The big interview: Jo Frost
Supernanny has gone for good but Jo Frost is still helping parents handle their difficult children – both here and in the US. Deputy editor, Georgina Maric, finds out what she’s up to next…
What stands out about Jo Frost’s parenting methods is how supportive she is of the parents. And that is incredibly refreshing when most of what you read implies parents are doing a terrible job and children are so badly behaved there is no hope. But not Jo. She is the parenting guru who introduced the naughty step to the nation back in 2004 and has brought her common sense solutions to struggling parents on the TV programme Supernanny. Problems experienced by millions of parents were featured, including toddlers not eating, kids refusing to go to bed, supermarket tantrums and sibling bullying, to name a few. Frazzled and desperate parents invited Jo (and the cameras) into their home and, after a period of observation, Nanny Jo would suggest simple changes for both the children and the parents. After a few sessions, order would be imposed, the parents would regain control and the children would start to think about their behaviour and also make changes for the better.
It was a simple formula that worked on all levels – real people showing real emotion, a firm but fair expert offering solutions that every parent could adopt. And that’s where Jo, originally from south London, is so skilled. She doesn’t beat around the bush, she treats everyone she meets exactly the same – kids and adults – and she’s not afraid to tell the parents where they are going wrong. And they listen to her, just as the kids do.
So how did she get so good at sorting out discipline issues? ‘That’s a funny question’, she replies, and sitting at the end of the phone in London, I feel a little bit scared even though she’s hundreds of miles away in LA. ‘As a nanny I wasn’t just dealing with discipline issues – it was the social, physical and total wellbeing of the child I was caring for. Discipline was just one part of the day’s work. But all of the techniques I use today came from when I worked as a nanny myself.’
Getting that big break
When Jo applied for the Supernanny job, having worked as a nanny for 15 years, it wasn’t clear that the production company were looking for someone to present a television programme. ‘All I knew was that they were looking for a nanny with more than five years’ experience to help a family,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been good at giving advice – it’s part of my character and who I am as a person.
‘I thought they would be asking questions to different nannies and then putting them all together in one programme. I had an interview and then, two weeks afterwards, they called and asked me if I could help two families on camera, and the film was then sent on to Channel 4.
‘I was told by the production company that they would be in touch, but to be honest, I didn’t think much of it and went back to being a nanny. But a few days later, I got a phone call and was told that Channel 4 loved the film and wanted to offer me a television show. I knew straightaway it was a really wonderful opportunity. It would give me the chance to carry on doing what I do, but taking it to a different level.’
And camera shy Jo wasn’t, even then. ‘People have asked me how I first coped being in front of a camera, but I didn’t think about it. I’m comfortable in my own skin and confident in what I do, and my priority and focus is on the family I’m helping. My aim is to empower parents – that’s what I’m here to do. It doesn’t bother me seeing myself on telly – I only watched the early programmes back because someone would organise a get-together to “watch Jo” and it would be a chance for me to remember the family and see the journey we went on – often it was an emotional one.’
Passing on her expertise
Jo’s fame was pretty instant, but it wasn’t something she was craving. ‘What was more important than being recognised, was the fact that people were using the techniques and they worked for them. It opened up a dialogue about parenting – in offices, at social occasions, at the school gates – and it got people thinking and talking about the challenges they faced and sharing their experiences. It helped people to talk about their feelings and not keep things behind closed doors. What was most surprising was that people came up to me and said “it works” and I couldn’t fathom what they meant, because why wouldn’t the techniques work?’
She vividly remembers her first television family. ‘Charlie Woods was two years old and a monster. He was having temper tantrums all the time and his parents were struggling to put any boundaries in place. They were very stressed out. At the time I was working with executive producer, Amanda Murphy, and she said to me “go in and do what you do”. It was wonderful because I knew exactly what was needed and she pulled back and allowed me to carry on, filming on the fly.
‘I am very protective of the families involved – it’s important that they are able to carry on with their routines and I have an integrity about what I am doing. It is not scripted and there are no ear pieces. If the kids are having tantrums then you see that. If I’m crying, then that’s filmed, too.’
Making waves in America
The show was an instant success, attracting millions of viewers and spawning best-selling books and Supernanny spin-offs in 47 countries. By 2006, the show was said to have earned Jo £5 million, not least because she was a huge hit in the US. ‘After three Supernanny shows in the UK, there was a bidding war between two US networks to have me doing the show over there but working with American families. In the end, ABC won. It was lovely to be able to go out there and help families.’ After that, the show was broadcast in 80 territories worldwide and is now a global phenomenon.
‘When people in the UK saw the US version they were amazed at how big the houses are over there. Because there is so much more space, it’s different in that way. It’s a humungous country. I’ve done 47 states there and what I’ve noticed is the parents are going through the same issues and challenges. The culture is obviously different, but the way they live as families is universal and everyone can relate to their problems as parents.’
The big difference between the US and the UK Supernanny programmes was the way it was presented. ‘It was much more stylised in the US,’ says Jo. ‘I rode up to each house in a taxi, while in the UK I was filmed walking down the street, dodging rainy puddles! But it’s still just me with the families. I spent six years living out of suitcases while I was doing both shows, so I’m not going to do any more Supernanny there, but there are other new projects lined up that I can’t talk about yet.’
On the road
Here in the UK, the second series of Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance, of which she is executive producer, is about to be aired on Channel 4 from 6 July. Like Supernanny, it features one family who are struggling to deal with a difficult or unruly child. But this time the child has a specific problem, which will be familiar to many parents in the 21st century, such as obesity, an excessive gaming habit or body image issues. Jo joins up with experts to get more facts on modern children; the first series included staging a child fitness test, putting 80 10-year-olds through a 1959 test, measuring fitness levels to see how they compare. Not favourably, it has to be said.
The new series will feature Jo holding roadshows. ‘It was really rewarding, but hard work,’ she says. ‘We racked up 3,500 miles in just eight weeks travelling up and down Great Britain, featuring a topic each week that’s very close to my heart. It was a tough gig but I found it very interesting to hear what parents are worried about. The impact of technology on children and the lack of quality time that’s spent as a family are both big issues that came up again and again. With so much going on in this country with the economy, it’s bound to have a domino effect on people, affecting moods and energy levels and causing sleep deprivation. It all impacts on the family dynamic. Making bite-size changes to the way you parent can have a big impact – you don’t have to make big sacrifices.’
So how is society different today, and how well are we parenting now, compared to 30 years ago? ‘Society evolves all the time – we are much more media savvy and there is more awareness about the issues that affect children,’ Jo says. ‘Technology and TV are so much more in your face, but this is good because it’s allowed us to know more and learn how to do things better. On the other hand, there are some children who are being arrested in their development because of what is known as “hover parenting” when mums and dads are smothering their kids and are not letting them be independent. There has to be a middle ground.’
Milestones, such as toddler tantrums for example, have not changed, says Jo. ‘What is different today is the way parents are dealing with them. The level of family values have been forgotten, the respect for authority has gone. Teachers are having to teach manners now, when years ago they would have been passionate about actually teaching subjects.’
Another big difference is how the workforce has changed. ‘Many more women are working and lots of these women are based at home. I’m an advocate of working women – I’ve been employed as a nanny for many professional mothers who hold down high-powered jobs but come home and are good mothers as well. If I had children I’d carry on working and I’d be lucky enough to be able to hire professional help. I know it’s possible to do both successfully because I’ve seen it being done. I’ve also seen divorced parents manage the care of their children very well because they understand they are accountable for their children’s lives and happiness. And I’ve seen single parents do a marvellous job – they get the blame for many of society’s problems but some are doing brilliantly holding down a job and looking after their children. It’s hard juggling all the balls when you’re the only person responsible, so hats off to all those people who are good, single parents because they are a total inspiration.’
‘Parents are more isolated nowadays,’ Jo continues, ‘because most live miles away from their own parents and relatives. This can make you doubt yourself as a parent, because you need to know if you are on the right track and if you are doing the right thing.
‘During the first year of your child’s life most parents are thinking thank God my child has survived. Then, in the toddler years, the children start babbling and becoming little characters and a whole new set of tools is needed
in the backpack. It’s at this stage you will find yourselfsaying things repetitively and you are going to be put to the test, your buttons are going to be constantly pushed and you will have to rein yourself in,’ Jo says. ‘What you need then is a big abundance of humour and avoiding grabbing that glass of wine at 2pm rather than 6pm! It is a time full of trials and tribulations and every parent has nightmare days but you will look back and laugh about it afterwards.
‘The first five years are so important for your child and they learn so much that sitting them in front of the TV is not going to help them fulfil their potential. Your role is so important at this stage.’
And what are the three discipline issues that come up again and again? ‘The most important thing is to identify boundaries and decide between you what are the rights and wrongs. What is a no-no and what is a yes and have appropriate discipline methods for your child’s age. You have to be very clear what the boundaries are and encourage children to think for themselves,’ Jo says. ‘If there are no boundaries put in place for a child then they will grow up unsure of where those boundaries are when they are an adult, and it means they may not be respectful to other people or themselves.’
So what’s next for Jo? ‘I’m very excited because I have a new book coming out on 28 June called Confident Toddler Care, which has everything you need to know about the first four years of a child’s life. Anything you can think
of will be in that book and I expect it to have coffee stains and cake squashed into the pages because it will be like a bible for parents!
‘I’m also going to be working on shows in the UK and the US, I’m going to write more books, which I love, and I will continue to help parents.’ You know that Nanny Jo will do just that, with an encouraging smile to boot.
Images: Ian Derry