Hamil with Care

What I Learned About Parenting from ‘Stranger Things 2’

Lessons from the popular horror series

[This essay contains spoilers.]

The second season of the Netflix series Stranger Things presents a world not too different than our own, in which a band of nerdy kids battle to save the world from a cabal of crypto-fascist authoritarians who have unleashed evil forces they can’t control. It takes place in the pre-Internet era, so a giant shadow-spider monster takes the place of Trump and slimy orchid-faced dogs play the role of shitposting Russian Twitterbots. Unlike our current reality, the kids succeed (for the time being?) with a little support and benign neglect from the adults in their lives.

As a new father, I’m always looking for strategies to guide me through the uncertain landscape of parenthood, and Stranger Things is rife with object lessons and behavioral modeling. Here are the top three things I learned from the show.

Support your child’s artistic ambitions.
When Will Byers goes into a trance and starts scribbling feverishly on every piece of paper in the house, his mom Joyce doesn’t admonish him for making a mess or wasting an entire jumbo box of crayons; she encourages him even though the drawings are kind of ugly. More importantly, she takes his work seriously, viewing it as a way to connect with the hideous parasitic consciousness that lives within him. What parent can’t relate to that?

Furthermore, rather than cherry-picking the best drawing to hang on the refrigerator, she hangs all of the drawings up in every nook and cranny of the house. By doing so Will’s mom lays out a working map of the Upside Down tunnel complex. As a bonus, her home now looks like a Gerhard Richter installation! Très chic!

Dote away, single moms!
If you’re a single mother, you might fear the effects of too much maternal nurturance on a boy growing up in the absence of a male role model. Dustin Henderson’s relationship with his mom, Claudia, provides a hopeful counterpoint. Claudia and Dustin adore each other and she dotingly entertains his every whim. As a result, Dustin is easily the most likeable boy on the show, with or without front teeth.

Downsides: He covers up the gruesome murder of his mom’s beloved cat, no girl his age will dance with him at the Snow Ball forcing him to accept a “pity dance” from Mike’s older sister Nancy and his only role model is alpha-douche hair model Steve Harrington. But I’m sure he’ll turn out just fine!

Fear your child’s mysterious powers.
Police chief Jim Hopper secretly adopts Eleven, aka “El,” a young girl who’s been used as a guinea pig since birth by Hawkins National Laboratory. She’s traumatized, addicted to frozen waffles and possesses a limited vocabulary. She also has a range of kickass psionic powers including the ability to flip a full-sized van like a toy with her mind. Nevertheless, she needs Hopper’s guidance to survive in this scary world beset on all sides by a villainous national security apparatus and nightmare figures that operate with impunity in the collective psychic nightmare realm of the Upside Down. This is as functional a metaphor for modern parenting as you’re likely to find.

Hopper straddles the line between laying down the law and not getting his head psionically crushed. When El uses her powers to smash out every window in his cabin, he makes her clean it up. Hopper provides a good example of the ways in which parents must pick and choose their battles, standing firm in matters of safety even when it’s sure to set off a huge, house-rattling tantrum.

While my toddler doesn’t have psionic powers or El’s traumatic backstory, he does have the ability to ruin a nice dinner or a good night’s sleep. He can’t blow out all the windows in the house or slam doors shut with his mind, but he can methodically trash everything in his path with little drool-covered fingers. After watching the latest season of Stranger Things I’ve learned to see him the same way Hopper views El: as a mysterious and powerful creature whose reality I can scarcely conceive, who will probably end up saving the world someday.