What Orange is the New Black Teaches Us About Parenting

NOTE: No spoilers here! If you’re reading this, then you’re my bitch… in a good way, not necessarily in a prison way… and BBFs never ruin good binges! I myself am consuming slowly to savor the show; so I’m still not done with Orange is the New Black, Season 2. Jealous? 

If you’re like me, the ladies of Litchfield State Prison have you locked up and unable to do much else besides watch them in the new season of Orange is the New Black.

Even if you don’t watch the show, you know the premise: Piper Chapman, a bisexual Yuppie with a male fiancé that wears annoying sweaters, goes to jail for being a drug mule for her ex-girlfriend ten years prior. It’s a fish out of water story set in the cesspool of the US prison system.

Although the series is specifically about harsh realities — the injustices of incarceration, the viciousness of the cycle of poverty, racial tension, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and more — it also lends itself to some universal life lessons, too.

So while you probably shouldn’t look to Orange is the New Black for LITERAL parent role models (i.e., it’s not a good idea to bring your daughters into your drug ring or enlist your sons to help you smuggle contraband), there are several figurative parenting lessons well worth stealing:

1) The punishment doesn’t have to fit the crime. You don’t have to watch OITNB to know this to be true; in the show, Piper was a drug mule just one time a decade prior to her conviction, yet she’s still serving a 15-month sentence in women’s federal prison. In my house, leaving dirty socks laying around in the living room now gets offenders one week cellphone-free — it’s not fair, but so far, it’s working. Also, the system of giving “shots,” which are often arbitrary write-ups for even minor violations, seem like a really good way to keep the kiddos in check.

2) S/he who controls the kitchen wins. Aside from literally having the power to keep people happily fed or systematically starved, the kitchen is the heart of any house — Big House included. Cooking is an excellent stress-reliever (all that chopping!), and doling out treats is a good way to get people’s attention. My kids know I usually keep a bag of chocolate chips hidden somewhere in the kitchen, and I’ve found that even a small handful makes for an excellent bribe. Also, as it is in Litchfield, when I REALLY want to win some favor, I just bust out a Funfetti cake. Works every time.

3) Sometimes other mothers are the best parents. One of the strongest themes in the show is girls looking for mother figures. And some of the girls (i.e., Daya) are locked up with their own moms (i.e., Aleida) or even surrogate moms (Taystee/Vee). While the mothers look out for their kids in their own way, other women are often better at lending comfort and support. The mother-child dynamic is part of the reason, and also, the idea of it taking a village to raise a child holds true everywhere. 

4) Be resourceful: Maybe you think you’re resourceful for keeping baby wipes in your car and bathroom long after your kids need them, but can you light a fire with a battery or have you considered cleaning that stubborn floor stain with a couple of maxi pads strapped to your feet?

5) Find a constructive way to blow off steam: Just like prison guards are people too, parents deserve a break AND a way to authentically express themselves. In OITNB, Officer Joe Caputo plays bass in his band, Sideboob and gardens. Or, for a more cerebral break, take a page out of the inmates book and immerse yourself in a good read (i.e., Anna Karenina [Piper], We are the Goldens [Red], Sinful Chocolate [Taystee], Atonement [Leanne]).

6) We make our own prisons: Of course on OITNB, the ladies are literally behind bars, but as we get to know their backstories, it’s pretty clear that bad choices, poor impulse control, and unwillingness to walk away from a soul-sucking or dead end situation had them locked up long before they ever got busted. Take away societal pressures, expectations, and constraints, and many of the women find themselves freer in jail than they ever have been. Similarly, there is a lot of social pressure on parents to conform to often unrealistic, rigid, and inappropriate standards when it comes to raising a child. (Youth sports, anyone? Today’s academics are rough, too.) Don’t lock your kid in a parenting jail; the key is to know who s/he is, and make decisions about what’s right for your child based on what they need, not what the outside world is pressuring you to do. (Word to Suzanne, “Crazy Eye’s” mom!)

7) You’ve got time. Aside from being OITNB’s brilliant (and/or annoying, depending on how you look at it) original opening song by Regina Spektor, it’s also a good reminder that even when everyone is waiting on you (and that’s usually the case as I traverse well-worn paths to pick up my kids at opposite ends of the earth daily), you’ve still got time. Even if you end up paying for after care every once in a while.

8) Parenting is a life sentence. And that’s a good thing.

Now, if you’ve never seen the show, are watching it now, or can’t wait for Season 3, here’s the excellent trailer:

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