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Parenting Lessons from West Wing

In Babble’s new column, Pop Parenting, we unearth the funny, poignant, and occasionally frighteningly realistic parenting lessons hidden in our favorite TV shows and movies.

More than once, I have referenced The West Wing in discussions of parenting philosophy with my husband. Truth be told, I reference The West Wing in discussions of almost everything. Like grocery lists. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I have a borderline-unhealthy dependency on the Bravo reruns of this classic-even-in-first-run drama.

I’ve thus far refrained from hiring a contractor to build a Situation Room in our home, where we could convene the Joint Chiefs on matters of toddler security and preparing for master bedroom invasions from the under four-feet-tall set – but I wouldn’t rule it out if I suddenly came into unprecedented amounts of cash. And while, occasionally, a “conversation” with our six-year-old can cause me to think I’m trapped in the “Stackhouse Filibuster” episode, it’s the episode called “Ellie” that brings the simplest (and perhaps most important) lesson in parenting: listen to your kids, as in really listen.

I’m fond of saying that Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlet is my favorite president ever – real or imagined. But I love him best when he’s showing his mad skills as pater familias-in-Chief, extending his paternal instincts to his dedicated staff but showing himself fumbling with his actual family in various ways.

In “Ellie,” President Bartlet’s middle daughter makes an uncharacteristic (and un-vetted) public statement, asserting that her father would never fire the Surgeon General for comments she made on the legalization of marijuana. Ellie’s argument: she was right! Dad’s argument: she contradicted his administration’s stance. To his credit, Bartlet seems to spend as much time wrestling with his relationship with Ellie as he does on the matters of state that land on his desk. In one heated exchange, Ellie claims that she’s never been able to please him: “I don’t know how to make you happy, Dad.” It’s a beautifully written and played scene, loaded with nuance and the knowingness of a parent-child relationship where both parties are more alike than they realize or will admit.

Later, tempers have cooled, and father and daughter are settled into armchairs in the White House screening room, ostensibly taking in “Dial M for Murder” with the staff. And, as in life, when the truth comes out between parent and child when the pair is engaged in a shoulder-to-shoulder activity, literally, like watching TV or driving to soccer practice, Bartlet is able to take advantage of the setting, using humor to distract Ellie from the fact that she’s mad at him, and then finally imparting this truth: “The only thing you ever had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day.”


Bartlet decides not to fire the Surgeon General. He knows Ellie is right, and when a staffer points out that it will look to the world that he’s taking marching orders from his child, he says, “You know, Josh, I think if you ever have a daughter, you’re going to discover that there are worse reasons in the world to do something.”

We’re not always right as parents. In fact, we’re frequently wrong. But we’re our most right when we’re validating our kids for doing what comes naturally to them, which often includes speaking up about something they believe in, and not just falling lockstep into our own ideas, ideals or agendas. Kids have great B.S. meters. They keep us honest. We just have to listen.


A fifteen year veteran of the magazine industry, Bari Nan Cohen was most recently the Entertainment Editor at Good Housekeeping. She has also filled that post at YM Magazine and Self Magazine. She writes on topics of parenting, entertainment, health and psychology for a longish list of women’s and parenting magazines. A resident of Park City, UT since 2001, Bari Nan and her family (one husband, two sons, two dogs) spend winters skiing and summers in their RV. She is not embarrassed to admit the RV has two flat-screen TVs.

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