Hooray for Supernanny (National Post, February 9, 2005)

I used to observe, with affectionate condescension, my father watching boxing on the little black and white TV in our leave-it-to-Beaver '50s-era den. He got right into it: jabbing, weaving, frowning, shouting, muttering, cajoling, scolding, cheering. How, I wondered, could any adult get that involved in a spectator sport?

Now I understand. I recently discovered television's Supernanny (ABC, Mondays, 10 p.m.) Supernanny is Jo Frost, a veteran British nanny who has parlayed traditional common sense, a warm, no-nonsense personality and above all a British accent betokening authority the world over into fortune and celebrity.

Every week, Supernanny sojourns with selected middle-class parents rich in good will, but poor in disciplinary self-confidence. She spends a day observing the dysfunction they've created, then gently critiques them. Next day Supernanny arrives with a strict routine and calmly enforced but rigorous behavioural guidelines. She supervises their implementation from the sidelines. Within two weeks, wailing bedlam has segued into domestic harmony, brats into model citizens. The natural order is restored. Parents are benevolent sovereigns, children are respectful subjects.

In one episode, cameras followed Barbara Jeans, mother of four-year-old Andra and three-year-old twins Jessie and Leah, through a typical day, highlighting awesomely lawless behaviour. Mum was sweet and loving, but totally ineffectual. The tyrannical Andra hit her sisters constantly, screamed and kicked at her parents, ran wild in the supermarket. All three were in tears most of the day.

And there I was, on the edge of the sofa, not unlike my vicariously boxing father, frowning, muttering, scolding, coaching: "Don't let her mouth off like that!" "Make her stay home with her father and take the twins to the store!" "Put her in her room till she behaves!" "Send her away from the table when she acts up!" "You need a routine!"

The domestic melodrama and Supernanny's transformative power captivate me. The families differ in superficial ways, but they have in common the fact that the parents are intimidated by their children. They act as though their children could, if they chose to, demote or fire them.

Supernanny's nostalgic values set me to reminiscing about my own early motherhood. Like Supernanny I was elitist and controlling rather than egalitarian and laissez-faire. In our common notion of parenthood a child's egoistic impulses never trump a parent's reasonable intolerance for brattiness. My love was unconditional, but my good humour and loving kindness were very conditional indeed.

It's all very different now. Young parents are much nicer than I was. Supernanny's clients and the young parents I see, my own kids and their friends included, seem to have infinite patience and inexhaustible compassion for their children. They display a selfless willingness to physically devote themselves to round the clock child care, leaving almost no time at all for their own pursuits. Many actually sleep with their babies, which seems to me to verge on masochism, since with a modicum of parental stone-heartedness, any healthy baby can be conditioned to sleep alone within a week, and more or less on cue.

So much have things changed since my day that I feel like a visiting anthropologist when in the homes of modern parents. Casting an eye over a typical nursery and playroom, I see the familiar crib, changing table and toys, yes, yes, but where is the sanity-preserving tool that my friends and I swore by? Something square, squat -- and to one who weighs less than 35 lbs -- as escape-proof as Gitmo?

I speak of the playpen, of course, a sine qua non for my generation of mothers, but unknown to modern mums. The attitudinal gap between us was exposed with startling clarity in the planning of my daughter's recent baby shower. In a discussion of her gift list, I suggested adding a playpen. Her girlfriend, a mother of two, sweetly inquired, "What's that?"

My explanation elicited an alarmed stare. To this nicer generation, a playpen is a "prison." But I must protest. I found it to be the one indispensable accessory for teaching baby humility, autonomy and resourcefulness. It's where my babies routinely and happily spent at least two hours a day, discovering amusement must sometimes come from within, and that the world -- mother -- doesn't spin around them every waking moment. It is baby's own little kingdom, within whose moated keep he exercises perfect independence in security, while mummy, also autonomous, does chores (or, let's be honest, reads a book,) without guilt or fear for baby's safety.

I hope Supernanny will address the playpen issue in the book she is publishing this month. I feel sure she would approve of them. She's all about boundaries, is Supernanny, because good boundaries help good parents raise good children.
© National Post 2005