Many of us who grew up watching Robin Williams in so many dazzling roles are left reeling at his death at age 63 and the tragic circumstances surrounding it. It’s odd to think that a man who brought so much joy to so many people was quietly struggling with such severe depression, and a sobering reminder that mental illness can touch anyone, no matter how seemingly blessed and glittering the externals might appear.
Like other children, I watched “Aladdin” with rapt attention when it came out in 1992, and became an instant Robin Williams fan at age 6–though I only put a face to the Genie the following year when Williams starred in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Since then, I’ve followed his career, along with a few million other people, and the canon of work Williams left behind is vast and the stuff of cultural legends. A few of the movies in which he starred have taken on an added meaning for me since I became a parent, and in re-watching some clips in the wake of Williams’ death, I found two parenting tidbits from his movies to be particularly powerful.
First up, in what is generally considered a lighthearted comedy, “Mrs. Doubtfire” actually contains one of the most moving monologues I’ve ever seen Robin Williams deliver in character and certainly one of the most touching discourses about parenting from any movie I can easily recall (and I watch a lot of movies). Towards the end of the film, the judge presiding over the custody case between Williams’ character, Daniel Hillard, and his ex-wife Miranda (played by Sally Field), asks whether Daniel has any closing remarks to make to stake a claim for partial custody of his children. In response, and with reference to his cross-dressing antics, Daniel says this:
“In regards to my behavior, I can only plead insanity. Because ever since my children were born, the moment I looked at them, I was crazy about them. Once I held them, I was hooked. I’m addicted to my children, sir. I love them with all my heart, and the idea of someone telling me I can’t be with them, I can’t see them every day, that’s like someone telling me I can’t have air. I can’t live without air, and I can’t live without them… We have a history. They mean everything to me, and they need me just as much as I need them.”
I never fail to cry at this scene, which so compellingly shows the desperation and panic of a man faced with losing the right to be in his children’s lives. In fact, I cried just typing the words–the depth of emotion Williams brought to them is powerfully stirring. The movie had other important familial lessons that undoubtedly put the minds and hearts of many children and their parents at ease–like the touching final scene where Daniel, dressed again as Mrs. Doubtfire, explains to his new show’s audience that there are many different types of loving families that exist–but I was always most struck by the primordial need a parent has for his children in that beautiful scene.
Secondly, there’s much that we can take away as parents from the movie “Hook,” like the need to hold tight the magic of childhood make-believe, but it’s the words of Peter Pan’s wife, Moira (played by Caroline Goodall), as she admonishes him for missing his son’s baseball game–the latest in a string of broken promises and absences by Peter–that I think is relevant for many of us with sometimes over-scheduled and almost always exhausting lives.
“Your children love you. They want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon, Jack may not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones that want us around. After that you’re going to be running after them for a bit of attention. It’s so fast, Peter. Just a few years, Then it’s over. And you are not being careful, and you are missing it.”
This short monologue gives me chills now; I try and be present in my kids’ lives as much as possible and I still feel like it’s going too fast.
Are both points a little maudlin and mawkish? Perhaps. But they’re also just so damn true. They’d have less influence had they been in films with someone other than Williams, but thankfully for us, the gift of Williams’ acting, and his incredible span of momentous movies that hold so many important lessons for us all, allow these crucial parenting thoughts to come across beautifully.
You could do worse than take some parenting cues from a Robin Williams movie.