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Parenting Lessons In Non-Parenting Places

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When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you are a parent, everything sounds like a parenting message. 

We notice it first about the news -- new parents realize they will never watch a story about an injured child with the same eyes. Then we widen our lens, and fiction also starts to feel personal (someone needs to rewrite The Catcher in the Rye from Holden's parents' point of view; can you imagine how they suffered? And just don't get me started on all the dead mothers in Disney films.)

Before long, our trained eyes and thinned skins can find a parenting angle anywhere. This is either very educational or somewhat unsettling, depending on your point of view. (And yes, I suspect that this effect is magnified when you write about the subject for a living -- the fiscal cliff has a parenting angle!)

As this parenting year ends, I've gathered some of the lessons I've found hidden, like Waldo (or maybe Forrest Gump, whose mother was a saint, by the way) on screens and bookshelves. This is hardly a complete list, just random thoughts gathered along the way. Join in and add your own examples in the comments. 

PARENTING LESSONS LEARNED IN NON-PARENTING PLACES

FICTION

Some novels aim at the subject of parenting directly -- Amy Sohn's Motherland, for instance, or Noah Hawley's The Good Father. Others though, sneak up on you. And a few would leave their authors a bit surprised to find themselves on a parenting list: 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Yes, it's about a childless marriage. But who raised these people? Perhaps if Amy Dunne's parents had not made their daughter the center of their known universe -- and if they hadn't written about her in public quite as much -- things might have turned out differently. 

Fifty Shades of Grey, by EL James

And where, while we are asking, were Christian's parents when he needed them? Sure, they rescued him from the abusive crack whore, but they apparently failed to notice that their close family friend was sexually abusing the young man. 

Wonder, by RJ Palacio

This is categorized as a young adult novel, and has become the centerpiece of many a school's antibullying campaign. But I think every mother and father would be better for having read it. Auggie's parents -- who are never named in the book, and don't even get to narrate a chapter of their own -- are powerful examples not only of how to shelter and strengthen a child with heartbreaking facial anomalies, but also of how to be a loving advocate to any kid. 

TELEVISION

As with books, there were shows where tackling parenting is the point: Parenthood. Modern Family. Up All Night

For the purposes of this list, though, here are a few that aim to talk about anything but, and provide object lessons anyway: 

Homeland

Dana having the backbone and conscience to tell the truth about the hit and run? As our exec Lifestyle Editor, Lori Leibovich, asked me, "was I the only one thinking 'Her parents must have done something right?' " 

Downton Abbey

Perhaps it took them awhile, but the Granthams always managed to choose their daughters over what-the-neighbors-might-think. They supported Lady Mary even though they were mortified that she sullied her reputation with Mr. Pamook. And they gave Lady Sybil their blessing when she married the chauffeur. If only they could be a tad less critical of Lady Edith.

Girls

If you're going to cut your child off, give her some warning -- ideally before she majors in creative writing, but definitely before she moves to New York City without a job. And if she acts entitled and melodramatic, don't panic. It could be worse -- you could have raised a Gallery Girl.

Lesson received.

How I Met Your Mother

What father tells his children stories like this?????  TMI, Bob Saget. TMI. And as happens so often to parents, this when-I-was-young-tale has gone on more than a little too long, no?

MOVIES

Again, let's put aside the obvious -- The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Parental Guidance, The Guilt Trip -- and get to the oblique. 

Argo

No matter how grueling the business trip, you can always find a way to bring home a cool present for your kids.

Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises

A twofer that makes clear the importance of carefully choosing a guardian for your child. Apparently a butler or groundskeeper will ensure they grow into tough guys with great abs. Actually, the real lesson is that young boys are forever scarred and haunted when their parents die, but what practical use is a lesson like that? 

Lincoln

Your children know when you have a favorite. Also, it never works out well when you try to thwart their career dreams. 

Les Miserables

As I have written before on Parentry, Victor Hugo's classic is about good and evil, sure, but it is also about parenting. About the mother who dies to save her child, and the man who becomes that little girl's father.

But before we proclaim Valjean Dad of the Year, let's quibble with whether it was such a good idea for a man to approach a child in the woods and announce he is taking her home. One hopes there were many talks about stranger danger in the following years.