Ignore naysayers who claim that children are unaffected by watching TV, movies, and video games.
My perspective was irrevocably swayed by “ideal American family” TV programs I watched as a guileless child growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s.
After studiously absorbing the Big Six of Perfect TV Families, I secretly felt that my imperfect family fell short. I unfairly longed for humor, warm patience, and wise understanding from my young, harried parents who both hailed from hardworking, unaffectionate farm homes.
Father Knows Best (1954 to 1960)
No family was more ideal than the Andersons, a middle-class family living in a nameless Midwest town. I escaped into this program from age three through nine, wondering why Jim Anderson was home a lot more than my dad, why housewife Margaret Anderson was sweeter than my mom, and why oldest sister Betty’s younger siblings seemed less annoying than my younger brother and sister. I distinctly remember feeling comforted by watching “Father Knows Best.”
Leave It to Beaver (1957 to 1963)
In retrospect, the four-person Cleaver family was more believable than the perfect Andersons, but still, the Cleaver’s suburban existence looked fetchingly normal, while ours felt puzzling and sometimes uncomfortable.(Hilariously, smiling Ward and June Cleaver were invariably dressed in impeccable suit-and-tie and perky dress with pearls.)
Like all kids, the Beaver and older brother Wally constantly got into stupid scrapes: fibbing, plotting or sneaking, often egged on by Wally’s delightfully sneering friend, Eddie Haskell. When caught by their parents, the Beaver and Wally were scolded and softly punished, followed by a wise, sternly loving heart-to-heart with dad Ward… a stark contrast to no-nonsense measures meted out at my home.
The Show Biz Families on TV
The show biz families on 1950s were not only portrayed as preciously normal, but they were also glamorous and had glamorous friends, dressed glamorously and did glamorous things. All the time, it seemed. Without question, my family flunked the glamor test.
- Ozzie and Harriet (1952 to 1966) featured Big Band era couple Ozzie Nelson, house wife Harriet and their dreamy sons, David and Ricky, who morphed into a handsome teen idol crooner.
- The Donna Reed Show (1958 to 1966), boasted Academy Award winning actress Donna Reed as beautiful housewife Donna Stone, married to pediatrician Alex, and mother of incredibly attractive teenagers Mary and Jeff, played by Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson. When Mary/Shelley scored a top-ten hit record with “Johnny Angel,” I wanted to be her.
- Make Room for Daddy (1953 to 1964), starring actor/comedian Danny Thomas as hardworking nightclub performer Danny Williams, who was married and the father of two adorable children. No matter how many problems his frequent absences caused, all was happily resolved within 30 minutes.
- The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) which is purported to be First Lady Michelle Obama’s all-time favorite TV program. The show was considered mildly revolutionary because housewife Laura Petrie, played by prim, pretty Mary Tyler Moore, wore slacks on camera rather than cinched-waist dresses and skirt-and-blouse combos. Orderly middle-class family life was shown as central to the purpose of everything, and more vital than Rob Petrie’s (i.e. Dick Van Dyke) burgeoning career as TV comedy writer.
To this very day, I unconsciously, and reflexively, measure marriage and family life, mine and those of everyone else, against the seductive fantasy of 1950s TV family life… and of course, reality usually falls short.
Oh, how I wish I hadn’t been permitted to watch so much of the then-new technology of TV at the tender, impressionable ages of three to ten years old.
I wish my parents had explained that TV shows were merely pretend, and not meant to be taken quite so seriously. Believe it or not, I thought the lives, roles, aspirations and values acted by the Big Six of Perfect TV Families represented the American ideal, one all good people were called to emulate in lockstep.
I was wrong because the impressions imparted to me by TV were pure fiction. And my silly pursuit of idealized family perfection has caused pain over the years for me and others.