Alfie Kohn on the humbug of “Supernanny” shows.

Alfie Kohn, the excellent writer of No Contest: The Case Against Competition and Unconditional Parenting, amongst other books, discusses the nonsense that passes for parenting advice in Supernanny-style shows. It’s worth a read, and so is Unconditional Parenting, especially if you are a parent or want to be one (rathe runlikely if you read this blog, but you never know- or give a copy to someone you know).

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 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?”

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