How the Brady family modeled positive parenting

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Picture this: You’re sitting in the living room, reading a nice book, when all of a sudden, you hear your youngest daughter yelling: “Mommy!” You run into the playroom, where your daughter is frantically searching under the couch cushions for her favorite doll, Kitty Karry-all. She’s gone missing!

In walks your youngest son, Bobby, innocently humming on his kazoo. Your daughter, Cindy points at him, and accuses him of being a kidnapper. “He did it! He’s the one who did it!” Bobby swears he is innocent. “I did not.” You try to reason with Cindy, and talk her down from her accusation. “Maybe,” you say, “we can figure out what happened!”

Such a gripping plotline was enacted for us in 1969, in season 1, episode 7 of the Brady Bunch. You can see the buildup of the tension, and the excellent method for repairing the threat to family unity by clicking here.

Eve Plumb, aka Jan Brady.

After the stage is set, and the mystery of the missing mannequin has been put into motion, we are given fly-on-the-wall access to two private conversations, one between the three daughters and another between the three sons. In the boys’ room, Bobby swears — even using the sacred oath! — he had nothing to do with it. In the girls’ room, however, the daughters side with Cindy. Bobby has, after all, stated “lots of times” that he hated Kitty. Cindy is distressed. “Kitty doesn’t even have her bottle. She’ll starve to death.” As silly as this situation seems to us, Cindy’s upset is real and all-encompassing, as are Bobby’s hurt feelings about being wrongly accused. Dun dun dun. Did he do it?

The two groups of siblings march to confront each other. Our collective palms sweat. A loud argument takes place in the toilet-less bathroom the six children share. Mr. Brady takes charge. He uses a loud voice to shut the argument down. When the disagreement re-escalates, he cuts it off again, and separates the children into their respective rooms.

The parents have a quick conversation away from the children to process the situation. They both agree that Bobby is probably telling the truth, and that Cindy is also being truthful in her belief that Bobby took the doll. So, what to do? The entire family is called together to “search the house from top to bottom until we find the doll.”

Spoiler alert: After failing to find the doll, Bobby’s kazoo goes missing, which (of course) is blamed on Cindy. It turns out that the dog took both items—as well as many others—and hid them in his doghouse. 

Kitty Karry-All drama unfolds.

If you’re old like me, with one foot in the grave and the other turning to dust, you grew up watching the Bradys on television. I remember envying their wealth, but also gaining vicarious pleasure from their experience. I was with them when Bobby and Cindy got lost in the Grand Canyon. When the crazy professor was going to kill the boys in the caves of Hawaii, my life, too, hung in the balance.

What I couldn’t have done is have any real thought about the parenting that was being modeled, way back in 1969 (I was one year old), when the term “positive parenting“ had yet to be coined. This year, I have begun a study, with some reluctant seniors at my university [1], of the parenting practices in the Brady Bunch. While the parenting isn’t perfect (especially in the later episodes, as the plotlines devolve into absurdity, and the show loses the cuteness factor that it had when the children were young), there are several great parenting practices in just this one episode.

(1) Sensitivity and responsiveness – In this episode and throughout the show, Mr. and Mrs. Brady—Mike and Carol—display two main effective parenting skills. . They are sensitive, meaning that they have their eyes and ears attuned to the workings of the household, the moods of the children, and the overall environment of the family. They are also responsive, meaning that they respond to changes that they observe and put themselves right in the mix. If a child appears to be giddy with glee, the parents notice the body language and ask, excitedly, what happened. Then they listen to what the child has to report.

When the children are arguing, the parents hear it, recognize it as alarming, and quickly try to de-escalate the situation. Sensitivity and responsiveness are the hallmarks of positive parenting [2], and they take time. A sensitive and responsive parent must be on the lookout for moments of high and low emotion, treat them seriously, and be available to offer guidance for navigating those pivotal moments that children may remember into adulthood.

(2) Agency – The Bradys are experts at promoting their children’s sense of agency. Instead of solving problems for them, it’s far better for our children to learn how to solve their problems for themselves, when possible. In this episode, agency is on display twice. In the beginning, Carol suggests to Cindy that “maybe we can figure it out?” The suggestion is not – “Figure it out for yourself, kid, and leave me alone.” Rather, Carol is offering to work through the problem with her until there is a resolution. Cindy, however, is in too much distress to hear this offer, wanting instead to double down on her accusation that Bobby is the culprit.

The second use of agency is after the parents have discussed the problem privately. This demonstrates another important practice, where parents consult with one another and try to be on the same page before big parenting moments. It is a strategy to be discussed in a future article, but which deserves this aside, here. Mike calls the children back into the toilet-less bathroom, and announces that “we are going to search the house from top to bottom until we find the doll.” Notice the use of the word “we” and the fact that the entire family is now engaged in solving a problem that is technically the domain of only two of its members.

(3) Family unity – Which brings us to the third important characteristic of this family. When there is a problem, whether it’s a hurt feeling (e.g., a friend tells the middle boy, Peter, that he is dull), a disappointing outcome (e.g. the middle child, Jan, tries out for the cheerleading squad and doesn’t make it), or the theft of a doll, the entire family is expected to be a part of mending the issue. The Brady’s have family meetings and important conversations throughout the show, encouraging the children to be empathetic toward their wounded siblings, and to participate in making things right again. In other words, the parents are teaching the children to be sensitive and responsive (see number one above).

(4) Selfregulation – When the argument gets out of hand, and the children do not appear to be listening to one another, Mike steps in with his commanding voice and shuts down the verbal battle. The second time he has to do it, he separates the two factions into their own rooms, and lets them each settle down. The quick use of authority, and the insistence on calmer methods of communication, coupled with a lesson to break away from conflict when things get too heated, is a skill called self-regulation, an important life skill growing children need to learn through their parents’ example. In a recent study [3], the authors state:

“Self-regulation has an important role in moral development, empathy, emotional expression, adjustment, social competence, delay of gratification, goal setting, and acting in accordance with one’s goals.”

I am grateful to the Brady Bunch. The writers clearly wanted to do more than just create a sitcom. There are lessons throughout the show that can serve us well as we seek success in life and in our parenting. Lessons like the ones we’ve just seen will help our children to be prosocial adults, who are well liked, optimistic about the future, and able to approach problems with courage. The show was ahead of its time. Now, go and make yourself ahead of your time as well.


References

[1] Special thanks to those seniors for their work in categorizing the Brady parenting model: Alexsis Brown, Tierra Cook, Kahnen Cooper, Jasmine Early, Hanayah Goode, Harry Mackay, Julian Muza, Jasmine Patterson, and Deselyn Tindal-Burgess.
[2] Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., & Swank, P. R. (2006). Responsive parenting: establishing early foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving skills. Developmental psychology, 42(4), 627.
[3] Sanders, M. R., Turner, K. M., & Metzler, C. W. (2019). Applying self-regulation principles in the delivery of parenting interventions. Clinical child and family psychology review, 1-19.

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Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out  drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.