In 2005, the first few squadrons of helicopter parents had darkened our skies, and we had more questions than answers about what that meant.
“Has our overinvolved parenting style created a generation of kids with an impaired sense of self?” an SFGate story asked in June 2006. “Do ‘Helicopter Moms’ Do More Harm Than Good?” an ABC News report wondered in 2005. A year earlier, Newsweek warned of the “unexpected legacy of the affluent ’90s: parents who can’t say no,” saying it’s “time to stop the madness and start teaching kids about what’s really important.”
The madness hasn’t stopped.
“When the team started making the show in the early 2000s, there was little parenting advice beyond Dr. Spock,” said Supernanny executive producer Dan Peirson. As the first episode aired on Jan. 17, 2005, Judith Warner’s best-selling book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” was describing “that caught-by-the-throat feeling … of always doing something wrong.”
Because if there was no one there to tell us we were doing it right, how did we know we weren’t doing it wrong? If we had been doing it right, surely our kids wouldn’t be throwing their Cheerios on the ground or calling us “stupid face” or biting other kids at play group. Would they?
The first American moms and dads who invited “Supernanny” Jo Frost into their homes in 2005 seemed to have that caught-by-the-throat feeling.
“We’re asking a lot from the Supernanny,” a dad admitted in the debut episode for the initial run of the show, “because we need a lot.”
The first thing you notice when you watch “Supernanny” is the crying. Kids crying, screaming, having tantrums — it’s a convenient shorthand for “we have a problem.” Because, after all, if a child is crying, something must be wrong. Right?
The “Nanny Jo” who first entered American homes had a buttoned-up, no-nonsense appearance (formal suit and heels, hair in a tight bun) and was whisked to the doorsteps of each home via a black London cab. Author Alfie Kohn, whose “Unconditional Parenting” hit the bestseller list the same year “Supernanny” debuted, criticized the program’s characterization of unruly children as “little monsters.” The message was clear: Supernanny was here to bring order to chaos. She was there to stop the crying.
“I’m afraid if I don’t get control now, I’m going to completely lose control later,” said one suburban mom in 2005 whose kids were prone to doing outrageously kidlike things such as saying no when told to do something or crying when they didn’t get what they wanted. In the episode, Frost looks on in astonishment as one child wanders outside to collect bugs and another runs across a quiet street to return a toy to a friend’s house.
“Bloody crazy,” Frost remarks, and ominous music and dramatic camera angles drive home her point: that a child unsupervised, a child uncontrolled, is itself a problem. It is a message that has dominated the past 15 years of parenting, shaping not only culture, but also legislation. And it is only recently that we have started to question that dominance.
“When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years,” Hanna Rosin wrote for the Atlantic in 2014, three years after the initial run of “Supernanny” went off the air.
The children in those first episodes of “Supernanny” are themselves now old enough to be in college. It is not hard to imagine those kids — the ones whose front doors were locked shut from the inside, keeping them from going out to play in the yard; the ones who were given detailed schedules that controlled their day from the moment they woke up to the time their heads hit the pillow at night — growing up to demonstrate exactly — as The Washington Post stated in a headline — “How helicopter parents are ruining college students.”
In the fourth episode of the 2020 reboot, self-described “helicopter mom” Nicole Ostler breaks down when talking about how the loss of a child years earlier has affected her parenting today.
“I think that’s why I’m so protective of those two,” Ostler told Frost during a tearful moment. “What if they fall? What if they get hurt?”
But it’s not just Ostler. “What if they fall? What if they get hurt?” is the litany of our time.
“A cohort of kids has absorbed all the ambient nervousness around safety, even though it has never been particularly well founded in real danger,” Malcolm Harris writes in “Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials,” adding, “Kids could always be safer.” This was the lesson that Frost and others were trying to teach us in 2005, and it is one we have learned all too well.
We are still living firmly within the “Age of Anxiety” that Warner described in “Perfect Madness,” and we are still not okay.
The early episodes of “Supernanny” were delightfully formulaic. Frost introduced a detailed schedule, demonstrated a timeout technique (sending children to the “naughty seat,” or chair, or beanbag, or step, or corner) and gave parents the chance to practice using both.
In that first 2005 episode, an exhausted, frightened and angry parent holds her young child’s wrists and commands the girl to stay on the “naughty seat” for three minutes. Like the mother, the child is deeply upset. Neither Supernanny nor the mother seems interested in finding out why. The point is to make the crying stop.
Now Supernanny is back, and although we have changed, and she has changed, the central problem is the same: We still want her to stop the crying. We still want her to show us how to gain control over childhood — something that is, at its core, uncontrollable.
But the Jo Frost who has come back to American homes and screens is a kinder, gentler one than we met in 2005. The button-down look is gone, traded for flowing tops and wavy hair. It’s the softer side of Supernanny.
And it’s not just looks: Frost’s demeanor and recommendations have softened to match. Rather than sending children to the “naughty step,” Frost emphasizes the need for parents to connect with their children and one another, and the program offers more compassion for and less judgment of the families’ struggles.
“These children need care, affection, love, attention: nurture, nurture, nurture, nurture,” Frost observes in one episode, adding, “I need to help this family bridge the gap and really understand their children.”
As Frost talks to tearful parents about their own struggles — grief, loneliness, anxiety, postpartum depression, the pressures of balancing work and family — she gives tacit acknowledgment that there are problems that a chore chart and a timeout corner can’t solve.
When one mother admits tearfully, “I’m just like a ghost that cleans our house and cooks them dinner all the time,” Frost brings her on a walk, carrying a backpack filled with stones — each one labeled with a different responsibility.
“We tend to reward in society those who take on everything,” Frost observes as they quite literally unpack the struggling mother’s burdens. But, of course, all the rocks have to go back into the backpack eventually.
As willing as the “Supernanny” of 2020 is to explore the pressures parents face, it doesn’t touch on the structural issues driving those pressures: parents who are isolated, who are overwhelmed, who have been fed a steady diet of fear, and who want, desperately, to have some control over it all.
Supernanny may be able to help us stop the crying, but if we aren’t willing to figure out what caused it in the first place, does it even really matter?
Emily Popek is a writer in Oneonta, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @EmilyPopek.