Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Supernanny (and my dog)

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.


Matt said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed how similar raising small children is to training a dog.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

For a mostly opposite viewpoint, see this essay by Alfie Kohn: "If you can bear to sit through them, the nanny programs provide a fairly reliable guide for how not to raise children. They also offer an invitation to think about the pervasiveness of pop-behaviorism and our hunger for the quick fix."

Anonymous said...

okay, please bear with me, i'm gonna cut loose a little here...speaking as a parent, i'm a big fan of kohn, and i also happen to find supernanny's biases - such as her stated belief that breastfeeding past six months is harmful - to be retro, unscientific and in any case annoying. but aside from all that, i feel a reaction to all this talk of a return to obedience, and analogizing children to pets. as recently as the 50's children were expected to be seen and not heard, to not speak until spoken to, etc. we can thank that notion of behavior, along with the pseudo-psychology of skinner, and our cradle-to-grave indoctrination to be loyal consumers, for our current obedient acquiescence to totalitarianism. it's very fashionable to blame the 60's for everything, but the real reason kids are out of control these days isn't lack of discipline - it's boredom, and our dutiful enforcement of a culture that requires it in order to make us all good employees. when i see a kid screaming in a restaurant, i don't wince and wish his parents would reel him in - inside i am screaming with that child, and feel the urge to shout, "me too, i'm bored out of my fucking skull by this restaurant and all the boring grownups in it, too." sorry to be so contrarian and unreasonable, but there it is.

chicago pop said...

A few points of clarification, as I sit here polishing my jack-boots and snapping my horse-whip, throwing bloody T-Bone steaks to my pack of German shepherds: I won't argue with anyone that Supernanny is Superficial, (Kohn), that some of her techniques are questionable if not perhaps wrong (Kohn and r@d@r and loads of people on the Right as well as the Left). That's all quite fair, and I neglected to emphasize all those points in this essay. In fact, there has never been a historically stable model of how to parent; the equivalent of self-help parenting manuals go back hundreds of years in the West, at least. I'm speaking from the perspective of the parent of a <1 year old child, in which case the analogy to dog behavior -- no insult in my book at all, as there are loads of quite liberal dog owners -- is immediately apparent. The role of reason in parenting obviously becomes more important for older toddlers.

But where I'll stick to my guns is in the following: there's a lot of room, I think, between "rules" and "tyranny"; discipline and reason are not mutually exclusive (in fact, reason requires rules of thought, i.e., logic, which is a form of intellectual discipline); and I think it's extremely difficult to map politics directly on to parenting practices. Blurring these distinctions, as Kohn does in the piece Jeremy linked to, is rhetorically satisfying, but empirically muddling.

The issue of boredome and lack of free play that r@d@r brings up -- for kids or adults, for him and for me -- is a big issue in the social science I've read that tries to explain what I do think is an uptick in child misbehavior, among white middle classes, at least. As an aside, most of the neighbors on my block are black, and I can guarantee you that among them there is no doubt whatsoever about the value of firm rules and expectations in the raising of children. This debate is highly conditioned along racial lines.

But let's assume that politics and the tendency towards authoritarianism/totalitarianism DO map onto rule-based child-rearing.
My wife and I should vote Republican, which we don't. We should be socially conservative, which we aren't. In fact, we are both Jewish, which is the world's most rule-based culture if ever there was one, and yet like most American Jews, are deeply suspicious of political authority for obvious political reasons. That contradiction in and of itself should be enough to disprove the assertion that rule-following in domestic life leads to political submission in public life.

And, as I mentioned above, loads of dog trainers are Democrats!

Anonymous said...

To r@d@r,

It seems to me that part of what a parent should be doing is teaching his/her bored child that there are appropriate ways to relieve that boredom when in a restaurant (e.g., coloring quietly, trading stories around the family, or even screaming on the inside vs. the outside) and surrounded by other people who are looking (and paying)to relax and enjoy themselves there.

Not only does this encourage kids initiate creative solutions to the boredom problem (which seems like it would make them less likely to become passive automatons), but it also fosters an awareness of how to be considerate of others, even if you are bored to death. In my book, that makes it possible for us to live civilly with each other.

chicago pop said...

I would add further that, based on my experience as a University educator, and the experiences of my colleagues in higher education and in university health services, who deal constantly with young adults, there is actually very little support for the idea that the present generation of college-aged people has been turned into either passive corporate automata, or politically quietist "authoritarian personalities." These are phobias that originated in the New Left 40 years ago -- and had some degree of worthiness in helping to understand the experience of fascism even earlier in the century -- but they do not apply to today's reality.

That reality is that your average college student is more narcissistic, demanding, with higher expectations of education as a commodity that is being purchased, accustomed to far greater financial and emotional support from parents regarding life-choices well into and beyond the college years; and one that is, quite contrary to the vision of a Fritz Lang worker-drone shuffling into the factory, in fact proving much more difficult than ever to assimilate to the work-discipline of modern corporate life.

The world does not revolve around me; nor does it revolve around my child. The absence of a structure of expectations for civil behavior and respect for others delays this lesson, to the detriment of the child and society. The sooner she learns that that we live with others, the better. It is perhaps the first rule, from which all others must follow: the reality principle.

Anonymous said...

r@d@r and Chicago Pop actually say the same thing. We must make sure that the standards our kids are expected to conform to are realistic, fair, and humane. If our rules are arbitrary, inhumane, or overly strict, or if there are simply too sodding many of them, then we as parents have failed. Not the kid. In some cases rebellion is a proof that the kid is actually SANE.

We really need to define what we mean by "misbehaviour". There are people out there who seriously mistake ANY sign of frustration as uttered by a small child for "misbehaviour". We have to protect society from our kids' misbehaviour, and we have to protect our kids from some people's opinions. Sometimes there ARE situations when the only fair thing you can say to someone complaining about your weeping child is "tough shit". (Or a polite equivalent thereof.)