We tend to remember the good old days with selective memory. We pick and choose what we want to remember…and forget.  That clouds our memories and subsequently skews the tales we spin to younger generations.

Trends in television situation comedies over the last 60 years shape an interesting discussion of changing values and a reminder of the way things were.  By focusing on family life portrayed in television shows from the 50s to the present, a lot can be learned about what it was like growing up during a different time.

Looking back at TV characters and shows, we are reminded that not so long ago, life was easier, less dangerous, and free of gadgets. The houses were always neat as a pin, all family members sat a kitchen table for dinner, the kids played baseball in the yard instead of on a video game, and teens hung out at the malt shop instead of on Facebook.

Television families it seems have gone from the idyllic to the surreal – from Father Knows Best to Married with Children and the Kardashians. Whether or not these families reflect cultural norms or shape them is an argument left to those who like to argue about whether chickens or eggs come first. But their popularity does offer an interesting perspective about what life was like -or perceived to be like – for each of today’s generations.  After examining TV shows (and even radio from the 30s and 40s), is there any wonder why Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y have different attitudes toward family, community, and business?

For example, television defined gender roles unequivocally since the 1950 days of Ozzie and Harriet when many American families flocked to the suburbs.  Families lived in ranch houses with neatly manicured lawns, no locks on doors, and kids playing in the street.  In small towns, folks still sat on front porches and called out to neighbors as they walked by. The worst catastrophes were skinned knees, Johnny getting a cold, and B’s on report cards.

Careers might be described as a 2-person job, with one male breadwinner and a housewife. Mother stayed home all day and cleaned the house in a dress. A job outside the home for a woman was rarely mentioned or considered. If Dad was promoted or relocated the family followed – without question. Laurie Petrie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) gave up dancing to be a housewife and mother. Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) aspired for a career but was never taken seriously. This scenario was pretty much par for the course in those early years of television. Mom was rarely shown out of the kitchen, except of course to greet the kids after school with a tray of fresh-baked cookies. Beaver’s infinitely patient mom on Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) also idealized this stereotypical mother.

Most dick van dyke generation gaps of the shows of the late 1950s and 1960s depicted men as the sole breadwinner and decision-maker of the nuclear family. Dad came home from some kind of work and when the family gathered for dinner, he was wearing a suit and tie. Harriet Nelson, the mom in Ozzie and Harriet, rarely left the kitchen.  Ozzie, the dad, was the sole breadwinner and the mentor to his sons, advising them about dating problems, career choices, and marriage. What would Mom know about things like that, anyway?

Divorce was taboo too. When there were non-traditional, single-parent TV homes, they were usually headed by widowers, not the result of failed marriages.

And the closest thing a teenager growing up in the 50s and early 60s had to a street gang was the likes of Eddie Haskel, the wise-guy, conniving best friend of the Beaver’s older brother.  Kids roamed the neighborhood and even traveled throughout town on their bicycles without parents worrying about kidnapping, drug dealing, and gang shootings.

In the early 60s a revolution had begun.  Mary Tyler Moore (The Dick Van Dyke Show) traded her housedress for Capri slacks. Marlo Thomas as That Girl portrayed a single woman living on her own. Mary Tyler Moore started her own show in 1970 and Laura Petrie had morphed into Mary Richards, a TV role model for the growing legions of real life single career women. For the younger generations it’s hard to believe that a TV character wearing Capri pants instead of a housedress could even elicit a wimper no less criticism when you compare that to Madonna in the 1980s and Lady Gaga today.

The traditional family unit however wasn’t dead yet in the 70s and 80s. But the 2-person career was becoming a thing of the past.  The Huxtables of The Bill Cosby Show took us inside the homes and lives of the then “modern family.  What changed however was that Mom was now a working woman, and often a college grad with a profession. Welcome to the 2-career family. The Hucktables (Cosby) were one of the most stable TV parents, both working at top jobs (lawyer and doctor) and somehow finding the time and energy to instill strong values in their children with tough love and clever parenting.

In the 90s, the single beds of Rob and Laura Petrie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) had given way to divorced sitcom parents who focused more on looking for love than looking after the kids. Even in intact TV families, father no longer knew best. TV dads were portrayed as bumbling idiots who not only lacked parenting and relationship building skills, but spent most of the time either falling down or looking foolish (Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond). The shows were hilarious but also shaped an entire generation’s image of the family.

Since the millennium, it is hard to tell what is real and fiction on TV. Compared to life in the 60s and earlier, divorce rates have skyrocketed. Families hardly ever sit down to dinner anymore. Violence and rudeness seem to be escalating to the point where gunshots and profanity are just ambient noise.

Reality shows have replaced scripted sitcoms and dramas.  Shows like Jon and Kate and Wife Swap broadcast dysfunctional families spinning out of control.  Apparently watching another family’s life unravel is entertaining for many people.  Or is it that the lives of these supposedly modern day families seem to normalize our hectic and seemingly dysfunctional lives?

No matter how much we watch TVLand and Nick-at-Nite, we cannot turn back the clock. The world is much more complicated than Leave it to Beaver now and the lessons offered may offer little help or hope.  But they do offer a great look at what life was life for each preceding generation and how their worldviews about family and community were shaped.

What was “real-life” 40 years ago is just history for younger generations.  Before passing judgment on another generation, it is important to see the world through their lives. Take a walk through their shoes – watch a few TV shows from each decade to see the world as others may see it.

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Ira S Wolfe