Bill Cosby mentored me as a young father.
Although I’ve never met him, he—or at least his TV persona, Heathcliff Huxtable—taught me volumes about being a dad. Without a doubt, many thousands of fathers from my generation would make the same claim.
The Cosby Show premiered in the fall of 1984, less than two months before our older daughter, Lindsay, celebrated her first birthday. The NBC program ran eight seasons and aired its final new episode in the spring of 1992, five months after our younger daughter, Molly, turned 5.
Our family dropped what we were doing on Thursday nights—well before we possessed technology to record and tape TV shows—so we could spend part of the evening with the Huxtables. We laughed, groaned and occasionally even sniffled as we shared the ups and downs and quixotic adventures of American television’s first family. Later, we rejoined them in reruns, and it’s not coincidental that Joanna and I, as well as Lindsay and Molly, still can recite laugh lines and plots points of those old programs.
Practicing parenthood in real time
Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable appeared fortuitously as I was trying to figure out how to be a daddy. Without realizing it, I looked to him for tips on how to manage myriad familial situations. (Previously, of course, I learned some lessons from my own father. But they came along years before I dreamed of being a dad. With Cosby, I was picking up pointers and practicing parenthood in real time.)
Episode by episode, I learned vital lessons:
• In a family, the mother and father are an inseparable team. They do their best work when they stick together and follow the same plan.
• Parental love is vulnerable, but it is unconditional. A child can hurt a father, grieve a mother. Deeply. Often unintentionally. But a parent absorbs pain and never stops loving.
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• Family history and folklore—stories about great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and others—provide a treasure trove for children. They help explain why our family is the way it is, what we value and why, and what is expected of children as they age and mature. Plus, those old stories are lots of fun.
• Family love is big enough and flexible enough to take in others. We embody the best of family when we make friends who feel like family.
• Patience and listening are powerful parental tools. Given time and boundaries, difficult situations often work themselves out. Allow a child to talk for awhile, and she’ll often teach herself.
• Humor makes almost every situation better. And it heals all kinds of wounds, too.
Those lessons provided much of the infrastructure for how I approached parenting. They made me a better father and husband. They blessed our daughters. They brought joy and laughter and health to our home.
So, news of Cosby’s reported sexual abuse of women has caused great consternation in our home, as it has in millions of homes across the nation.
Cosby has denied the charges, and he has not been convicted. But the sheer number of women from across five decades who have come forward with almost identical stories of being drugged and sexually assaulted prevents us from turning our heads, from pretending nothing happened, from trying to explain it all away.
Fittingly, Baylor University responded this month by rescinding the honorary doctorate it bestowed upon Cosby in 2003.
On a personal level, the reports of abominable behavior leave folks struggling for a response. For decades, we admired Cosby’s clean humor, his advocacy for African-American culture, his support for education and his now-ironic championship of family values. How could someone we thought we knew and loved—someone who delivered so much warm, gentle wisdom—apparently commit such heinous acts?
More pointedly, how do we weigh the value of the lessons he taught in light of the obscenity of his apparent abuses? The Bible teaches us all people sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), but we are ill-prepared to bridge such a wide and deep chasm of hypocrisy.
If Cosby is convicted, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. And if he is guilty but has the resources to thwart a conviction, he deserves to live as a pariah.
The lessons remain valid
Still, the lessons we learned about fatherhood, parenting and marriage from Cliff Huxtable remain valid. Paradoxically, a mind can hold and nurture evil and yet espouse goodness and wisdom. We don’t want to believe that is possible, but human beings are complex, incongruous and often incomprehensible.
We can ponder the Huxtable lessons and aspire to be as wise and virtuous as Cliff. And we must weigh the Cosby consequences and pray we never allow evil to overtake us and fall into the depravity that, apparently, consumed Bill.