I’ve just finished watching the whole series of Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance on Sky+ (It clashed with Holby. Nuff said). (The first time I wrote that sentence, it said ‘extreme parenting’. What would that look like? Mums and dads jumping out of planes with tantrumming kids strapped to their backs? The naughty step replaced by a Naughty Piranha Pool in a James Bond stylee?)
Before I had children and when DD was very tiny, I used to occasionally watch Supernanny (v glad Jo’s now lost the severe specs and suits) with a sort of ghoulish fascination. It felt voyeuristic looking at these mums and dads who were at their wits end with some appalling behaviour when I was barely a mum myself. And very easy to judge. After all, it’s bloomin’ obvious isn’t it? Kids LIKE boundaries, so why haven’t you set any? Kids NEED a proper bedtime routine, so why are you allowing them to bounce off the walls at 11pm?
Some of her advice must have penetrated, because we’ve had good bedtime routines since ours were a few weeks old and I still think it’s crucial. Not least because much as I adore my munchkins, 7pm onwards is grown-up time in our house, time to cook, watch telly, have a conversation, drink wine, get on with chores or work, or lie in a bath with Grazia. It is not time for dealing with progressively more overtired and tricksy kiddiwinks.
From the look of this latest series, the same old issues of boundaries, discipline, bedtime, following through, mealtime battles and not working as a team are still the biggies for parents. Obviously the examples on the show are at the extreme end of the spectrum – hence the name of the series – but my goodness there were some shockers in there.
A mum who ‘had’ to force feed a four year old, a bored little boy who spent all day every day playing computer games, a spoiled little pageant queen and a six year old who had never spent a night in her own bed. Her single mum had never had an evening to herself on the sofa, and never had her bed to herself. Now that’s sleep deprivation, not to mention a killer when you’re trying to find a boyfriend.
The one that really shocked me, though, was a little girl who pulled her own hair out and was addicted to dummies and was always on her mum’s hip. I missed the bit where they said how old she was and assumed she was a bit older than DS, maybe twoish. But she was three and a half! The same age as DD! And still having a bottle of milk in the night! And was never, ever separated physically from her mum, who just carried her round and referred to her as ‘the baby’.
I found this story particularly sad because it became quite obvious that it wasn’t just the little girl driving all these habits – although she kicked up a stink when things started to change – but also her mum. Her mum was desperately worried about the hair pulling (I mean, the little girl was almost bald), then noticed the connection with the dummy and found when dummies were banned during the day it stopped, but still couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the dummies completely. She started to understand that her insistence on babying her little girl was seriously stunting her normal emotional and behavioural development, yet took some time to ‘let go’.
I’ve never, touch wood/yet, needed to use any of Jo Frost’s techniques (and I know naughty steps/discipline is a whole other controversial conversation) but they clearly work for parents who are desperate. And I think the reason they work is that she supports parents and encourages them to become more confident in their own ability to raise their children. She also reminds us – sometimes not that gently – that our children are just children, manipulative and persistent as they can be, and unless we work at changing our behaviour and habits, whatever situation we are in will not change, and will not get better. And at the extreme end of the spectrum, we may actually be seriously damaging our kids.
Being a parent is such an immense challenge, and sometimes, to me at least, it can feel like you’re the only one getting it wrong. I enjoyed the series – not just because it made me realise that even on my kiddies’ dodgy days, things really aren’t that bad – but also because just watching it was a reminder than I’m not alone. We all have to deal with the same crap, the same conflicts, the same guilt, the same self-scuppering behaviour in ourselves. Thank goodness it’s rarely that extreme. Though I’m sure someone on eBay could supply the piranhas if things round here do deteriorate…