Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Can Supernanny really help me get the best from my children?

Over the past couple of weeks, the terrible twos have grown to such a crescendo that we just couldn’t pretend any longer that we were doing everything right. Obviously we’ve been trying to get it right, but being a parent is all about learning the hard way that you don’t know as much as you think you do.

M has always been an independent little girl and very strong willed, but never really badly behaved. What started off as a bit of whining suddenly escalated into full blown aggression and completely irrational and unpredictable behaviour for an alarming proportion of the time. I should clarify that she still behaves nicely with everyone else – like most daughters she saves all her tantrums for mummy!

In any case, when it got to the point where I considered shaving her head to check for the number of the beast, I thought perhaps it was time to hit the books.

I’m still a scientist at heart, so rather than just diving straight in and following one style or solution, I thought I’d compare and contrast a few well known books (Supernanny, Toddler Taming, and the Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers) offering guidance on dealing with unruly toddlers.

First up is Supernanny: How to get the best from your children, by Jo Frost

Supernanny Jo Frost comes across as a very sensible, experienced and caring person. She has had many years of experience caring for children of all ages and temperaments, and this comes across in her book. What worked for your mother-in-law or your best friend might not necessarily work for you, but Supernanny’s methods are tried and tested on plenty of unruly little things and stand a very good chance of working.

Watching the show, I thought her book would be based more around disciplinary strategies, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the focus was more around encouraging good behaviour and nipping potential tantrums in the bud rather than discipline. In a sense, it’s much more about the parents’ behaviour than the children’s.

What really stood out for me were

1) Rewarding good behaviour isn’t about stickers and sweets, it’s about the one thing your child needs and wants the most – you. The best reward is one-to-one time with you, an extra story, your undivided attention and involvement in their mad little make believe schemes, or being able to help you peel the carrots.

2) Preventing the tantrums from happening in the first place means taking the time and effort to understand your child and how he or she is feeling. We’re pretty careful about offering healthy snacks regularly so she doesn’t suffer from those horrible sugar crashes, but what about all the other things that can affect her mood and behaviour? Having too many options laid in front of her, or being surrounded by an overwhelming number of toys or books can be stressful for a toddler and can therefore affect their behaviour. Supernanny suggests rotating the toys and only having a select number out at a time. Getting dressed, she suggests having 2 or possibly 3 suitable options to choose from rather than an overwhelming question like “What shall we wear today?”. Similarly, if she feels she is being ignored or if you are giving all your attention to someone else, you’re pretty likely to see a change in her behaviour. Much of the book is devoted to methods of keeping your toddler engaged and happy, and feeling secure.

3) Playing with the children and giving them your love and attention is the most important thing you can do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the running of the house and just playing with a pink fairy castle all day. Her Involvement technique is all about getting on with running the house while your kids feel like they’re having fun and playing with you. Grocery shopping, you give them a mini shopping list and put them in charge of finding the things on their list. While you’re preparing dinner, you can set up a little potato-washing station and get them to wash a few spuds. When you’re feeding the new baby, you can put them in charge of stroking the baby’s tummy, or folding up some muslins. The idea is to look for ways to involve them in everything you’re doing. It may seem like everything is going to take about 5 times as long, but just consider how long it would take if you were constantly being interrupted by tantrums and fighting children. Also, Involvement can transform an otherwise stressful part of the day into something really nice for both/all of you.

Jo Frost does come across as very level-headed, and the book made for an interesting read. More importantly, it made me re-evaluate my own behaviour towards the children. However it does have its shortcomings. I had hoped for some clear guidelines, solutions and case studies, but instead found myself reading about general concepts without the level of detail I needed in order to put her methods into practice.

There are some methods, such as her famous Naughty Step Technique, which she outlines more clearly. Even with that, however, I felt I really needed some case studies or some clearer instructions. Many toddlers have a younger sibling or even a twin, but there is nothing in the book to tell us what to do when the other one interferes with our careful execution of the Naughty Step Technique. When E wanders over to the step and sits down beside M with some books, what do I do? When I pull him away, he cries and keeps running back to sit with his big sister, so by keeping him away I am in effect punishing them both. How do you discipline one while praising the other for their good behaviour?

She also glosses over the “regression” stage that most of us face when we have a second child, even though this has perhaps been the most difficult issue for many of us. If M was previously able to eat perfectly well by herself (and still does at nursery and at Nana’s), but with Mummy she wants to be fed, I can understand the emotional importance of letting M feel like she is my baby again, but I want some clear guidance on what to do at mealtimes. Does refusing to feed herself count as unacceptable behaviour, or do I just roll with it and hope that one day she’s want to be independent again? At what point does it stop being an emotional need and start being her way of manipulating me at mealtimes?

Looking at how I interact with M and E in light of Supernanny’s book, there was one thing that really struck me. When their behaviour isn’t quite what I’d like it to be (that’s a pretty mild way of putting it!), I’m 100% involved with the children, trying to break up fights, make M stay in her Time Out, or bargain with her about eating her dinner. As soon as they are playing nicely, I think “Oh great, they’re playing nicely – I’ll just do a few things while I can…”, and off I go to get the dinner ready, or make a phone call, or check my email. I’ve inadvertently rewarded their bad behaviour with lots of attention, and rewarded their good behaviour with… well, a complete and utter lack of attention. Oops!

Today I started my day with a very different perspective, and tried to look at everything through a Supernanny Top 10 filter, and I think it actually worked. I put my phone away for the whole morning and we just played and sang songs, and I acted out some completely far fetched and silly stories. The children were completely hooked and had a great time. I gave them so many “heads-up” warnings about everything that I felt slightly ridiculous, but for the first time in a very long time, M didn’t whine at all when I said it was time to leave the playground, or time for her nap. We didn’t have a single outburst – not one. The surprising thing was that I didn’t feel like I was exerting loads of effort trying to follow all these rules or constraints – I was actually having a really nice time and so did the children. In fact, Madeleine said to me before going down for her nap, “Mummy, we’ve had a really nice morning, haven’t we?”.

Have you followed Supernanny’s techniques? What did you make of them? What really stood out for you?

Where can I find some guidance about Regression and the issues that come with having more than one child?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, tried and tested techniques, and whatever other advice you'd offer a mum of a 2.5 year old and 15 month old! (If your advice is "Don't have them so close together", it's too late for that!!)


  1. Thanks for the amazingly detailed review.

    As a Nanny I feel like my situation is always only half as bad as yours (or the Mum's in general). The little one I'm with is behaving like a very sweet girl - of course she can sometimes be challenging by simply being very strong willed and independent BUT she doesn't seem to have this anger and whining with me.

    When Mum comes home at night the little one turns into a child I don't know: Screaming and shouting, whining, crying, tantrums, "bossyness" - never seen any of that when she is with me.

    I was always wondering Why? Is it just because I am obviously putting the time in to play? Or is it just because I am not Mummy? Or what?

    Anyways, this book sounds like a good read and I might try and have a look if I can find it in the library. I definitely think that integrating them into most things that you do is the key. I structure the day beforehand and always think about what the LO is doing, while I am busy with something I can't get her involved in.

    I know that M is still quite young at 2.5, so I would try to show her the affection she needs at various times a day, but also make her clear that she is not a baby anymore. Involve her getting the little one dressed, getting his nappies changed and so on. Maybe have some time where you are just with M so that she knows you love her just as much as you did before - but be clear at mealtimes that she needs to eat for herself. She won't starve. Well, that would be my try anyways, might work, might not - they're all different.

    I'm looking forward to more reviews and maybe you find the hints you need to get out of ANY situation without losing the nerves :)


  2. Thanks for a great comment, Jess. It's interesting to hear it from the perspective of a nanny! I wonder if children save up all sorts of pent up emotions and frustrations for their mums because they feel secure enough to do so... no matter how much whining and biting they do, we still tuck them in at night and love them to bits, the little buggers. Or is it that they know all of our most vulnerable bits and love to push them to get some interesting results? Or is it that we are so emotionally involved that the exact same behaviour elicits an emotional response from us that they wouldn't get with a nanny, and from there it just spirals out of control? My gut feeling is that it's the latter. After all, M's behaviour is much worse on days when I haven't slept well or have a bad back, or it's that time of the month... so in a way her behaviour is an expression of my mood. Hmm.. Food for thought.

  3. This was a good overview. I realized I need to skim down the number of toys in the kids' room (most of them they've outgrown anyway) and take the time to make 'quality' time

  4. Me too!! We've had a huge clear out and are trying to work out which things we can sell, which we can give to charity, and which we can just hide for a while and then bring out again when it's time to refresh the toybox! Sadly, I think most of it has to go...

  5. I think it is a mix of all the things you mentioned and probably even more thingy. In the first place I think they know exactly how to get you to do things, they seem to have a naturally ability to pick things up. Then I think you're right saying that they basically know you'll always love them AND then again, they know how to really annoy you because you're very likely the person they know best and you're always there, which means that you probably can't just walk away. I as a Nanny though am not round at weekends, I am on holiday or sick and they notice that I seem to come and go, so they might know that I can go away and not come to play with them anymore.
    The next thing where I think you're right is emotional involvement. I would be hurt if the little one said I hate you, but by far not as much as you would be as a parent. In the end you love them to bits and do everything for them and they hurt you. Also I have worked with far more children and see the whole thing with more distance - I have very likely been through similar discussions many times before.
    And again yes, I definitely think it is an espression of your mood, if you're annoyed they can feel it and get annoyed because you're annoyed and then an argument comes up. Often they also assume that they're the reason for you being annoyed and wonder what they have done wrong (which is probably nothing). So I think they are soo complicated little things. Other factors like frustration in certain situations (food repeadtedly falling off spoon, child can't express himself/herself..) add more fire to any situation which doesn't help.