Helping to make life 'calmer, easier and happier' for parents, teachers and children everywhere
The real Supernanny
By Jason Walsh
The Pacific Sun
Back to School Behavior specialist Noel Janis-Norton offers her nipper know-how on the eve of another school year...
Noel Janis-Norton

Noel Janis-Norton knows about back to- school days— she’s been guiding kids through them since finishing teacher training at New York University in the early 1970s. Throughout her career in education, and in raising two children of her own, Noel became a close study of some of New York’s more successful school teachers, and came to the conclusion that there wasn’t so much an “intrinsic quality” in a teacher that made kids behave—rather, there were certain techniques that any adult could use that lead to calmer, happier children. And parents.

She went on to become a learning and behavior specialist and the author of several parenting books, and in 1983 she founded the New Learning Centre in London where she offers Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching programs to beleaguered Brits. Now a grandmother of six, Noel divides her time between the West End and the West Coast, holding seminars and private consultations for teachers, moms and dads who may need some help corralling little Braden and Skylee. Her semi-regular visits to Marin—her daughter Jessica lives in Novato—have earned her something of a following; Novato’s esteemed St. Francis Preschool openly encourages parents to check out her writing and lectures for guidance in making that leap from Playskool to preschool.

Noel is planning a November trip to Marin, where she’ll coordinate parenting seminars in Novato. In the meantime, we asked her for some advice on how to get our lazy broods ready for another year of pencils and books—while avoiding any of the teacher’s dirty looks.

Our kids have stayed up late and slept till noon every day this summer—but school is starting soon.
Is there a way, besides caffeine, to get them up and to school on time?

Part of what parents need to do is preparation before school starts. So for the last two weeks of the summer vacation, before school begins, the school bedtimes need to be re-established. And parents recognize this is a problem—and they usually think about it a couple of days before school starts. But really it takes kids sometimes two weeks to get into the right pattern, so two weeks before school starts, get the bedtimes back to school-time bedtimes.

What about transitioning back into homework?
That’s exactly the next thing I was going to mention. It’s so important because otherwise, when children start school again, they’ve lost the habit of concentrating. Of course, they can concentrate on video games, but that’s not the kind of concentrating we need.

They need Grand Theft Periodic Table.
They need sitting down with a piece of paper in front of them, or a book. So I recommend that, depending on the age of the child, they should have a half an hour or an hour of some kind of homework six days a week during the summer vacation.

painting by Norman RockwellAssuming a school hasn’t assigned anything, what’s a good approach for parents regarding summer homework?
The parents actually do know what their kids’ strengths and weaknesses are, if they take a moment to think about it. So a parent might think—oh yeah, my kid wasn’t that great on times tables. Maybe they’re still adding or subtracting on their fi ngers. Or maybe when they read out loud they miss out little words, so whatever it is that you’ve noticed that you wish were not a problem, that’s what you’d have your children practice over the summer. So for most kids there’s some math, some reading and some writing over the summer.

Is there a particularly good time of day for summer work?
The best time is after breakfast and before fun. If you leave it to the end of the day, the likelihood is that either it won’t happen, or your child will be tired and, understandably, not keen.

You recommend the use of “descriptive praise.”
What do you mean by that?

When we want kids to do more of something, or when we want to encourage, we know that we are supposed to praise them. So parents do praise their kids. But, unfortunately, the way that we praise them often doesn’t really do what were hoping it will do. We’re hoping that the praise will motivate, but the kind of praise that is really easy to give, which is the superlatives, often doesn’t really motivate our kids.

Give an example.
Well, think of the times when you say, “That’s great!” Or, “fantastic!” Or, “good job,” or “that’s amazing!” Or, in California especially, “awesome!” And the thing is, our kids are smart, and they know that they’re not amazing, fantastic, terrifi c and awesome. So they soon learn to discount and ignore all of that superlative praise. It becomes like verbal wallpaper. What does work is the descriptive praise, because it’s completely different.

In that it’s not a complete falsehood?
Instead of the superlatives, you just leave those out, since kids don’t believe them, and we notice and mention what the kids are doing right, or good or even just OK.

That’s fabulous advice. Or, rather, it’s OK...
And we also notice and mention when kids aren’t doing something wrong. For instance, if you are trying to encourage your child to write more, instead of saying, “Oh that’s fantastic,” when they’ve written one sentence, you say, “You’ve already written one sentence.” Or you could say, “You remembered to start with a capital and end with a period.” Or, if they’re older, you can say, “You’ve got quite a few adjectives in that sentence.” The thing about descriptive praise is that it’s completely believable because you’re mentioning exactly what they did.

Talk about mealtimes. If they’re adjusting to a new schedule and don’t eat breakfast, they could be in for a bad start to the first week of school.
It’s usually because they have eaten too late the night before. We need to make sure that kids have an early dinner, let’s say at 5pm. And that they don’t eat or even have milk after dinner. Between dinner and breakfast there’s nothing. And this will help them to sleep, by the way. Food is fuel for action and when we fuel their bodies, their bodies want to move around. Whereas, if they’ve had an early dinner then they’ve been able to digest for a few hours before they go to bed. And they will go to sleep more easily and sleep more soundly and wake up more refreshed and in a better mood and more keen to have breakfast.

How large a pile of Choco-Smack-A-Doodles should we load into their bowls?
Give small amounts at mealtimes. Because if we give too much it just looks like a mountain to climb and they don’t want to even start eating. And we need not urge. Urging at mealtimes makes kids lose their appetite. “Two more bites...” or, “c’mon, we’re going to be late...” none of that. The more we hurry children, the more stressed they become. And when children become stressed, they slow down and become distracted. One of the things I say to parents is that there are four things we mustn’t say to our children anymore: “c’mon,” “hurry up,” “let’s go,” “we’ll be late.” They don’t help anybody. It is our job as parents to organize it so that there is enough time for our kids to do what they have to do at their pace.

What’s a common mistake parents make that hinders the transition back to school?
I think it’s too much screen time and not having a regular sit-down-and-do-somework time. Parents often say to me they want their kids to have a break, they want their kids to have a rest. And obviously, they’re not going to school, so that is a break. But it almost sounds as if the parents think sitting down and learning is onerous. And actually it isn’t. Kids like to learn. As long as we’re staying positive and as long as it’s not too hard for them, they like to learn. And there’s something that teachers call the summer slide, which is the amount of forgetting that kids do over the summer holidays. And we can completely reverse the summer slide by making sure our kids do a little bit of work six days a week.

Do you think it’s really the parents who want the break?
Well, I think that’s a good point—that if parents have had a hassle getting their kids to do homework during the school year, then they’re thinking it’s going to be that much worse trying to get them to do homework during the vacation. So they’re the ones who want the break.

You mentioned “too much screen time.” How much is too much?
I have guidelines about the amount of time a kid should spend in front of the screen at each age and also guidelines about what sort of thing they should be exposed to. The guidelines that I use are, from birth to age 3, no exposure to screens, which is obviously much easier to do with the first child than with the second one. From the ages of 3 to 8, a maximum of a half an hour a day of screens—and that’s a half an hour combined, not a half an hour of Game Boy and a half an hour of TV. And then from age 8 onwards, an hour a day of leisure screen time. Parents say to me, what about if they want to watch a movie? Of course, you can make exceptions on occasion, but it’s also OK to watch a movie for half an hour, then the next bit the next day and the next bit the next day.

Wish you’d said that before our family’s all-six-Harry-Potter-films-in-one-sitting disaster. So what types of shows should they be exposed to?
It’s certainly true that there are things that you can learn well through screens. For example, many classic books that kids wouldn’t think would be interesting, they’re often more willing to read after they’ve seen a screen adaptation of it. Plus, there are many things in science and history that can be portrayed very vividly through screens. So I’m definitely not saying you should have no screens.

Have you seen a difference between English parenting styles and American styles?
For a long time English parents were calmer and firmer than American parents. But unfortunately, this is one of the American exports, like Coca-Cola, that goes around the world and doesn’t do so much good.

What do you think of England’s recent parenting export, the Supernanny?
On the one hand, I think the Supernanny is terrific. Her advice is excellent and she has a very lovely way with the children and is very caring. On the other hand, I think it’s not really educational, it’s just pure entertainment. And I think for many parents the value of it is so they can think—thank goodness my kids aren’t that bad.

More than 100 years ago, Oscar Wilde quipped, “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way the parents obey their children.”
Unfortunately, that has spread and now English parents obey their children, too.

Any theories about parenting’s renewed subservience?
I think I have. With the breakdown of homogenous communities, people are left pretty much to raise their kids in a vacuum, without the support and advice of the older people in the community. And now that we don’t have large families, as people are growing up they’re not seeing and practicing how to raise kids. And I think Freud and everybody who came after him has a lot to answer for.

That we’re in love with our mother and want to kill our father?
That we’ve given parents the impression that children are these delicate flowers and if you say no you will damage their little psyches. And it’s just not true. Kids need parents to be in charge.

When did the kiddie coup begin?
I think in the ’60s there was a backlash to what had happened before. And a lot of parents nowadays were children in the ’60s and ’70s. There was the feeling that we mustn’t stifle children, we mustn’t expect too much from them. But I actually think that it’s not about stifling. When we use skills that help children be more cooperative, they also become more confident, more motivated, more self-reliant and more considerate.

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