"They are every parent's worst nightmare," intones the announcer. "Kids completely out of control and taking over the household." And then, a nanny, like Mary Poppins dropping out of the sky with her umbrella, arrives to set everything right, turning little monsters into good little boys and girls.
This nightmare and dream of deliverance resonate so deeply that they have given rise to not only one but two different reality shows. Nanny 911 (Fox) features a group of caregivers from around the world who watch tapes of rowdy children at "Nanny Central" and then send one of their number to straighten things out. Supernanny (ABC) has one no-nonsense British nanny, Jo Frost, who takes the children in hand. Both are American knockoffs of successful British programs.
The two nanny shows should not be confused with Spanglish and various Trading Spouses episodes, where wealthy mothers avoid responsibility by foisting children onto hired caregivers. Nanny 911 and Supernanny feature ordinary parents at the end of their ropes. The nannies drop in for just a week. They work with the kids, but they also work with the adults, teaching them parenting skills. In Supernanny, film crews come back a few weeks later to see if the family has changed for the better.
The shows open with whining, screaming, disobedient kids running wild. The parents are either too indulgent or too angry, often exhibiting the same lack of self-control as their kids. Then a nanny comes in, imposes rules and discipline, and teaches the parents how to exercise a loving authority over their children.
The nannies here do not usurp the parents' responsibilities; rather, they teach the parents how to carry them out. A constant theme-contrary to some philosophies of child-raising-is that children need civilizing and parents need to act like parents.
Surely enough dysfunctional families and desperate parents in the audience will make these shows big hits. If viewers take these lessons to heart, they may even become more effective parents themselves, to the benefit of their children and the culture as a whole.