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What Modern Family Can Teach You about Yours

This season’s sitcom darling Modern Family offers up a wickedly funny and keenly observed portrait of contemporary domestic life. Following the intertwined branches of the Pritchett family tree, the show takes us into three households filled with enough diverse couplings and kids of all ages and stages that it’s hard not to identify with (and love) one, if not many, members of the wacky clan. Whether it’s Jay, Gloria, and their step-son, Manny, dealing with culture clashes, generation gaps or step-parenting, or Phil and Claire and their gaggle of bickering tweens and teens, or gay dads Mitchell and Cameron adjusting to new parenthood with adopted baby, Lily, there’s definitely a “modern family” in the group to call your own.

But upon closer inspection (and several rewinds on the TiVo), it’s easy to see that Modern Family does double duty. Not only does the show hold up a mirror to our familial foibles, fibs and tender moments, it offers up gems of parenting wisdom in almost every episode. From sleep-training to Internet safety issues, from dealing with in-laws to lying kids and lusting spouses, each week contains insightful tips and tricks (and more often, cautionary tales) to tackle the dilemmas that threaten to upset domestic bliss. – Romi Lassally

  • How can we make our kids understand a little thing called “consequences”?

    Phil is the most “discipline challenged” of the Modern Family group and, despite knowing better, has a very hard time doling out punishment when his kids cross the line (which of course they do ALL THE TIME). But things change in the episode “Undeck the Halls” when a mysterious burn shows up on the living room couch, and Luke, Haley and Alex plead the fifth. Heightened by the pressures of the holiday season, Phil is finally pushed to the brink and comes out swinging: He takes away Christmas! Ultimately, it’s revealed that the couch burn was not the result of an illicit cigarette but a rogue Christmas light, and peace and holiday cheer are restored. Phil pats himself on the back for helping his kids understand consequences, but we came away realizing something more important: The punishment should fit the crime. Taking away Christmas was extreme – and punished Phil and Claire even more than the kids. But we still give kudos to Phil for trying.

  • How do I teach my kids responsibility?

    Absent-minded Luke is a 10-year-old “every-boy” who can’t seem to keep track of (or take care of) his things. As a result, in “The Bicycle Thief,” Luke gets punished by having to ride a girlie hand-me-down bike instead of getting one of his own. Claire had laid down the law, but Phil’s “I’m your buddy, not just your dad” mentality gets the best of him, and he overrides her and buys Luke his dream ride. Within hours, Phil discovers Luke’s new bike on the street and fearing an “I told you so!” from Claire, decides to “steal” it to teach his son the lesson he now realizes is necessary. The plan backfires: The bike Phil steals isn’t Luke’s (though later it actually does get stolen!), and it becomes crystal clear that the one who needs to learn responsibility is Phil. The takeaways here: 1) Let kids learn from their own mistakes and on their own time. It’s a guarantee they’ll make them – and in most cases, they will learn. 2) When attempting to instill values and virtues, defer to the more rational grown up in the house. In this case, it’s obviously Claire.

  • How do I get this baby to sleep through the night?

    Almost every parenting struggle is taken to new, hilarious heights when neurotic and loving dads Cameron and Mitchell are involved. In “Up All Night,” they confront one of the most confounding and polarizing issues in or around a crib: sleep – and how to get baby to do more of it. Clearly the more structured of the two, Mitchell wants to sleep train with the Ferber method, but Cam, who wears his XXL heart on his XXXL sleeve, can’t bear the sound of Lily’s cries. Any couple can tell you that the cry-it-out method is hard no matter how you slice it, but the only way to survive it is to GET IT OVER WITH, and conventional wisdom says that, whatever method you choose, both parents should agree. Watching Cam and Mitchell, we say that as long as one parent has the courage of his/her convictions, they should put a stop to the partner who is sabotaging the plan (hello Cam, stop hiding in Lily’s room!) and just DO IT.

  • My husband and stepson don’t get along – and my son idolizes his unreliable father!

    Jay and Manny struggle with the classic step-father/step-son tension, helped along by Gloria who does her best to foster the relationship between father figure #2 (Jay) while trying to get Manny to understand the realities of father figure #1. In “The Bicycle Thief,” Gloria puts Jay and Manny together for a home-repair project while Manny waits for his real dad to show up and take him to Disneyland. Jay gloriously botches the ceiling fan installation and, ultimately, the forced bonding episode fails as well. But when Manny’s dad is a no-show (no surprise to Gloria, still a surprise to Manny), Jay saves the day, and he and Gloria take a detour from their romantic getaway to take Manny to visit Mickey Mouse. The lesson here: there isn’t one definition of “good dad,” and it’s not always what you do, it’s how you do it. And as Jay says himself, “90% of the time, being a good dad means just showing up.” And show up he does.

  • We’re afraid other parents will judge us and not want their kids to play with ours.

    Most parents will admit to an occasional worry about being judged by others. Mitchell’s anxieties, however, are more than occasional, afflicting him from the plane trip home from Vietnam with Lily to the hilarious scene when he and Cam venture out to their first “baby-and-me” gym class. It’s hysterical watching the two men attempt to “play straight” or seeing Mitchell worry that Lily is developmentally behind the other kids. When another gay couple conveniently bursts into the gym, Cam and Mitchell let down their guard – a little. But by the time Cam regales the group with his butt-slapping “horsey move,” we know that the men will eventually grow comfortable with their less-than-traditional family. The delightful lesson here: Be yourself and don’t worry what others – especially other parents – think of you. Parents judge, and, yes, you will too. And don’t compare your kid to others either; there’s always someone stacking blocks higher, walking earlier and speaking in full sentences.

  • How do I give my kids enough freedom but still keep them safe?

    Put kids and Internet browsers under one roof and you’re likely to be confronted with the 21st-century dilemma of privacy vs. safety. This problem gets a Modern Family twist in the episode “Not in My House”: first Claire finds risque photos on her computer (she suspects her 10-year-old son Luke, but we know it’s actually the father, Phil’s), then Haley believes her diary has been read and her privacy violated. Phil’s solution to the problem is to “reprimand” Luke (while really getting advice on how to erase his computer history) and as usual, he hides the truth from his wife. Comedy ensues, but in between the laughs, the message is loud and clear: Put filters on all your computers to prevent problems before they start. And while you’re at it, tell your teens that if they put their diary on YOUR computer, you reserve the right to read it.

  • We are worried our kids won’t find their passion.

    In the episode “En garde,” all three families wrestle with old emotional baggage and new fears when gathered together to watch Manny reveal a hidden talent for fencing. When Jay acknowledges that it feels pretty good to “be the father of a champion,” Mitchell and Claire look back on their own childhoods (in which they were clearly not champions) while Phil and Claire take an honest look at the their own kids (again, no champions yet.) The impact of sports, competition and excellence on both kids and parents is really put under the microscope: Phil expresses his fear (and a very common, yet often unspoken parenting fear it is) that none of his kids is “the best at anything” while Claire tries to convince herself that her kids will “find their path” – though it’s clear she doesn’t believe it. In true Phil fashion, he thinks he can expedite things, and we watch him apply Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to excellence theory, heading out to the driveway with Luke and a baseball. What finally comes out in the wash are valuable lessons for every family: 1) It is quite gratifying to be the parent of a kid who is really good at something. As Jay says, “We tell our kids it doesn’t matter if you win or lose .. .but winning sure feels good.” 2) Kids will find their own path, but it might not be your vision of greatness. Still, you should remain their biggest cheerleader and fan no matter what.

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