By Jill Carstens
Late 1960s, a well-to-do Manhattan bachelor and his Gentleman’s Gentleman (butler), Mr. French, suddenly have their lives changed when they adopt the bachelor’s deceased brother’s children, boy and girl twins and a teen.
This show was called “Family Affair,” and I was just a toddler when it originally came on screen. After a biking accident left me convalescing at home for several months recently, I rediscovered this show, playing it in the background while I attempted my physical therapy exercises.
The teacher/parent in me started to realize there was some great parenting coming from the bachelor, Uncle Bill, and Mr. French. These two men were quick to admit they knew nothing about child rearing, but they possessed humility combined with a deep willingness to learn and do right by these kids who had lost their parents.
In the first season of the show, Buffy and Jody, the twins, are very young and adorable. As they endeavor their first school experience, the teacher calls Uncle Bill in to have a conference. She shares that the twins spend all of their time together in the classroom on assignments and outside on recess, rarely integrating with other children. She insists it would be best to separate them into different classes.
Uncle Bill’s first instinct is that separating them would be a cruel thing to do so early in adjusting to their new lives in New York. He comes home to discuss the matter with Mr. French, a pattern that continues on the show and models what a mother and father might do when tackling a parenting challenge. Mr. French points out that because they are novices and the woman principal is a professional perhaps they should follow her advice.
After some consternation, Uncle Bill agrees and they separate the twins. This is a difficult adjustment for the children and does not seem to enhance their abilities to make new friends. Buffy and Jody return home each day basically sad and depressed.
Uncle Bill perseveres with tough love until he can’t stand it anymore. He goes back to what his original instinct was, that it was too soon to separate them, shares this with the principal confidently, and the twins are reunited in their kindergarten class. As the show goes on, Buffy and Jody indeed end up making friends at school after they have ample time to adjust to their new life.
There are many other times in the show where Uncle Bill is faced with recommendations from experts, some perhaps stereotyping that he, being a single man, is not fit or equipped to make decisions about the children. The ensuing result is that his decisions become influenced by love, which is informed by his instinct and knowledge of the children over time.
In watching the show for a couple months, I came to really respect the evolving parenting style of these two men; they are intentional, loving, methodical and open to the lessons that mistakes teach. Our parenting methods need to grow as our children grow.
Deciding when to exert more discipline and put more responsibility on younger children is definitely a timing matter of development, but it also depends on a child’s unique personality and abilities at the given time.
As the show goes on, Uncle Bill and Mr. French grapple with issues such as how strict they need to be in making the twins clean up after themselves, indeed learning how able or not very young children are at this task. Conversely they are also faced with how much responsibility a teen, the older sister Sissy, can take on as well as the complicated nuances of her dating experiences.
Although Uncle Bill is a busy man, he learns it is imperative to juggle his time away from home in order to suitably tackle parenting issues while providing an attentive and loving environment. For such an old show, I think it was ahead of its time. Showcasing a nontraditional family that is trying hard to “get it right.” Check it out for refreshing takes on tackling age-old parenting challenges.
Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! Email her with comments or story ideas at email@example.com.