March 27, 2011
My wife and I used to watch the television program Supernanny. In the series, world renowned childcare specialist Jo Frost spends a number of days working with families who are struggling with a wide array of family issues, from absentee fathers to disciplinary inconsistency to sibling rivalry to just plain spoiled children. Almost universally, most of these and other issues are compounded upon each other, one causing the next in a vicious snowball of dysfunction tumbling wildly out of control down the road to familial ruin.
When Jo arrives, she simply observes the family's behavior in an attempt to gain the perspective necessary to formulate an effective plan for correcting the problems. Without exception, her solutions require implementing immediate, often drastic changes in habits and behaviors to bring the snowball to a halt and melt it down, releasing the family from its icy, destructive grip.
Jo's success rate is tremendous. She has helped hundreds of families by her direct involvement and literally thousands through her books and television shows. The secret to Jo's success breaks down to two primary factors:
First, Jo has vision. In what is certainly equal parts gift and experience, Jo has the ability to see through the madness of surface symptoms and identify the core issues. If such ills as "helicopter" parenting, disciplinary indifference and neglect can be considered Thoreau's "branches of evil," Jo Frost is the "one who is striking at the root."
Second, Jo is unyielding. With adequate time to expose the roots, she formulates a plan for the parents to implement, and although the protests are often loud and even violent, she will not relent from holding the entire family to her expectations. To many, both viewers and participants, this is where Jo lives up to her name -- Frost. Jo's toughness may come across as cold and uncaring, at least at first; but one thing is certain: when Jo puts a plan into action, no one is getting out without seeing it through.
It's when these plans first get implemented that her show earns its ratings. It's a sad state of affairs that viewers are attracted to conflict. The sheer number of so-called "reality" shows, each with its own version of manufactured drama, attests to our morbid desire to watch other people behaving badly. (Hint: networks don't keep shows that lose money. If a show survives, it's because enough people are watching to get sponsors to pay for its survival.) Supernanny features plenty of bad behavior, only the drama is not manufactured. As soon as Jo introduces the family to the new rules, expectations and schedules she has devised for them, it's always the most spoiled that quickly come unglued.
Typically, after years of parental inadequacy, at least one of the children has become so accustomed to having everything their way that the moment that security -- let's call it an entitlement blanket -- is removed, they quickly leap past unreasonable and explode into irrational, sometimes even violent rebellion. They yell, threaten, kick, spit, swear and scream and do everything else they can to try to flex the muscles they thought they had built through years of dominant will. In their immature, dysfunctional little minds, they are perfectly justified in their behavior. After all, no one had said "no" to them before; how dare someone try to take away their "right" to have everything they want when they have worked so hard throwing tantrums enough to earn it!
The reality in this reality show, however, is that to the viewing audience -- millions of them -- they just look like spoiled brats in need of serious attitude adjustment. To their ranting and raving about "unfairness" the viewing audience are not only unsympathetic, they are appalled. It's an affront to decent, well-mannered people everywhere to watch little princes and princesses weep and wail, no longer be allowed to toss trash wherever they want, beat their siblings whenever they want or disrespect their parents however they want.
Naturally, the transition from chaos to order is not an easy one. Almost invariably the parents falter when Jo is not there to prod them on and prop them up in the epic battle of wills that ensues from the instigation of discipline where previously there was none. In the end, however, Jo always wins, which means the family wins. By sticking (or maybe I should say "clinging") to her guns and making sure the parents stick to theirs, a strange new circumstance settles on the home: Peace. It doesn't always come quickly and certainly not without a fight, but once the parents finally decide they aren't going to give in to the unreasonable, excessive and selfish demands of tyrant children, it's amazing -- and very gratifying -- to watch the children discover that they aren't so tough after all; those mighty muscles they thought they had turn out to be more their parents' weakness than their own strength. Once the parents discover their own strength, after first leaning on Jo's, they dispense with the household bullying in all forms without much resistance.
It makes for great TV, and here's the best part: after the cannons are quiet and the smoke clears, when the children have raised the white flag of surrender and taken their proper place in the home, when the parents are situated properly in their place in the family, we see the biggest miracle of all: everyone is happy. Everyone. Not just the kids and not just the parents; they all share in the kind of peaceful, happy home that they thought impossible only a few weeks before.
Jo's Supernanny show is no longer on the air, by her own choice, but even though we haven't watched the show in a couple of years, somehow we feel like we've seen it playing out on reality TV again just recently in places like Wisconsin and Ohio. Maybe those public workers, with their great care for "public" interest, should look to rent all available seasons of Supernanny on Blu-Ray. I'd be shocked if they didn't find the behavior of some of those rotten kids as despicable as we do. I'd be even more shocked if they actually saw in themselves the same kind of unreasonable, irrational and just plain spoiled entitlement dysfunction as on display in the homes of Jo Frost's clients...from eight year olds. As for the viewing audience -- millions of us -- the similarity is unmistakable and just as despicable.
The next time they want to whine and gripe about the "unfair" treatment they are receiving, and how they have a "right" to something more, how they are "entitled" to collective bargaining (i.e. extortion), maybe they should remember the Supernanny and reflect on the rest of Thoreau's words about those who pander to entitlement, including those words that are often omitted from the "famous quotations" books:
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.