guarantee you,” Supernanny earnestly, if tautologically, exhorts one pair of parents, “every time you’re consistent, [your child] gets the same message.”

Granted, but what message?


Copyright © 2005 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at www.alfiekohn.org.

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21 Responses to Kohn puts Supernanny in the Naughty Corner

  1. Family Man in the City says:

    Granted, the shows in question are fairly simplistic. But realistically, the show is about solving the crisis of the moment — which is the (short-sighted) mindset. Could some families stand dramatic changes in division of labor? Sure. Would affordable daycare make a world of difference? No argument here.

    However, people are tuning in to see dramatic changes in a short period of time, not political organizing to revolutionize antiquated social systems.

    Within that framework, I am more disturbed by some of the implications of the show. First, Supernanny does not fail. This is unreasonable. There is no technique that works with every child, nor is there a parenting educator alive who can claim to make the most effective prescription the first time, every time. Parents already feel like failures (which the show, as mentioned, does capitalize on by showing families that appear to be worse off). Show them some supposed expert (universally a white, British woman) who can solve all of the problems that they can’t and parents likely feel even less competant.

    Next, there is the short follow-up. Effective discipline methods burn out. Children are not robots who can be counted on to react the same way for years. What works wonders today may be completely useless in 6 months. Parenting in an 18+ year marathon, not a two week sprint.

    The larger issues issues asside, the somewhat heavy-handed (“autocratic”) style shown is marginally justifiable and arguably audience-driven. Most of the families on the show are suffering from under-parenting: they are too permissive. Some dictatorship on the nanny’s part is valuable both as a method of beginning change in both the kids’ and the parents’ perceptions. It’s ok to issue SOME dictates based on nothing more than “because I said so”.

    This is also audience-driven, as the show caters to two audiences: frustrated parents (read: all parents) and people frustrated by other people’s “out of control” children. That the show neglects the over-parented families where children’s absolute nature is crushed in favor of order and surface harmony is horrible if we view the show as a model for parent education. But it isn’t. It’s a “reality show”, not “reality”.

    The family dysfunction on the show is no more accurate a representation of the broader reality than “Survivor” is of island living. That this is a disservice of the public by a television show is not meaningless, but targeting this show is far too narrow a focus.

    I’ll be outraged by Super Nanny’s misrepresentation of under-parenting and authoritative approaches when we start seeing sitcoms with young drifter-types (ala most of Friends) forced out of huge, wonderful apartments in NYC that they would never be able to pay for in the real world.

  2. Tartan says:

    Unfortunatly though this show is the only program in the main stream advising parents on child rearing and many might not have exposure to other ideas. Interestingly because of its popularity, driven as you say by parent frustration and peoples frustration will others children, it has now affected Government policy. Similar to what Jamie Oliver did for school dinners – ‘A network of around 80 “super nannies” is being set up by the government to show parents how to control their unruly children.’ (1)

    I agree with all your points but do believe strongly that shows that purtain to be of educational value should have a more responsible attitude. After all this show is being broadcast to much of the globe without rival ideas being presented, infuencing hundreds of millions. And public opinion can shape Goverment opinion too (especially when its promoting authoritarian ideas…).

    Interestingly I’ve always wondered about the “friends” thing too. Funny how as waitresses etc they never have any real problems and enjoy a wealthy lifestyle. Often when I watch TV and then look outside my window I get the impression that TV is selling some dream that doesnt exist.

    This book is quite interesting on the subject – Amusing ourselves to death (2)

    (1) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/breakfast/6166816.stm
    http://search.bbc.co.uk/cgi-bin/search/results.pl?tab=ns&q=supernanny&recipe=all&scope=all&edition=d

    (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death

  3. Maria says:

    I think Alfie Kohn’s article is ridiculous and way off the mark. You won’t find many people out there who feel our country currently suffers from the problem of over-disciplining by parents. The current generation of parents with young kids (myself included) are absurdly permissive, don’t teach their kids to obey or respect them or other adults, and don’t have a clue about the fundamental basics of what makes a child tick – namely unconditional love, security and structure. And those are what Supernanny and similar shows are teaching — they are giving parents permission to take charge of their kids and demonstrating that kids respond to those fundamentals.

  4. stamperdad says:

    Alfie Kohn’s theory of parenting is unrealistic and full of holes. Bottomline for me is that I refuse to allow a three year old or a six year old run my house and control my life. My children thrive on consistency, love and structure.

    If Mr. Kohn wants to allow children to control him fine, but frankly his theories do not stand up in the real world.

    • Well said and I completely agree – (though I must say my comments may not represent all at PainResearchAdvocates.or their loved ones). After reading lots of drivel, your comment was a breath of badly needed fresh air!! You proved to me that I hadn’t lost my MIND and I was too happy to log out first,

  5. NStar says:

    Who cares how the parents were parented? Get over it already. You’re an adult with your own children to be responsible for…poor you if your mom was overly-permissive or your dad was too strict. And why would anyone want Jo teaching morality? She’s there to help the parents get on track. It’s up to each set of parents to decide how they will use her tools to teach their children morality…to reflect, or whatever.

  6. Ruth says:

    Instead of merely criticizing Jo’s technique, why doesn’t Dr. Kohn demonstrate HOW to handle the various situations described? His resistance to providing practical, implementable advice only reinforces the value of Jo’s teachings. There is a dearth of educators out there willing to get their hands dirty, as Jo does, in an attempt to demonstrate parenting styles. Dr. Kohn, criticizing is easy. How would you handle these situations? You do no parent any service by merely compliaining and offering not a single solution. Many people see right through your vapid tactics.

  7. Robert Nord says:

    I think this article is very interesting, and I am a huge fan of Alfie Kohn. He is a cool guy and I would like to meet him very soon. Maybe we could go to McDonalds and talk about how to make kids behave.

  8. granitehillcreekcrossing says:

    Excellent critique of Supernanny, a fascinating show for all the reasons Kohn mentions and more. Difficult to take advice from someone who looks super unhealthy. It is all about the ability to focus.

  9. Michael Eastin says:

    Ruth proves Kohn’s points exactly.

    As a professional involved for decades with kids with problem behaviors and families, I was at first delighted when I saw a mainstream show like this. But take my word, it just doesn’t happen like it looks on SN. One of the things which helped was contrasting it with the even more obviously horrible Nanny 911, a former competitor.

    In defense, SN sometimes does bring in experts and at times has some brilliant individual solutions revealing good insight.

    There are a HOST of ethical problems here. But here’s the biggest issue. What is the family gaining from this essentially unethical exploit of privacy? If the millions the SN show and networks haul in were, rather, diverted to funding existing research based child and family supports, there would be no “dearth” of solutions for Ruth.

    But hey, they are funded by a public awash in tea partying.

  10. […] Do you spank kids? Then don't! For those of you who think reality TV is reality… Here is an essay by one of world's leading authors on parenting, education and human behaviour Alfie […]

  11. Manny with a Clue says:

    I understand why Alfie appears to believe the show lacks “what it takes” to be a parent. But I work with kids that have these problems. And even more so, I work with PARENTS that have these problems. Everything from screaming at them from the couch, to saying “I’ll deal with you later” and not even following through. Child after child is being diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, ODD, and a million other creative acronyms. But seriously parents… its not that hard. If I can singlehandedly get your kids to brush their teeth, eat a healthy meal, clean their rooms, do their homework, stop hitting each other, take responsibility for their actions, encourage others AND teach them why a volcano forms and the proper way to tie a tie, [while attending school full time, running on campus clubs, job searching, maintaining a social life, volunteering in the community and even starting a fraternity chapter and non-profit organization] why can’t you? (the kids and parents even ask me to come back years later!) I put Jo Frost’s techniques to work and have been before I knew the show even existed. It is not a catch all solution, but the parents that the show caters too usually don’t even have a simple foundation. Fundamental discipline and consistency ARE key to helping the child understand the order. If an employee says, “I’ll get it done”, but doesn’t follow through repeatedly, who in their right mind would care to listen to them? Surely a child wont listen if the parents won’t even follow through.

    Here is some simple advice to those who need it. This is not intended for those that already have it under control. Rather, it is for those that need a little help. They are simple tactics but they have made huge impacts on the kids I’ve worked with.

    1)
    Leave some simple choices up to your younger kids… like where to sit in the movie theater. Or do you want the circle plate or the square plate. Things that won’t negatively impact the situation. It will show them that they are heard and respected but also also the parents to remain in control.

    2)
    Be clear with your expectations. If a child does not know what you want, they certainly wont understand why you want it. Use the PROBLEM – REASON – RESOLUTION method. State the problem, explain your reasoning why the behavior is negative, and then give the best possible steps for them to take to resolve the situation.

    3)
    Take at least 15 minutes before you go to bed to reflect on the day, decompress, and plan for tomorrow. If you need to, write it down. Not only will you sleep better, but you won’t have to struggle with remembering everything and can focus on how to make the day fun for your kids.

    4)
    Keep the focus positive. The more fun activities you get to do with your child, while encouraging them to enjoy their day, and learn and grow… the less likely the situation will result in negative behavior.

    5)
    If you have to work an extra shift just to afford that huge house, think about what is important in your life. would you rather have happy kids in an averaged size home, or miss out on their lives just to keep up with the Jones’?

    For lower income families:
    Raising kids does not have to cost an arm and a leg. You can purchase a full wardrobe for a 5-10 year old boy for under 400 dollars. If you need to, stop at goodwill in the wealthier neighborhoods and you can get designer clothes for pennies on the dollar. (I bought a 185 dollar shirt for 4 bucks!) Also, Elmer’s glue costs about 90 cents. with glue, materials from the woods a little creativity, and an open mind. You can create a WORLD of new activities. if they are a bit older, teach them to sew or braid or look up finger-loop braiding. One kid I worked with saw it as an entire new endeavor and found his entrpreneurship calling. You will never know what inspires them if you don’t introduce them to new things. Also, cut out the TV. That is 50+ dollars a month that could go towards family activites and takes away from personal time. If you have to get your tv fix, web sites like hulu or fancast will provide the same opportunity for free. Also, having hundreds of movies whilst you have trouble buying food for your family is just irresponsible. (you know who you are) get the kids involved with cooking your daily meals. Sure it might take longer to prepare, but they will feel like they are apart of the family and are more likely to eat it. (especially useful for picky eaters)

    These suggestions, by no means, will solve every situation or challange you may face. That is what being a parent is about. You need to learn from your child. Respond to their behavior, and use the techniques that work for them. If you have tried something new and truly committed to it, followed through, and it still doesn’t work weeks or moths later… then and only then modify.

    Lastly,
    to the point that someone made about not being effective techniques for longer then a short period… That is typically because the parents get complacent. They start sloughing off with this responsibility. No, putting a 17 year old in time out probably wont work, but that is simply a matter of using your head! At no point has she said the same tactics for young children are the same as older children… with the exception of insisting that the parents follow through with the consequences and set clear expectations.

    No, I don’t have a degree in child education, behavior, psychology, or anything else. It is simply a matter of practice and commitment. I take it one step at a time, and learn from the changes. I reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t, and stuck with it even when the parents have given up. Having a degree simply means that you studied behavior, not that you fully understand it and can do something about it. I work with a foster care agency, and the occasional staff member (all of which have degrees of some sort in child education or psychology) doesn’t understand these fundamentals and actually have a NEGATIVE impact on the life of the child.

    If you have actual questions, need help, or are willing to have an open and honest discussion about anything that I have said, please reply and I will receive your message via email. Otherwise, please don’t bother. I know there are many ways to raise kids effectively, and the “techniques” that I suggested are just a few of the many ways that I have found work in MOST situations.

    Best Wishes to you all.

    • Felecia says:

      I want to say thank you for your words< they were most helpful and not condensending at all and I REALLY liked that. 🙂 I hope you have a very blessed day and a happy life 🙂

      • Manny with a Clue says:

        Thank YOU for the response. It’s nice to know that my time was not fruitless. As a quick update, since writing this… I graduated college, moved to a new state, have a full time job, bought a house….and got my foster care license. I adopted my first placement (he is now 11) last November and now I am looking to support other foster parents out there with help and guidance. At 25, as a single male, I also know I am an anomaly.

        I know that it is harder as the parent too. Often times kids simply won’t respond to you simply because you ARE the parent. They will challenge you in ways they won’t challenge strangers because strangers are an unknown. The sooner you can really get involved in their life and help them understand that you support them no matter what, but that there are expectations of being a member in your home and their community, the easier it will be when they hit the oft dreaded puberty!

        One other area that I GREATLY recommend getting your children involved is in your community, and with mentors. Typically, older children wont listen to you because that is the time when they look to their peers and community to learn behaviors. You can still have an influence here by supporting positive recreation. If the local skatepark is full of potheads, suggest other activities or if they are older, you can help them to create their own community or endeavor to clean it up for everybody. If your kids are not physically inclined, help them to pursue other activities where they can feel comfortable and stable, yet still challenge themselves.

        If you are not happy with some of their choices in friends, talk to them regularly about why it is ok for them to hang out with certain kids, and not others. Explain influence, and choices, and goals, and desires. The good and the bad. you can’t sugar coat everything either. They will only know what is safe, by learning what is not safe and why. And realistically, they will ignore you many times, and if/when they fail, you need to support them anyway. they will screw up, maybe try drugs, maybe say the wrong thing to the wrong person, fail a test, or do things that you think are too risky. They are independent people with their own decisions to make. You are there to guide and support them no matter what. That is how you will keep their respect, and keep your influence in their lives through the teen years.

        The last thing I would say is… think back to what it was like to be a kid. Not the “well I got to do this, and couldn’t do that…” stuff, but the “what did I feel when this happened” or “what activities were were entertaining to me?” And then remember that generations are different. Each one is unique in its desires because of the culture from which they grew up. Take your experiences, and try to cater the same FEELING via their interests. Play video games with them. ask them to teach YOU something about computers. Color on yourself if you have too. This is something that my son likes to do, so I gave him an appropriate situation to do it [trust me it washes off!]

        Again, I don’t have all the answers, and I cannot guarantee these methods will work for you or your kid(s), but they are things that I have found through trial, error, and intuition to be more successful on average. Try them out, ask questions, share your experiences that worked, and maybe we call can learn from each other. That, I think, is the TRUE meaning of:

        “‘Omwana taba womoi” – A child belongs not to one parent or home.

  12. Sarah says:

    I’d like to know if Alfie has children because from his article it seems as if he doesn’t. What the hell is he on about? Yet again, parents are urged to be superhuman. Apparently we are not allowed to ever get angry with our children, to scold them, to put in place any discipline procedures. Apparently explaining to our child to do X, Y or Z, will be met with understanding and compliance on their part. Has he ever tried reasoning with a two year old. They don’t care that if they eat their greens they’ll grow up to be big and strong, if they don’t want them, they don’t want them. This narrow minded attitude towards parents is happening more and more and to be honest his article has totally infuriated me. May I suggest he go and stand on the naughty step for a while to think about what he’s done!

  13. Erik Wood says:

    I was fascinated by Alfie’s deconstruction of Supernanny authoritarianism, and I must admit that I was taken aback when I realized I aspired to become proficient in those very techniques I would abhor were they used on me. I must admit when I am wrong. My wife and I have found ourselves in the very same boat as those parents we imagined were not very good at their jobs: inconsistent with promises of reward or punishment, unreasonable behavior (ala turning off the hose without warning or explanation), and a lack of consideration for the child’s own feelings.
    I feel just terrible about it. While I would never expect my child to be an adult, neither should I expect her to be an automaton. If I asked myself what kind of a person I would want her to become, I would most certainly answer “An independent thinker” or “A free spirit”. Yet my expectations that she should fall lock step into line at my say so is counterproductive to that outcome.
    That being said, I think that neither Alfie’s nor Supernany’s ideas are wholly correct. Instead, a little balance of the two extremes, and a whole lot of kindness, respect and consideration in the middle would seem to be in order. Setting an example -and making it attractive one- must come first. If I want my child to listen, I must show her that I am interested in listening to her as well. She looks up to me and to her mother as examples of how to be. As hackneyed as it sounds, it is still as true as ever: Parents are their children’s role models. It seems simple that to expect the best of her, we need to give her the best of ourselves. Everything else -all the advice and techniques you’ll read about or hear from others need to be informed by that core philosophy. Without an anchoring sense of who you are to your child (the model for everything), you could run the risk of losing your way and become too permissive, or too authoritarian.
    Nobody has a user’s manual for life. There isn’t one. I’m certainly winging it. But the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the best starting place in my experience.

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