Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I watched last week as Mei Lin won season 12 of Bravo’s Top Chef; I found the contestants (especially as the competition progressed) particularly endearing this season, but I was rooting for Mei in the final, not least because she’s the third female winner in the series’ history. Yet while Gregory also clearly had a compelling backstory and incredible culinary talent, Mei represented a theme that appears again and again in these kinds of shows: family matters.

In the episode entitled “Sous Your Daddy,” each contestant was paired with a family member expected to fill the role of under-chef in the elimination challenge. There were sweet moments that illustrated close connections between family members, but the interactions between Mei and her brother Harley were downright hostile. I understand that people can express love in many ways, but the contrast seemed clear between Mei’s family experience in this episode and her competitors’. George certainly seemed intimidated by his father, but Mei seemed to regard her brother as a liability even when he demonstrated competence. Maybe it’s part of Mei’s demeanor, some combination of personality and pressure, or an exacting standard that demands excellence at the expense of endearment.

Mei mentioned throughout the season that her family did not necessarily support her career choice, and part of her desire to win came from wanting to prove that she’d done right. That theme pops up with other contestants’ relationships as well, with George following in his father’s footsteps but blazing his own culinary trail, with Melissa longing for her father’s approval. It makes me wonder just how many and just how much these contestants push themselves to prove themselves. And I can extend that musing as well, to wondering just how much and just how many of us still long for that elusive parental affirmation.

This issue turns up in reality as well as fiction, and recalls an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Leonard’s notoriously exacting mother asks “would it make you feel better if your Mother approved of your life choices?” Leonard, looking eager and relieved, confirms that desire, to which his therapist mother replies “you should work on that.” I could offer the same response to Mei and her fellow chefs, suggesting that they, too ought to work on their need for parental approval even as they are pursuing their careers at remarkable levels. That response, though, would be to ignore the cultural and gendered contexts that define who these chefs are and how they cook. Just as Leonard’s mother provides a comedic history to explain his current characterization, these chefs, and their audiences, live in a continuum that never really escapes family or culture.

These personae, shaped by the editing and framing of their respective shows, come from somewhere, and it’s often those stories that viewers find most compelling. I know now that it’s almost impossible, as a parent, not to dream on behalf of my children. It’s one idea that keeps humanity going on both a personal and social level—that I or we can somehow make things better for future generations. And yet intertwined is also the belief that we parents might be doing some things right too, some things worth preserving and passing on. It’s becomes a complicated kind of legacy, to preserve the best of us while leaving room for a brighter, better future. It raises questions about how to want more or better for our children without demeaning what we’ve done, and where we’ve come from.

Maybe the struggle for so many of these characters, both real and fictional, comes from wanting to please and to be loved unconditionally. It’s about offspring wanting to know that they are loved and valued as themselves, not as copies or understudies—and not bearing the burden of parental rejection if they choose a different path. It’s about each generation staking its own claim, somewhere between past and present, knowing that we all come from somewhere but we don’t always know where we’re going. And, for me, it’s about honoring my parents and teaching my children to honor me as their parent. But it’s also about knowing myself as a child of God, and teaching my children to know themselves as children of God, too. Because whatever dreams I can imagine for them, I hope I can bear the truth someday, that God’s are better and that my children will heed them.

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