Jo Frost – interview: Why family is important
Jo Frost is back and set to take the television world by storm with her no nonsense parenting advice. She tells deputy editor, Georgina Maric, what’s different this time around.
No matter where I am in the world, I get asked parenting questions all the time,’ says supernanny, Jo Frost, in her unmistakable, throaty voice. ‘Hundreds of times wherever I am. I get tweeted, emailed, stopped in the street, I’ve been at the airport and security are pulling me apart and asking me a parenting question at the same time!’ So I decided to ask her one little question myself about my two-year-old who has suddenly decided he isn’t going to eat meals. As soon as I did, Jo was listening, eyes on me, totally focused on the problem, asking me lots of questions, having a quick think and then giving me a very direct, easy-to-follow solution. She said: ‘If he refuses his meals, don’t give in by giving him something he does want, because he’ll just think it’s a game.
‘As hard as it might be, take the meal away and carry on as normal. He will pick up on the fact that if he doesn’t eat what you’ve given him, he won’t get anything else. He’ll soon learn!’ And that’s what makes her one of the most successful parenting experts in the UK and in the US.
All these kinds of questions are now being answered in a book, coming out early next year called Jo Frost Toddler SOS (£16.99, Orion), a follow-up to her book last year, Jo Frost’s Confident Toddler Care (£16.99, Orion), which reached number 1 in the Amazon Bestsellers chart in July 2011.
Onwards and upwards
‘I really love writing,’ Jo tells me, while we sit and chat after her photo shoot – she’s the picture of health with an LA suntan. ‘I remember when I was a nanny for John Lloyd CBE (British comedy writer, producer and creator of QI on BBC2) and his wife, Sarah, years ago and he said to me, “Jo-Jo, you are so good at what you do and always give the right information, you should write a book”. I guess, in hindsight, the seed was sown. I’ve just finished my seventh one!’
But it’s not just books that keeps Jo busy. It won’t be long before we see her on our screens again with another series in the pipeline in the UK, which she says is a ‘work in progress’. She has also just signed a deal with TLC TV Network in the US. ‘This is a brand new show which is absolutely delightful for me. It will definitely be me doing what people need me to do and what I’m passionate about doing, which is helping families. But where as with Supernanny, where you predominantly saw me dealing with families with children who were unruly, this will be helping the whole family as a unit. The format of Supernanny was very restrictive and for me to be able to grow and do what I like to do, I really had to say goodbye to it in order for me to work in a wider format.’
At the time it was reported that Jo was incensed when Supernanny, the show she hosted for seven years, was stopped in the US. The show now has American, Deborah Hillman at its helm, but under the same name. ‘I never did feel annoyed,’ Jo tells me. ‘I don’t know where that came from. I made a conscious decision to leave Supernanny and I am what I am and I do what I do – I helped families as the so-called “supernanny” and I was given the name. In fact I’m still given the name by millions of people worldwide. But I continue to do the work= that I do as me, as Jo Frost. I made the decision to move on and progress and do what I’m doing now.’
Jo has been living in the US for a few years now, an hour away from LA, right on the coast. Is she ever tempted to move back to the UK? ‘Tempted, no,’ she tells me, as direct as ever. ‘But if you asked if I’d come back and live in the UK to help UK families, absolutely. I know there is a tremendous amount of support for me in the UK because the Brits always ask “when are you going to come over?” And I would for a period of time but I do enjoy living in the US purely because I have a house right by the ocean and I love being able to walk along the beach when I get some down time. It’s so nice to rejuvenate but I’ve found I’ve been a bit homesick during the last 18 months, to say the least, with the royal wedding, the jubilee and the Olympics going on. My friends were having street parties, sending me pictures of cup cakes they’ve made. It’s actually made me start drinking tea out of my Union Jack cup!’ And, with that, she lets out her characteristic cackly laugh that shakes the rafters.
Having worked so closely with hundreds of families from both the UK and the US, how do they differ when it comes to parenting? ‘It’s very clear to me that the approaches are not different at all,’ she says. ‘I don’t feel like I have to make any accommodation because Americans parent their children differently from British parents. Fundamentally we are seeing the same issues and challenges and certainly that’s why I’ve been able to take my philosophy and techniques to America and help parents out there. As a nation, the British want to help themselves more than they ever did and are seeking that information and knowledge. I think that’s incredibly important and that enables you to be able to make a decision as a parent on how you want to raise your children.
‘What I’d like to see both here and in the US is for parents to look at the long-term effects on their children because of the parenting techniques they are implementing now. I strive to be able to help parents to be more disciplined about what they want to put in place for their children, on how they want to parent and how they want to raise their children. It is important to think about the relationships they have with their family members and the ongoing dialogue and the conversations they have with them. As a parent you have to be disciplined, you have to recognise that you could quite easily give in to your child, but you have to realise you can’t do that all the time because, in the end, it will end up in a scenario you know you’re not going to like. And that’s not healthy for you or your child. What I find is that a lot of parents need reassurance and they want to know if they are doing the right thing, as they are not too sure if they are. They are looking for guidance. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible to get it right and you can’t expect to have results if you keep doing the same thing again and again that is clearly failing. You need to try something else, but give it more than one day.
‘Everyone seems to want results now, but remember that it took ages to get in the place you are in.’ But there must be some things we do better here in the UK, surely? ‘I am a stickler for good table manners,’ Jo tells me after a nano second of thought. ‘I think the British understand the etiquette of good table manners. In the US they are very slapdash about it down to eating off paper plates and everything for kids being disposable. I certainly think I’ve taught more children in the US how to use cutlery properly than I have in the UK and I have been around 47 states, so I know what I’m talking about! UK families also seem to take that raw, honest truth from me on the chin and roll with it, whereas in the US it was very hard for some families to hear the truth. Some were willing to hear it, but because I don’t think the Americans had seen that before, some found it hard to take. They embraced it in the end because they saw what it came with. I am genuine and compassionate and I do really care and I think they saw that. I totally understand it from their point of view. I am talking to people on television and telling them what needs to change. There is a camera crew and any family is going to think “is this real or not real?”, “Is she genuine or not?” But when I get to work they see that I really do care. They realise it is not about a television show, “this is not about her, this is about us”.’
Parenting in the spotlight
Jo has been a parenting guru for a long time, having started her career as a nanny when she was in her teens. So, what are the most important issues that parents face > today in 2012? ‘The big issues that are worrying parents are childhood obesity, the rise of Type 2 diabetes in children, the amount of time that parents are spending with their children and the advantages and disadvantages of technology. Bullying has become more prevalent in society – it existed before of course, but it’s become a forefront issue now because it’s well noted, particularly in respect to teenage suicides. Then there is cyber bullying, an increase in violence and the fact that behaviour is worse than it ever was. You can’t pinpoint why these issues are more prevalent but you’ve got to look at families and society and, in particular, what has become more challenging for parents. We are able to talk about our emotions more, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we are more connected. I’d like to see young teenagers going into their academic life and teenagehood with a clear direction of what they would like to do. When did it become undesirable to do a job that provides a public service to society? Could it be because we are now inundated with television shows about how to be a pop star and crave some other kind of fame?’
Jo’s parenting methods are now renowned worldwide from the ‘naughty step’ to ‘time out’. ‘My methods have not changed but I’m certainly up-to-date with what is happening. I think it’s important to evolve when society evolves. Understanding issues that are prevalent for parents and keeping up-to-date with issues around you is vital. But certainly the methods that you have seen me use, I haven’t stopped using them.’
And it is these simple, no nonsense methods that have seen many parents worldwide out of a sticky situation. But if she could give one piece of parenting advice what would it be? ‘Time with your children. When you have time, you have time to talk, you have time to connect and see the issues that need sorting and you have time to resolve. Everyone says they don’t have enough time, but the reality is you have to make time and that’s really important. You have to prioritise and it’s important for the parents as well as the kids. Even if you’re working, I think it is important to spend at least an hour with your kids consistently, so you come home from work and you are spending that time with them before they go to bed, playing and reading with them – with no distractions. Anybody can do that even if they are working. It’s about doing what’s right for the children and working with what you have got, which for many people is mainly at the weekends – which is fine. That’s not to say you can’t go and see a friend sometimes, but your priority is your children – that is why you had a family after all.’
Back for good
Jo is back doing what she loves best and that is helping families. ‘Have I missed my purpose of helping families? Of course, because I love it. It’s like an artist who doesn’t paint. If you are not doing what you are so passionate about, then yes, you do miss it.’ For the next few years Jo will be working on a new daytime and primetime television show for the UK, as well as the shows in the US. She will also continue doing tours, talking at seminars and conferences as well as book tours ‘all over the world, all the time’. And what does she want from this time? ‘Professionally, I would like to keep growing, understanding and communicating with parents,’ she says. ‘Personally, it is to achieve a balance. It’s an ongoing progress to be fulfilled in your personal and working life and you have to make certain decisions to allow you to have that balance. I’m just like anyone else, trying really hard to achieve that.
‘I had a knee injury over a year ago and I had an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) replacement and that was a tough recovery. I went back for therapy for a short amount of time and I’ve been getting better and better. I was restricted in what I could do physically and psychologically – that was a big drawback for me and, slowly, I’m getting myself back on track. It’s balance, it’s progression. You’ve got to prioritise, put boundaries in place and know when it’s OK to say no. It’s not about putting more on your plate and saying “Hey, I’m juggling 20 plates, aren’t I great”, but really you are struggling and stretching yourself too thin. I want to say I’m juggling 10 plates really well. Who does know what the future holds, but put it this way, I’m not fearful of it.’ And from this genuine, straight-from-the-heart, very successful woman, we know it’s the truth. And for the record, Jo’s sound advice about my little boy’s eating habits (or lack of them) worked a treat!
Photograph: Terry Benson