Beaver: “Gee, Dad—you must have had a real mean father.”
Years ago, when I was watching my way through Leave it to Beaver for the billionth time, I noticed an interesting pattern. In many episodes, after Beaver’s troubles resolve themselves, Ward and June share a quiet moment. Almost invariably, she asks him how his father would have handled a situation like Beaver’s. And almost invariably, Ward describes his father reacting with less understanding—and more hitting.
From Leave It to Beaver’s premier in 1957, TV critics recognized a small innovation that the show introduced to TV—its point of view.
“With Beaver, we aimed at showing the child’s view of this world,” Joe Connelly told the Associated Press in 1960. Connelly, with Bob Mosher, created and produced the series.
In my opinion, however, the show’s perspective is more complicated than that. Leave it to Beaver shows a child’s world as filtered through the perspective of a warm but bewildered father—a father who is groping toward a new model for fatherhood, quite different from the one he experienced growing up.
This dual perspective came naturally for Mosher and Connelly, who had eight children between them when Leave It to Beaver premiered. For story ideas, they drew upon their real families. The episode in which Aunt Martha forces Beaver to wear short pants to school, and the episode where the boys break Ward’s car window and attempt to hide it, came directly from the life of Connelly’s son Richard.
In the 1950s, when upper-middle-class parents like Ward and June Cleaver had a question about parenting, there was one man they turned to—Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published to instant acclaim in 1946. As a 1955 article in the Milwaukee Journal put it, “The words ‘Dr. Spock says,’ heard daily in households from coast to coast, have made him ‘everybody’s baby doctor.’”
Dr. Spock stressed a relaxed and tolerant attitude toward children and encouraged parents to enjoy their children.
As years passed and new editions of the book appeared, Dr. Spock increased his focus on the father’s role in parenting, but even the earliest edition encouraged fathers to play a more active and positive role than their own fathers did.
In the early editions of his book, Dr. Spock discouraged spanking, although he stopped short of condemning the practice entirely.
As a 1998 Baltimore Sun article assessing Dr. Spock’s legacy stated: “It can be argued that Dr. Spock, more than anyone, sparked a revolution in how children were raised, turning baby-boom parents away from the strict discipline and prudish standards of their own parents and grandparents in favor of a more flexible approach that stresses plenty of love, caring and attention for children.”
Ward’s Parenting Journey
The words Leave It to Beaver have become a descriptive term for retrograde, sexist images of American life. It’s ironic, then, that the program actually shows a man who is working hard to become a “modern” father.
In a classic first-season episode, “The Haircut,” Ward and June discover that Beaver cut his own hair—badly—after losing his haircut money. Ward’s reaction is typical for the series:
Ward: “Boy, when I was a kid, my father would have whaled the tar out of me…Don’t worry, I’m not going to resort to physical violence. I’m tempted, though.”
Again and again, Ward rises above the temptation to discipline the boys the way he got disciplined. As other episodes show, he wants to have a warm relationship with his boys, even if he doesn’t always know how to build that relationship.
Take the first season episode “The Perfect Father,” for example. Ward grows increasingly distressed as Wally and the Beav spend all their time at the Dennisons’ house, where Mr. Dennison has installed a “regulation” basketball hoop.
Soon Ward is installing his own hoop and spending time with the boys and their friends as they play basketball. His action backfires, however, when his overbearing presence drives the neighborhood kids away.
This is certainly a departure from the all-wise, “father knows best” image presented in other early family comedies. Only when Ward runs into Mr. Dennison, and gets some advice from that more experienced father, does he realize his mistake.
Mr. Dennison: “If you ask me, the secret of getting close to your kids is to know when to stay away from them.”
In the moving second-season episode “Most Interesting Character,” we get a glimpse of Ward through Beaver’s eyes and see that Ward is succeeding in his efforts to be an involved and supportive father.
After struggling to make his father seem interesting for a school composition, and making a foray into fiction, Beaver decides to write the truth:
“He does not have an interesting job. He just works hard and takes care of all of us. He never shot things in Africa or saved anybody that was drowning, but that’s all right with me because when I am sick, he brings me ice cream, and when I tell him things or ask things, he always listens to me, and he gives up a whole Saturday to make junk with me in the garage. He may not be interesting to you, or someone else, because he’s not your father, just mine.”
Other Thoughts About Leave It to Beaver
Watching Beaver episodes in preparation for this blog post reminded what an enjoyable show this is. While the Cleavers are rather bland characters, Mosher and Connelly surround them with a hilarious collection of kids and adults, each believably annoying in his or her own way—from know-it-all Judy, whose mother was apparently one of the first helicopter parents—she threatened to call the school and complain if Judy didn’t pass her school orchestra audition—to overbearing braggart Fred Rutherford, to the ultimate in two-faced trouble-makers, Eddie Haskell.
The writers also slip some great lines into their scripts. I loved the randomness of this comment from “Train Trip”:
Ward, on how the boys could amuse themselves in a train station: “Well, you could always watch a fat lady hit a kid.”
June: “Why would they do that?”
Ward: “I don’t know…but I’ve never been in a railroad station yet where there wasn’t a fat lady hitting a kid.”
(If you substitute Wal-Mart for railroad station, this observation still holds true.)
In the early episodes, even June could bring the snark, as in The Perfect Father:
Ward, while installing the basketball hoop: “I must have put up hundreds of these all over the South Pacific when I was in the Seabees.”
June: “Well…I guess we all contributed to victory in our own way.”
So, if you haven’t seen Leave It to Beaver for a while, be sure to catch it on Me-TV—you’re sure to find it rewarding.
And when you do watch it, keep an eye on Ward and his journey to modern fatherhood.
“This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com) to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.”