Sunday 30 April 2017

Last Night’s TV: Parenting shows

Diarmuid Doyle on two shows with very different approaches to dealing with troublesome kids

Channel 4's Jo Frost 'Supernanny'
Channel 4's Jo Frost 'Supernanny'

Jo Frost gets around. The self-styled supernanny, scourge of misbehaving minors everywhere, turned up twice last night, on Extreme Parental Guidance on Channel 4 and The Worst Kids Ever on TV3.

Although they went in pursuit of the same Holy Grail – making angels from little devils – the programmes were quite different in nature. If they were war films, Channel 4’s more thoughtful approach would be Saving Private Ryan while TV3’s wild out-of-control children would be Inglourious Basterds.

The latter show might have The Worst Programme Title Ever. It’s hard to see how you improve the behaviour of any child by branding them in such hostile terms on national tv. In terms of drama - tears, traumas and tantrums - it might have made for better television. But ultimately, Extreme Parental Guidance seemed like the more sensible and effective approach to dealing with troublesome children.

Nine-year-old Max ate only custard creams. That might sound like the opening line of a nursery rhyme but it more or less accurately sums up Max’s life until Jo Frost came to call. “He’s never had a hot meal in his life”, his mother said, a little sheepishly. On one occasion, she took his biscuits away and he didn’t eat for a week. Max himself owned up to having tried potatoes, grapes and cheese in the past. “But I didn’t like them”.

Frost’s theme was that children pick up signals and look for signs from their parents all the time, and that these determine much of their behaviour. Max’s mother was so determined to be a sympathetic figure that whenever she tried to give him something other than biscuits, her face scrunched up in disgust as if to say: “I’m with you here, Max. Roast chicken is disgusting, but it is actually good for you. So why not just eat it and do your old Ma a favour?”

All Max saw was the disgust, and acted accordingly. A few simple changes to how food was talked about and presented, as well as much less direct pressure on him to give up the biscuits, worked a treat. A day after Frost had left, he was eating hot meals. A month later, there wasn’t a custard cream to be found in the house.

Seven-year-old Trenyce was being bulled at school, branded fat and ugly by her friends. “I don’t really like myself that much”, she said matter of factly. But her ordeal outside the home was affecting her behaviour in it – constantly angry, and at war with her mother and brother, she had become a nightmare to live with.

As with Max, it was all about signs and signals. Once her mother told her directly and simply that she was there to look after her, and no harm would come to her, Trenyce’s behaviour changed. A month later, the tantrums and the anger had mostly gone. She looked like she liked herself.

Frost’s is adamant that parents and their children need to hang out more. Her big statistic is that the average quality time children spend with their parents in the UK is 49 minutes a day, less than the average dog owner takes to walk his dog.

It’s an eye-popping figure, although given some of the tantrums on The Worst Ever Kids, you’d have to sympathise with the hands-off approach of some parents, who are the target of psychological and physical abuse from their little darlings.

The approach here is more circus-like; the focus is on hamming up the brazen behaviour rather than coming up with some template for successful parenthood. There might be more sparks, but there’s a lot less sense.

After all that bad behaviour, it was relief to switch on Roger: Genocide Baby (BBC3), an account of a childhood which might justify the occasional tantrum or two. Roger Nsengiyumva was born in the midst of the Rwanda n genocide in 1994, during which one million people were slaughtered. At the height of the massacre, six people were being killed every minute. One of them was Roger’s father.

His mother survived – her would be assassin ran out of bullets, she claimed – and managed to make it to Norwich, where Roger grew up. For last night’s documentary, he returned to Rwanda during Remembrance Week, the annual commemoration of the genocide.

Roger personifies Frost’s dictum about the importance of parental signals and signs. His mother has long ago forgiven the people who murdered her husband, and there’s not much bitterness in Roger either. He did say that he would like to see his Dad’s killers in a coffin, but it sounded more like a soundbite for the camera rather than the product of any repressed anger. He’s moved on, and become a confident, gentle, well-balanced soul. It was a pleasure to spend some time with him.

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