'Game of Thrones': Parenting Lessons From Westeros

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In this week's episode, characters reveal what they truly value through the wisdom they pass along to their children

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"We've come to a dangerous place. We cannot fight a war amongst ourselves."
–Ned Stark

"Everyone who isn't us is an enemy."
–Queen Cersei Baratheon

As the various political agendas unfold in this week's Game of Thrones, "Lord Snow," one thing is growing clear: If there's anyone that can be trusted in Westeros, it's kin. With so many secret alliances and competing interests, you need to anchor yourself to something, and family—even family in conflict—is as safe as bet as you're likely to find. In a series with that features so much actual bloodshed, the old adage "blood is thicker than water" has never rung truer.

But lineage doesn't guarantee anything about the quality of a person; it's up to each of the seven noble families to raise and nurture its next generation. In "Lord Snow," we see both Ned Stark and Queen Cersei Baratheon's respective lessons on the right way to act in a world that's so unforgiving and cruel. And the best way to learn what a person truly values is to see what they teach their children.

Ned, the (ostensible) hero of Game of Thrones, is obviously more comfortable parenting his younger daughter Arya than his teenage daughter Sansa. It's both funny and sad when Ned clumsily attempts to give Sansa a doll (a toy she's clearly too old for): Even great heroes struggle with raising teenagers. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of showing the flaws in someone even as noble as Ned, and as we see in "Lord Snow," fighting wars and ruling over a territory doesn't give you much time to dote on your children.

The tomboyish Arya is understandably a fan favorite—she's sharp, blunt, and fearless (and the actress who plays her, newcomer Maisie Williams, is perfectly cast). She's also, at this point, one of the series' only purely virtuous characters—bratty or petulant at times, but lacking the guile and capacity for deception that characterizes even her sister Sansa. When Arya gives up needlework for a sword that she dubs her own "needle," Ned recognizes and rewards her confidence by promising to find her an instructor. Ned is by no means a perfect parent—as Arya notes, he's complicit in the politically beneficial arranged marriage between Sansa and the insufferable Prince Joffrey—but he's trying to instill the same sense of honor and duty that he values so greatly in his daughter.

Queen Cersei actually has two other children besides Joffrey (a daughter and another, younger son) but their almost total lack of screen time is indicative of their importance to her. Cersei only has eyes for Joffery, whom she's grooming for the day when he'll be crowned King. Cersei's advice for her son speaks to both her coldness and her greater ambitions for the Lannister family: "Someday you'll sit upon the throne, and the truth will be what you make it. And if you'd rather fuck painted whores, you'll fuck painted whores." When Cersei tearfully told Lady Catelyn about the death of her own infant child in last week's episode, it was unclear how much of the story was calculated, and how much of it was genuine remorse over her role in Bran's crippling injury. We get our answer in "Lord Snow" when she advises Joffrey that "the occasional kindness will spare you all sorts of trouble down the road." Cersei is always looking for a way to get what she wants—by any means necessary—and she's teaching her son to do the same.

It's not difficult to see how Ned raised a daughter like Arya, or how Cersei raised a son like Joffrey. Though similar, there's an important philosophical distinction to be made between the final advice that the two independently share with their children (quoted at the opening of this review). When Ned warns Arya against fighting within the Stark family, he's telling his daughter that—no matter who else she aligns with—her family's loyalty is something that she must rely on. When Cersei warns Joffrey that all non-Lannisters are enemies, she's telling her son that—no matter who else he aligns with—anyone outside of his family must eventually be dismissed or destroyed.

And what about the non-noble children in Game of Thrones? In "Lord Snow," they linger, appropriately, on the fringes. First and foremost is Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow, who takes his place as the newest member of the Night's Watch. As he recognizes how bleak his unglamorous, celibate new position will be, he laments, "My father knew. And he left me to rot on the Wall just the same." Tyrion later reveals that one of Snow's fellow recruits was also abandoned by his father. And Mycah, the murdered "butcher's boy" from "The Kingsroad," looms large over the episode—a child whose father simply wasn't important enough to protect him from being slaughtered. Game of Thrones is almost exclusively about the affairs of Westeros' seven noble families, but it takes pains to remind us that there is even less justice—and less hope—for the vast majority of Westeros' common-born citizens.

Finally, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys is beginning to embrace her new life—even correcting Ser Jorah Mormont when he compares her to a queen, preferring the Dothraki term "khaleesi." It's obvious by now that Daenerys' brother Viserys—the heir apparent to the crown of Westeros, should the Targaryen family regain power—is woefully underequipped for the job. But Daenerys is pregnant with the child of the powerful Khal Drogo. And she claims to "know" that it's a son.

As "Lord Snow" ends, a bemused Ned watches Arya's first fencing lesson with her new instructor, Syrio. But as he watches the two fight, his smile fades turns to a look of foreboding as he recalls the clashing of countless swords in his past. Arya is truly her father's daughter, and her playful lessons will turn someday into real battles—with the Lannisters, the Targaryens, or some other enemy that Ned can't even begin to imagine. In the end, the simplest advice Ned offers to Arya is also the most important: winter is coming. And she has to be ready when it finally arrives.

Read all of The Atlantic's Game of Thrones coverage.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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