I take parenting advice from the villains on TV.
I watched There Will Be Blood last night, and while there’s admittedly a lot of “what-not-to-do” there, I admired the way J. R. Moneybags takes his adopted son along and shows him the ropes. Even though it was surveying and prospecting (and swindling), there was something primal about it; like it might have taken place 10,000 years ago, with only cosmetic differences. Deer sign and bone knives instead of oil seepage and a theodolite.
Another scene that sticks in my mind is Tywin Lannister’s verbal sparring with Arya Stark on Game of Thrones. There’s a canyon of social hierarchy between the two: she’s a prisoner, a peasant, a child, and a woman, in a world where any one of the four would be enough on its own–while he’s the most powerful man on the continent. But they’re both shrewd and aware, and it takes one to know one, so there are moments when those differences almost vanish.
(Almost. One of Tywin Lannister’s richest moments is when Arya flies a little too close to the sun with her snark, and he sets her back in her place with gentle, wry menace: “Careful now, girl. I enjoy you… but be careful.”)
I suppose writers like to do this sort of thing because it’s an easy way to humanize and deepen a villain without besmirching his badass credentials. He doesn’t exactly have to be nice to the kid, he just has to respect the kid’s intelligence.
Likewise, making the good guy a buffoon with his kids is a good way to take him down a peg without compromising the audience’s sympathies, so writers do that a lot, too (see: every sitcom ever). The scene where Ned Stark tries to give his 14-year-old daughter a “toy” dolly, and bombs spectacularly, is just about the only evidence of a third dimension that we see from the guy.
I despise that trope, because there’s so much pain we could avoid if fathers weren’t deprecated into irrelevance by fifty years of bad TV. People learn a lot from their mistakes, often too late to do themselves much good–and that’s one reason I really want to be a father. I have hope that my kids won’t have to feel quite as clueless and scared and incompetent as I did growing up; but if they think of me as an oaf (even a lovable one), or that I don’t listen or understand, then that line is severed, and all those hard lessons have to happen all over again. I’m really frightened that I’ll let that happen.
To some extent I know it’s just life–there are some things you need to do and feel for yourself–but it can’t be that everything in life is a sucker-punch. There have to be some things you can prepare for. Otherwise, what the hell are parents for?