There was exactly one word in my mind when I woke up this morning: unacceptable (pronounced, primly and Britishly, as un-ass-sep-ta-ble.) I had one of those low-grade, pre-coffee depressions that makes everything – from the fact that so far no one wants to buy my novel to the fact that my husband had stolen all the blankets in his sleep – seem like my life had taken a hopeless, soul-destroying turn for the worse. But I thought of my higher power, Jo Frost, and rallied.
I got up when my alarm went off for the sake of my ROUTINE (#3 on Jo’s ten-step path to taking control of your household). On the way to the subway, I bought the paper and saw my byline in it. “Good job!” I told myself. (PRAISE & REWARDS is #1). This guy on the subway wouldn’t take his goddamned backpack off because he had no goddamned sense of BOUNDARIES (#4). But I showed RESTRAINT (#8). “You’re the adult here,” I told myself, quoting Jo, and took a deep breath (RELAXATION is #10).
My obsession with Supernanny, the profound and important child-rearing reality show on ABC (Mondays, 10 p.m. Eastern) has maybe gotten a little out of control. I bought the book: Supernanny: How to Get the Best from Your Children, and read it in one day. I watch almost no TV, but last Monday found myself eyeing the clock over a bar and inching away from my friends at 9:45 so I could sprint home.
For those who haven’t seen it, the hourlong show operates by a strict formula: Jo Frost arrives at the home of some suburban family in crisis, spends some time observing them and taking notes while looking startled for the sake of the camera. Then she tells the parents, whom she refers to as “the pair of you,” what she’s seen transpire. She begins positively: “How wonderful! You have five children under the age of five! You should be very proud!” Then she drops a bomb, “However, you have clearly lost control of your home.”
To help them regain control, she brings in a family routine written in marker and posts it on the wall, then teaches the pair of them how to discipline their children (a “naughty step” figures prominently). She offers techniques for getting the kids to go to bed without drama (the sleep separation technique), go to the supermarket without throwing tantrums (the involvement technique) and stop clinging (the off-the-hip technique).
The parents always question her motives at first, but always wind up weeping into the camera about how Jo saved their lives and put the spark back into their marriage. “We have time alone together now,” one electrified mother reports, post-Jo. “I just hope we don’t make any more twins!”
At first I thought my perverse fascination with these alien scenarios stemmed from my desire to have kids some day. I think it’s natural to abstractly plan ahead for hypothetical future events, the way teen girls sometimes buy wedding magazines. Sure, I probably won’t have a toddler for at least a few years, but if I do, and he or she refuses to sit at the table for meals, I’ll be prepared!
Then I thought I was obsessed with the show because I grew up in a glamorous, relatively unstructured urban household, and I tend to fetishize those big, boring suburban houses with swingsets out back and frumpy mothers in the laundry room, even though I get anxious when I’m anywhere close to such places in real life.
But no, I think I’ve finally figured it out: the show is not about child-rearing at all. Jo gives you a secure, happy feeling.Supernanny may come in handy for people trying to learn parenting techniques, but only because it comes in handy for everyone. Those ten rules certainly apply to toilet training and bedtime, but they also apply to every situation one encounters in a given day.
On a micro level, Jo provides time-saving tricks, like laying out clothes the night before a difficult workday. But on a grander scale, she gives you a secure, happy feeling, as if there were no work stress that couldn’t be reduced, no faltering friendship that couldn’t be repaired, no lousy day that couldn’t be salvaged, no behavioral problem (your own, your spouse’s, your friend’s or your boss’s) that couldn’t be eliminated and replaced by a gentle, generous manner. That’s something non-parents need to keep in mind, too.
I wrote this for another magazine pre-baby, and then got to interview Jo Frost for the New York Times. She was just as awesome as I imagined.