`Nanny' shows helping parents

Watching problems that other families face proves instructive

Family Matters

February 27, 2005|By Stephanie Dunnewind | Stephanie Dunnewind,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Overwhelmed parents and out-of-control kids are prime-time TV fodder these days, but it's not just for sitcom laughs anymore.

Viewers of Fox's Nanny 911 and ABC's Supernanny are finding dysfunctional real-life families entertaining and even educational - if parents are willing to spend their free time watching someone else's children throw tantrums. After a day with their own kids, it may be a little too much reality for some.

The competing shows place a no-nonsense British nanny in a chaotic home with wild kids and ineffective parents. The nanny observes, tsk-tsks, offers some tough-love advice to parents and imposes control. The programs intersperse interviews with parents and nannies with repeated shots of kids hitting, crying, refusing to go to bed and pitching fits.

"When I saw (Nanny 911), I got excited that a show focused on parenting issues," said Thelma Dirkes of Parent Trust for Washington Children, a Seattle nonprofit that works to prevent child abuse. Despite some drawbacks, "it promotes good, positive parenting techniques and shows that spanking and yelling are tools that don't really work."

Supernanny, based on a British show of the same title with the same nanny, Jo Frost, premiered Jan. 17. Frost also wrote a book, Supernanny: How to Get the Best From Your Children (Hyperion, 2005, $14.95).

Nanny 911, which made its premiere in the fall, rotates several nannies with different families. It's now on hiatus, but Fox is shooting more episodes.

"These shows address real anxieties that parents feel, that they're not good enough parents and their kids are not as successful as they want them to be," said Steven Mintz of Houston, co-chair of the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families.

Feels `like spying'

With fewer ties to extended family, "we often know very little about how others live," said Mintz. "These shows are peepholes into other people's private lives." And let's face it: "People have always liked spying on their neighbor," said author and University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz. "This is just applying the reality TV formula to a new location."

Much of the advice is common sense, but parents don't always realize they're not following it. "We don't see how bad it is when we do it," said Schwartz, noting the shows serve as a sort of mirror. "But watching another parent on TV, it's `Wow, is that what I look like when I yell?' "

The shows' archetypes - overwhelmed moms who don't discipline, uninvolved dads and dictatorial tots - offer a lesson on what not to do, said former Seattle nanny Zipporah Lomax. "A little bit of structure and consistency go a long way," she said. "Nanny 911 shows that pretty clearly."

Viewers will fall into two camps: "Those terrible parents!" and "Hmm, I've done that."

After watching an episode where the parents yelled constantly, one couple decided to change. "We only have two kids, but it gets loud in our house a lot," noted a December posting on the Nanny 911 message board. "So I said to my husband, `If they can do it, why can't we?'

"My 8-year-old son woke up yelling at me. I got close to him and told him that we are not yelling in this house anymore. That morning was the hardest!"

But after two weeks, "my house is a much more peaceful place."

On the other side is a parent writing on the Seattle Craig's List forum. "The shows make me realize I'm a great parent. Sure, there is always room for improvement, but I'm nowhere close to being as out of control." But that doesn't make for good TV. "My 3-year-old, and 1-year-old twins and I would bore viewers to tears."

Worst of week distilled

For dramatic purposes, the shows distill a week's worth of interaction into an hour, with repeated clips of the kids' most dreadful manners. Imagine the worst minutes of your worst day flickering on screen over and over. (Nanny 911 gives participants a prize, such as a trip, at the end; in Supernanny, a calmer household is the reward.)

"What the nanny reality shows (and other popular shows, like Desperate Housewives) reveal through their depiction of dramatic situations is that all parents, at one time or another, will probably feel as though they need some help," noted Alaina Smith, placement coordinator for The Seattle Nanny Network. "The results of seeking assistance in the form of an experienced caregiver can be enormously beneficial."

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