Maha Ikram | Assistant Director of Communications
Supernanny — a British reality show — follows “Supernanny” Jo Frost as she helps struggling parents improve their child’s behavior. She stays with a family over the course of a few days to point out their parenting mistakes, equip parents with methods to regain control over their frenzied household, and gauge improvement. From the untrained actions of parents to the alarming, violent outbursts of their children, Supernanny features footage that appears far too raw and unfiltered to be completely staged. Fans find the chaos so entertaining that despite the last season airing in 2011, there are continuous requests for more episodes, leading to a rebooted season currently airing on Lifetime network.
At first, it may seem surprising that Jo is capable of solving every issue that appears among dozens of families. However, after observing a few episodes in detail, her success isn’t quite perplexing; she follows a semi-structured guideline that can be applied to many situations and has a strong understanding of the minds of the children and the parents from her experience. Apart from its entertainment value, this show also very educational.
Here is a breakdown of her approach:
Jo starts by spending an entire day observing the family; this part of the episode tends to be the most turbulent. Whether the children are creating a mess around the house or clobbering one another, Jo observes with zero interference. At the end of the day, Jo has a discussion with the parents and shows them footage from the day. She focuses on area where the parents have made key parenting mistakes. As shown in the following examples, the root cause of the children’s behavior isn’t always immediately apparent.
In the episode titled “The Doyle Family”, the couple’s three-year-old daughter, Sarah, was behaving poorly by kicking the television and trying to wake her infant brother from a nap. The mother, Brandy, counters this by first scolding her. When that doesn’t work, she tackles Sarah with tickles and kisses. In response to that clip, Jo says, “No lesson is taught here. The children must be incredibly confused with what Brandy is trying to teach them.” The issue wasn’t that Sarah was not being appropriately disciplined for her behavior but rather that Brandy’s mixed response was confusing her. The lack of consistency also resulted in increased outbursts from the child when Brandy did try to instill discipline. Jo was able to effectively point out the issue by looking at the situation through the eyes of the child.
Jo’s highest priority when showing the parents the raw footage is to have them come to terms with their mistakes. The show often features parents who are in denial about the changes they need to make. But with their actions displayed in front of them, the truth is hard to avoid. (This is also the point of the show where parents frequently tend to cry.)
Busy parents often don’t realize that taking care of and doing tasks for their children isn’t what is most important to the kids. Brandy spent most of her time cleaning while her husband did not spend quality time with their children after work. Their five-year-old daughter even notes, “My dad sits on the couch a lot . . . and watches TV.” The child’s unruly behavior was often a result of trying to get her parents’ attention. Making a mess was bound to elicit a negative reaction, but it was a reaction nonetheless.
Jo directly tells the parents, “If you’re going to love your kids, then let them see it. The way you show your kids that you love them is not just about making sure they’re looked after and fed and watered like a flower, but to give them you. Because that’s what they want at the end of the day.”
After this eye-opening discussion, Jo implements a regimen for the parents to follow. The schedule starts by addressing the lack of order within the family and has them adopt a set schedule, which includes everything from time for the kids to get ready for school to time set aside for the parents to spend with their kids.
Although Jo stands aside to see how the family normally functioned on the first day, she actively instructs the parents when a problem erupts. Jo often emphasizes keeping punishments fair among the children despite age differences. For example, in a family with a five-year-old and eight-year-old, Jo calls out the mother for often only blaming behavioral issues on her older son. She instead points out that as both children are cognizant of their actions, they both need to be held accountable. However, there are some exceptions. In the case of an infant misbehaving, the same punishments cannot be applied.
In another episode, Jo explains that crying and whining are not equivalent among toddlers and infants. For infants, crying is their primary mode of communication, often indicating the need for food, sleep, or a diaper change. Thus, a tantrum should not result in punishment. Toddlers, however, can communicate their needs through language, although it may be limited. Crying is used as a tactic to gain control of their parents; if denied something they want, all it usually takes is a few minutes of sobbing for them to get it. Most of the families on the show are stuck in a loop where the children know how willingly their parents succumb to their demands.
To combat this, Jo emphasizes consistency when giving punishments, often in the form of a time-out. Nearly every episode features a sequence like this: the parent attempts to give their child a time-out (due to the child’s misbehavior), the child runs away from the time-out area, the parent chases them down and drags them back to the time-out chair, the child runs back out, and the process repeats until the child realizes that their parent is sticking to their word and finally sits in the time-out chair for the appropriate time. Jo’s rule of thumb: the age of the child equals the number of minutes they have in time-out.
For parents with overly aggressive methods, such as yelling and using harsh words, Jo advises them to use a low, stern voice when disciplining and to crouch when talking eye-to-eye with their child. Jo also notes the importance of using time-outs in proper situations and not in every single instance the child misbehaves. In the same episode in which the mother struggled with determining when to give her child a time-out, Jo creates a series of hypothetical situations and tests the mother until she understands the pattern. Jo informs her, “It’s about controlling the situation and not controlling your children.”
After spending a day or two addressing the issues of the household, Jo leaves for a few days while the show continues to film. This is a crucial step in assuring the long-term effects of her strategies. Oftentimes, the parents show improvement but don’t entirely adhere to the rules Jo has set. At the end of the period, Jo comes back to the house and goes over key events in the footage, while the parents address their mistakes. The show continues for a little longer until the parents have reached a few more milestones (being able to drive in the car without the kids fighting in the back, having the kids get along with friends, allowing themselves more time to spend with the kids, etc.).
Finally, the family has a sit-down with Jo, where she gives them parting words of advice and congratulates them on their growth, allowing each episode to end on a bittersweet note as the family often grows attached to Jo.
The episode used as an example was not meant to be a summary, but rather a general framework to understand Jo’s strategies as a whole. Supernanny proves how difficult parenting can be and that, ironically, parents are often the ones who need to be parented.
If you’d like to see the full episode mentioned:
The YouTube channel also features most episodes and plenty of short, entertaining clips and can be found here.