17 Parenting Lessons From ‘Downton Abbey’

Like so much of the nation, we are caught in “Downton Abbey’s” thrall. Sunday evenings have been transformed from the dreaded night when preparation for the following week begins to Downton Night, a blissful evening of mindless, Edwardian fun. But is it mindless? Layered into Julian Fellowes’ crackling dialogue are some of the best parenting lessons of the last 90 years. Looking on from our American 21st-century vantage point we feel that Lord and Lady Grantham and their brood have taught us a few things. [Watch out – spoilers below!]

1. Grandparents have a crucial role to play in any family as dispensers of wisdom and healers of souls. No one can put a situation into perspective better than someone who has seen seven decades pass. In times of pain and panic, it is the Dowager who is needed most.

2. If we do not change with the times and listen to those much younger than ourselves – our children in particular, even when they seem callow and naive – we will soon become obsolete. The world is spinning on and we must listen to the young or risk forever being a prisoner of 1923 or 2013. Even without a sneak peak of Episode Six, it is clear that Robert better start listening to Matthew.

3. We mustn’t wait until caught in the grips of grieving to tell our siblings how much they mean to us. The sibling relationship is life’s longest, and we would be fools take it for granted.

4. A home is truly only a building, even if it is Downton Abbey. Losing it or any other possessions matters little compared to losing those we love. We did not shed a tear when we thought the family would lose their beloved Downton; the same cannot be said of Sybil’s passing.

5. If our child finds true love (or friendship), whether or not the object of that love is someone we would have selected, we must rejoice for them. A seeming gentleman might jilt our daughter at the altar, but a good man will love her until her last breath. One need only look at the sad episode of Edith and Anthony versus the true love shared by Sybil and Tom.

6. Our children need and deserve our understanding and forgiveness – true forgiveness, even when they have done wrong. We love them and that love must transcend their mistakes. Mary’s painful transgression with Kemal Pamuk did not deprive her of her father’s love.

7. Never underestimate the power of a well-chosen few words. Speaking softly but strongly can have amazing results. The Dowager and Dr. Clarkson chose their words judiciously so that even though Cora’s heart was breaking, she was not alone.

8. People can reinvent themselves – just give them a chance to prove that they’ve changed, and avoid being judgmental and closed-minded, as the family was with Ethel.

9. When our deepest gut feeling tells us that there is something wrong with our child, even when experts may not agree, we need to follow our gut. Watching our child for a lifetime, through all of its up and downs, makes us an expert. No one knew Sybil better than her own mother.

10. Turning on those we love at life’s worst moments – although perhaps understandable in our rage – will only magnify our grief. True consolation and understanding come from those we love the most, as Robert and Cora learn.

11. If someone truly cares for us, we should give them the chance to show how much. It is amazing what good things happen when we let love into our lives, as Daisy did with Mr. Mason.

12. When things are difficult, it helps to have someone to talk to honestly. True friendships are one of life’s greatest gifts. We must not keep our problems bottled up inside. Where would Mrs. Hughes be without the loyal Mrs. Patmore?

13. We should teach our children to have faith in the people they love, even at the worst of times, like Anna and Mr. Bates.

14. If we have different rules and standards for our sons and daughters, things will not go well. If Mary could have inherited Downton Abbey, the show might have ended after the first season.

15. We must teach our children to be careful with their trust and alliances. Some who appear to be their friends will betray them. It is hard to know if someone is an O’Brien or a Thomas.

16. The loyalty and love of our children is one of life’s greatest blessings, never to be taken lightly. Mary’s loyalty to her father, when he is right and even when he is wrong, is a source of comfort and strength.

17. We don’t need to like or even approve of everything our children do, but we can still offer encouragement. When our children’s passions emerge and they show real enterprise, they need us as their supporters. It is hard not to imagine that someday Robert will be proud of a daughter who is a successful journalist.

This is actually some good advice, LOL.

Parenting Guru: Help your kids feel safe at school

Comforting kids
after a tragedy

Our hearts break every time we think about the families in Newtown, Connecticut, and how they’re struggling to cope with the horror of last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook School. In the midst of our sadness, we’re faced with needing to respond to our own kids’ queries about the attack, often clueless as to how much, or how little to say. My three elementary-aged kids want some details, for example: How many guns did the shooter have? How did he get in if the doors were locked? Did the kids see blood? Deep breath. Thankfully, Nancy Berns, associate professor of sociology at Drake University, an expert in grief, death and violence and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, stepped in to give us all guidance.


SheKnows: How can parents help their kids cope with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?

Nancy Berns

: Try to answer questions appropriate for their age and reassure them as often as they need it. Be willing to take the time to listen and ask questions over days, weeks and months.

  • Hug your children. Hold them if they are seeking the closeness. Don’t rush them as they are processing their own feelings.
  • Limit their exposure to media if possible, including news reports and images. Be careful about how much they overhear you talking to others or listening to news. Children pick up more than you realize.
  • Keep your kids’ routines as normal as possible. This will help give them a sense of security.
  • If your family has a religious faith, you can pray with your children. Encourage them to pray for others — focusing on helping someone can give them hope.
  • Spend time playing, reading and doing other activities together.

Take it slow

SK: What are some specific things parents can say to help kids feel safe at school? And what shouldn’t you say or do?

NB: Even if children are not asking about the shooting, they may be hearing other people talk about it. So you want to check in with them at different times to see if they have questions or concerns. By asking, you give them permission to talk about it. They may not know if it’s OK to discuss it since they’ll likely pick up fear and anxiety as they hear other people talk. If you don’t talk about it with them, they may get even more scared. You can start with a general statement like, “Something sad happened last week. Have you heard anyone talking about it?” And then go slowly from there.

Some children don’t say a lot when they’re upset. You can ask some direct questions. “Are you sad? Are you angry?” Even if they don’t answer, you can reassure them that it is all right to be sad or angry or confused. Let them know it’s all right to ask questions. You can tell them you’re sad, too, so that they don’t feel alone. But don’t lean on your kids for your own emotional support.

Be their safe place

SK: When your kids want to know details about the shootings should parents give honest answers?

NB: Each child may respond differently to this kind of news. You want to be honest with children and also age-appropriate. If children are old enough to be getting news from the internet and social media, you want to provide information so you can help them think through the details.

“You can reassure them that it is all right to be sad.”

For younger children, answer their questions but keep the details limited and vague. If they continue to ask questions, try to answer because there is a need there for something. Depending on the age of the child, you have to discern how much detail is too much. If they are asking questions that you are uncomfortable answering, gently ask them why they are wondering. You can also ask what they’ve already heard to find out what images might be in their head. Keep the lines of communication open and let them see you as a safe place to express concerns.

Too young to understand?

SK: Should parents expect their kids to grieve and talk a lot about death?

NB: While researching my book, Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, I found that some similarities that children have in grieving, differ from many adults. Kids can switch their attention and emotions quickly. Children may hear about a loss, cry and be upset one moment, and then they go play and laugh. It’s important not to assume that this quick change means that the shooting isn’t bothering them. They may come back to it later in ways we don’t always pick up on.

Adults may assume kids are fine after a death, thinking that “They’re too young to understand” and then the adults may be reluctant to bring up the tragedy. But when no one else is talking with a child about it, he or she may feel alone with the confusing feelings or start to think he shouldn’t talk about it.

Children are likely to be sad, scared and confused and wonder if the same thing can happen to them or their friends and family. Reassure them that you are watching out for them and that their school is safe. Hug them and tell them you love them.

How have you helped your child understand and feel safe during tragedies? Share your thoughts with us at http://www.facebook.com/parentingtoolbox

Think Ahead and Avoid a Meltdown

Clearly, that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. The mother muttered fiercely, “Get up off the floor!” When that didn’t produce a positive response, she turned to coaxing: “Please be a good little boy for Mommy.”

Next came the bribery attempt: “If you mind now, I’ll buy you that video you’ve been wanting.”

Out of desperation came the threats: “Get up now or you can forget about TV and treats for the rest of the week! I’m counting to three, and you’d better be up before that!”

The little boy holle-red, and the mother seemed to stall as if predicting an even more embarrassing tantrum to come. A pregnant silence blanketed the aisle, and then the mother gave in and handed the boy a candy bar.

Parents often find it difficult to follow through and implement disciplinary techniques.

Typically, parents cave in on rules and don’t follow through with consequences. Unfortunately, children quickly learn that acting out can often earn them what they want. That’s not the only problem that arises when parents are too permissive. Failure to follow through with consequences robs children of the opportunity to develop resiliency and the self-confidence to solve problems and handle disappointment.

So what’s a parent to do?

Start with recognizing attention-seeking behavior. We identify those actions by making ourselves aware that when we feel annoyed, our child is displaying attention-seeking behavior.

Children crave attention, so making a big deal out of minor misbehavior will only reinforce that it’s an effective way to get your attention. If parents ignore such behavior, the children soon realize this isn’t going to get the attention they seek, and the behavior will fade away in time.

Begin thinking ahead about your child’s needs by maintaining a child-friendly environment. If you plan to do the weekly shopping — something that is ground zero for misbehavior — prepare some activities that will occupy your child during this outing. Small children can identify the fruits in the produce section by describing the color, shape and size of each object. Older children can help locate items on the shopping list.

Some quality time spent organizing some distractions can turn a high-tension task into a bearable outing for an antsy child — and, in turn, prevent the need for discipline on the parent’s part.

Utilizing choices with children offers them some control over small decisions and will help even a younger child feel that his desires are being taken into account. For example: “Do you want bananas or apples?” “Would you like to check out two books or three?” This approach validates the child’s feelings and will often prevent his need to whine or act out to be heard. Choices are also invaluable in teaching children about making good decisions.

If your 6-year-old insists on wearing a sweatshirt in 98-degree weather, he’ll probably make a different decision next time, and the parents will have the burden of enforcing discipline taken off their shoulders.

Children under the age of 4 are easy to distract when you take their focus off the heated subject at hand. For instance, your toddler refuses to get into the stroller. As a parent you can argue the issue, but how about belting out a few lyrics to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” instead?

Your preschool-aged twins are fighting over a toy. You could just take the toy away from them, but what about giving them some Play-Doh instead? It may seem simple, but for young children, distracting them is better than scolding anytime.

Parents can take control of their children’s environment by setting some rules to ensure that before misbehavior happens and discipline is needed, they have some well-thought-out guidelines to follow.

Step One: Be realistic.

 Parents must first recognize what their child is developmentally capable of understanding before expectations can be established.  For instance, 3-year-olds lack the maturity and the social experience to share well with other children. As a parent, if you insist on sharing regularly, your child will likely rebel, and you will find yourself fighting for cooperation.

Step Two: Know yourself.

 Know your limits. Only set rules that you’re willing to be inflexible on, like no hitting. As parents, we may dream of a world where our children pick up after themselves every day — but if you know you’ll give in when they push back, scrap picking up after themselves as mandatory or amend the rule in such a way that you can manage it. For instance, you might say that picking up after themselves must happen, but you’ll help as needed.

Step Three: Make it official

  Establish a regular family meeting that includes all family members. Use it as an opportunity to establish house rules that everyone can agree upon. Allow everyone — including children — to participate in the procedure.  By allowing children to offer up ideas and help with designing the list and selecting the place to post it, parents are validating their children’s place in the family.

Children who take part in this process are more likely to follow the agreed-upon rules. If they break a rule, parents can direct them back to the agreement they helped create.  

There is no manual to refer to when our children are born. We simply must rely on what we were taught, but we also must be willing to learn as we go. If we, the parents, flounder when our children have a major meltdown, the behavior will continue; but if we plan ahead, we put the odds for good behavior in our favor by being prepared and keeping the environment child-friendly.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.

10 Things to Banish from the Dinner Table

Ron Huxley’s Recommends: Here is some good old fashioned advice on how to improve table manners and build better family attachments. Ivillage.com lists ten things to banish from your table:

1. Cell Phones.

2. Salt.

3. Contentious conversation.

4. Unhealthy fats.

5. Corn syrups.

6. Germs.

7. Toys and games.

8. Messy dress.

9. Dangerous dishes.

10. The television!

What do you do to build family unity around the table? Share your thoughts here or post them to us on Twitter and Facebook.