The string of celebrity deaths that started this year affected me, as a parent, more than they usually do.
The seemingly ageless Betty White, weeks from her 100th birthday.
Less than a week later, we lost legendary and groundbreaking screen actor Sidney Poitier.
Then came beloved TV dad and standup legend Bob Saget.
I always mourn the loss of life no matter what the person’s age. However, these three in particular made me very introspective about my own mortality and life.
I only saw a handful of movies by Sidney Poitier, but I knew he was pioneer for Black actors. He paved the way for many people of color in an industry that had long regulated them to roles like servants or uneducated punch lines. Poitier did so by taking on roles where he showed himself to be smart, eloquent and as fierce as they come. The ambitious son in A Raisin in the Sun. The compassionate but no-nonsense teacher in To Sir, With Love. So many more. He will always be considered one of the greatest actors ever.
And I can tell you, with all honesty, that being Black and having the last name Gibbs, I often re-wrote his famous quote from In The Heat of The Night to my own benefit. However, the impact of introducing myself by authoritatively saying, “THEY CALL ME, MR. GIBBS!” goes directly over the heads of elementary school children I substitute teach.
Prime time parenting lessons learned
Betty White and Bob Saget were different. I watched them weekly growing up as part of my Friday and Saturday evening TV routine with my parents. Those nights included watching many now classic feel-good family shows like Family Matters, Amen, 227, Perfect Strangers and Empty Nest. Those prime time family shows shaped my youth. Several showed strong Black families with educated and hardworking parents like mine. Seeing those people on screen, as well as IRL in my home, let me know I too could achieve that.
But those prime time memories of being on the couch watching Golden Girls and Full House remain my fondest. I remember laughing with my mom at the crazy stories of Betty White’s “Rose” told about her hometown of St. Olaf. I clearly recall the goofy-yet-knowing smile creeping across the face of Bob Saget’s loveable “Danny Tanner” as he taught his girls right from wrong. (Later in life, I gained a newfound appreciation for Saget’s acting skills. This was when he revealed himself to be closer to the raunchy Redd Foxx than squeaky clean Jim Gaffigan in his standup act and post-Full House movie appearances.)
This is all to note that we no longer live in that age. “Must See TV” night and appointment television are gone. We can binge-watch an entire season of a show in a less than a day then move onto another. And, as parents with increasing responsibilities, it easier to plop your kids alone in front of the TV so you can take a break time rather than share family time.
But I would challenge you to do something a bit different next time your kids want to watch The Thundermans or Family Reunion or even SpongeBob SquarePants: WATCH IT WITH THEM.
Make TV time a learning time
You may think these shows are for kids and harmless. However, every once in a while, sit down and watch in right along with them. You may roll your eyes at the predictable stories line, overacting and terrible jokes (not all the different from shows of our youth, am I right), but put them in context. Adults write these shows. Many have adult concepts and mature themes slipped in that your kids might have questions about. They may also promote bad habits that are often dismissed by well-placed laugh track.
This is not to say that these shows are sinister, but they also should not be seen as babysitters. Make more attempts to watch your kids’ shows with them and when the credits start to roll, ask questions.
What happened in the show? What themes and lessons emerged? Do they have questions about what they where watching? Did anything words or actions need explaining? While binge watching can be fun, taking time in between shows to find some tangible takeaways they can grown on can be valuable.
These can be something as simple as how to be nicer to your siblings. These could be more complex, such as how to deal with the death of a loved one. Watching Golden Girls as a child really helped me see the value in long-lasting friendships (and how amazing cheesecake can be). Amen, for example, showed me the power of faith, a trend continued in the Family Reunion on Netflix. Full House showed a single dad trying to be a great example to his kids.
So, make that TV time with your kids impactful and active. Your kids will be better for it because you showed interest in something they like. It might be a somewhat out of your comfort zone, but you will be a better parent because you will get what make your kids laugh, what makes them cry and maybe a little bit more about makes them tick.