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4 Unexpected Parenting Lessons from ‘Ozark’

Are the Byrdes on 'Ozark' terrible parents? Yes! But we can still learn from them.

The Byrdes are turds. Ozark’s parenting tandem of Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) must be up there with the worst television parents… ever.

But can bad parents teach us good parenting? Perhaps. Some fast context: My family spent two weeks of quartine Byrde-watching (a/k/a watching Ozark) – and loved every second of it. That’s to say that, in March, the unexpectedly reunited Spelling Family, which consists of Mom and Dad, and kids Max, 25, and Jamie, 22, and our beloved dog, Oreo, 15, sat glued to the television in our living room night after COVID-sequestered night binge-ing this uber-popular Netflix show. We devoted nearly 30 hours to witnessing TV’s most dysfunctional family scheme, laugh, suffer, inflict pain, shout, bond, cry, wreak havoc, turn on each other, and more. The show became our jam and it’ll forever be part of our history. And the experience revealed to me and my family that despite being among the crappiest TV parents ever, the Byrdes unexpectedly give us a few solid parenting lessons. Here’s what the best parents can learn from TV’s worst parents.

4. Parents Can Be Simultaneously Shitty and Awesome

Marty and Wendy love each other, at least deep-deep-really-deep-down, though it could be merely the fumes of true love from better days early in their relationship (Awesome!). But they more often than not exude disdain, anger, and pure hate for one another (Shitty!). It’s clear they treasure their teenage kids (Awesome!), Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), and Jonah (Skyler Gaertner), and the goal is to protect them at all costs (also Awesome!), but they spare the kids precious little of their spite. And, after uprooting them from their comfortable Chicago suburb to the backwoods of Missouri, Marty and Wendy expose them to the dangers of their shenanigans involving strip clubs, the mafia, drug dealing, gambling, fixers and murder, as well as money laundering and assorted other shady business dealings (Shitty but Awesome?!) Plus, until forced to acknowledge the truth, Marty and Wendy lie repeatedly to Charlotte and Jonah about why they moved and the perils enveloping them (totally Shitty!).

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3. The Experts Are Right

Kids can go three possible ways after being raised by their parents. They can become their parents, they can do the exact opposite with their own children, or they can embrace the best of what their parents offered and reject the worst. Consider this comment from the bestselling British author Penelope Leach, who was educated at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and was a founding member of the U.K. branch of the World Association for Infant Mental Health: “Two generations ago only a few unfortunate children ever saw anyone hit over the head with a brick, shot, rammed by a car, blown up, immolated, raped or tortured. Now all children, along with their elders, see such images every day of their lives and are expected to enjoy them. … The seven-year-old who hides his eyes in the family cops-and-robbers drama is desensitized four years later to a point where he crunches potato chips through the latest video nasty.”

Charlotte and Jonah both act out on Ozark, but react differently to the situation at hand. Marty teaches Jonah how to launder money, and Jonah even opens an offshore bank account of his own. Charlotte demands to be emancipated, but later gets sucked into the family business. As she put it: “I have to pretend like the worst, scariest, most damaging thing in my life is actually fucking awesome.”

Just how far can Charlotte and Jonah bend without snapping? The ever-edgy Jonah enjoys hunting a tad too much, has lost his pal Buddy, and his mom’s machinations behind Marty’s back – including signing off on Uncle Ben’s murder — are not going unnoticed. That could spell trouble as the show approaches its fourth and final (and extended) season. Yes, it’s conceivable that Jonah could kill Mom to save Dad. Talk about crunching the potato chips!

2. Give Kids Space To Make Their Own Mistakes

Call it the silver lining on a very dark parenting cloud, but the Byrdes – and Marty far more than Wendy – leave Jonah and Charlotte alone often enough that they’ve learned to fend for themselves. There’s something to be said for that. And we’ve said it. The kids are fiercely independent, Charlotte, again, to the point that she sought emancipation, while Jonah, as noted, tends to indulge his darker angels. Truth be told, Marty should’ve put his family in the Witness Protection Program and really taken care of everyone. But then there’d be no show, right?

1. Watching It Can Make Older Kids Appreciate Mom And Dad

I checked in with my kids a couple of weeks ago, post-pandemic-inspired reunion, asking them their thoughts about Marty and Wendy, Charlotte and Jonah, and the characters’ emotional misadventures, and how it made them think about their own upbringings. The takeaway? Maybe, just maybe, my wife Linda and I – to paraphrase our favorite potty-mouth character, Ruth (Julia Garner) — do know shit about fuck.

“The job of a good parent is to put their kids in the best possible position to succeed while providing the necessities of life (food, shelter, safety, etc.),” Max wrote. “Marty and Wendy, by engaging with a goddamn cartel, pulling the kids from their lives in Chicago, and thrusting them into an unknown and dangerous life in the Ozarks, did not put their kids in a position to succeed. While they managed to get them food and shelter, Jonah and Charlotte are not safe. So, they have their hearts in the right place, but they’re the worst bad parents.”

“I agree with Max,” Jamie noted. “I don’t know if there’s any argument for them on good parenting. Contextually, they may have put their kids’ interests first, but only after creating and placing them in a potentially harmful situation. The only argument for them being good parents is if you look at their environment isolated from what a normal environment should be. So, if every family was dealing with a drug cartel… sure, then they did an okay job with the kids. But the point is they put Charlotte and Jonah in that situation. That knocks out any positives.”

So, there you have it. The biggest parenting lesson for Ozark is this: Your kids will eventually grow-up and they will be keenly aware of the situations you put them in.

Ozark is streaming now on Netflix. Season 4 is expected sometime in 2021.