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Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.5 No.6 June 2008

Cover Story by Alfie Kohn
Atrocious Advice from "Supernanny"
Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie… but for how long does it work, and at what cost?


Harry & Rosemary Wong: Effective Teaching
Eight Year Summary of Articles, 2000 to 2008

Columns
VisualizationMarvin Marshall
Textmapping: Where Old Becomes NewCheryl Sigmon
Administrative BroadwayTodd R. Nelson
The Busy Educator's Monthly FiveMarjan Glavac
Easy Ideas to Wrap up the YearSue Gruber
Committees: Make Them More ProductiveHal Portner
Helping Children Cope After DisasterLeah Davies

Articles
The Dance of the Honeybee
June 2008 Writing Prompts
Your School's Mission in a Sound Bite
The Medicalizing of Education
I Used to Educate Students; Now I Prepare Them… for The Test
A Great Model Of Differentiation
Live Chat with Adora Svitak
Making the Most of Summer To Prepare for the New School Year

Features
Printable Worksheets & Teaching Aids
Candles of Inspiration: June 2008
Teachers.Net Craft Favorite: Father's Day Project
Featured Lessons, Resources and Theme Activities: June 2008
Video Bytes: The human cost of war, in song, Literacy centers and more...
Today Is... Daily Commemoration for June 2008
Live on Teachers.Net: June 2008
The Lighter Side of Teaching
Apple Seeds: Inspiring Quotes for Teachers
What are some things you absolutely DO NOT miss about teaching?
How Many Years Did It Take You to Get It Together?
Newsdesk: Events & Opportunities for Teachers


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Alfie Kohn

Rethinking Teaching
Archive | Biography | Resources | Discussion

Atrocious Advice from "Supernanny"

Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie… but for how long does it work, and at what cost?
by Alfie Kohn
Regular contributor to the Gazette
2005 by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted from The Nation, May 25, 2005 with the author's permission. This is a slightly expanded version of the published article, which was titled "Supernanny State."
June 1, 2008

A despot welcomes a riot. Disorder provides an excuse to rescind liberties in order to restore calm. There are only two choices, after all: chaos and control. Even the creators of Get Smart understood that.

And so, too, do the creators of Supernanny and Nanny 911. Each week they poke their cameras into a dysfunctional suburban home where the children are bouncing off the walls and the parents are ready to climb them. There’s whining, there’s yelling, there’s hitting . . . and the kids are just as bad. But wait. Look up there: It’s a bird. It’s a plain-dressed, no-nonsense British nanny, poised to swoop in with a prescription for old-fashioned control. Soon the clueless American parents will be comfortably back in charge, the children will be calm and compliant, and everyone will be sodden with gratitude. Cue the syrupy music, the slow-mo hugs, the peek at next week’s even more hopeless family.

These programs elevate viewer manipulation to an art form. For starters, the selection of unusually obnoxious children invites us to enjoy a shiver of self-congratulation: At least my kids -- and my parenting skills -- aren’t that bad! More to the point, these anarchic families set us up to root for totalitarian solutions. Anything to stop the rioting.

Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie. We’re a busy people, with fortunes to make and lands to conquer. We don’t have time for theories or complications: Just give us techniques that work. If firing thousands of employees succeeds in boosting the company’s stock price; if imposing a scripted, mind-numbing curriculum succeeds in raising students’ test scores; if relying on bribes and threats succeeds in making children obey, then there’s no need to ask, “But for how long does it work? And at what cost?”

We’re encouraged to pretend that living with a camera crew doesn’t influence how parents and children interact, and to disregard what it says about these people that they allowed their humiliation to be televised. We’re asked to believe that families can be utterly transformed in a few days and to assume that the final redemptive images reveal the exceptional skills of the nanny -- rather than of the program’s editing staff. By now, a fair number of TV dramas, and even some sitcoms, refrain from serving up contrived happy endings. Sometimes the patient dies, the perp outwits the prosecutor, the jerk is unreformed. Yet here, in the realm of nonfiction programming, a tidy solution must be found before sign-off. Perhaps it’s reality television that’s most divorced from reality.

We might just laugh off the implausibility of these programs except that they’re teaching millions of real parents how to raise their real kids. To that extent, it matters that they’re selling snake-oil.

Consider ABC’s Supernanny. (Fox’s copycat Nanny 911 differs mostly in that a rotating cast of nannies shares top billing.) The show is rigidly formulaic: Jo Frost, the titular nanny and now best-selling author, arrives, observes, grimaces, states the obvious, imposes a schedule along with a set of rules and punishments. The parents stumble but then get the hang of her system. Contentment ensues.

The limits of the show, however, are less consequential than the limits of its star. Ms. Frost’s approach to family crises is stunningly simple-minded; it’s the narrowness of her repertoire, not merely the constraints of the medium that lead her to ignore the important questions. She never stops to ask whether the demands of work and kids could be more gracefully reconciled if high-quality, low-cost daycare was available. She doesn’t even inquire into psychological issues. Are the parents’ expectations appropriate for the age of the child? Might something deeper than a lack of skills explain why they respond, or fail to respond, to their children as they do? How were they raised?

If you can bear to sit through them, the nanny programs provide a fairly reliable guide for how not to raise children. They also offer an invitation to think about the pervasiveness of pop-behaviorism and our hunger for the quick fix.

The nanny never peers below the surface, and her analysis of every family is identical. The problem is always that the parents aren’t sufficiently vigorous in controlling their children. She has no reservations about power as long as only the big people have it. Kids are the enemy to be conquered. (At the beginning of Nanny 911, the stentorian narrator warns of tots “taking over the household”; the children in one episode are described as “little monsters.”) Parents learn how to get them to take their naps now. Whether the kids are tired is irrelevant.

Supernanny’s favorite words are “technique” and “consistency.” First, a schedule is posted -- they will all eat at six o’clock because she says so – and the children are given a list of generic rules. The point is enforcement and order, not teaching and reflection. Thus, rather than helping a child to think about the effects of his aggression on others, he is simply informed that hitting is “unacceptable”; reasons and morality don’t enter into it. Then he is forced to “stand in the naughty corner.” Later, the nanny instructs Dad to command the child to apologize. The desired words are muttered under duress. The adults seem pleased.

For balance, kids are controlled with rewards as well as with punishments. Those who haven’t been eating what (or when, or as much as) the parent wishes are slathered with praise as soon as they do so – a “Good boy!” for every mouthful. Sure enough, they fork in some more food. These children may be so desperate for acceptance that they settle for contingent reinforcement in place of the unconditional love they really need.

The little girl in one family is accustomed to having Mom lie down next to her at bedtime. Forget it, says Supernanny, and the tradition is ended without warning or explanation. When the girl screams, that only proves how manipulative she is. Later, Mom confesses, “I felt like I was almost mistreating her.” “Do not give in,” urges the nanny, and misgivings soon yield to “It’s working; it’s getting quieter” – meaning that her daughter has abandoned hope that Mom will snuggle with her.

On another episode, a boy is playing with a hose in the backyard when his mother suddenly announces, “You’re done.” The boy protests (“I’m cleaning!”) so she turns off the water. He becomes angry and kicks over a wagon. Supernanny is incredulous: “Just because she turned the water off!” There is no comment about the autocratic, disrespectful parenting that precipitated his outburst. But then, autocratic, disrespectful parenting is her stock in trade.

Supernanny’s superficiality isn’t accidental; it’s ideological. What these shows are peddling is behaviorism. The point isn’t to raise a child; it’s to reinforce or extinguish discrete behaviors – which is sufficient if you believe, along with the late B.F. Skinner and his surviving minions, that there’s nothing to us other than those behaviors.

Behaviorism is as American as rewarding children with apple pie. We’re a busy people, with fortunes to make and lands to conquer. We don’t have time for theories or complications: Just give us techniques that work. If firing thousands of employees succeeds in boosting the company’s stock price; if imposing a scripted, mind-numbing curriculum succeeds in raising students’ test scores; if relying on bribes and threats succeeds in making children obey, then there’s no need to ask, “But for how long does it work? And at what cost?”

In the course of researching a book about parenting, I discovered some disconcerting research on the damaging effects of techniques like the “naughty corner” (better known as time-out), which are basically forms of love withdrawal. I also found quite a bit of evidence that parents who refrain from excessive control and rely instead on warmth and reason are more likely to have children who do what they’re asked – and who grow into responsible, compassionate, healthy people.

If you can bear to sit through them, the nanny programs provide a fairly reliable guide for how not to raise children. They also offer an invitation to think about the pervasiveness of pop-behaviorism and our hunger for the quick fix. “I guarantee you,” Supernanny earnestly, if tautologically, exhorts one pair of parents, “every time you’re consistent, [your child] gets the same message.”

Granted, but what message?

Copyright 2005 by Alfie Kohn. For a detailed look at a more respectful and effective approach to raising children, please see Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting (www.unconditionalparenting.com).

This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at www.alfiekohn.org.

Editor's Note: Please use the Discussion link below to post your reactions to Alfie Kohn's article.



More Gazette articles...




About Alfie Kohn...

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The latest of his eleven books are THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (2006) and UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (2005). Of his earlier titles, the best known are PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993), NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition (1986), and THE SCHOOLS OUR CHILDREN DESERVE: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (1999).

Kohn has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.

Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. In addition to speaking at staff development seminars and keynoting national education conferences on a regular basis, he conducts workshops for teachers and administrators on various topics. Among them: "Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning" and "Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students' Behavior." The latter corresponds to his book BEYOND DISCIPLINE: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996), which he describes as "a modest attempt to overthrow the entire field of classroom management."

Kohn's various books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, Thai, Malaysian, and Italian. He has also contributed to publications ranging from the Journal of Education to Ladies Home Journal, and from the Nation to the Harvard Business Review ("Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work"). His efforts to make research in human behavior accessible to a general audience have also been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and Psychology Today.

His many articles on education include eleven widely reprinted cover essays in Phi Delta Kappan: "Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools" (March 1991), "Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide" (Sept. 1993), "The Truth About Self-Esteem" (Dec. 1994), "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education" (Feb. 1997), "Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform" (April 1998), "Fighting the Tests" (Jan. 2001), "The 500-Pound Gorilla" (Oct. 2002), "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow" (April 2004), "Challenging Students -- And How to Have More of Them" (Nov. 2004), "Abusing Research" (Sept. 2006), and "Who's Cheating Whom?" (Oct. 2007).

Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area with his wife and two children, and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.


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