Spot's mother does something that I call "the stare." It's a technique of intimidation, overlooked by the Pentagon, but legal and quite effective in civilian life, that she whips out in public places like restaurants or at the mall. The first few times I saw her use it, long before we got married, it scared me. So you can imagine the effect it has on kids whose parents are too busy with their cell phones to keep them from pulling all the shoes off the table at Macy's.
Our discussions about "the stare" were our first real discussions about parenting, over the course of which I learned that we came at the issue from the same angle. Children should be expected to behave in public, and if this was impossible, then children should be removed from public. From these two axioms an entire ethical system was evolved, in which the fundamentals of raising a small child turned out to be not that different from the fundamentals of training a dog -- something we happen to have some experience doing. Reward positive behavior, withhold rewards for undesirable behavior, and provide a firm framework of consistent rules. I can't tell you how many times I've caught myself asking my wife, "Honey, should I put Spot in the crate?"
It turns out that this micro-philosophy of parenting, like most things involving the details of how we live our daily lives, is not quite common sense. If it were, then reality TV shows like ABC's Supernanny wouldn't have become so popular. I tuned in to Supernanny a few months ago on the advice of fellow blogger Jeremy Smith, and subsequently had the strange experience of spending an hour every week with what seemed like most of my friend's children.
I exaggerate, of course. The kids on Supernanny are awful, but the family resemblances were striking. In my own anecdotal way, I had seen the same scenes from Portland to New York, from Paris to Taiwan, across cultures and continents. Children that simply would not behave like anything less than the rescue dog you just brought home from the pound, who peed in the middle of the rug, ate your cell phone, and would not stop counter-surfing. Yet people have been training dogs for thousands of years and seem to have gotten the hang of it. What happened to raising children?
That's the great unanswered question posed by the Supernanny shows. Jo Frost, the down-to-earth and supremely confident "parenting consultant" on the show, typically swoops down upon the doorstep of families at wit's end: almost always with 3 kids or more, very often with one parent who is for some reason gone most of the time, and usually living in a low-density, suburban area where there don't seem to be too many people around to help out. The parents readily confess that they are overwhelmed and don't know what to do. Unlike the Rebel Without a Cause teenager of the 50s, the kids aren't out of control; they have taken control.
How did we get here? The most obvious explanation, and the one that jumps off the screen in each of the Supernanny episodes, is that it's not the kids who are the problem, it's their parents. Like dogs, the kids want to know what the rules are. But the parents have forgotten how to be the Alphas. That's the message, in a nutshell, and there's no escaping its conservatism. Or at least, the message is conservative from the perspective of the trend of ever-greater unraveling of social hierarchies in American culture since World War II -- which is not to say it's bad. In fact, as I see it, it represents a swing of the pendulum back to the middle, someplace between the unstructured "free to be me" philosophy of baby-boomer child-rearing, and the iron discipline of their predecessors.
The picture I get from Supernanny is that, yes, a lot of parents have forgotten how to train, nurture, husband, and shape something over the long haul. Partly it's a breakdown of consensus in the larger society as to what the best practices are. Where ethnic or religious traditions have weakened, the empire of TV and paperback self-help techniques grows up to fill the void, by first pointing it out.
As the anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued in her 1934 book, Patterns of Culture, the only way for any patterns to emerge in human behavior is for some combinations to be neglected or ruled out. This requires the existential iron stomach needed to say, "We're going this way, not that." Where the parents on Supernanny might think discipline equals damage, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, discipline equals possibility.
In a parent's terms, that's the possibility of getting a good night's sleep, of not having to wrestle your child to the floor to enforce the smallest request, of a family meal without voluntary regurgitation, of eliminating back-talk, and public wildness. Helping to restore this depleted repertoire of social wisdom is indeed one contribution, as I see it, of the Supernanny phenomenon. Not as good, of course, as having grandma or grandpa around, or the full participation of two parents, but certainly better than nothing, and more than a lot of people have.