TV’s very own Mary Poppins tells MFM all about working in the US, offering tips to the stars and how she came up with the famed naughty step…
It was just like doing my nanny job abroad, and I’d already worked with US families, so I was excited rather than anxious. Plus, the whole process was so quick, I didn’t have time to worry about how they’d receive me.
There’s no nanny system in the US – anyone who takes care of children is called a babysitter – so people in the states have a high regard for the English nanny. The only one they really know is Mary Poppins, and her name was mentioned in all the pre-show publicity. I was proud that it was good PR for English nannies, after some of the bad press we’ve had.
As so many US reality shows are scripted, everyone thought I wasn’t really a nanny, so it was fantastic when viewers started coming up to me and saying, “Your technique really works.” It was the same with the families I was going in to help: I don’t think they realised when they signed up that there would actually be a lot of hard graft involved.
I had to speak a bit slower at first because they couldn’t understand me. Then I’d tell children to put their pants on, meaning underwear, but they’d reach for their trousers, and I had to remember to say diaper instead of nappy. In the end the editing team compiled a board of ‘Jo-isms’: things I’d say that they didn’t understand, which they found really funny!
Fundamentally, the parenting problems are the same as in England. I think that US families do seem to have a very positive outlook on life, though, which is great because I share that.
It’s a bad climate at the moment and governments could do more to help, but we need to take responsibility for our own families too, rather than blaming someone else when things go wrong.
Decide how you’re going to parent and then be accountable for those decisions. It’s much more productive to focus on what you do want, rather than what you don’t want. I also want parents to realise that it’s all about enjoying the experience. Yes, there will always be ups and downs, but that’s all part of good parenting.
It’s gotten to a point where parents get defensive when other people attempt to give them advice about their children. I sometimes tell parents things that the grandparents already know, but are too scared to say because they don’t want to affect the relationship they have with the parents and grandchildren. We must learn to accept that it’s just advice, not criticism.
I’ve worked with two celebrity families on US Supernanny – one was Brian Wilson’s [of the Beach Boys] daughter and the other was a basketball player – and I do get other celebrities calling me for help. They have the same problems as every other parent. To their kids they’re just mum or dad.
I’ve done more than a hundred families now, and every one touches me. I've worked with a mother who has two young children. It was the father who contacted me for help – he was dying of stomach cancer. As soon as I agreed to come along, he passed away, so I was in the home helping out a week after he was buried. I cried every day. The little girl kept asking “Where’s daddy?” I got family and friends to make video clips of their memories of him so she’d have them when she grew up, and we made a book of photos.
I’ve only come across a couple of children like this, and they break my heart. Then there are the children with parents who need professional help – cases of abuse, for example. It’s hard to put your emotions to one side. But that’s why watching the DVD of the parents’ behaviour at the beginning of the show is so vital. The parents often say to me, “I can’t believe I behave like that,” when they see it. I’m proud of how the shows have made parents talk. It used to be that families kept all their problems hidden, but now people seem to feel able to talk at the school gates. And that’s all thanks to those brave families who signed up for the first few shows and were happy to air their problems in public.
All the travelling and living out of a suitcase (I don’t own a house because I’m never in one place long enough) seems worthwhile when you get comments like the one I had recently. I was at Gatwick airport when a lady approached me holding my latest book, Jo Frost’s Confident Baby Care (Orion, £12.99). She said, “This is you, isn’t it? I’ve read six or seven others and this one has really helped me.”
It was simply a part of everything I did when I worked as a nanny, but back then I didn’t have the name – it was just the place you went when you were naughty. I actually give advice on all aspects of parenting, but as you can see, the production company does like to focus on discipline as a staple for the show.
The glasses are mine, but the suit isn’t – the production company wanted me to wear a suit so that people could tell the difference between me and the family members. But I had to put my foot down and say that I wouldn’t wear the suit for the whole time, because it’s just not practical when you’re down on the floor interacting with kids.
My parents say that I was a very sociable little one. When we were away on holiday I was always the one to bring back new friends to meet my family.
I’m at my happiest by the sea and I loved building sandcastles as a child. I was always determined to fill the moat I’d created with water from the sea, not realising that it would all drain away. I also wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger – I used to say “I want to dig in the sand and find things from Egypt, I love Egyptology”!
As a child I always wanted an ice cream, no matter what the weather, and I would have a temper tantrum if I was told ‘no’. Nowadays my downfall is mint choc chip…
I’m not in a relationship at the moment, however, so I’m not feeling broody just yet. I support National Adoption Day, though, and I believe that you can love a child even if he’s not biologically yours, so there might be that possibility in the future.
I always loved babies, so it was natural for me to start babysitting when I was a teenager. I also loved English literature and musical theatre, so I headed off to drama college. I was still babysitting too, and I started doing more and more, and finally it became my career.
Fast-forward to 2003 and I’d covered all the different types of nannying, from troubleshooting for families to working abroad. Then I saw an advert in a magazine for a nanny with more than five years’ experience, to give advice to chaotic households. My dad used to say our phone at home was a nanny hotline because I had so many people calling for advice, so I figured the job was something I’d be good at. After an interview and stints helping two families, during which I was filmed on a camcorder, I got a call saying Channel 4 liked the pilot. The rest, as they say, is history…
“I’d just spent another mealtime in tears with Paola refusing to eat her tea. That evening I watched Jo on TV, dealing with an even fussier eater. Following Jo’s advice (using a fun reward chart and smaller portions) I was able to get Paola to try vegetables. A year on, she even eats sprouts!”
Lyn Santini, 31, from Aberystwyth, mum to Paola, 3
“My 2-year-old son, Alex, used to run off whenever we were out. I’d end up dashing after him with Chloe in the buggy. I watched Jo show a family how to get ‘little runaways’ to hold on to the buggy: no holding on, no going out. After four trips, Alex was holding on without being told to. Amazing!”
Carrie Smith, 27, from Reading, mum to Alex, 2, and Chloe, 1
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