I discovered Supernanny when my sons were infants.  I watched in disbelief when Jo Frost reformed monstrous children simply by putting them in “the naughty corner.”  But once our infants became toddlers, we gave the naughty corner a try.  To my surprise, it worked like a charm.  Threatening one minute of mild humiliation was enough to deter nine out of ten tantrums.  I later discovered that my experience was no fluke; an impressive literature in experimental psychology on “parent behavioral training” confirms that even mild discipline works wonders.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I came across Alfie Kohn‘s essay in The Nation claiming that Supernanny’s just “selling snake oil.”  As it turns out, though, Kohn doesn’t even try to show that Supernanny’s methods fail to improve children’s behavior.  He just repeatedly changes the subject – and invites sarcasm in the process:

[Frost] never stops to ask whether the demands of work and kids could be more gracefully reconciled if high-quality, low-cost daycare was available.

Could the reason be that Frost is trying to provide constructive advice to parents – not convert America to the Third Way?

She doesn’t even inquire into psychological issues. Are the parents’ expectations appropriate for the age of the child?

Millions of experienced parents recoil in horror at the children’s rude and even violent behavior.  How age-inappropriate can their expectations be?

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?

Again, Frost is trying to provide constructive advice to troubled parents, not write their psycho-analytic biographies.

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.

Alternative hypothesis: The people who invite Supernanny into their homes are usually well meaning adults with badly-behaved kids, not cruel adults with normally-behaved kids.  As a result, abuse of power is rarely the problem, and stricter discipline is usually the solution

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

Perhaps, contrary to Kohn, Frost does have age-appropriate expectations.  Are we really supposed to tell habitually violent three-year-olds to “think about the effects of their aggression on others”?  To lecture them on “reasons and morality”?

Kohn finds Frost’s advice cruel:

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.

But by Kohn’s standards, any time a parent thinks “My feelings count, too” and acts accordingly, she’s being cruel.  Mom works hard, and wants an extra half hour for herself; should her daughter really have a scream veto over Mom’s decision?

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.

I’m a staunch opponent of behaviorism myself, but Kohn’s charge is misplaced.  If your child is habitually rude or even violent, then changing behavior has to be your priority; it’s a precondition for any deeper progress.  You can’t discuss your child’s feelings while he’s screaming or kicking you.  And no matter how mellow your child is, you’ve got to tailor your explanations to his age.  Frost isn’t acting like young children don’t have thoughts and feelings; she’s acting like young children can’t understand complex moral arguments.  And of course she’s usually right.