At Home With Deborah Tillman
America's Supernanny shares what home life means to her.
What led you to become a child-care expert?
I had seven child-care providers in three months for my infant son Zeplyn Xavier, and they were horrible. I'd drop him off at 9 a.m., and come back at different times, and he'd still be in his car seat with a wet diaper. People weren't doing what they were supposed to do. So I quit my job as an accountant and took a child-provider course, then went back to George Washington University and got a master's degree in early childhood special education. I set up my home as a child-care center in 1994 and had a long waiting list. When the owner of a nearby child-care center retired, she heard about my work and asked if I'd like to take over her school. Then I opened my third center in 2009.
How did you come to have your own television show?
I've been working with children and families for nearly 20 years, and was written up in Essence magazine. The casting people for the show emailed me and I did a series of interviews. They brought me in with a family for a screen test to see what I could deliver, and over the course of two weeks, I got the role.
The format of the show has you observing a family with problems, then coaching the parents on how to deal with their issues, much like the format of Supernanny, which starred Britain's child-care expert Jo Frost on ABC. What was the biggest problem you saw among the families you worked with and filmed?
The biggest problem was a lack of consistency by the parents, and follow-through with discipline. Whatever the issue was, parents would say, "Time out," then let the kid get away with things. A lot of times, parents say they're tired of chasing the kids, and just give up. We saw a lot of parents yelling or screaming, and sending negativity across the board. If you give children attention for negative behavior, you'll get more negative behavior. If you praise them for good things, they'll do more good things. With my own son, even when he did something inappropriate, I'd say, "You are too smart to do something like that." I believe in positive parenting.
How important is the home environment to family harmony?
It's very important. When I walk into a house, I can discern the spirit of the place. There was one family we filmed who had no family pictures in the house, and they had 10 kids. We did a family portrait of them and put it in their home, which encouraged them to do more of the same, to remember that they are a family.
So what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up, and what did you like about the neighborhood?
I grew up in East Orange, N.J., and had a great childhood. I remember going to dance school, playing on the swing and enjoying kickball outside. Kids today like being inside with video games, but we always wanted to be outside. My parents separated when I was 12, but I had good role models. We grew up in church, I was Queen of the Cotillion Ball and my mother was a stay-at-home mom until my dad left. After that, she worked three jobs to raise three girls. My sisters and I look at Mom as our hero. Before the divorce, we lived in an affluent area with a big Colonial house and a beautiful backyard. After they separated, we moved to a nice apartment in a high-rise, which had a huge pool with security. It was different from the house in that we couldn't take our dog there. It was still in a nice part of town, though. I'm glad I had the life of 10,000 presents under the Christmas tree, as well as the opposite. It gave me a bigger heart for people. When I started my child-care centers, I reached out to at-risk parents who were in need in the same way I dealt with the parents who were doctors and lawyers.
What was the first home you bought?
My husband, James, and I bought a three-story townhouse in Alexandria, Va. We liked having the end unit. After Zeplyn was born, we waited a couple of years to look for our second house. My husband is a financial analyst, so we live very much beneath our means.
Where do you live now, and what is the neighborhood like?
We moved to Woodbridge, Va., because we wanted a place that was quiet. The area was more country-like eight years ago, but it's still very quiet. There are lots of military people and retired neighbors here. When someone's new to the neighborhood, we take pies to welcome them. We have a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom home with a pond on the side of the house. It has hardwood floors, and I had a fish tank built into the living room as a wall to separate it from the dining room.
What are your design preferences?
I like a modern, eclectic style, with lots of candles and family pictures around. My kitchen is done in a country style, but the dining room table is black lacquer. The dining room walls are gray, and a sliding door opens out to a nice backyard. Family pictures are in every room, all with different memories.
What's the most important room in the house to you?
My bedroom is the most important because it's a sanctuary. When I walk into the bedroom, I can breathe. I read the Bible and meditate there. Whenever we buy our last house, I'm going to have a separate prayer room. To me, home life means relaxation, family, friends and food. It's the place where you can take off the entrepreneur's hat, forget the day and just relax.
What's the most important thing to have in a house?
Love. If there's love and nurturing in the house — no matter what the physical environment is — the house becomes a home.