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Supernanny may be on to something

I must say, whenever I’ve seen the ABC reality show Supernanny, I’ve been amazed at how its British star and nanny-extraordinaire, Jo Frost (Mary Poppins had nothing on her, except, maybe, the flying-with-the-umbrella bit), is able to change some children’s truly horrifying behavior.

Kids who begin the show hitting, spitting, swearing, writing on walls, running out into streets, and throwing all kinds of ugly meal- and bed-time tantrums become calmer and tamer by the end of Frost’s weeklong visit with their family.

Yet, remarkably, it’s not the kids that Frost focuses on to elicit these changes. Instead, she gets the kids to alter their “naughty” behavior by having the parents alter their reaction to those behaviors.

OK. We don’t know what gets left out in the editing room. Maybe, off camera, the kids continue to throw their food on the floor and shout obscenities at their grandmother. But Frost’s approach to “problem” kids — change the parents’ reactions to their children’s behavior and you change the behavior itself — certainly adds interesting fodder to the idea that we adults may be more responsible for our children’s socially undesirable behavioral traits than any “behavioral” genes the kids may have inherited.

Newsweek senior editor Sharon Begley raises this intriguing issue in her column this week.It’s a topic that should have all of us doing some serious soul-searching about how we interact (unconsciously as well as consciously) with the children around us, particularly those who may not fit the standard mold of “cute” or who may be fussy or “difficult” to live with.

Here’s how Begley frames the issue:

Research has linked genes to intelligence, social skills, neuroticism, risk taking, impulsivity, and more. In most cases, “linked” means determining that the behavior is partly inherited, but not how the gene brings about the behavior. What if the gene affects a trait known to be strongly heritable, such as appearance or temperament, and what if that trait in turn elicits particular behaviors from parents and teachers: behaviors such as responsiveness, paying attention to, interacting with, speaking to — things that affect how a child turns out academically and socially?
If so, we are mistakenly attributing these outcomes to genes “for” intelligence and the rest, when in fact all the genes do is give a child looks or temperament that elicits, for instance, IQ-boosting responses from adults.

This issue hasn’t been studied much, says Begley, because researchers “have been loath to look too hard into something that implies a baby is to blame for how she is treated.”

But, of course, it’s not the child that’s to blame, but our own reaction to that child. Reports Begley:

The few studies that have been done find that parents respond less, and less quickly, to fussy, crying babies. They’re less affectionate to homely babies. They don’t read and speak as much to fidgety, difficult babies. They respond more to infants who make complex pairings of gestures and words than to those who simply point (“Daddy’s chair” vs. just “chair”). How much babies gesture, smile, make eye contact, and babble affects how adults respond to them, including responses that shape how verbal a child will be, how emotionally secure she will feel, and thus what kind of adult relationships she will have. It isn’t just parents. “Children’s temperament also influences how teachers treat them at least as early as first grade,” says [Michigan State University psychologist Claire] Vallotton. “That has ramifications for later academic success.”

Pretty damning stuff for us adults. But it’s not too late to change our ways. As Begley says, “armed with this knowledge, [we] can learn to treat all children — not just the cuties who so easily bring out the best in us — in a way that nurtures their hearts and minds to develop to their fullest.”

Now, if only each of us could also wrangle a home visit from Supernanny.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/03/2009 - 03:00 pm.

    Good article.

  2. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 12/03/2009 - 10:48 pm.

    This reminds me of the chapter in Po Bronson’s Nurture Shock called “Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t” — research shows that responding to an infant’s babble with verbal response AND touch was rapidly effective in increasing the child’s verbal growth. So an “attractive” child might elicit this response more than a “homely” child.

  3. Submitted by Paul Scott on 12/04/2009 - 09:28 am.

    I love that show. So does my wife and she is a board certified child psychologist. Traits elicit certain responses and therein, as you say, creates the nature nature one-two. More resilient kids can sometimes overcome those responses but parents can also be brought along on how respond to traits in ways which reward pro-social behavior, if they are motivated, and many are. BUt I often wonder if a week with Jo Frost is all it really takes for happily ever after, as the show so often implies.

  4. Submitted by Jennifer Tuder on 12/04/2009 - 11:28 am.

    Not only the quantity but the quality of our verbal responses are important.
    But it’s hard to overcome these kinds of social norms. Several parents have told me that they find talking to children in complex sentences age-inappropriate and/or insufficiently caring. That response has always puzzled me.

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