Reality parenting

‘Supernanny,’ ‘Wife Swap’ do help parents get a grip


Larry McIntyre


Have your kids taken control? Are you at the end of your wits? Will you ever get your life back? You need SUPERNANNY!

It was bound to happen.

In recent months, the reality TV format has tackled the subject of parenting with “Supernanny” and “Wife Swap.” But who would have guessed it would provide such practical information?

While some local experts agree that the attention “Supernanny” brings to parenting issues—and many of the strategies it offers—are good, they also caution parents to realize the show’s quick resolutions are not realistic. And though swapping moms for a week—the premise of “Wife Swap”—makes for an entertaining show, its lessons are not so practical, they say.

The “Supernanny” program aired in England to rave reviews. ABC quickly brought the program to the United States. If you haven’t seen the show, you might assume there is little substance—but you are wrong. Jo Frost, the “Supernanny,” is the real deal. “Jo has had 15 years experience as a nanny,” says Craig Armstrong, the producer. “She’s pretty much seen everything.”

Armstrong, a father of a two children ages 10 and 6, says “ ‘Supernanny’ is entertaining, but also actually teaches you something within an hour. If you record the show, you can write down the steps, and your parenting skills will improve.

“A lot of families lack routine, but kids thrive on and want routine,” says Armstrong. “[We’ve] noticed parents are trying to be their kids’ best friend. That shouldn’t be the case.”

Each episode begins with parents desperately requesting help. Jo Frost visits the home, observes current practices, then lays out several specific and tangible strategies to deal with the issues. And then, miracle of miracles, by the end of the program, the parenting crisis has been resolved.

From tube to print

A book based on the series, Supernanny: How to Get the Best From Your Children, was recently published through Hyperion Books. Just like the TV program, the book (written by Frost and for parents of those 5 and under) is easy to follow and offers a plan for dealing with parenting issues from toilet training to bedtime tantrums.

Family therapist Michael Vernon, from Psychotherapy Associates of Chicago, agrees that Supernanny and Fox’s “Nanny 911” can help with parenting issues. “They hit on the normal problems of life. It’s not rocket science, but seeing [these strategies] enforced gives parents confidence,” he says. “[But] the part that is not realistic is the time it takes to make it work.”

In “Supernanny,” all problems are solved within one-hour. Vernon suggests that parents need to be patient and consistent, as positive results may take several weeks. Additionally, Vernon says that these strategies will take even longer for children with special needs.

 Steven Nakisher, director for the Center for Personal Development in Chicago, says shows such as “Supernanny” have raised awareness about parenting challenges.

“Clients are talking about it,” he says. “They wonder if what they are doing is correct.”

Nakisher thinks these reality parenting programs is that they expose a societal assumption. “The myth is that because parents have kids they should know how to effectively parent their child,” he says. “Parenting requires more than just plain common sense.”

Nakisher explains that children act out when parents give in and reward bad behavior while ignoring good behavior. He stresses the importance of creating a balance between being direct and firm while maintaining a loving environment. “Supernanny teaches parents strategies for how to interact with children,” he says.

Mom swap less practical

Another ABC reality parenting program has the misleading name of “Wife Swap.” It would be more aptly titled “Mom Swap.”

The idea is to find two mothers with distinct parenting philosophies and have them switch places for two weeks. The first week, they must live by the rules of the guest household. In the second week, the new moms make changes.

The show has no host and the cameras simply follow the action. Without a moderator, the story of each show often leads to conflict. Ultimately, each program aims to teach a message of balance. And from all appearances, the participants of this social experiment usually walk away enlightened.

Still, Vernon and Nakisher agree “Wife Swap” is less practical than “Supernanny.”

Vernon suggests the concept behind “Wife Swap” might be confusing and not particularly healthy for younger children because of the show’s emphasis on setting up conflict.

Michelle Pyke from Henryville, Ind., swapped places with a mother who lived with her family on a bus. “The experience was fun,” says Pyke, “[but] I didn’t enjoy being with Andre.” (Andre is the father who sold his house to put his wife and two daughters on a bus for a nonstop, cross-country “educational” road trip.)

These two families shared the value of spending quality time with their children, but with two distinct approaches. Pyke lived to please her husband and children, doing everything including all household chores and errands. Pyke’s kids were only responsible for doing what they wanted and having fun. Andre, on the other hand, insisted that everyone help with chores, saying each family member has a role to fulfill. However, Andre’s parenting style was so structured that it allowed little freedom for the family.

Pyke ordered Andre to park his bus, move into an apartment and enroll the girls in the local public school. Andre’s wife, who was living in Pyke’s home, instructed the workaholic father to be home by 6 p.m. and gave chores to him and the children.

Each family benefitted from the other’s parenting approach. The Pyke children now have weekly chores. And while Andre’s family is back on the bus, they are part of a homeschooling network allowing the kids to meet and socialize with other families.

“It definitely made me look at the way I parent,” Pyke says. “It made me thankful I’m so close with my kids.” 

Larry McIntyre is a husband and parent of two children in Oak Park.

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