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Who needs Mary Poppins? Top nannies and their grateful clients share reality-based tips with a magic all their own

We love "Supernanny" Jo Frost, and in a pinch we'll even watch "Nanny 911."

But with kids who don't hang from the chandeliers, draw blood on a regular basis or throw two-hour tantrums, we sometimes feel a tad left out. From reality TV to Disney's "Mary Poppins," the focus always seems to be on families with big, bold problems, as opposed to those of us battling a host of petty annoyances that all come to a head at oh, say, 6 p.m. on the average Thursday.

In the interest of correcting that imbalance, we asked real-life supernannies and the employers who love them for lessons that ordinary — and even extraordinary — parents can learn from professional caregivers.

Drama vs. reality

Kellie Geres, the International Nanny Association's Nanny of the Year in 1997, weighs in on notable nannies in pop culture:

Mary Poppins: "It's fantasy. We all wish you (could) snap your fingers and the bedroom's going to be clean. Doesn't happen! I could stand there and snap my fingers all day. It's fantasy vs. reality, and I live in reality."

"Supernanny"/ "Nanny 911": "Watching these shows is going to give people creative ideas, but (change) is not going to happen overnight."

Maria ("The Sound of Music"): "She had many, many challenges but was a very strong personality and persevered. She showed a lot of creativity, a lot of determination, a lot of patience, which as nannies we all need and have."

Fran Drescher (star of "The Nanny"): "That (show) … just kind of brought awareness to nannies. Not what today's nannies do, but the limelight or celebrity side of it. We all don't work for that (very wealthy) employer. We don't all marry our employer. But it brought the term out, and made people aware."

Mr. French ("Family Affair"): "I really wouldn't lump (him) in with nannies (any more than) Alice from 'The Brady Bunch.' They were butlers and housekeepers and then the children came into the scene. They cooked and they cleaned and made sure everything was taken care of — but (that's) not what today's nannies do." Same goes for Uncle Charley on "My Three Sons," she says, adding, "But it kind of sets the tone that a male can fill those roles.

Keep calm

Whitney Wingerd of West Chester, Pa., learned the power of patience from watching nanny Christina Simeone handle Wingerd's son, then 3.

"He would do something that would just send me off the deep end, and I'd be shouting and angry and it wouldn't faze her at all," Wingerd says. "She would just handle him very calmly and quietly, and watching his reaction to her — he would just immediately calm down as well — made me realize, 'Wow! I'm 35! I need to take a step back and be patient.'"

Three years later, Wingerd, editor of the blog, says Simeone remains a touchstone in matters both large and small.

"I ask myself, 'How would Christina react?'" she says.

Speak softly and carry a big bag of tricks

Kids don't come with an owner's manual, but having nanny Becky Kavanagh around is the next best thing, says Paul Kunkel, 56, a neonatal nurse practitioner from Eden Prairie, Minn.

Among the techniques that Kunkel picked up by watching Kavanagh, the International Nanny Association's 2006 Nanny of the Year:

"When your kid's not paying attention to you, most people, myself included, talk louder," Kunkel says. "Well, that escalates. Becky used to say, 'Just talk really softly. They're kind of curious about what you might have said and they lean in to you.'"

"That was huge. I never had to say, 'You guys! It's time to eat!' Instead I'd just say (very softly): 'Dinner's on.'"

Stick to a schedule

With young children, many mysterious minor problems, from cranky bath times to sleepless naps to chaotic homework sessions, can be brought under control with some consistent scheduling.

"Children thrive on structure and consistency," says 2004 INA Nanny of the Year Michelle LaRowe, author of "A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists" (Revell, 2010).

"I have my own daughter now as well, and people laugh and say, 'Oh, it's going to be so different now with your own.' And I laugh back and say, 'Oh, no, it's not.' I've seen too often when they don't have structure, and set meal times and set sleeping times, you can tell in their behavior. They're overtired, they're fussy, their blood sugar levels make them out of sorts.

"Everyone can't believe how well-behaved my own daughter is, but it's because I take my own nanny advice."

Keep an eye on the big picture

"It's so much easier to say yes for parents, and I guess for some caregivers, too, that they don't realize that saying no is where the power comes in to teach a life lesson," LaRowe says.

"For example, in the grocery store checkout line, it's easy to say, 'Yes, you can have that candy.' But you know, in the long run you really want to teach your child, 'You have to wait. You have to have patience. You don't always get something when you go to the store.'"

Don't get emotional

"It's so much easier if you can take the emotions out of your discipline," LaRowe says. "It just wears you down" to constantly be getting angry, hurt or frustrated.

"You have to know child development," she adds. "You have to know what's appropriate and what's not."

For example, she says, "Toddlers are going to bite. It's part of what they do. They're exploring their world. They're demonstrating their independence. When you know that, you don't take things so personally. Of course, you try to head them off, but when a child bites another child, you don't get mad.

"How do you handle it? (You) pull the child aside and say, 'No, teeth aren't for biting. We don't bite. When we're mad we use our words.'"

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.