Nanny TV

by: Laurie Ouellette / Queens College


Supernanny on ABC

Are your kids a handful? Are you exhausted? Is your house a “zoo?” Do you need help juggling the demands of work and family? Me too. The recent birth of my son catapulted me into the ranks of harried parents everywhere. So when Supernanny (ABC) promised relief, I paid attention. This reality program dispatches a “top” British nanny to U.S. families who’ve answered “yes” to the above questions (The format was developed in the United Kingdom; when ABC won the bidding war over the United States version, Fox developed a virtual clone called Nanny 911). Reversing the power dynamics of domestic servitude, the nanny surveills everyday life inside the home, corrects faulty parenting and implements new household management techniques. She doesn’t stay long, for the goal is to swiftly educate before moving on to “save” the next stressed out family. Like so much popular instruction on television today, Supernanny does make ordinary difficulties more visible–but it ultimately ignores material conditions (daycare crisis anyone?) and places the impetus to improve and reform on individuals.

The program opens with Jo Frost in a posh English cab, watching video footage of the week’s needy family on her laptop computer. With her British accent, authoritative demeanor and nostalgic Mary Poppins-like appearance (matronly dress suit, tight bun, umbrella), she’s marked as clearly “different” from the masses of female childcare workers, shamefully devalued as they are in the United States. That’s important, because after observing “family dynamics” and taking mental notes for a brief period, Frost establishes tyrannical rule over the household. After explaining where the adults have gone wrong, she introduces a “tried-and-true” approach to domestic science based on the principles of order and discipline. No matter how large trouble looms, it can be eradicated with a Household Routine, a list of Household Rules, and a methodical approach to handling the children’s misbehavior. Of course, achieving domestic nirvana does take effort: “It’s a tough lesson for a parent to retrain themselves,” explains one frazzled mother.

The episodes are highly redundant, with a revolving cast of exhausted mothers, peripheral fathers, and preschool children who commit such unpardonable misdemeanors as bickering with siblings, talking back to parents, snacking between meals and throwing the occasional temper tantrum. While its hard to watch Supernanny cast these kids as deviants (more on that later), I do appreciate the chance to see overworked mothers with eyebags the size of mine on television. Since the double shift is still deeply gendered, Frost pitches her lessons in domestic time-management to the women. On one episode, Mom manages the family plumbing business from home, while also doing the housework and caring for two youngsters. She’s wiped out to the point of tears, but the program promises to “fix her broken spirit” in less than two weeks. Toward that end, Frost systematizes her workday with a color-coded, wall-sized schedule, allowing several hours “off” from the business to focus exclusively on the misbehavior-prone children (the time is made up in the evening when they are in bed).

On another episode, Mom works full-time as a telemarketer, while also keeping house and tending for preschool twins and a nine-year old. She thought working from home would facilitate more “mommy time” (and reduce childcare costs), but her “flexible” job has become a living nightmare. We see her perched at the living room computer taking calls on a headset while the children run amok; when the inevitable squabbles and mishaps force her to abandon her work station, she worries out loud that her boss will fire her. At the end of the day, she’s so tired she falls asleep with the children, leaving her husband feeling abandoned and single (“unacceptable,” according to Frost, who fails to suggest that he help out more). While it remains unclear exactly how an improved Household Routine can help this woman, there’s no mention of hiring a babysitter, let alone corporate reforms like subsidized on-site daycare. Like many of the makeover/advice programs now populating television, as in James Hay’s latest Flow article, Supernanny values self-reliance over “dependency” and social upheaval.

While household routines are important, domestic harmony also requires compliant children. At least one child per episode is branded as trouble, and the problem is blamed on faulty parenting. Occasionally parents are lectured for shouting and/or using force, but most of the time they’re charged with softness and leniency. To “prevent bad habits” from breeding and show kids that the “adults are in charge,” Frost establishes a non-negotiable set of Household Rules (no sassing, no aggressive play, no picky eating) and shows how to enforce them rationally. Each week, she demonstrates the same step-by-step approach to discipline, beginning with a “warning in a low tone” and culminating with a punitive trip to the “naughty mat” (the information also appears in captions, extending the lesson to TV viewers at home). She also demonstrates “tried and tested” methods for regularizing bedtime. To ensure the techniques will be properly implemented in her absence, Frost monitors the home via surveillance cameras for a few days; if Mom forgets a disciplinary step or Junior decides to climb out of bed, it’s all caught on camera. In the final review session, these mistakes are duly noted and the process is fine-tuned.

Supernanny is not entirely unhelpful, but it does reduce the complex and subjective practice of parenting to a rote behavioral science. It’s worth noting as well that the docile, predictable, routinized and (eventually) self-disciplined children it teaches parents to help produce, are precisely the sort of citizens-in-training that late capitalism depends upon. Perhaps someday television will address the many challenges of contemporary parenting (particularly for working mothers) with more substance. Until then, Supernanny is casting . . .

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Please feel free to comment.


  • I have to admit that this is one of those reality television shows I’ve been ashamedly drawn to watching. Of course, as Ms. Ouellette points out, some of the situations are contrived, but nonetheless, as a non-parent, I am aghast at the behavior of the “naughty” children. Most importantly though, is how Ms. Ouellette points out how the show ignores the current realities of working parents’ options. And let’s not forget how much more damaging this show might be in light of the recent controversy and compelled discussion after Lawrence Summers’ remarks. In conclusion, I just have to say that I’m happy I don’t have to either be sent or send someone else to a “naughty spot” these days.

  • Too much

    We do too much, we want too much and we don’t get to spend any focused time with our kids. I know my children couldn’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny Economics being what they are, most families have a dual income just to make do so kids wind up in childcare which can be outrageously expensive. Kids know when parents are frazzled and they respond to it in kind. Not out of malice, but chaos can breed chaos. Slowing everything down would do wonders for the kids and parents.

    Regardless, I’m always suspicious of shows that are designed to let us the viewer sit back and feel superior to “them”. “my kids never act that way” The parents featured give up authority to a stranger who knows little about their situation, as well as to a corporation (cameras, crew workers) who’s only real interest is in the profit margin. Not only that, but they are putting their children on television without the children truly bein able to consent. Then they label them as “bad” or “naughty”. I think that ‘s cruel actually, and very selfish of the parent. There are loads of books, therapists, teachers and the like to help people get a handle on parenting. You don’t have to be part of a reality show to improve your life or help your kids.

  • Scarlett Oehlke

    Super Obvious

    This is not to say that I am not highly entertained by this show, but it is completely ridiculous. These methods that the “Supernanny” is using seem so obvious to me. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I’m not a parent, but the parents on these shows just seem dumb. I could take the Supernanny’s place any day. She just marches in there and tells them what they’re doing wrong after observing them for only a few hours. How can she make an accurate assumption in that ammount of time? And of course it’s easy for her to come up with rules and guidelines. She doesn’t have to live there 24/7, so it’s simple for her to make the rules seem easy to follow. Also, they make some of these children out to be such trouble makers, when the reality probably isn’t quite as harsh. Who knows how long the cameras were in the house trying to capture a tantrum or outburst on film? And who says the kids weren’t provoked? I pretty much agree with Ouellette in this case. Supernanny might make a few good points, but for the most part, she’s only pointing out obvious solutions to common problems.

  • Forgetful nanny

    I have only watched this show a couple of times, but then stopped because it didn’t seem “realistic enough” I guess. You have this “super nanny” come into your home and in just a couple of hours tell you what is wrong with your family and what you need to do to fix it. I am not a parent myself, but I have older sisters who are and struggle with raising their children while they are forced to take on double shifts constantly since they are also single moms. I thought this show would actually help them in giving ideas as to how to handle certain situations, but it doesn’t really, it makes things seem as if they were just black and white and no in between areas. It doesn’t give alternatives or takes into consideration that not all parents can do certain things for their children, even though they wish they could.

  • Vanessa Freeman

    Nanny Does Her Job

    I personally love watching Super Nanny, however, I know that I do not have kids of my own and therefore can not fully understand some of the objections that a “real mom” might have to the show. I’ll be the first one to admit that the episodes are entirely redundant, but maybe that is done simply to show how the same methods can work on families that have different backgrounds and a wide variety of problems. Her techniques are fairly basic, however they are often overlooked by parents. Yes, parents today do have a lot of responsibilities with jobs, kids, and their personal lives. This show does fail to condider many of the “material conditions” of parents, but I think that its main goal is to reinforce those basic discipline principles that parents understandably forget while trying to keep up with the chaos in their lives. The Super Nanny is entertainment when you get down to it, but at least people can take a few bits and pieces out of it to possibly use in bettering their own lives.

  • Cameron Pirzadeh

    super nannies!

    Ouellette brings up some good points, especially in lieu of the at-times ubiquitous presence of nanny shows. I like how she points out that this show is indicative of the self-help trend on television in general, not just reality TV — this show thus isn’t that much different from, say, “Dr. Phil,” a show that also relies on the common participants’ willingness and need to help themselves. I admire the parents’ and others’ aim at self-reliance, and certainly their home lives draw enough of our sympathy, and Ouellette correctly points where the fault in these shows mainly lie (aside from the obviously incorrect parenting techniques, of course). I also don’t plan on being on being a parent, in part because of the chaos kids can bring that make mincemeat of mothers like the exhausted ones on this show. Even so, the discipline exhibited on “Supernanny” seems like half common sense and half totalitarian leadership. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s unnecessary viewing, but as Ouelette points out it’s also gendered in its assumptions of who leads and who must do the major pulling. Of course, this seems tossed aside in favor of shaping a weekly story arc, and as always antagonists must be present; ostensibly, the kids must fill this role, and it’s sad to think these kids are somewhat seen as avenues of control. Ouelette touches on this and briefly also that these kids are future capitalist clones, which is so accepted/unnoticed by all parents that I’m glad she at least

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  • Super…

    While I haven’t seen Super Nanny, I seen plenty of similar programming, the most ridiculous being the Jenny Jones/Jerry Springer “Help My Terrible Teen!” episodes in which the bad seed is taken into the woods and screamed at by a large man in a military uniform. Not only do I find these shows completely boring, but I think it’s also an insult to parenting. The notion that a 2-hour “Boot Camp” or visit from a “Super Nanny” can solve all household problems is absurd. Cameron, in the above comment, draws a parallel to Dr. Phil, a show which I think is equally bizarre in its assumption that a stern talking-to by burly Dr. Phil will straighten out a marriage. Shows like these are about as realistic as traditional narrative-based fare like daytime soaps and nighttime dramas, except the performances seem even more forced. Perhaps I would understand the appeal behind these family fix-it shows if I could see the entertainment value, but I just can’t. It would be interesting to see what demographic watches Super Nanny. I’d think it would be young mothers, but from the comments here, it seems that Super Nanny attracts other viewers as well.

  • Supernanny saves the day

    I believe that Supenanny can appeal to a large demographic, drawing in people with the shock factor of ‘naughty’, ‘misbehaving’ children. I know that my roommate and I occasionally find ourselves shaking our heads at the less than delightful kids that are featured on the program. I am not so sure that the children quite fit the description of the little hellions that Supernanny makes them out to be, as sometimes they are just normal kids with normal behavior problems that are enhanced through the wonders of reality TV editing techniques. As one watches the show, those kids always seem to be up to no good, resulting in frazzled parents and frightened family pets.

    Yet I think the show does have some merit. There are usually some simple and effective solutions that the Supernanny offers to fix minor or major behavior problems. A lot of the time it just seems like parents’ inability to enforce what they say helps the child to manipulate them and get away with quite a bit. The Supernanny calls attention to details that have escaped the parents’ attention because, after all, she is supposedly a professional who has seen it all, and they are just adults unwittingly thrown into their parental roles and trying their best to raise their children correctly.

    So in reply to Molly’s comment, I can see where shows such as Supernanny and Dr. Phil can help. They may not necessarily be the quick fix that people hope them to be, but they are certainly a start. They call attention to reoccurring domestic problems and hopefully allow some people to feel that they are not alone in their domestic squabbles. Perhaps because so many people feel as if they glean ideas from the show, they watch each week to learn more as well as to play the role of the voyeur. In regards to such shocking and sordid shows as Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, they are in a completely different league of their own. That is a subject that deserves an article all its own. ;]

  • Karolyn McKenzie

    In Austin

    Nanny 911 or one of these shows will be casting in Austin this week (May 9). I heard about it on the radio. Your kids have to be over 2 and you have to have more than 2 kids. I am also interested in these Nanny shows. I haven’t had the chance to really sit down and watch one, but mom watches it every week and is convinced she is going to have to call the nanny on the kids down the street. I agree with Liz when she say that they might let people they are not alone in thier problems with thier kids. This show might encourage mothers to crack down on their kids. I also think this kind of show will fade quickly off the air just like all reality shows are these days. It is just another something to put on the air to get ratings.

  • Mary-Kate Tate

    RE: Nanny TV

    After realizing that “Mega-Memory” was a waste of $19.95, “David Dikeman’s Command Performance Dog Training” videos actually required more than just watching them, and “Nads” all-natural hair removal gel was NOT “surprisingly free of pain,” I gave up on quick-fixes. I think my bad experiences with these “fast, cure-all” products (among others) are why I was immediately turned off by the Supernanny program advertisements. How can a show promise to fix deep rooted parent/child issues and behavioral problems in less than two weeks? I passed it off as another gimmick designed to target parents, one of whom I am not. Now admittedly, I’ve never seen the Supernanny and Laurie Oullette’s article is my first real glimpse at it, but I’ll offer my opinion anyway. Learning parenting techniques and cultivating respectful relationships within a family are long-term processes. I think parents know this and aren’t going to be fooled by any show. Parents just want to see other parents dealing with their same problems- “to see overworked mothers with eyebags” just like theirs. So, as predictable and redundant as the show may be, parents will continue to tune in to see themselves.

  • Really… are you guys for real? As you put it… Super Nanny might ‘state the obvious’ in certain situations… but it’s because it has always been overlooked by parents when she has had to. The suggestions she makes are useful and work – whether the parent be working full-time paid or at home with the child. Tell me a programme where the advise she offers doesn’t work? Anybody with even half a brain can see that just spending that extra little bit of time to think before dealing with a situation can go a long way and the points she puts forward are simple and effective. So please… give the good lady a break – she hasn’t made a career for herself by offering dud advice! Just because some parents work and children have to go into ‘day care’ is a lame excuse to say that her points won’t work. This is the 21st century -day care centres usually apply similar strategies as Jo Frosts anyway and as most parents find – their ‘disruptive’ child isn’t usually disruptive when at nursery… so lets be real… take the advice she offers… try it for a little while… and wait to see the improvements before just writing her off.

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