Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From Doctor Who

Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From Doctor Who

Geek Culture
Everything I Know About Parenting I Learned From Doctor Who
The Mad Man in the Box dispenses some useful parenting tips (image: BBC One)

Yet another adventure with The Doctor gets underway tonight with the second half of series seven of the new Doctor Who. Having had time to grieve the loss of past companions, fans are ready for a slate full of episodes where we expect to lose the current one again and again. In anticipation of this Geek holiday, we take some time to reflect on wisdom of Doctors past and present, and what the Time Lord can teach us about parenting.

The Shortest Distance is Not the Most Interesting

The Third Doctor was my first, having introduced the character to me in the form of reruns on Chicago’s PBS station. Jon Pertwee’s interpretation was fine, but it was really his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, who caught my eye in her debut episode, The Time Warrior. At one point in this tale about a Sontaran kidnapping modern-day scientists to fix his damaged spaceship in the past, Pertwee observes, “A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting.”

One of the strongest impulses parents possess is to protect their kids from harm, to give them the safest and most efficient path to a goal. Yet it is important for kids to learn to navigate risk, even at the cost of painful mistakes. This is true not only with real risks, but through imaginary ones. Research shows that wandering the land of make-believe is an effective role-playing practice that affords opportunities to learn social skills like problem solving, communication and empathy. Current education reforms undervalue play, which puts a stronger demand on parents to find ways to keep kids of all ages engaged with their imaginations. Give them the freedom to make choices, even if those decisions aren’t the ones you would make.

You’ve Got a Lot to Unlearn

A strike at the BBC destroyed Tom Baker’s final story as the Fourth Doctor, although footage from Shada was repurposed for The Five Doctors episode celebrating the series’ 20th year. Somewhere in that forgotten arc, the Doctor discusses faster-than-light travel with a companion who is well-versed in physics theories by Newton and Einstein. “You’ve got a lot to unlearn,” the Doctor laments.

A human life is broken up into acts, from childhood to retirement. In the second act, young adults do not yet have kids. They can only project their experiences growing up in the first act onto future interactions with offspring in the third act. It is only after dealing with diapers, children screaming in public, and rebellion do we realize as parents how naive we were just a decade earlier. This is equally true when parents make the leap from one child to many, particularly when the first was “easy.” We can’t know everything we need to know until we try to use what we know. Parenting is experiential.

You Need a Hand to Hold

Jump ahead a few decades to the Tenth Doctor, where David Tennant did well enough as the Doctor to generate a sizable chunk of the content on Pinterest. In Fear Her, the Doctor takes Rose into the future to watch the 2012 Olympics in London (well, it was future at the time it aired). Before lighting the torch, he battled a scribble monster wreaking havoc from a child’s drawings. In explaining to Rose the fear and loneliness motivating of the creature, the Doctor ways, “There’s a lot of things you need to get across this universe. Warp drive… wormhole refractors… You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold.”

As parents, we get a lot of advice. Much of the advice coming from family, marketers and politicians in the U.S. focuses on creating independence. For every use of infant formula or the Ferber Method, we miss out on an opportunity to connect physically with our kids. Responding to a baby’s needs has been shown to develop conscience, reduce stress and cultivate empathy. It’s not just the baby who needs that hand to hold, either. All parents need the support of their family, friends and co-workers to get through the challenges that come with raising humans for a couple decades (and beyond).

I Never Would

Tennant also lays claim to one of the better lines in the Whoniverse. In The Doctor’s Daughter, a visit to a war-worn world results in an unexpected offspring, courtesy the Progenation machine. She emerges combat ready, but also the beneficiary of the Doctor’s incredible genes. Tensions on the planet result in a random act of violence that takes the life of his new daughter. Pointing a gun at the head of the man who killed her, the Doctor stops and shouts angrily, “I never would.” He then urges the Humans and Hath to remember that when building their new world together: “Make the foundation of this society a man who never would.”

Our parenting choices can be contradictory. We don’t want our kids to be loud and scream, but we find ourselves yelling at them to stop. Some might address one sibling hitting another by spanking. Spanking is not only ineffective, but it damages development. The toughest test of our resolve as a parent is to resist those impulses to escalate or retaliate. We do this by listening.

Psychologist Larry Cohen sees listening as a lost art, something we have to work at intentionally. Like the Hath and Humans, we need to set aside the blunt instruments we may have used and find new tools, to start building a foundation for our world with the interactions we want to experience. As Cohen puts it, “The basis of any effective discipline is a strong relationship, and we build that with love, affection, warmth and above all by meeting children’s needs.”

Remember What You’re Leaving

The death of the Doctor is always traumatic, even when he doesn’t really die. For the bulk of the sixth season of the New Who, we knew the inevitable was coming. Everything culminated in a paradoxical episode, The Wedding of River Song, in which Matt Smith’s Doctor tell’s Winston Churchill about what keeps him grounded throughout adversity. “If it’s time to go,” says the Doctor, “remember what you’re leaving. Remember the best. My friends have always been the best of me.”

My eldest son joined a playgroup in his first year. It was a group of first-time parents in and around academia, bringing diverse backgrounds to this shared challenge. Thirteen years later, that group still meets each Friday. Through births, deaths, divorces, job changes, financial strains, and the journey through public education, Playgroup has proven to be a space held by friends for the moments it is needed. Time and again, the Doctor has surfaced a darker side when he is alone. He, like us, needs companions to help us cross space and time.

Like the Mad Man in the Box once told Kazran Sardick, in nine hundred years of time and space he’s never met anyone who wasn’t important. That includes you, your children and your supportive community.

Stormageddon thanks you for listening.

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