The show follows the Pearson triplets - Kevin, Kate, and Randall - through various childhood stages, linking these stories back to their lives as adults makes for such smart and compelling storytelling. But for me, the most interesting story is that of the parents themselves, the choices they make and their trials along the way, and the ongoing impacts of these on their children's lives.
And though it is of course a drama, and not completely accurate to real life or real life parenting, there are many ways that This Is Us understands what raising children is really like:
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1. It's okay for your kids to see your flaws.
Jack and Rebecca are incredible parents with a solid relationship, but they make mistakes, they fight, sometimes they're selfish or impatient or short tempered. This doesn't make them bad parents, it makes them human beings. Not only is it okay if our kids see us as flawed human beings, it's vital. As I often tell my own kids, we all make mistakes, it's what we do about them that really says who we are.
2. Being adaptable is an asset.
In the season one Thanksgiving episode "Pilgrim Rick" the Pearson family's holiday plans are sidelined when the car breaks down, forcing them to walk for miles to a strange roadside motel and with only gas station hot dogs for a Thanksgiving feast. But rather than being upset and give into despair about the situation, Jack managed to make the evening fun and exciting, giving way to a new holiday tradition. Unexpected detours are not just likely in parenting, they are inevitable. A positive attitude and ability to quickly adapt will be one of the most powerful tools in your parenting tool belt.
3. Parents need to have each other's backs.
Jack and Rebecca don't always agree about how to handle certain situations - the best way to handle Randall's anxiety for example, or if Jack spoils Kate or Rebecca is too hard on her - but even when they disagree, they're in each other's corner, making adjustments and finding compromises. Regardless of situation, together or not, parents have to be able to back each other up and sometimes get out of the way.
4. Adoption is complicated.
One of my favorite storylines is Randall's adoption, specifically how it's ongoing and not just a one and done. Adoption is beautiful and inspiring, but it's also complex; affecting the adoptee, the birth parents, adoptive parents, and siblings in a variety of ways. As the sibling to an adoptee and a close friend to a birth mother, I appreciate the care and consideration that the show has given to adoption.
5. Grief is also complicated.
The show tackles the loss of a child and of a father early on, and how the ripples of these losses are felt still decades on. Losing a child or a parent isn't something one deals with and gets over, it fundamentally changes who you are.
6. Sometimes you're wrong.
You won't always be sure that you're making the right choices for your children, and sometimes you won't. Parenting is in many ways about making these choices, big and small, and hoping they're in your children's best interest. In the show, Rebecca makes the choice to keep Randall from his birth father, William, truly believing it was best for him at the time, but ultimately regretting it. It's a hard truth, but sometimes our best intentions won't be enough, and all we can offer in return is our willingness to try again.
7. It's never too late to make a meaningful change.
Mistakes will be made, instincts will be wrong, but the show points out that it's never too late to right a wrong. In Randall's storyline, with William we get to see a birth father and son reconnect just in time, we witness Kate and Rebecca's ever-evolving relationship, and watch Kevin's struggle to make things right with an old love. Don't fret that you only have eighteen years to pack in every possible life lesson, we're all works in progress.
8. Sibling bonds are tricky.
The "Big Three" in the show have pretty significant ups and downs, but ultimately they are there for each other when things get tough. I don't know of any siblings that get along at all times, my kids included, but I hope that they'll always be there for each other when it counts.
9. Parenting isn't the be all end all.
Thoughtful, compassionate parenting is vitally important, of course. But it is not the only factor in who a child will become. This is both good and bad, because while we can't guarantee that our good parenting will keep our children from any and all strife in their lives, we also don't have to blame ourselves for every single mistake they may make.
10. Our primary job is to be supportive.
I was really struck by Rebecca telling Kate in a recent episode that her job as a mother is to wait with open arms for when and if her daughter needs her. Particularly as my kids get older, this concept rings so true. I've given them so much of myself it's tempting to feel "owed" a primary place in their life, but my job is to provide a safety net, one that they can choose to fall into or not, and I have be willing to let them live their lives on their own terms.