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Downton Abbey Offers These 5 Parenting Lessons

What Lord and Lady Grantham can teach 21st century moms and dads

By Linda Bernstein

Boomerang parenting. You know how it goes....

Your middle daughter is dumped by her fiancé and remains in her childhood bedroom, except for the few months she goes abroad to give birth secretly.

Your oldest daughter marries and has a kid, but then her husband dies in a fluke car accident, so there she is at home again, baby and all. (Also, it turns out she actually owns a large share of your house . . . more on that later.)

Your youngest daughter, well, she really did move — out of the country even. Even though you can’t stand her husband, she comes back to her family to give birth. She dies. Her husband, though, turns out to be useful around the house…
Wait. That’s not just boomerang parenting. That’s a synopsis of Downton Abbey!
If you're thinking, what could midlife 21 century American moms and dads have in common with the titled, rich, British Lord and Lady Grantham who are soap-opera-ing and parenting in front of a huge audience on Sunday nights on PBS stations? The answer is: A lot, it turns out.
Over the past five years, we’ve seen Cora and Robert (to be overly familiar, but, then again, we know them so well) make some hideous blunders with their twentysomething children. We’ve also seen some behaviors we may want to emulate. Here are five standout moments from the show and the lessons we can take away:
(MORE: Hot Button Q&A’s About Parenting Your Grown Kids)


Lord Grantham sees his son-in-law Tom (widower of Lady Sybil) on the second floor, outside the bedrooms, with Miss Bunting, the teacher from the village who has some revolutionary ideas.
What happens next: That’s it. Nothing happens. But Lord Grantham thinks something has and is angry with Tom. For like a year — the rest of that season and an episode into the next. 
Makes Downton Abbey sense: In the world of Downton Abbey, this plotline seems likely. Lord Grantham can be an idiot, but I can imagine it’s all kinds of awkward seeing the guy who was married to his dead daughter in a potentially romantic situation. Maybe Tom should have tried to talk to Lord Grantham? That would have made sense even in 1924.
Makes 21 century sense: Even today, dealing with romance involving the living spouse of your dead daughter would be trying for any parent. But let’s say in some big house some place in the USA there’s a man bunked up with the parents of his dead wife, and after a couple of years he thinks he’d like a bit of female companionship (aside from that of his sisters-in-law). I’d advise him to talk it out.
Takeaway for today’s parents: If you catch a grown child in an awkward situation, it's best to discuss this as soon as possible. Also, grown children living at home … they need privacy. Breathe down their necks with disapproval and they’ll shut you out.


After Edith writes a letter to a London newspaper supporting widespread women’s suffrage, the editor responds, asking her to become a regular columnist. Neither Lord nor Lady Gratham is pleased (partially because of the politics involved; partially because it might not be “proper” for someone of Lady Edith’s birth to do such a thing; partially because they consider Edith incompetent at nearly everything).
What happens next: Only the Dowager Countess (grandmamma) supports Edith, who goes to London, meets the editor and learns that she has talent — and charm. The guy falls in love with her (which, of course, leads to more problems. This is Downton Abbey).
Makes Downton Abbey sense: Nearly everyone at Downton regards Edith as a loser, so their discouraging attitudes and platitudes are not in the least surprising. Also, in 1920 with the war over, many women who had taken over men’s jobs retreated back into traditional roles. It’s interesting that Violet, generally the most backward looking of the clan, encourages her granddaughter. She seems to be the only one sympathetic to Edith’s need for purpose.
Makes 21 century sense: I can see parents today discouraging a grown child from pursuing a career path they believe doesn't match her talents. I also can see parents jumping up and down when a child receives a legitimate job offer, no matter what the job.
(MORE: When Your Adult Child Wants to Find Meaningful Work)
Takeaway for today’s parents: Adult kids need encouragement, at every phase. Your lawyer child may have lost a case and could use a sympathetic ear. Your public relations associate son, blamed by the boss for losing a client, needs a reminder that his parents love him, no matter what. Also, this needs mentioning: I really hope that no parent today would let one sibling (in this case, Mary) get away with bullying her sister so much.



A dashing Turkish diplomat seduces Mary — and then dies in her bed. (Which somehow pushes the question of why another man might be so eager to get her into the sack considering her previous two lovers are pushing up daisies, but I digress.) Mary convinces her mother, Cora, and Anna, the maid, to get Mr. Pamuk back into his own bed and thus avoid scandal.
What happens next: Mary is upset; Cora is horrified, but agrees to not to tell Mary’s father; another (living and eligible) suitor falls by the wayside since Mary is too preoccupied to pay him attention; Edith finds out and spreads rumors that damage Mary’s reputation.
Makes Downton Abbey sense: Everyone here behaves according to character, and though Lord Nelson died in his mistress’s bed, the discovery of a corpse in Mary’s boudoir would likely have made her unmarriageable.
Makes 21 century sense: Probably most moms would help their adult daughters out of uncomfortable predicaments and not tell the dad. However, these days, I think people would simply dial 911 instead of dragging a body about, because Law and Order.
Takeaway for today’s parents: Cora may be shocked, but how supportive she is of Mary is admirable. We should all rise to the occasion so well.


Lady Sibyl is convinced by her sisters not to elope with Tom Branson, the chauffeur, but to speak with her parents instead. Lord and Lady Grantham are horrified and threaten to disinherit her.
What happens next: Lord Grantham tries to bribe Tom, who reacts with anger and disgust. Sibyl runs away to marry him anyway.
Makes Downton Abbey sense: Though terribly snobbish to our 21 century sensibilities, the thought of a titled young Englishwoman marrying the chauffeur would probably have created havoc in any aristocratic household in 1919. Lord Grantham’s attempted bribe does seem perhaps overmuch, but the guy is desperate, and he has done some rash things in the past five years.
Makes 21 century sense: We all know parents who have objected to their grownup kids' choices in love. We all know cases where the anger has caused estrangement, sometimes irrevocable. On the other hand, most of us care much more about our children’s happiness than anything and disinheritance is probably a thing of the past.
(MORE: Help! I Can’t Stand My Child’s Partner)
Takeaway for today’s parents: Don’t try to bribe someone not to marry your child. I can’t imagine either your own kid or the daughter- or son-in-law would ever forgive you. Hope you can settle differences without the death of a child.


When a letter from Matthew is discovered that designates Mary as his sole heir, Robert is put out. Nor is he pleased that Mary seems to have emerged from her grief and wants to help her father and Tom manage the estate.
What happens next: Mary continues to get involved, makes some good important decisions and by Season 5 is discussing crop rotation with her father.
Makes Downton Abbey sense: Why are we not surprised when Lord Grantham is pig-headed and old-fashioned? Probably it wasn’t common for women to run estates in 1922, though the only one who seems surprised at Mary’s knack for it is her father.
Makes 21 century sense: Let me see. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. We all know there aren’t nearly enough women CEOs — or estate overseers, even. But I can imagine that a dad these days would welcome the help of a smart adult daughter especially if he had almost lost everything a couple of times.
Takeaway for today’s parents: Sure, we have life experience, but our kids often know stuff we don’t. Never say "no" to their knowledge; never turn down their willingness to share.
As much as I love Downton Abbey (and as much as I envy those clothes!), and as much as I may fantasize about having a huge house with apartments for my kids, their spouses and, hopefully someday, offspring, I think in reality I’m pretty lucky.

My grown children are independent, but loving. I’d like to see them more, but I know they have lives. And this empty nest thing does give me a good deal of independence. Having grown kids around all the time might get a bit burdensome.

So I’m grateful to be living now, and not in the early 1900s; Lord and Lady Grantham are a world apart. But all-in-all, they aren’t doing such a bad job. Lady Mary, and even Lady Edith and son-in-law Tom, are turning out fine.

Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches journalism at Long Island University, Brooklyn. Read More
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