Supernanny's sixth season kicked off this fall on ABC and -- thanks to Jo Frost and her super parenting know-how -- it's still the must-see show for moms and dads everywhere. But who is the real Supernanny? She's a down-to-earth woman who has learned from hard lessons in life, including the early death of her own mother. Frost talked to WebMD Magazine about these issues -- and how they shaped her thoughts on parenting, child development, family values, and health -- plus why she's never met a kid challenge she can't handle.
Everyone knows you as a TV star, thanks to your hit reality show, Supernanny. Less well known is the fact that your mother passed away from breast cancer when you were in your early 20s and she was only 43. How has that changed your outlook on life and health?
My mom was 39 when she was diagnosed, and I'm going to be her age this year. Because my mom died so young I go every year and have mammograms and ultrasounds. I want young women to become more aware of how they can do self-exams, recognizing that it's not an "old" thing to do. This is not something just your grandma and your mother do. Young women in their mid-20s should get into the habit of having self-exams, feeling for those bumps and knowing what's always there and not. We need to make it fresh and young and hip. My mother found her own breast cancer through a self-exam, and was in remission for four years before it became very aggressive. It's something I feel very passionate about, because losing her was the most devastating thing that's ever happened in my life.
We've all seen you work miracles for families time and again on TV. As you kick off your new season, what is your guiding philosophy of child rearing and has it changed in any way?
It's about bridging the gap between parents and children, so that we have more of an understanding of their development as they grow. Parenting has changed over the years. For a time it was about good, strong values and parents who weren't complacent to discipline when necessary. But the ability to articulate and express and communicate with children wasn't forthcoming. Then there was an overabundance of emotion and expressing yourself and the values were slipping. I find myself as that metronome in the middle, balancing left and right. I want to make parents more conscious of the parents that they want to be, what choices they're making, and how they want to raise their children.
What are the top three things every parent should know when it comes to raising kids?
First, stop and think about what kind of parent you want to be and what your family values are. And by the way, it's rather bizarre to me coming from England that Americans associate strong family values with religion. Values don't have to be associated with any religion -- unless it's the family religion. These values are about the things we do as a family, about being responsible and nurturing.
Second, lead by example. Don't be hypocritical. We should be positive role models in our children's lives. Our children look up to us and are inspired by the qualities we have. They're a mirror reflection. They make us laugh at ourselves when they mimic us, and at the same time they make us check ourselves. As parents we're learning along the way as well, but respect is twofold. Show respect and it's given back.
Finally, time is irreplaceable. You can't have growth without time. You can't show your love unless you make the time to show it, and you can't build memories unless you have plenty of it.
What are some of the biggest mistakes American parents make with their kids?
Not having realistic expectations is one! For example, a very common situation is when parents have a second child and there may be a very small gap between the two. The first child has been the apple of their eye and then the second one comes along -- and overnight they expect the older child to put their shoes and clothes on themselves, eat with a knife and fork, and put a backpack on and go off to school. You have to understand what your child is capable of.
I also find that parents are not consistent in their word, whether it's in discipline or following up on something that you promise. I know it's important for children to understand that things happen out of the blue that we didn't expect, but parents are not consistent to their word and it's a real letdown. Like when Mommy promises, "Just let me tidy this up and I'll come and play with you," and it doesn't happen.
What first led you to become a nanny?
It wasn't a conscious decision. I loved being around young children; as a teenager I used to babysit to earn money for the things I wanted -- which would be clothes. But I started to nanny more and got into temping and full time. Then I started troubleshooting. I'd been on the nanny circuit for so long and people would just hear of me, I'd go into parents' houses and stay for a week and resolve some issues. The show has sculpted this idea of me as a strong disciplinarian, and for the purpose of sensationalism we see families with behavioral issues. But I was the nanny who'd look after newborn babies, come home from day one and change the sheets, what we call maternity nursing. I would answer questions on anything to do with parenting at different stages, from "I'm breastfeeding and want to transition to the bottle," to "Three of us are going on vacation, how do we deal with night flights and time zones?" I love my job!
Has there ever been a child disciplinary challenge or family situation that you just couldn't handle?
No! And I don't say that conceited, either. Of course, you just never know and I'm not one to be complacent when I walk into a house. I've been doing the show for five years here and in the UK, and I've been in child care for two decades. There is always a solution. The family may need other help to continue the process of healing and fixing what the problems are. I've met parents who say there's no hope. There's always hope and there's always a solution. Even if the problem is not "curable," there are solutions in how you work alongside each other. The work always goes on -- you don't clock in and clock out with parenthood. It's not "mommy's just going around the deli and get a nap, and I'll see you in an hour!" We're being raised in a DIY quick-fix society, but anything you do that's successful takes time.
What highlights can we expect to see in the new season of Supernanny? Any particularly challenging families?
We're dealing with quite a few teenagers this season. We're seeing the relationships that form between teenagers and their parents, the challenges and the struggles, basically the middle ground between them not being young children and not yet being in adulthood. And there are a few resistant parents and a little bit of drama there, since we're taking a look at families where I'm closely interacting with the relationship between the parents, as well. I salute every family who has the courage to call for my help knowing that there will be a camera crew in the house!
How do you take care of your own health when you're constantly on the road, traveling from one family's house to another? What is your own travel schedule like? When do you get the time to exercise?
It's crazy, I've got to say. There is a very harsh, relentless schedule. I think people think I'm joking when I tell them that I actually live out of my suitcase. I really do. I don't have a base, I'm kind of like a gypsy or the circus. I've been traveling like this for five years, and some days we'd be filming 18 hours. Every two weeks I'm on a plane again and traveling for seven hours. The lack of consistency means you start all over again. I'd be consistent for two weeks, then fall off the wagon because I wouldn't know where I was going next. I wasn't happy with the weight gain I had accumulated. It was unhealthy for me and I said, "No, I need to change this. My health is important." I looked at my schedule and decided that I'd get up at 5 a.m. and work out for two hours. I lift weights and I do cardio -- I change it up, but I like the elliptical trainer. Nothing comes in between me and that! There are days that the alarm goes off at 5, and I stare at it and think, "How badly do you want this?" And the answer is: I want my health badly.
God, they're a pain. I'm allergic to just about everything, to be honest with you. You Americans really love your peanut butter! PB and Js, Reese's chocolate peanut butter cups, everything has a smidgen of peanut butter and that's just a no-no for me. I don't tell the families to get rid of their peanut butter. There is so much that they have to sign on the dotted line for, and then to say, "By the way, can you get rid of the food you like as well?" If they get it out, I ask, "Do you mind if you don't eat that, because I won't be able to kiss and cuddle with the kids."
Some airlines still do serve peanuts and I've had a hard time with that. I've mentioned it to flight attendants and they've gotten a bit funny about it. It makes it hard to go out and eat in restaurants. I'm not trusting, because I have to be so careful. I have to explain that pesto has pine nuts, which means there's an allergen! I'm also allergic to shellfish -- peanuts and crustaceans, apparently the allergies coincide a lot. I love to eat fish, so if I want clams or mussels, I have to make sure they're not near the shrimp. If there's a spoon, I'll ask them to wash it first. I was hospitalized once after peanuts had been put in food during filming and I wasn't told about it. I was in a very bad way. It's relentless! You have to repeat yourself constantly.
What's your favorite part of your body?
My third eye! I'm very intuitive and I don't take it for granted. I'm grateful for it every day.
How do you feel about growing older, as we all must -- but you have to do it on TV?
I'm fine about it, actually! Maybe it's a European thing. Coming to America, it was weird, where L.A. was the first port of call and nobody says what their age is! I've seen myself on TV and thought, "God, I've aged, no two ways about it!" But we all get older, and I think it's important to grow old gracefully. Besides, people see me on TV in the Supernanny outfit and then they tell me, "Oh, you look so much younger in real life!"
What's your best health habit? Your worst?
My worst is also my best -- it's the sun! We're starved of it in Britain. Being at the beach helps me relax, but being exposed to the sun all the time isn't good. It feels peaceful to hear the sea and soak up the sun. You feel like you're just melting into the lounge and it feels good. But I'm cautious and I know about sun safety.
What's a parent to do when we try to implement your "naughty corner" time-out philosophy and it's not working?
People say to me, "Time out doesn't work," and it turns out they're not doing the steps properly. The biggest mistake I see parents doing with the naughty step is holding the child on the step, instead of putting them back. They're doing it as a way of getting the parent's attention. You have to keep putting the child back on the step, without engaging with them, until they realize you're going to keep doing it. It can take a lot of repetition! I always go into houses and have to correct how they do time out. The parents will tell me it doesn't work, and the producers will say, "What are you going to do?" I'll say, "I'm going to do what they say doesn't work, and they're going to see what they're doing wrong!"
What's your favorite children's book?
I love reading children the Olivia books! I think they're really sweet. And as a young child my favorites were those by Beatrix Potter.
You always seem so in control of every situation. What really stresses you out? What do you do to relax?
A bad flight stresses me out. Five years of traveling around and I still don't like flying. I'm not a keen flyer. So when I get a bad flight, I feel sick and I'm looking for the airsick bag, having to breathe in and breathe out. They say the universe puts things in front of you that you have to learn to deal with better, so I've got some more flying to do. As soon as I touch down it's a relief, and then I like to get in a hot bubble bath. I love my "smellies" -- my essential oils and my candles.