Recently Lisa Belkin of Huffingtonpost.com posed the question, “Are there any good parents on the screen?” If we look at TV and films from the past year, it seems there aren’t many, but a standout mom that comes to my mind over the holidays is Ralphie’s mom, played by Melinda Dillon, in the classic A Christmas Story (1983).
Ralphie’s mom is a housewife in the 1940s, but she’s the antithesis of Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. Unlike Donna’s sleek bob, it seems that every day is a bad hair day for Ralphie’s mom. She wears an old sweater that has seen better days over her yellowing apron, or perhaps a chenille bathrobe from the bottom of her closet. A Christmas Story keeps it real in terms of a mom’s lack of time for grooming.
So is Ralphie’s mom a great mom, or a terrible mom?
That might depend on which scene we are looking at.
She maybe doesn’t win a lot of points in the dietary department: meat loaf, braised red cabbage, and mashed potatoes served nightly. In Ralphie’s mom’s household, pickles count as the green vegetable.
However, I have to say I’m impressed that she has dinner on the table promptly at 5 p.m. every evening. And she puts everyone ahead of herself, “My mother hasn’t had a hot meal for herself in 15 years,” says Jean Shepherd, narrating as Ralphie’s grownup persona. She’s constantly jumping up to grab another roll for her husband or to pile more mashed potatoes on one of her son’s plates. (I usually tell someone asking for more, “The kitchen’s in there.”)
And speaking of mashed potatoes, who can forget the “little piggies” scene? It’s one of the most memorable in the film. In order to convince Ralphie’s little brother Randy to eat his food rather than play with it, she coyly tells her son, “Show me how the little piggies eat!” Randy starts snorting and makes a trough of his dinner plate, while the others at the table cringe.
Was Ralphie’s mom being a bad mother for this? Perhaps not. A lot of the parenting research I’ve done said that encouraging kids to eat on their own in spite of making a huge mess encourages independence, and that using food as art helps develop motor skills. Of course these experts were talking about toddlers, not seven-year-olds. So maybe it was a lapse of judgement on the part of Ralphie’s mom, but the scene just may be the funniest in the whole movie.
Overall, I think that Ralphie’s mother is a great mom. She shows sensitivity and understanding when her son gets into a fight, choosing not to make a big deal about it in front of the Old Man. She chooses her battles, allowing Randy to drink his milk while hiding inside the cupboard because he’s afraid the Old Man will “kill Ralphie” after the fight. She washes her son’s mouth out with soap when he uses the mother of all dirty words: a fitting punishment, at least for the time. And, like all good moms, she doesn’t want her son to shoot his eye out with a BB gun.
If you haven’t seen “A Christmas Story,” check it out.
And Merry Christmas all you mommies, and to all a hot meal and a good night’s sleep.