Does 'Supernanny' know best?
New TV shows help parents overcome their reluctance to discuss discipline.
NEW YORK — For Jen and Bryce Bullard, learning a new parenting style started with a trip to Target. It was there that a scout for the reality show "Supernanny" noticed their sons acting up and invited the Colorado family to participate in the new TV series, which debuted in January.
Allowing a British nanny - and millions of Americans - into their home for a parenting makeover was a major step for the Bullards, who had not confided in many people about the discipline issues they were having with their sons, ages 6 and 2.
"Before, I was so embarrassed to talk to anybody about the problems," Mrs. Bullard says in a phone interview. "You sit at home and you think ... 'My children are ... so crazy.' But really, other parents are going through it, too."
Talking with others about discipline problems is becoming easier for parents, thanks to shows such as "Supernanny" and "Nanny 911," as well as the Internet - where moms and dads use discussion boards and personalized web logs, or blogs, to document their experiences raising kids. Even people who don't have children are suggesting in online forums and newspapers that today's parents could use some pointers on how to keep their kids in check.
Parents are often aware that they need help figuring out how to discipline their children - even without the judging eyes of mallgoers. The trouble is, they don't always know where to turn for assistance, or whether it's too late to change the habits of their households.
What the prime-time TV shows are offering, say some experts, is a way for people to see that it's never too late.
"It really is getting out there an awareness that you can learn parenting skills," says Donna Nelson, director of the Parenting Center at Children's Hospital in New Orleans and chairman of the National Parenting Education Network. "It's really making everybody talk about this - that you can change how you're parenting, and can learn communication skills and discipline skills that make a difference in your life and your kid's life."
A host of influences affect parents' approach to discipline - from a desire to avoid techniques their own parents used, such as spanking, to a reluctance to dole out punishment during the precious time away from work they have to spend with their offspring. Today's parents, in common with many in the past, also have gained a reputation as a generation that would rather be friends with their children than disciplinarians.
"It's not fun to discipline a child," says Miriam Arond, editor in chief of Child magazine. "This is a group of parents that has really waited to have their kids oftentimes ... and they're really looking forward to this as the best, wonderful time in their life. And this is not the fun part."
In 2002, Child surveyed several thousand parentsabout discipline, and 70 percent said parents today let their kids get away with too much. Ninety-one percent said discipline is less strict now than when they were growing up.
Parents working hard outside the home - or those dealing with kids each day at home - may be too tired to fight discipline battles, suggests Ms. Arond. "Setting limits is actually a pretty demanding job, because you have to repeat yourself."
It's important for people to be willing to ask for help when they need it, says "Supernanny" Jo Frost in a phone interview.
"Don't be too proud, don't play martyr and supermom," says Ms. Frost, author of the recent book "Supernanny: How to Get the Best From Your Children." "It's OK to say, 'You know what, this isn't working for me. I'm not happy with this, I want to change it.' "
In Bullard's case, she and her husband run a plumbing business, and before Frost came in and set aside specific time for focusing on the children, Bullard spent a lot of time juggling work calls and her kids. She says she didn't discipline them much because the time she did spend with them would end up being consumed by fighting.
After her family's appearance on the show, she says, things are different. "We've gotten the control back in our house, so there's not as much testing the limits."
All the theories out there today about parenting can lead some moms and dads to say they feel self-conscious about the job they're doing - not sure if they're keeping up with the latest techniques and executing them correctly. Bullard says she and her husband knew about timeouts, for example, but not how to make them work effectively until Frost showed them.
One of Frost's techniques is having a "naughty" stool, mat, or room, where kids are sent to cool off - one minute for each year of their age. Parents must warn the child, she says, before using the naughty stool. If the bad behavior continues, mom or dad physically gets down on the child's level to talk about why he or she is being disciplined. An apology is expected at the end of the stool time.
(Ms. Nelson, of Children's Hospital, suggests it would be better if parents call it a "timeout" stool or something that changes the tone to suggest that the behavior, rather than the child, is naughty or bad.)
"For some reason, 'Supernanny' doesn't make me feel guilty like all those parenting magazines I stopped subscribing to," says Diane Danielson, a single mother in the Boston area, who has a 5-year-old son. "They just made me feel terrible about everything I'm not doing perfectly."
She often turns to the Internet when she has questions about her son's behavior. She'd like to see the TV shows tackle issues facing single moms - such as how to balance constructive play with household duties like cooking and cleaning.
Experts give the shows mixed marks, but many do like the way that the nannies stress the importance of routines, consistency, and clear expectations and consequences. Lack of consistency on following through with punishment is the biggest problem Supernanny Frost sees when it comes to discipline.
"A lot of parents give empty threats time and time again," she says. Parents invite disrespectful behavior when they allow their children to hit them without any consequences, for example.
That's something parents wouldn't allow from anyone else, she says, so why allow it from their kids?
Nina Priorie, a Long Island mom who appeared on "Nanny 911" - which returns to Fox later this season - has an 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old quadruplets and says her home is less chaotic than it was before Nanny Stella, one of several on the show, arrived to help her and her husband come up with strategies for disciplining their brood. They are still in touch with Stella, who encouraged them to reduce the amount of yelling in their home, and to implement systems for rewarding good behavior.
She and others who've participated in the TV programs say they now talk much more with other moms and dads about strategies and problems. "You wouldn't believe the things we're learning about our neighbors and our friends," jokes Mrs. Priorie, who was surrounded by moms asking her questions about parenting during a recent school field trip.
"I'm really glad that we did this show," says Bullard, "because it helped us be able to communicate better with other parents."