Supernanny to the rescue
The reality TV show comes to Reno, looking for a few troubled families to exploit
The boy whips bean bags at the blue face of Monster Inc.'s Sully, knocking three teeth down. At the Circus Circus midway game in Reno, four teeth must be smashed to win a prize. Christian, 6, pauses. He has not won a prize. Will he throw a tantrum?
His mom quickly hands the game attendant money for another round. Christian loses again. As he turns to dart off, his mother grabs his arm. He pulls away, heading for Whac-a-Mole.
Veronica Bustillo, visiting Reno from Turlock, Calif., sighs. She says she wishes she’d brought a leash for her son. She’s exhausted from chasing him around.
Bustillo, whose stylish gold belt matches her sequined gold purse, motions to her older daughter Jasmine, 10.
“Sometimes we tell her to let him win, so that he doesn’t throw a fit and ruin everyone’s time,” says Bustillo.
The Bustillos are having trouble with their son. He’s hyperactive and impulsive. Just recently, he jumped in a Dumpster and chipped a tooth.
Perhaps reality TV can help the Bustillos. Not far from where Christian beats plastic rodents with a padded hammer is the casting booth for Supernanny, the ABC show in which a British nanny helps parents gain respect and obedience from their tots.
“He’s getting worse,” Bustillo says, touting her son’s naughtiness to a Supernanny producer as she fills out an application to appear on the show. “He just doesn’t understand consequences.”
Christian sits passively in a folding chair as Bustillo cites instances of bad behavior.
Bustillo’s mother, Arzelae Ramirez, stands nearby. She thinks her daughter should be on the TV show.
“She needs Supernanny,” Ramirez says, nodding. When babysitting, Ramirez has no problem with her granddaughter Jasmine. She motions to Christian: “That one don’t listen. I’ve been chasing him around all day.”
Spoonfuls of sugar
Don’t let the profusion of British accents fool you. ABC’s Supernanny is not to be confused with Fox’s Nanny 911. Fox’s cadre of Mary Poppins’ clones knows that “it takes more than a spoonful of sugar to get unruly tykes in line,” according to its Web promo, while ABC’s Supernanny Frost can “tame the wildest toddler, soothe the savage 6-year-old.” Frost has been praised by Oprah. Frost’s Supernanny book was a New York Times bestseller.
Circus Circus seems a promising venue for finding families for the show. Lights, games, prizes and refined sugar products for the kids. Lights, games, prizes and booze for mom and dad. A starch-filled buffet for the whole family.
Across from the buffet, families line up at the casting booth sandwiched between a Jelly Belly stand and a row of coin-operated metallic claw games.
Katie Sole, a segment producer from London, shuffles through applications. She spends spare moments “grading” the families. The worse the family’s problems, it seems, the higher its grade. It helps to be photogenic, and Sole takes photographs of the families coming through.
“We’ve had some promising families come through,” Sole says. “Of course, I can’t give them a proper grade until the home visit.”
A few B-pluses—"That’s high,” Sole says—were given to families with deadbeat dads, hyperactive toddlers and, in one case, a first grader who brought a gun to school.
The “A” family has four children under age 6. Dad is an American born in Turkey.
“I like the fact that they’re biracial,” Sole says. “We’re not just a show for middle-class white people. We like to show all types of families.”
By mid-afternoon, traffic slows at the casting booth. Sole hawks the show to passersby.
“Do you have children? Do you want to be on Supernanny?”
A tall, attractive young woman stops. Tina Schoessler doesn’t have kids. But her friend does.
“Her son stabs the couches with knives … and he hits her!” Schoessler says, enthusiastically.
Her friend, Stephanie Brooke (not her real name), 29, of Eugene, Ore., is a single mother of two who’s been having a hard time with her 4-year-old. She’s also a tall, attractive blonde. Sole is clearly interested in Brooke’s troubling story.
“It’s just been me his whole life,” Brooke says, sipping from a bottle of Bud Light. “He has no respect for anybody.”
Brooke watches Supernanny.
“I think it’s cool,” she says. “But it would be hard to have someone come to my home. … I know my kids are terrible.”
Brooke works as an office manager and wouldn’t want her co-workers to see her private life. She also worries that the Supernanny might demand change from her—not just her son.
“I drink beer,” she says, lifting her bottle. “I don’t want someone to tell me I should quit drinking beer.”
Sole gives Brooke a phone number to call if she changes her mind.
“Just think about it,” Sole tells the hapless mother.
Focusing on the family
During its first season in 2005, Supernanny made headlines when ABC (a Disney subsidiary) sold air time to the conservative religious group Focus on the Family. The network had refused to air United Church of Christ ads that showed an unmarried mom and a gay couple being ejected from church pews. The voiceover: “God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we.” The ad had been declared “inconsistent with ABC’s policies” regarding commercials with religious themes.
And yet, in the Focus on the Family ad aired during Supernanny, “faith-based” solutions were touted for dealing with conniving children, like the boy who warns the camera: “At bedtime tonight, it might get ugly.” The Supernanny audience may have seemed a likely fit for Focus on the Family. Its founder James Dobson wrote the best-selling book, Dare to Discipline, in which he argues for corporal punishment: “Pain is a marvelous purifier.” The group’s lobbying arm urges its members to oppose same-sex marriage legalization and to fight against women’s reproductive rights.
Supernanny Jo Frost doesn’t resort to corporal punishment to deal with what Dobson dubbed the “strong-willed child.” Her parenting techniques are standard fare—consistent praise, discipline not punishment, dependable routines and clear boundaries.
Though she may “spare the rod,” Frost is no pushover. She instructs parents to hold their own in episode after episode. The show, first a hit in Britain, is in its third season in the United States.
“We watch it all the time,” Bustillo says. “They have really good tips.”
After applying, the Bustillos head back to the Midway. Christian darts from game to game, winning a small brown teddy bear.
Christian has an upcoming appointment with a psychiatrist who might prescribe medication. Bustillo has balked at drugs. But she’s ready to try what the professionals recommend. When she mentions this to Sole, however, Bustillo says she’s told to consider holding off on medication while applying for the show. The obvious goes unsaid: A sedated child doesn’t play well on camera.
Bustillo can’t imagine suffering through bad behavior while waiting for producers to do phone interviews and a home visit.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think so,'” she says.
Bustillo looks around for Christian. He’s gone.
“In a heartbeat!” she says, launching into action. “You stay here,” she tells Jasmine and scans the crowd. After a few seconds of panic, she spots the boy watching silver balls drop down through a tabletop maze. She grabs his arm and scolds him. Then the two sit down on the low stool and feed quarters to the ball-dropping game.
Barely audible over the gaming crowd din, Elvis is singing, “Oh-oh-oh, I’m all shook up.”