“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”
That’s all it took to kick world-class TV dad Ward Cleaver into gear.
Let’s say that Beaver and his brother Wally order a baby alligator through the mail and keep it in the bathroom sink until it grows too large and is transferred to the toilet tank, an unsatisfactory home, and so is transferred again to the laundry tub in the basement, where it is discovered by the Cleaver’s laundress (I know). All is revealed, the mystery of stolen eggs solved, but Ward has to break it to the boys that Captain Jack (the alligator) belongs with his own kind. The boys protest; they love Captain Jack. Their love may be mixed with some slight entrepreneurial impulse as they have charged their friends to see the alligator, but let that pass. In any case, it is up to Ward to have explain the facts of life as they extend to alligator adoption.
Does he slam down his fist and scream, “You put a filthy reptile in my laundry”? No, he calmly explains that alligators grow and need to have the freedom to move as alligators should. He goes on, “Take you fellas, for instance. Now, some day, you’re going to grow up and go off and leave your mother and me. You’ll get married and have a home and family of your own.”
Beaver is seven and responds, “Captain Jack’s gonna get married?” At which point, dads I know might stumble. Not Ward; he sets a reasonable boundary, supports the kids as they turn Captain Jack over to the local alligator ranch (I know), and surprises them with a puppy
The TV dads of my generation always knew the right thing to say and the right way to say it. Later on, when my own kids came along, TV dads became figures of fun, beginning with Archie Bunker, lumping along to Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and eventually Frank Gallagher, and Frank Reynolds, dads who made Fred Flintstone seem enlightened. My TV dads, Ward, Ozzie Nelson, Mike Brady, Danny Thomas, Andy Taylor, Dr. Alex Stone, did for me what humans in what we call the real world could not.
The shows I watched were situation comedies, and the situations which allowed comic resolution often involved kids messing up in some fashion then making that mess dramatically messier by inventing elaborate schemes to prevent parents from discovering what was clearly going to be a mess in plain sight. One of the lessons I suppose I could have taken from the genre, that lying makes everything so, so much worse, was apparently too tough to swallow. What did stick was an appreciation of measured, calm response to crises engineered by the unpredictable vagaries of kid brain.
We know more about the brain than we did when mine was sputtering most disturbingly; apparently, brains have differing sorts of competencies at differing ages. I’d like to say, not better, not worse, as the vivid imagination of childhood is pretty much extinguished by the teen years in my experience, but I am aware that judgment, which is to say, good judgment, doesn’t really kick in until much later than we might expect, in my case at age fifty. I may have been judgmentally delayed, but let that pass as well.
In any case, and the word case is appropriate because this distinction has been significant in the sentencing of teens who have committed major crimes, I am assured that the betraying brain (not a scientific term) just doesn’t have the equipment to inhibit impulses, even really unfortunate impulses.
This is not good in most instances, but was great fodder for the situation comedies I knew so well. To be clear, even when skipping school or reading a sister’s diary, the youngsters on my screen were far more responsible and reasonable than I and my footloose cohort. Adopting an alligator is dicey; dropping a wastebasket on fire from a window, on a teacher? Hardly the stuff of conversation at the Cleaver household.
All of which is to say that I was impulse deformed for years and very much in need of counsel and correction. From what I saw on TV, there was room in the world for kids who messed up. A lot. I didn’t make much use of the advice so kindly offered by Andy Taylor or Mike Brady, not at the time. Much later, as a father, I found myself calling on the examples of fatherhood I had admired. They were virtually faultless; l I still messed up, even as a dad, but there were moments of grace in which I actually listened and found words that did no harm.
A crusty curmudgeonly tv dad, Herbert Gillis, grocer father of endlessly besotted romantic Dobie Gillis may have offered the best advice of all:
“Once you bargain with the devil you are in trouble. Oh, you can twist and squirm, but you can’t get off the hook.”
Wish I’d listened.