by Meredith O’Brien
As they’ve become the entertainment highlights of my week – the one hour when I’m guaranteed to enjoy several laughs of the out loud variety – Modern Family and The Middle have slowly evolved into comedic high-water marks for the 21st century family sitcom.
In every episode, issues large and small are addressed, demonstrating that the writers for these shows, the Emmy-winning Modern Family  and the underdog The Middle , truly get what it’s like to raise kids in this environment where we’re surrounded by everything from overachieving Tiger Moms  who take parenting to the extreme to overprotective helicopter parents, while we’re dealing with the ever-increasing load of burden that’s placed upon parents to be involved in every single thing each child does.
Modern Family, which I think is on its way to becoming The Cosby Show of this decade, has tackled a wide range of child-rearing issues and almost all of them with humor, intelligence and sensitivity. The main couple, Claire and Phil Dunphy, have coped with the hellacious horror of having their three kids burst in on them in flagrante delicto in one of the funniest Modern Family episodes I’ve seen (confirming for me the notion that when you attend a baby shower for a first-time mother, giving her a lock for her bedroom door might not be such a bad gift idea). When they’re not acting defensive in front of their children about their bedroom antics, Phil and Claire try to be on the same page regarding discipline issues, like last season when they threatened to cancel Christmas – even went so far as to remove the Christmas tree from the family room – in order to suss out which kid had been playing with matches and left a burn mark on the sofa. Only problem with their tough parenting approach was that they later discovered the kids were entirely innocent.
Goofy, tech-addicted, real estate agent Phil puts up with a verbally abusive father-in-law who undermines him in front of his children, but despite the fact that he’s a push-over once had the chutzpah to take on his son Luke’s over-the-top youth basketball coach who was hurling invectives at his son and his nephew during a game. But it’s Claire -- the at-home mom control freak who runs the PTO with an iron fist in the proverbial velvet glove – who rules the Dunphy home and frequently has to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how much she may try to make their lives perfect, nothing in their home is perfect, like her attempt to get a “perfect” family photo only the session devolved into an irreverent mud fight. Claire tries to micromanage everything, with only the best intentions for her kids, but more often than not, her efforts don’t work out the way she planned.
The other mom on the show, Gloria Pritchett, loudly advocates for her only son Manny (sometimes to his great embarrassment) while at the same time she tries in vain to shelter him from physical and emotional danger, like the time when she dressed him up in comic quantities of protective gear when he was going to learn how to ride a bike. However, Gloria’s wise-beyond-his-years son is an old soul in a young body who seems to be growing up just fine in spite of Gloria’s hovering.
While the Dunphys and Gloria have older children and teens, Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett are busy with a toddler. This is the couple who vigorously threw themselves into what they saw as a make-or-break effort to get their daughter Lily into the “right” preschool, were confounded by the advice they found on a mommy web site when they tried to address Lily’s biting problem and have tried to use Lily’s playdates, where parents are expected to accompany their tots, as opportunities for social climbing. Fiercely competitive and desirous to do everything he can to give his daughter advantages and earn her praise, Mitchell once stacked some blocks during a play group and pretended that his daughter had done it so all the other parents would be awed by Lily’s talent.
Over on The Middle, the Heck family of five finds themselves on the much lower end of the economic scale than the Modern Family folks and they have much lower expectations for their children. Both Frankie and Mike Heck – she’s a mediocre car saleswoman and he’s the low-keyed manager of a quarry – recently had to take on second jobs just to be able to pay the property tax bill for their extremely modest home. When they’re not busting their humps working, they’re running around trying to attend to the needs of their three children, whether it be dealing with a difficult teacher, attempting (and failing) to keep on top of their children’s ballooning school and activity schedules in which parents are expected to take an active role, volunteering (otherwise known as being coerced) into helping with a high school booster club or shuttling their youngest son to the library and special classes to help him with his social skills.
In one particularly insightful episode this season, Frankie and Mike tapped into a problem that’s plaguing parents of 2011, though not if you’re a Tiger Mom: The fact that many of us have ceded our lives over to our children who, in some cases, have morphed into ungrateful, youthful despots ordering their adult servants around. Mike and Frankie made this realization one night after Frankie, who’d just gotten off of work, had gone to three take-out restaurants because each kid had requested food from a different place but skipped the fried chicken joint from which she and Mike wanted food. After presenting the food to her offspring, the kids complained that their orders were incomplete. Frankie’s automatic response was to say that she’d run back out, until she thought better of it.
Mike and Frankie had accidentally stumbled upon the realization that their parents would’ve never put up with this constant cow-towing to their children, thus, their decision to parent the way parents used to 30 years ago, by telling their youngest son he had to walk to school if he missed the bus, refusing to race to the high school to bring their eldest son his lunch money and prohibiting the kids from commandeering the television and dictating what the family ate. This was met with abject shock from their parenting peers and outright horror by their children. In 2011, it was considered revolutionary to not make the kids’ desires the focus of the parents’ lives. Sadly, by the end of the episode, Frankie and Mike completely backslid, reverting to catering to their children’s whims again, just like many of us do, in spite of ourselves.
Between the Modern Family parents and the Hecks of The Middle, there’s a boatload of flawed child-rearing on display there, most it well intentioned and fueled by love, like it is in most families, except that their antics are played for big laughs and ours just give us gray hairs and amusing anecdotes to tell at cocktail parties, if we ever get a chance to attend one again before the kids go to college. But sometimes that’s precisely what we need after a long day of questioning our parenting decisions and hoping that we’ve made the right moves: Big laughs delivered by writers who write what we’re living.