Bryan Caplan  

In Defense of Supernanny

TSA: Totally Subjugating Amer... Park Ranger, Continued...
I discovered Supernanny when my sons were infants.  I watched in disbelief when Jo Frost reformed monstrous children simply by putting them in "the naughty corner."  But once our infants became toddlers, we gave the naughty corner a try.  To my surprise, it worked like a charm.  Threatening one minute of mild humiliation was enough to deter nine out of ten tantrums.  I later discovered that my experience was no fluke; an impressive literature in experimental psychology on "parent behavioral training" confirms that even mild discipline works wonders.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I came across Alfie Kohn's essay in The Nation claiming that Supernanny's just "selling snake oil."  As it turns out, though, Kohn doesn't even try to show that Supernanny's methods fail to improve children's behavior.  He just repeatedly changes the subject - and invites sarcasm in the process:
[Frost] never stops to ask whether the demands of work and kids could be more gracefully reconciled if high-quality, low-cost daycare was available.
Could the reason be that Frost is trying to provide constructive advice to parents - not convert America to the Third Way?
She doesn't even inquire into psychological issues. Are the parents' expectations appropriate for the age of the child?
Millions of experienced parents recoil in horror at the children's rude and even violent behavior.  How age-inappropriate can their expectations be?
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?
Again, Frost is trying to provide constructive advice to troubled parents, not write their psycho-analytic biographies.
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.
Alternative hypothesis: The people who invite Supernanny into their homes are usually well-meaning adults with badly-behaved kids, not cruel adults with normally-behaved kids.  As a result, abuse of power is rarely the problem, and stricter discipline is usually the solution.
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.
Perhaps, contrary to Kohn, Frost does have age-appropriate expectations.  Are we really supposed to tell habitually violent three-year-olds to "think about the effects of their aggression on others"?  To lecture them on "reasons and morality"?

Kohn finds Frost's advice cruel:
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.
But by Kohn's standards, any time a parent thinks "My feelings count, too" and acts accordingly, she's being cruel.  Mom works hard, and wants an extra half hour for herself; should her daughter really have a scream veto over Mom's decision?
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.
I'm a staunch opponent of behaviorism myself, but Kohn's charge is misplaced.  If your child is habitually rude or even violent, then changing behavior has to be your priority; it's a precondition for any deeper progress.  You can't discuss your child's feelings while he's screaming or kicking you.  And no matter how mellow your child is, you've got to tailor your explanations to his age.  Frost isn't acting like young children don't have thoughts and feelings; she's acting like young children can't understand complex moral arguments.  And of course she's usually right.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
rapscallion writes:

I think I have the key to ending nearly all sibling rivalry. If I ever get a chance, I'm definitely going to try it out:

Just give each child a veto over anything nice you might do for any of the other children. Does Billy want to spend the night at a friends house?--Only if Alice says it's OK. Does Alice want a new Barbie--only if Billy thinks she deserves it. Mutual cooperation ought to be the dominant strategy. It might be hard to be consistent about it, but I think it'd work because kids wouldn't see each other as competitors for parental resources. It would also relieve parents of the impossible burden of adjudicating the "fairness" of appropriate punishment. If you walk into a room and see Billy hitting Alice, you don't have to spend a half hour trying to figure out who started the fight and/or who's at fault; the punishment will take care of itself.

Doc Merlin writes:

This also works for crime. Mild punishments work well, if they are very likely to be enforced.

Tracy W writes:

It's also unfair. I don't watch Supernanny consistently, but, at least in the UK version, she does get the family doing positive things to interact. Eg, one family had a problem that their longest son kept running riot on the walk to school as he was bored, so Supernanny came up with a sheet of things he was to look for on the walk to school. And regularly she gets families playing games together and does things like making solo parents finding time to spend alone with each kid.

And from Kuhn again:

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

How about, parents who happen to have children who are more likely to do what they're asked, can rely on warmth and reason?

Matt writes:

I can tell you from personal experience having to deal with other peoples' kids that establishing yourself as an authority figure through behavior-based discipline is top priority. I don't have control over these kids' home lives and can't really fix their deeper emotional turmoil. It's all behavior focused because that is all I have control over. I've seen tons of heart-to-hearts and appeals to emotion fail with children who are just behaving badly.

Agree with most of your replies. However I would say that although the "naughty corner" type of punishment can "work"--and this type of punishemnt is certainly less objectionable than spanking--there are better (more effective, more moral) disciplining approaches, based on the positive discipline approach and related approaches such as Love and Logic. For the former e.g. see Katherine Kvols, Redirecting Children's Behavior; the Nelsen books on Positive Discipline; and the Love and Logic books by Cline and Fay.

So for example we have used a version of the naughty corner but are careful not to use it punitively; it's used literally as a "calm down spot" to let the kid calm down and gather his her her thoughts.

aez writes:

"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?"

It fascinates me that progressivism so often justifies not stopping bad stuff now because we neglected, or didn't try hard enough, to stop it in the past. Mind-boggling.

Floccina writes:

I think that the Supernanny's key is discipline with too much emotion, discipline without anger. Anger and emotion seem to lead to chaos in human relationships. In this context love is not so much emotion but wanting to do best for someone else.

Tracy W writes:

Stephan Kinsella - I don't understand the distinction you are making. What's the visible difference between how you use a calm-down corner and how the Supernanny uses a naughty step?

Erick Herring writes:

Whether or not you are an adherent of behaviorism (in the psychological sense, not the economic), there is little question that operant conditioning works well when applied in a species-appropriate way.

A fascinating look at this is Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers (not an affiliate link) by Amy Sutherland. If you don't have time for a whole book, you can get a short version in her NY Times article What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage, where she applies the lessons she learned at animal-trainer school to her relationships.

I'm not related to her or the book in any way, but offer it as a view from another discipline that's worth taking lessons from. After all (to bring this back to economics), can anyone argue that the current market is not "conditioning" participants to ignore (what we used to think were) fundamentals in favor of following the animal spirits?

Tracy, the difference is it's not done punitively. The purpose is literaly to help the kid calm down. But you are not doing it *to punish* the kid. It's a different function, approach, etc. I am not one of these handwringing types who thinks spanking etc. is abuse. I just think it's a more primitive approach, an approach of simpleminded people who don't want to take the time to learn a more mature, sophisticated approach.

Sam Schulman writes:

Typo in this sentence - you wrote "young children" when you meant to say "Alfie Kohn":
". . . she's acting like young children can't understand complex moral arguments. And of course she's usually right."

Tracy W writes:

Sam Schulman - can't understand, or won't understand?

BV writes:

"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."

I wonder what a mom is supposed to do with her feelings of guilt when she first drops her child off at daycare? Can you say contradiction?

Stop reading The Nation.

ajb writes:

Of course this argument works for schools as well. How much better would schools for the poor be if more of them were allowed to engage in moderate disciplinary measures that would likely be challenged by lawsuits today? I bet this is one of the secrets of parochial schools' relative success.

Jehu writes:

Different children require different methods. The only constant is that you have to impress on them that you are the one in charge and accordingly make the rules and that acting out is futile in terms of getting your way. For some kids spanking at the earliest time after the offense is the answer. For others a sentence in the timeout corner/play pen/etc is a lot more effective. Still others respond to simply a harsh tone of voice. It all depends on the kid. I'd wager good money that the most effective disciplinary mode is correlated to the intelligence of the child, but I've seen kids over 2 SD above the mean who responded best to a spanking or even a switch, so its not even that easy.

Tracy W writes:

Stephen, sorry but I still don't understand the difference. How many small children do you know that calmly misbehave? It always seems emotional to me (not that I have kids). And it doesn't strike me that Jo Frost is at all the sort to bear grudges, once the matter is over and the apology given, she seems happy to move onto positive interactions. You say that yours is a different approach but I just don't see the difference in any practical terms.

Chad writes:

rapscallion, that sounds brilliant. Anyone have any experience with something like that?

Bob Murphy writes:

I'm really not trying to be a wiseguy here. How does this post square up with everything else Bryan says about parenting? Wouldn't you have predicted that Bryan would say, "A lot of parents get all worried about whether their kids are disciplined, but research shows it has no long-run effect. Sure, you can implement a 'naughty corner' if you want, but that won't influence the sort of person your kid turns out to be."

I imagine Bryan could say, "Right, this has nothing to do with your kids' long-term performance in school or his future income, but it just makes it easier to live with him."

Yet that's what I don't believe. You're telling me that one kid who is allowed to be a brat for 18 years, versus a kid who says "yes ma'am" and cleans up his room every night, are going to be identical when they're both 30? I don't believe that.

And if Bryan says, "That's what the twin/adoption studies show," then I think they are wrong.

rapscallion writes:
You're telling me that one kid who is allowed to be a brat for 18 years, versus a kid who says "yes ma'am" and cleans up his room every night, are going to be identical when they're both 30? I don't believe that.

Bryan's arguing about how best to deal with kids, given their inclination to misbehave. He doesn't make any claims in this post about what determines the strength of that inclination, nor does he appear to make any strong claims as to what the observed absolute level of misbehavior will be, once discipline is imposed, for particular types of children. Kids are heterogeneous in their inclinations towards bratishness: there are a lot of kids who won’t be brats, even though they could be, and kids who are brats even though their parents impose draconian punishments. Your hypothetical, however, seems to assume that for most kids no discipline=brat whereas lots of-discipline=perfect, where the RHS’s are defined in absolute levels; this is unlikely to be the case.

Tracy W writes:

Sorry, Stephan not Stephen. Darn iPhone spellcheck (though I do need it in other ways).

Bob Murphy, while I don't think that anyone is identical at age 30, not even identical twins, I do think that children can learn very different rules for different situations. At my primary school, my mother was close friends with another mother there, who had 3 really badly behaved daughters whom neither her husband or her even tried to discipline. Years later, the couple got a dog, which was also badly behaved, but this time the neighbours complained about the barking, so the mother hired a bark trainer. The bark trainer came to the house, looked around, and immediately said "You have badly behaved children too, don't you?" (To give the mother her merits, this sort of thing never bothers her).
But at school, their daughters were about as well-behaved as the norm (it was a fairly ordinary NZ school, one without rioting in the corridors), and one of them has gone on to have a career at a major international company, which she could not have done if she treated her bosses like she treats her mother.

And if Bryan says, "That's what the twin/adoption studies show," then I think they are wrong.

You are of course entitled to your own opinion. The interesting question though is what correlation your opinion has to reality.

Duncan writes:

At least he doesn't mock Jo Frost for her inability to pronounce "unacceptable".

jb writes:

I tried the "one kid gets to veto the other kid's activities" gambit - unfortunately it degenerated into mutually-assured destruction.

my younger son (10) will occasionally have major passive-aggressive pouting fits. I've discovered that telling him that I will spank his bare bottom in public fixes him instantly. I've never spanked them, yet...

I don't think I put them in the corner nearly enough. I probably spent too much time arguing and explaining, and it didn't work very well. Ah well, this is why parenting is an art, not a science.

Eric Hosemann writes:

I've been thinking about this post for a while. I think the repeated journeys to the quiet corner/time out chair/whatchamacallit are an effective way to break through the child's natural tendency to consider himself the ego-center of activity and reinforce within him the idea that he is a social being, not an asocial one. There are only two ways an individual's behavior can be influenced, through coercion or cooperation. The time out corner reinforces that idea. Sure, people like Kohn will pick up on the superficially coercive nature of the timeout corner. But beneath that is the idea that before one asserts himself socially, he must take into account what those around him approve and disapprove of.

The superficial criticism of parental discipline is that it is stifling to the individual creative impulse. But no individual operates outside of the social context, and therefore it is better a person understands this earlier rather than later, when the timeout corner is something quite different.

Bob Murphy writes:

Tracy W wrote:

You are of course entitled to your own opinion. The interesting question though is what correlation your opinion has to reality.

OK I'm glad you are at least addressing my question. So to be clear, you are saying that you don't think it affects a kid's future in significant ways, whether his parents ever disciplined him?

Let me put it this way: You have a group of 1000 30-year-olds, who have identical genes, family incomes, blah blah blah, *except* that 500 of them came from parents who were very strict, insisting on being called "sir" and "ma'am," made the kids help with chores, could only watch 1 hour of TV per night, etc.

In contrast, the other 500 people had parents who let the kids do whatever they wanted, short of physically hurting themselves. They could swear at their parents, throw tantrums in public, leave their rooms a mess, and watch unlimited TV if they so chose.

You're telling me you would be unable to put the 500 in each group, and score better than random guessing?

Tracy W writes:

Bob Murphy:

Firstly, I'll be a bit more specific and say that parenting behaviours, excluding the extremes, and excluding the decision of where to raise your children, which affects their peer group, don't affect children's future relationships outside their family. I can easily believe that how parents raise their children affect their children's future relationships with their parents. The girl I am thinking of still treats her parents terribly.

That said, I think that's what the twin and adoption studies imply, once you control for genetic effects, and the peer groups children are raised in, and etc, I don't think that I could tell, from observing adult behaviour outside the home, which parents had the strict home rules and which had the indulgent society. I don't think I would be able to do better than random guessing.

That's in part because of the studies, and in part because I can think of too many exceptions. For example, my grandma waited on my Dad and uncle hand-and-foot, he didn't even have to make his lunch when he was going to university, and yet my Dad is neat, does chores automatically, etc (apparently there was some debate about specialisation of labour early on in my parent's marriage, which Mum won, not grandma.)

Note, by extremes I mean things like severe abuse such as beating the child or locking them in the basement for months, depriving the child of peers, or more happily, the odd parent who manages to form their children into their own peer group with more effective values,(which possibily is dependent on having enough children).

Now, a question for you, is there any evidence that could convince you that you might be wrong, in your rejection of the idea?

Bob Murphy writes:


I have to be brief, but I didn't want to ignore you. I guess it's possible that my worldview on this is vacuous, in the following sense: I could see someone who (say) is really kind to animals, and then "explain" that by saying, "Oh, his parents raised him to be really kind. They had a big influence."

But then if I saw someone who was really kind to animals, and I knew that his dad used to host dog fights in the basement, I might "explain" it by saying, "Oh, he hated his father's cruelty, and so in reaction he now runs an animal shelter."

So, I still think parents are hugely influential; I admit it would be hard for *any*thing to knock out that belief.

But, it's possible that the interaction between influences and someone's future behavior, is so complex, that effectively parents can proceed "as if" they have little influence.

Tracy W writes:

Bob Murphy, you say that your belief would be very hard to change, which is fine, my belief in the second law of thermodynamics would be very hard to change, but then you don't go on to say what sort of evidence could change it. Are you really saying that your belief in parental effects is entirely a matter of belief, not at all connected to reality? I hope not.

(For my belief in the second law of thermodynamics, it would take inspection by several physicists and stage magicians combined to shake it, and a new engineering application to thoroughly change my mind.)

As for your hypothesis about complex parental effects, according to the studies I've read, identical twins raised separately are as similar and as different to each other as identical twins raised together. If your hypothesis was true, I would expect children with the same genes, the same ages and exposed to the same parents to be more similar on average, than if they were raised by separate parents (excluding as always the extremes of parenting).

And, well, what's the evolutionary logic behind parental behaviour, excluding the extremes, having a significant effect on kids? We are a social species, we are dependent on a wider group than just our parents to survive. If your parents are unusual, but you manage to survive to adulthood, wouldn't it make sense to be focused on getting along with your social group in general? The ones you will find food with, trade with, fight off attackers, share childcare with? To adapt your behaviour to your parents' behaviour, be that by copying it or contradicting it, risks maladpting it to your peers, and your peers are likely to outlive your parents.

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