The humble art and improv of {good} parenting

Now redwhiteandnew, what do you know about parenting? The little oyster is but 14 weeks in the oven.

Oh ho. I know a lot about parenting, mostly because I was parented. The husband knows a lot, too, and it helps that we know some of the same things and some different things. Becoming a parent doesn’t suddenly make you an expert in being one, although having had them is a pretty solid crib sheet for the whole gig.

So while we get ready for the little oyster, we are carefully watching parents–both real and fictional–to determine how to approach the humble art and improvisation of {good} parenting. The first thing we have established is that it is equal parts art and improv; there is no science in this.

Some people learn from their parents how to be good ones themselves. Others learn from their parents exactly what not to do when the time comes. And then there are screen parents we all grew up with or watch now, and what we can learn from them might be just as valuable as the in-life things we learned from our own mas and pas.

1. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, The Cosby Show

A personal fave, not only as a show but as a parenting example. Though maybe not as a fashion icon.

Bill Cosby’s portrayal of the good Brooklyn ob/gyn leads to regular mental notes for me and the husband. The Huxtable kids aren’t perfect, but each one is allowed to be his or her own person, within the confines of Cliff and Clair’s rules. While the kids are allowed to excel or fail according to their gifts and efforts, each family member is held accountable for their actions. Denise’s attitude is regularly checked but not at the expense of her individuality; Theo’s poor academic performance is dealt with using equal parts fair punishment and assertive encouragement; Vanessa’s exasperating pre-teen insecurities will work themselves out and are allowed to; Rudy is just plain cute, the youngest child who bucks the spoiled baby expectation. Cliff and Clair parent together as allies, sounding boards, and the other one’s reality check.

Lesson: Your kids will sometimes be right, but they’ll get more out of being right if you force them to make a case for it. And they’ll get more out of being wrong when you drive the lesson home with humor and stick to your guns as the parent.

2. Matthew Cuthbert, Anne of Green Gables

This is where I would put a shout-out to my Canadian readers, but I don’t know if Canadians appreciate shout outs. Seems like an American thing.

The crusty, quiet old bachelor who brings the feisty red-haired orphan Anne to Green Gables does the intermittent spoiling while his equally crusty old maid sister Marilla does the raising. Brought up in a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child home themselves, the Cuthbert siblings err on either side of how they were raised, Marilla tending to emulate the style while Matthew insists that “there’s no reason to raise her as cheerless as we was.” His quiet patience with talkative Anne is a true fondness and while Anne doesn’t ever ask for much and Marilla’s main concern is to raise her in a God-fearing home, Matthew notices and indulges the small desires of young woman whose only parents are no parents at all.

Lesson: Spoiling a child now and then doesn’t mean you’ll raise a spoiled child. The key is now and then.

3. Maria von Trapp, The Sound of Music

Yes, I know Maria von Trapp was a real person and didn’t resemble Julie Andrews in the least. That’s not the point.

I’m still getting used to the idea of having one kid…the thought of going from nun-in-training to stepmother of seven makes my eye twitch. At first Maria is nothing more to the von Trapp children than another governess to drive away but her ability to kill them with kindness brings the surly kids around in no time. The problem, she discovers, is that their father doesn’t know how to raise them and as a result they don’t know how to behave. Are they rude little brats? Definitely. Because they are nasty children at the core? No. Because they don’t know any differently until Maria shows up with her guitar and her “confidence in me” and whips them into ship-shape despite their sea-captain father.

Lesson: Kids should be kids, but rude isn’t an unavoidable part of being a kid. Fortunately, rude can be dealt with in a number of different ways, and finding out what’s really driving a child’s behavior can be the key to correcting it.

4. Arthur and Molly Weasley, Harry Potter

My parents always kissed when the dad came home for lunch. The sisters and I would “ewww!”at the table while they smooched in the kitchen. Kids are dumb.

The only thing the Weasley family is known for more than being poor is being close-knit. Molly’s refrain of “we’ll manage” is pretty much the extent of what they can swing, but manage they always do. Are the younger kids embarrassed by their hand-me-down books and outdated wardrobes? Yes, they are. Do Molly and Arthur wish they could give their kids more? I don’t know, it never comes up. But what the Weasley parents do give their kids is a supportive family, enough to eat, and a place to come home to on school holidays. There’s even room for a few friends toΒ  come visit.

Lesson: The family you give your children is worth more than the things you give them.

5. M’Lynn Eatonton, Steel Magnolias

Few things change as quickly as fashion. Good thing, too.

Sally Field’s Type A mothering in Steel Magnolias is a role she rocks, but she gets as annoying as she is decisive. Our kids will always be our kids, but they won’t always be kids. You might disagree with decisions your grown children make–they might even be plain bad decisions–but respecting their adult choices is as respectful to them as you think they should be to you.

Lesson: When your kids grow up, let them go. Out of your life, no, but off to make their own decisions, yes. And for goodness’ sake, crack a smile now and then that your kids are confident enough to make their own choices.

6. Jay and Gloria Pritchett, Modern Family

When Gloria masters the fine art of bike riding she’ll be a triple threat.

On the surface Jay and Gloria are the older man and his trophy wife. While Jay is significantly older than Gloria and she has, um, prize-winning features, the two are more substance than they are gloss. As stepparents Jay is reliving the most impressionable parenting years with Gloria’s precocious 13-year-old son while Gloria works on relating to Jay’s kids, who are exactly her age. Neither tries to take the place of the natural parent in the stepkids’ lives, but each is a better parent to the family than the natural parents were. And the way Jay and Gloria treat one another sets an example for the other relationships in the family. He adores her, she loosens him up, and both want what is best for all the kids. Together they provide a stable cornerstone for a family that is mixed, growing, and modern.

Lesson: Teaming up with your spouse is a great example to set for your kids. Remember which relationship involves a vow.

Now, I don’t expect that the husband and I will remember all these lessons learned from TV and movie parents, but knowing everything in advance would take the fun out of it anyway, wouldn’t it? Of course we’re not experts, but I do stand by my assertion that we’re not going into the parenthood thing totally clueless. We were kids too, after all, and everything we picked up from our own parents can’t be boiled down to a blog post.

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16 thoughts on “The humble art and improv of {good} parenting

  1. This is a terrific post. This sentence jumped out: “Remember which relationship involves a vow.” I don’t think you can possibly realize how much you are learning from your parents, or other role models, about being adults until you are an adult yourself. (This is a truth I did not believe in as a child…I was always so frustrated when people told me I’d understand when I was older, but now I know the truth of that statement.)

    And thanks be to God that He set it up that we don’t have to reinvent everything with each new life experience, but can learn some without doing in preparation for doing!

  2. Good insights, gleaned from fact and fiction, especially for a new baker.
    Nice comments from playoutside, too.
    One day, after ushering your children into adulthood, you’ll wake up, look back and say, “Wow, that was nice.”

  3. Love the Cosby shot. We just watched season one of the Cosby Show on DVD a few months ago. What I think you will find is that the role models will be great as you get into more give-and-take, interactive relationships with the oyster… at first you will be in repetitive-task land with monologues just for your own ears’ sake and will only need the clear directions from any shampoo bottle worth its salt: lather, rinse, repeat. Soon enough, the little latheree will be ready for more, but don’t get glum if you’re a few months in and start wondering when the “real parenting” begins. It all matters – you can’t build a strong tower without a good foundation!

      • LOL. Probably. Or to sucker us into buying more, even though the little meisters’ eyes can’t focus for months or even track reliably (think reading) for years. Either that, or it’s to go with the cuteness of the little folks themselves… cuteness is the baby’s defense, because if somebody 10 years old tried to pull what babies get away with, nobody would fall for it. They are smart little buggers *long* before they can ever speak or even sign words. R’s first word was “hat” with a pleading gesture toward his snowsuit…

  4. I would say the fact that you have good ole common sense prepares you in a lot of ways. Patience goes a long way as a parent to little ones (but I’m sure you’ve figured that out). Most of us are making it up as we go along anyways :), so I’m sure you’ll be just fine!!

    Yay for being in the second trimester!

  5. Nice list, RW&N. Something very evident to me was my fallibility as a parent (and human) and that acknowledging mistakes and asking forgiveness was difficult, but good.

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