Last night I was watching TV and I saw an episode of Supernanny which I have been thinking about ever since. I'm a bit of a Supernanny fan - it's one of my guilty pleasures. In general, I like a lot of her methods and approaches to kids.
For those who have never seen the show, Jo Frost is the ‘Supernanny’ who goes to a different family each week. She observes for a period of time, then implements various strategies and rules and helps the parents to carry them out.
I think she generally communicates well, both with parents and children. She keeps the positive praise coming for both but isn't scared to pull up either the parents or child when needed.
Whilst she seems to have a standard set of 'rules' and 'techniques', I don't believe that she has a 'one size fits all' approach; she seems to tailor her advice and techniques for the individual families' situations. I think that the reason that she appears to have so many standard techniques and rules (for example, the back to bed technique, the schedule, reward charts and of course the infamous Naughty Corner) is that these techniques apply to may of the common issues in families.
Whilst she doesn't explicitly say 'relationships with your children need to come first' she does show this in her actions and techniques. She believes that discipline is appropriate, but that the parents need to have realistic expectations and scaffold the situation too. She thinks that it's reasonable to have the kids playing quietly while Mum cooks dinner - as long as Mum has one on one time with the kids earlier in the day. She tries to 'solve' many problems by having families spend time together doing activities and connecting. Some of her rules do seem a bit formulated and punitive for my liking, but in general they are driven by love.
Her expectations of children’s behaviour are reasonable, and she has a good understanding of what normal behaviour looks like for different children and different ages. I recall one episode where there were two (I think?) young kids who kept climbing up the doorframes and furniture. She deal with this in two ways – there was a rule that there was no climbing in the house, and the kids got taken to the playground in the park every day to ‘shake their sillies out’ (a phrase I borrowed from Playschool, not Supernanny’s). One parent once said to her that his/her toddler would go on the Naughty Spot but would then go back to doing the same misdemeanour – Jo said that the child was probably too young for the Naughty Spot technique to work, and that the parents should deal with the misbehaviour by distraction/ removal instead.
However, I was not impressed by last night’s rerun. I’ve been a little bit angry and upset, but to be honest I’m mostly just disappointed.
I would like to apologise for any errors of recall that I have on the details of the show –I can’t access it again to check the details of the ages, but the main points I have are still valid. I also feel that this would be a prudent time to point out two issues. I realise that Supernanny is primarily an entertainment program. It is highly edited to make it watchable and appealing to the most viewers. I realise that by blogging about this I am giving them free publicity and I’m keeping that well oiled machine moving along – I still feel the need to respond. I realise that the highly edited final show may not be an accurate representation of life in that household, and for me to draw any sort of conclusions requires a lot of assumptions on my part. However, this is inherent of all candid/ how to reality shows and I or any other viewer can only base their opinions on what they are shown. I hope that the conclusions I have reached are appropriate and respectful, and I thank this family for the insight into their lives.
I also realise that, unlike a scripted show, the characters in this show are not characters at all, but real people. I do not mean this blog post to be disrespectful or judgmental or snarky. I am responding in a public medium to something else which the family chose to present to me via a public medium. I hope that if the family in the show or Jo Frost were to read this blog that they would see it as respectful.
The family which Jo went to work with had four kids living with them – a 17yo? nephew who was living with them, a 13?yo son, a 6 yo daughter and a 14 month old daughter, plus Mum and Dad. In general the main problems that the wanted help with were a disrespectful attitude from the 13yo, stressful and dysfunctional bedtime, ineffective discipline (smacking) and general chaos, and the 14 month old’s ‘constant nursing’.
I am not convinced if the last one was actually a problem for the family or not. The mother ran and in home day care (similar to Family Day Care I believe) and the show said that she was constantly nursing. I am not sure if this was actually a problem for the mother, or if she was just convinced that it should be a problem. It was portrayed that the child’s constant feeding was preventing the mother from being able to get on with her day and do things. The child was very clingy, and this was blamed on the breastfeeding. Jo said at one point that if she weaned then the girl would learn that she could play on the floor with some toys where she was ten feet away from her mother and that that could be ok.
Jo said to the mother that it wasn’t her (Jo’s) decision if she should wean or not, and that it was the mother’s prerogative to continue if she wanted. However, it seemed to me that this came across as an ultimatum – keep going as you are and nothing will change (and it will be your fault), or choose to wean to fix the problem. When the mother said that she wanted to wean Jo effectively said that she had made the right decision.
I was pleased to see that Jo acknowledged that breastfeeding and weaning were emotional for the mother, however I do feel that the show made it appear that the mother was only feeding because she had some crazy attachment to breastfeeding her child and the bonding that it had, and that she was worried that she wouldn’t bond with her child anymore if she weaned her.
To be honest, I get quite annoyed when people go on and on about breastfeeding = bonding. Breastfeeding is about so much more than bonding, and bonding is about so much more than breastfeeding. For anyone to imply that one is equivalent to the other is patronising and misguided.
Yes, breastfeeding a toddler can be demanding. However, toddlers can be (are) demanding if they are nursing or not. From what I saw on the show the child seemed to have a need for constant reassurance – this is a normal toddler behaviour - and this need was met in this case by breastfeeding. I don’t see how weaning would remove this child’s separation anxiety, and indeed weaning – especially if it occurs quickly – may intensify the clinginess. Anxious, clingy and demanding toddlers and children can be found everywhere – breastfed or not. I think for Jo/ the show to blame the breastfeeding for the clinginess (rather than to see the ‘constant’ breastfeeding as a comfort measure to relieve said clinginess) shows a lack of understanding of breastfeeding, particularly a toddler.
Jo pointed out that if the child was weeks old, then constant breastfeeding would be ok. This is true. A constantly breastfeeding toddler may or may not be normal – it depends on what’s going on. The child seemed to me to have needs which were being met by breastfeeding. To blame failure to wean for those problems is like saying that I wouldn’t have a messy kitchen if my family didn’t eat, so I’d better hurry up and get them to stop eating – and if I don’t, then the messy kitchen is my fault.
I’ve said before that one of the best things about breastfeeding a toddler is that a lot of the hard work has been done. In general, there are less supply issues, engorgement and rushing home for a feed are things of the past and do you know what – you can say ‘no’ sometimes if you want. There are two people a breastfeeding relationship (usually, sometimes there’re multiples or tandem nurslings but that’s another post…) and both of them need to be happy. However, if one isn’t happy – like Mum in this case (although I’m not convinced that she actually was unhappy with feeding) then changes can be made.
Any changes (or continuing with the situation as is) needs to consider the benefits and disadvantages of all options. In my opinion, this show didn’t do that.
Firstly, what are the benefits of continuing to breastfeed? There are the nutritional and immune benefits of breastfeeding a toddler (none of which got a mention in the show) as well as the comfort benefits. There are also the benefits to mum’s health, like reduced risks of osteoporosis and various cancers. (I would argue that these aren’t benefits, but ‘normal’ and that not doing them is detrimental, but that is also a post for another day…)
The ‘logistical’ benefits of continuing to breastfeed also weren’t considered on the show. This afternoon my 14 month old toddler and I got stuck in traffic –it took us half an hour to go between two sets of traffic lights. I was passing sultanas from our ‘car container’ back to her and thankfully she was happy enough and we made it through the jam, however if we had been stuck in a tunnel or for a longer period of time, then it was good to know that I could have given her a feed if needed. (I only would have done this if the cars were stopped with engines off and people getting out to stretch their legs so please don’t worry about the safety aspects!) If the child is clingy and needs frequent reassurance – again, normal toddler behaviour – then a quick breastfeed may be enough to provide this, and then the toddler is on her way again. Without the option of a breastfeed, the child may become more clingy and need longer, more time consuming reassurance, which will foil the ‘wean to get more time during the day’ plan. A two minute feed to sleep is much faster than a ten minute rock and pat, and a quick night feed often means more sleep for everyone than resettling without a feed, and almost certainly more sleep than heating up a bottle. I’m not saying that non breastfeeding parents can’t cope with a traffic jam or a clingy child – of course all parents have different techniques and breastfeeding is only one. I am pointing out that breastfeeding can be a very useful technique which makes life logistically easier for everyone, including (and sometimes especially) the parents, and therefore I don’t think that it should be discarded without considering its value.
Here we come to perhaps the underlying issue here – I do not believe that Jo Frost values the breastfeeding of a toddler. One of the biggest indicators of this was her language. She constantly referred to breastfeeding as ‘nursing’. At one stage she said in a talking head segment (and I’m paraphrasing, like I said I don’t have access to the recording to check the wording) ‘The mother is walking around all day with the baby hanging off her hip or worse – um, how do I say it – or hanging off her breast!’ as if feeding a toddler was something extreme and shameful and for behind doors only. She claimed that the child wanted to use mum’s breast as a pacifier – that shows a lack of understanding. A pacifier is a breast substitute, not the other way around (and I say this as a mother who has used a dummy since Chubs was days old.) Both Jo and the show demonstrated that breastfeeding is not something which polite people discuss in public. I think this points to a fundamental underlying attitude where breastfeeding, at least beyond the newborn stage, is not valued. As I said above, the advantages of weaning (although I’m not convinced that they will work) were not compared with the advantages of continuing to feed.
Not only do I feel that Jo does not value breastfeeding a toddler or child, I do not feel that she is knowledgeable about breastfeeding, and therefore she should not be giving breastfeeding (or weaning) advice. Jo Frost is a nanny who has apparently worked with children in different settings for many years and has been filming the Supernanny series for many years. I believe her that she is an expert in children. As I said above, many of her techniques are educationally and developmentally sound. She has a real love of children and seems to have a set of skills which can only be developed over time and practise – she knows what she is doing when it comes to children’s behaviour. However, to my knowledge she has no breastfeeding experience or expertise. She has no children (and although inducing lactation and breastfeeding another woman’s child is possible, I find it near impossible that she has done this) and I don’t believe much experience which babies in general. Older children yes, babies not really. She has never marketed herself as a baby expert, she’s usually just kept up with the older ones. I don’t feel that being a parent or breastfeeding a child is necessarily essential to being knowledgeable about children or breastfeeding, obviously it helps but in my opinion it is not essential. However, training and experience need to fill the gap, and I don’t believe that Jo Frost has either of these in breastfeeding, and it shows. She has called in specialist professionals in the past, for example when working which children with special needs, why not enlist the help of an IBLCL or breastfeeding counsellor? For Jo Frost to be giving weaning advice is like me giving advice on how to fix your car – best avoided.
However, all of this diatribe of mine has not deal with the key issue that Jo was trying to fix – how to manage the problems that the breastfeeding was causing. This post is already lengthy and the laundry is calling yet again, so I will come back to my suggestions for this. There are many, many things which can be done to make breastfeeding a toddler logistically easier, and in my opinion most of them are far easier to implement (and more beneficial) than cold turkey weaning. So stay tuned for an update.
In conclusion, I was disappointed with this episode more than anything. There was a great opportunity to address an issue – a demanding breastfeeding toddler – and instead breastfeeding was belittled and pushed aside. Breastfeeding is certainly no stranger to poor media coverage and self proclaimed experts making up crap advice, but I guess I expected more from Supernanny. All that age appropriate, sensitive, custom tailored advice seemed to go out the window with a sugar coated ‘wean or else’. I was expecting more, Supernanny. L