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The other day, my daughter lamented she’d exhausted the tween content on her favourite streaming service. I found that hard to believe, while also feeling winded from a gut-punch of parental guilt. (”Has she been watching too much TV?” “How much is too much, anyway?” “When she says she’s watched ‘everything’ that surely doesn’t mean EVERYTHING?”)
While I was embroiled in this existential dilemma, my husband took a more practical approach to problem-solving.
“Check out Full House,” he suggested. “I liked it when I was your age.”
“Oh!” I chimed in, quickly suppressing my default setting of mom-angst. “I loved those quirky Tanners too!”
My daughter looked at us with the special brand of skepticism only a 10-year-old can muster, but it was short-lived. Soon, my “home office” was vibrating with the dulcet tones of that most familiar of ear worms: ”Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a heart, a hand to hold on to.”
And just like that, she was hooked. Of course, the clothes and expressions were very 1990s – with décor and technology to match.
My daughter laughed at the idea of DJ desperately lobbying for a landline of her own (shaped like a pair of lips! Hilarious).
“Did you have a giant clunky phone like that?” she asked, incredulous. I nodded and explained mine was a see-through model.
Having recently had her ears pierced, she empathized with Stephanie when her do-it-yourself job became infected. Michelle was a particular hit, and when I showed her that the adorable tot is now a grown-up set of twin fashion mavens, she could hardly believe it.
“Oh my god, is DJ even still alive?” she asked, concern furrowing her brow.
“DJ is around my age,” I said, feeling unbearably old. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her Danny isn’t.
As I watch my daughter sink into the couch and relish a reprieve from the daily grind, I see the echo of my own childhood.
As a kid, I would tune in to CKVR, one of three channels available at our tiny summer cottage in Muskoka, Ont. The television set was old, unwieldy and boasted two knobs. On many lazy mornings, I’d sit on the floor, cereal bowl in my lap, watching the earnest lessons imparted on Leave It to Beaver.
These characters soon became familiar to me. Ward, with his deep, thoughtful baritone, always ready to dispense good advice. The irascible Eddie Haskell, with his simpering manners and subversive sneakiness. The unflappable June, with her impeccably ironed blouses and starched apron. And of course, Beaver himself, trying to find his way in the world.
While I recognized they were suspended in amber, that their fashion was outmoded and their expressions were past their sell-buy date, I enjoyed the tidy resolutions: always simple and satisfying. It seemed, even to my child’s mind, they lived in a less complicated time, ensconced in a black-and-white bubble where nothing truly bad could happen and dinner was never late.
For that brief half-hour, provided the television wasn’t too staticky and the rabbit ear antenna was co-operative, I enjoyed time travel to the 1950s, where misunderstandings and misdemeanours could be handily sorted in 30 minutes – less commercial breaks.
Fast-forward to 2022 (or should I say, hit the select button, because fast-forward is so two decades ago) and the idea is much the same, even though my daughter has a remote control (instead of fussy knobs), the capacity to binge watch (no more praying for the TV gods to intercede) and zero commercial interruptions (how do kids find out about the newest sugar cereal?).
Today’s preteen culture is steeped in precocity. When TikTok and Snapchat videos dominate, cellphones are ubiquitous and kids are exposed early and often to problems that exceed their maturity, shows of times gone by are a balm.
They hold a fascination for the next generation, who feel saddled with a reality so much more pointed than a sitcom that blunts life’s hard edges and manages to imbue even the hardest lessons with a palatable sheen.
When great-grandpa dies on Full House, it’s a reminder to carpe diem. Danny buys a boat and everyone agrees to live every day to the fullest (pun intended). It’s not that the ‘90s was a perfect decade, far from it. But despite the high-waisted jeans and teased bangs, Full House’s take on life’s challenges remain reasonably relevant. Fights with friends, misunderstandings with parents, the danger of an “innocent” lie, the vagaries of peer-pressure. The facts of young life remain the same, even if the trappings got more complicated.
These 30-minute family sitcoms, told with layers of kitschy humour to suit a range of ages, open the door to conversations that often begin with, “Did you [insert worry, problem, concern] when you were younger?”
I suspect Leave It to Beaver sparked those same discussions some 35 years ago when I discovered the first family of Mayfield.
Growing up isn’t easy, no matter the decade. But watching these time capsules gives us a thread of continuity. It reassures us that while clothes and technology change, and gender roles and societal norms evolve, some of the fundamental questions our parents dealt with aren’t that different from ours. And sometimes, we can work toward a solution to present-day obstacles with the help of a fictional family who faced them before we did – frozen in time, forever young.
Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.
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