“Kids today, they have no one to look up to. ‘Cause they’re looking up to us.” – Don Draper
He’s never without an Old Fashioned in his hand, he smokes like a chimney, he sleeps with 97% of the women he makes eye contact with (we crunched the numbers: Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway are the only two exceptions, and Joan’s still a question mark) – hell, he isn’t really even Don Draper! The creative director of Sterling Cooper is a functional alcoholic and a cad and a fraud who in the words of his boss looks like he mostly does nothing at work (other than the smoking, drinking, and having sex with various women). Yet for all of his faults, it turns out that Don has one redeeming quality: he’s a pretty good dad.
Mad Men being the psychodrama that it is, we know that Don’s past – and his endless quest to escape it – feeds into his fathering skills. Ever calm and collected, he refuses to hit his kids – “My dad beat the hell out of me”, he says, “and all it made me want to do was kill him.” – at a time when spanking your kid, or (as happened in one episode) someone else’s kids was par for the course. Don is a father ahead of his Hard Drinking Skirt Chasing Time ; he tries to instill discipline rather than mete out punishment, he listens to his kids, and is usually the one the kids go to when they need reassurance and comfort. (More on that in a second.) In the show’s most brilliant conceit, it’s Don’s very nature – a man desperate to reinvent himself, an expert at creating illusionary worlds for others to live in – that lends itself to his parenting skills. He encourages his kids to be better than their peers, their guardians, and perhaps even the world that they live in. In the latest episode, he tells daughter Sally that her baby brother Gene – and, to an extend, all kids – are free to choose their own destiny. “We don’t know yet who he’s going to be,” he says, a reassurance to Sally in the face of the constant disapproval and impatience shown to the Draper kids by Don’s other half, Betty.
In fact, it can be argued that between Don and Betty, Don is the better parent. Sure, Betty is a role model herself. She certainly knows how to encourage the kids to play in a creative and safe manner (son Bobby Draper: “I’m bored.” Betty: “Go bang your head against a wall”); she’s open and accepting of her daughter Sally’s attempts to break free of gender stereotypes (to Don: “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian”); and she’s a constant source of positive reinforcement (to Bobby: “Only boring people are bored”).
But still, this is Don Draper. And the pearls of wisdom he dispenses, well, they’re not necessarily kid-friendly. Not that his insight is entirely without value. “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.” See, now THAT is something I wish I’d been told as a kid.