During the holiday break, I confess watching a few episodes of TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras, a reality show that features actual parents (mostly mothers) preparing and entering their small children in kiddy beauty pageants. The mothers are depicted inflicting on their tiny daughters coaching lessons, spray tans, heavy makeup, false eyelashes and hairpieces -- all for the privilege of winning a crown or a small monetary prize for their child's physical appearance.
It got me thinking about whether TV parents reflect our values or help to shape them. And what, exactly, are the values that we want our schools to teach our children?
Have you seen Robert Young in re-runs as Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, a popular 1950's situation comedy?
Jim set standards for his children -- Betty, Bud, and Kathy -- and constantly differentiated right from wrong.
Or do you remember June Cleaver as the mom in Leave it to Beaver? She was always in the kitchen with her shirtwaist dresses and pearls dispensing milk and cookies, while her husband, Ward, gave their sons, Wally and Beaver, weekly lectures in the proper way to behave.
The baby-boomer generation and their parents thought these were the perfect families, and while they were glorified lily-white versions of reality, there was no question that the parents' primary responsibility was to impart values, such as fairness, honesty and caring, to their children. They also sat down as a family for daily meals, during which they discussed the day's events.
In later decades, the Cunninghams, Howard (Tom Bosley), a hardware store owner, and his stay at home wife, Marion, attempted to set their children and family friend, "the Fonz," on the right path in Happy Days.
On The Cosby Show, the Huxtables -- Cliff (Bill Cosby), a physician, and Clair, a lawyer, African-American parents of five -- also modeled and taught the values they wanted their children to live by.
While all these parents were idealized versions of real mothers and fathers, they provided a benchmark against which actual people could measure their actions. And they supported the notion that American parents were the repositories of wisdom, knowledge and integrity, and were supposed to pass these values on to their children.
Fast forward to 2012. We don't hear too many lectures on ethics from television parents. But we do hear about social and emotional intelligence, and schools' attempts to teach character education. Values such as respect, kindness, empathy, and giving back are needed more than ever in our society, and there are many programs in our schools that attempt to develop nice human beings and good citizens. But it's naïve and unrealistic to expect schools to do this alone. Parents are key partners in inculcating values in their children. All the lessons and activities in the world will not succeed without parental support.
What are we learning about values from today's fictional TV parents? Cam and Mitchell, the same-sex parents of Lily on ABC's Modern Family, are over-conscientious and ever-present to their daughter's needs. Being present is key to success and an important value. Parents can't influence their kids at all if they are not physically, emotionally, and mentally present. This includes: engaging in conversation, attending school and other events, and modeling values. Frankie Heck, played by Patricia Heaton on ABC's The Middle, should also be commended for parenting three rather odd children and allowing each of them to be whom they are. Enabling children to discover their own interests, find their purpose and pursue their own dreams is a key to happiness.
In total contrast, the mothers on TLC's Toddlers and Tiaras live vicariously through their children. They spend thousands of dollars to have their daughters -- some less than a year old -- compete in beauty pageants. It is painful to watch toddlers crying and fighting their mothers as they get them ready to "compete." Equally disturbing is the intense disappointment of both parent and child when the aspiring mini-beauty queens fail to win a crown. While some of the children say they like to participate, their parents are forcing their own passions on their children! One mother admitted that she had a baby so she could enter her in pageants. Another did not have the daughter she wanted, so her son is now one of very few boys competing on the pageant circuit.
As we enter the New Year, it's crucially important for parents to be strong partners with their children's schools in building character. For better or worse, TV parents, then and now, provide a framework of what and what not to do. Here are some tips for 2012:
• Be role models for honesty, integrity, kindness and caring.
• Let your children know what your standards are in word and in deed.
• Teach your child to respect and celebrate differences.
• Be present for your children, and show up physically, mentally, and emotionally.
• Model the importance of giving to others.
• Eat dinner together as a family.
• Allow your children to discover their own interests, and to find their own purpose.