We Are Family Podcast Season 2, Episode 1 with LeVar Burton: Parenting the Son He Didn't Know He Had

Back for Season 2, We Are Family, the podcast from Parents that celebrates diverse families, kicks off with an intimate chat with LeVar Burton. He talks all about his childhood and the relationship he's developed with the son he didn't know existed.

LeVar Burton

We Are Family, a podcast from Parents celebrating beautifully diverse families of all shapes and sizes, is back for Season 2. Host Julia Dennison, digital content director of Parents and single mama, kicks things off with actor, director, and Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton about his own childhood growing up in a house full of women, being a parent, and the joy that comes along with being a grandparent.

"The journey that Ward and I have had as father and son, it has been deeply personal," says Burton, who found out that he was a father when his son was 3. "As a man who still has somewhat of a conflicted relationship with my own father, the quality of the nature of the relationship that I have with my son is hugely important to me."

Raised by a single mom, Burton says that he "had to figure out how to be a man, how to be a husband, and how to be a father, without an example to follow." But parenthood doesn't come with an instruction manual for any of us and, in reality, it's a job that we all learn as we go.

"We're just doing the best we can," says Burton. "For me, at the end of the day, the mistakes are as important as the victories. Because I've learned at least as much, if not more, from my failures, as I have from my successes. And that certainly applies to being a parent. Being a whole human being—becoming a whole human being—is a huge undertaking. And I think to put upon ourselves as parents the idea that we have to know everything and that we have to be right all the time or that we have to be perfect in the expression of parenting—give yourself a break. That's just an impossible standard to live by."

But that's just the tip of the iceberg—listen to Burton's full episode for more words of wisdom.

Missed Season 1? Catch up right here!

Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:

  • Episode 2: Dorinda Medley
  • Episode 3: Whitney Port
  • Episode 4: Jared Haibon and Ashley Iaconetti
  • Episode 5: Ben Feldman
  • Episode 6: Candace Parker

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google, and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to Season 2, Episode 1 right now:

Plus, follow along here:

LeVar: Family is the reason for everything. And to bring honor to the family name is of huge importance to me. I believe in the strength of family and of lineage and all that that encompasses. The idea that we are handed from our ancestors the tools. Genetics, even values, even life experiences come to us encoded in genetic material. And that is an inheritance that I take rather seriously.

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Julia: Hello, welcome to We Are Family, we're here with LeVar Burton, actor, director, Emmy award-winning children's TV host, novelist, best known for his appearances on Roots, Reading Rainbow, and Star Trek: Next Generation. He now has a podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, and is a guest host on Jeopardy, which I know a lot of fans would like to see become permanent. I've seen that petition and I fully support it. LeVar, welcome to We Are Family, thanks so much for coming on.

LeVar: It's my pleasure, Julia. It's lovely to be here.

Julia: The first thing I always think of is that scene in the episode of Community when Donald Glover's character Troy meets you and you're absolutely his idol and he's so starstruck that he can't do anything but stare at you, he's so shook. And I feel like I totally relate to that as a kid growing up in the '80s watching Reading Rainbow. You are such an icon. Do you get that all the time? What's it like being LeVar Burton walking down the street?

LeVar: I have to say that it does happen with a bizarre frequency. And it never ceases to tickle me and blow me away. And then sometimes ... I mean, people have been known to literally burst into tears and not be able to speak. And it's uncomfortable for all of us. So, I just encourage the person to breathe. It's wild. And it's real. I get it. I get it in the sense that I can relate to it just from my own experience, like Sidney Poitier to me has been a consistent guide post my entire life. I don't know why, I was thinking about this, this morning in the shower. After Roots, I got a call to come and meet Sidney Poitier. I couldn't do it. I could not face my hero. So, I feigned sickness. This morning when I was thinking about it, I was like, "Wow, the ways in which we self-sabotage simply because we don't believe ourselves to be worthy of our heart's desire." And that was certainly an instance for me, where I was not able to handle the influence that this man had on me and I did not trust myself that I would know how to respond in the moment of meeting him. I think I get it. So I try and be as graceful and humorous with it as I possibly can. Because it is funny. I mean, and Donald Glover sort of made it OK for everybody who feels that way, to just be OK with it. I'm good with it. I engage, I ask the person to breathe, sometimes there's a hug involved. It's all good.

Julia: OK. Well that's good because I might need to be told to breathe a little bit throughout this. I was telling my friends, I was like, "I might start crying." I think it's that nostalgia it's that you influenced so many lives.

LeVar: At a particular age. I think that's a large part of it too. That as you say, the nostalgia of it all.

Julia: Speaking of nostalgia, this is a podcast about family. I'd love to hear a little bit about your family. Can you start with talking us through your childhood? You grew up in an Army base in Germany, is that right?

LeVar: I was born on an Army base in Germany, yeah. And then we went back to Germany for another tour of duty when I was in the third and the fourth grade. We came back to the states initially after I was born, I was a year and a half in age. So, obviously I don't remember that tour. But the second Germany tour is where my parents' relationship exploded, or imploded, depending upon your point of view. From my perspective, it was an explosion. It was loud, it was violent, it was ... It felt like a dangerous environment. After that tour, I was raised with my mother and my younger sisters, and didn't really have much contact with my father until after Roots. That's been sort of a journey, finding a place of balance in my relationship with him. Where my mom and my younger sisters are concerned, I mean, when I think of immediate family, they're obviously who I think of most immediately.

Julia: So, you grew up in a house full of women then.

LeVar: I did. Interestingly enough, at present, my daughter who's 27, Mica, lives back at home now, she has for a couple of years. It was wonderful having her so close during lockdown.

Julia: Oh, yeah. I bet.

LeVar: And my mother-in-law, Donna, also lives with us. So, once again, I am swimming in estrogen in my life.

Julia: A village of women, I love it.

LeVar: And you know what, I guess there's a part of my soul that is really comforted by the presence of women. And I'm good with that.

Julia: I love that. How do you think that or your childhood generally influenced your career path? Because at first you wanted to be a priest, is that right?

LeVar: Well, all the men on my father's side of the family are soldiers and ministers. And the women on my mother's side of the family are social workers and teachers. So, I feel like I straddled them both, having studied for the Catholic priesthood and really had an interest in a life of service inside of an organized effort, Catholicism. And then the teaching aspect, I really feel like I am able to fulfill that part of my genetic inheritance with the storytelling that I do in film and television and electronic media. Like I said before, I think that we receive these gifts of genetic inheritance and it's interesting to see how they play out in our lives.

Julia: And also, you speak so highly and beautifully of your mother.

LeVar: Well, I'm not the man I am without her. She was my first teacher, she was my biggest cheerleader. She believed in me. And that caused me to believe in myself.

Julia: That's so wonderful. What kind of lessons do you think your mom instilled in you?

LeVar: Well, the first one that comes most immediately to mind is don't write any checks with your mouth that your ass can't cash.

Julia: That's a good one.

LeVar: It's a good one. It's a really, really good one. But she also taught me the value of working hard, of doing one's best, no matter what the task. If you're sweeping the garage floor, make this the best swept garage floor in the history of garage floors. She also taught me that the world would sometimes be hostile to my presence simply because of the color of my skin. And I think that as a single mom of a Black male child, that was one of the most important things she could've taught me.

Julia: Yes, I want to hear more about that. Because obviously we talk a lot at Parents about talking to your kids about race. And I always say that that is often a privilege that white people experience because they can opt into speaking about race. But for Black children, it's not always an option, because...

LeVar: It's not an option at all, really.

Julia: How did your mom broach that subject with you?

LeVar: From every aspect imaginable, really. From the idea that she worked as hard as she needed to, to be able to put us through private schools, parochial schools, which was the best education. As an educator, Erma Gene knew where the best education available was. And it's a primary reason why I grew up in California and not in the Midwest, not in Kansas City, Missouri, where she grew up. She really sought California out for raising her family as a place where they could grow, develop, flourish, even rise to their highest level of potential, without a lot of the obstacles that she encountered growing up where she did. I mean, my mother was both a child of the Depression and survived Jim Crow. OK? So, those events shaped her life. She was the first person in her family, in our family tree, to go to and graduate from college, my mother. The value of education as a leveler of the playing field, absolutely cardinal value she passed on to me. Education was going to give me the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with what I call my melanin challenged brethren and sistren, white people. She was serious about that. Get the best education you possibly can in all aspects, in all instances.

Julia: And you have a really great quote you said before about, you said there was an America before Roots and an America after Roots. You said, "Our story was finally being told."

LeVar: Well, look at the conversation we're having now in this country. About what we are no longer going to require our kids to learn. I'm just ... I am forever mystified by America and its difficulty in seeing itself clearly. So, yes, the story of slavery in America had never been told from the point of view of the Africans before. Never been told from the point of view of the Black people. Before Roots, we were able to tell ourselves as a nation that slavery was this necessary economic engine. And for the most part, avoiding the conversation or even entertaining the idea of the human cost of that brutal institution was never really a part of the equation. Roots blew the roof off of that ability to stay blind. Roots came and shone a huge spotlight on the institution and the damage that it did to everybody, on both sides of the color line. It's why I believe in the power of storytelling so fervently. Because stories are what informs us. It is our stories, the stories that we tell each other, that set the table for who we are, why we're here, what the purpose of life is. And I think probably the most important of these questions is what is my own individual contribution going to be to this thing called life?

I believe we are all here for a really specific purpose—that we have come to make a contribution. And it's up to us as human beings to, as we grow and develop and mature, discover what it is that we are supposed to contribute. And I believe further, that it has everything to do with our passions. It is our passions that drive our destiny, is my belief. So, when you figure out who you are and what it is you're supposed to do, then you do whatever is necessary to deliver that gift. And that's the nature of this thing called life. These are not unimportant lessons.

Julia: There's another beautiful quote about your mom that I've read from you that says, "Everything that I've done in the field of literature and learning is in tribute to my mother." I think that's so wonderful. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

LeVar: Well, Erma didn't simply read to us—I have two sisters—when we were kids. She read in front of us. So, I grew up in a household where reading was as normal as breathing. And I think that that primary example is really critical for kids. Parents ask me all the time, "How do I get my child to read more?" And I generally ask them a couple of questions. One, "Does your child see you reading?" To what degree do you model the behavior that you so desperately want your child to develop a habit for?

Julia: Such a good point. So often we kind of go off to our corners after they go to bed and read, at least that's when I'm reading.

LeVar: Right. But do your children see you reading?

Julia: That's a really good point.

LeVar: And then the other question I ask parents is, "What's your child passionate about?" Because again, it is our passions that drive our reading appetites. It's our passions that are the engine that drives the train of so much of who we are as potential and what we become in reality. I think that all important example and an awareness that if your child likes comic books or superheroes, if your child likes superheroes, then buy your kid comic books. I don't care what the gateway drug to becoming a reader is. I just want kids to read.

Julia: Right. I love that. Lean into what they actually like.

LeVar: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

Julia: It's so beautiful to hear you talk about your mother and I'm so sorry to hear that you lost your mother in 2018.

LeVar: Yeah, and my younger sister six months later.

Julia: Oh my gosh.

LeVar: Yeah, they were really connected. My younger sister was the surviving member of a set of twins. So, she and my mom had this incredibly powerful bond. And they actually went within six months of one another, which made a lot of sense to those of us in the family.

Julia: That must've been just so incredibly difficult. I'm so sorry.

LeVar: But also at the same time, really beautiful that those two souls on this journey, in this lifetime on this Earth plane, they were so connected that there wasn't a whole lot for them to accomplish once one of them was gone. I find enormous beauty in that idea.

Julia: I'm curious to talk a little bit more about your experience as a father and now as a grandparent.

LeVar: Being a grandparent is awesome.

Julia: Is that the best?

LeVar: It's the best, it really is. I love it. Sierra is just a ball ... a ray of light, this child.

Julia: How old is she now?

LeVar: She just turned 19. Or 20? No, she's 20 now.

Julia: Yeah, is she in college?.

LeVar: She's 20. Yeah, she is. She's a junior at a liberal arts school on the West Coast.

Julia: Oh, so cool. It must've been tough though because right in the middle ... She's been trying to do college right in the middle of a pandemic.

LeVar: It's been difficult on this whole generation of kids who have had just the wackiest educational experience imaginable. And they're learning so much about life in the process. How there are things that happen that are absolutely out of our control, and how important it is to do our best to stay on task. And how important it is to give ourselves a break and recognize that we're all going through something pretty significant together. And how important it is to honor how difficult life has been these past 14, 15 months.

Julia: Absolutely. Talking about your own fatherhood journey. Your son, you found out you were a father when your son was 3. Is that right?

LeVar: Mm-hmm.

Julia: Can you talk about that experience? What was it like meeting him for the first time?

LeVar: Scary, as I recall. The journey that Ward and I have had as father and son, it has been deeply personal. The thing that I am most proud of is the relationship that we have fought through all kinds of obstacles to have the relationship that we enjoy today. I'm really, I'm enormously proud of that. As a man who still has somewhat of a conflicted relationship with my own father, the quality of the nature of the relationship that I have with my son is hugely important to me.

Julia: That's wonderful. Yeah, that's what I was wondering, if growing up with this sort of lack of father figure or having experienced your father, did you go into fatherhood and did you have ideas of how you wanted to be?

LeVar: As I look at it, I've had to figure out how to be a man, how to be a husband and how to be a father, without an example to follow in my family. We're all making it up as we go along, parenting.

Julia: It's so true. We're here at Parents.com to try and help you a little bit. But ultimately, I always say nobody's an expert at being a parent. You might be an expert in sort of parenting topics.

LeVar: Right. But really, get real. We're just doing the best we can. For me, at the end of the day, the mistakes are as important as the victories. Because I've learned at least as much, if not more, from my failures, as I have from my successes. And that certainly applies to being a parent. I think back, I look back to the days when families had seven, eight, 10, 12 kids. So, you had a lot of practice. But believe me, after a time, there are a lot of families where it was the elder kids who were raising the younger ones. It's not a cliché—it does take a village. Because being a whole human being—becoming a whole human being—is a huge undertaking. And I think to put upon ourselves as parents the idea that we have to know everything and that we have to be right all the time or that we have to be perfect in the expression of parenting—give yourself a break. That's just an impossible standard to live by.

Julia: I know. It can be so isolating, parenthood, I find. And that's why I think shows like Reading Rainbow were so probably wonderful for my parents. And even now and why they're so timeless, why it's so timeless as a show. Because it does sort of give that support to parents. It gives you that break, but also feels like your kid's in good hands with a show like Reading Rainbow.

LeVar: Yeah. Well, I think it really is incumbent upon parents to choose the allies that we employ to help, to assist us in service of raising our kids. We have to be discerning as parents in terms of the influences. Just like the food that they eat, the amount of rest that they get, the amount of fresh air and clean water. All of those things are choices that we make as parents. Especially in a world that is dominated by media influences, we need to teach our children media literacy. We need to teach them how to discern between that which is good and healthy for them and that which is just kind of filler.

Julia: Yeah, absolutely.

LeVar: And that's something. That's a responsibility that I think that not enough of us are really paying attention to right now. Because it is easier to just default to handing the kid the tablet so you can get a much-needed 15 minutes to yourself.

Julia: Yeah. But there's definitely been a lot more research around those nuances of quality media consumption and the importance of consuming it with your child too, we talk about that a lot.

LeVar: Yeah, yeah.

Julia: Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think shows like Reading Rainbow really started that conversation and we continue to have it today.

LeVar: Well, the oldest technology of books is really responsible for the imprinting of the behavior. Because that lap experience of sharing literature with a child, it's communicated so much, that moment of intimacy, holding the child on the lap, showing the pictures, reading the words aloud. There's so much being communicated in that moment about who we are as human beings and what we are about. That same opportunity exists with a tablet, but the tendency is to hand the tablet to the kid and sort of check out a little bit. I do believe that critical, foundational age during those initial exposures, the parent in that process as a part of that process, is critically important.

Julia: Absolutely. Well, LeVar, thank you so much for coming on the show. I just wanted to, before we say goodbye to you, I just wanted to hear a little bit about what is your village today? I mean, is there anybody that you're not directly related to, that you would consider to be part of your family?

LeVar: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, absolutely.

Julia: Does this list go on and on and on?

LeVar: It's a pretty substantial list, yeah. And it's a list that has been curated over time. At this point in my life, I recognize that I'm so fortunate to have the people in my life, blood relatives and relations by choice, that support me and hold me to account and encourage me to be the best person that I can be. I lean on them heavily to keep me headed in the right direction.

Julia: That's wonderful. Coming out of the pandemic, I feel like it's shifted a lot of our priorities as parents, as families. We've realized what matters most in life. Do you feel that you've changed sort of your...

LeVar: Focus. I've changed focus. Before the pandemic, pre-pandemic, I was on a plane about almost every week, every other week. I did a lot of traveling. The pandemic was a pattern interrupt that probably saved my life. Because I was living at a pace that was unsustainable, Julia. And I recognize that now. So, I'm making a supreme and conscious effort to stay home and not travel so much. I've put it out there to the universe to support me in supporting my family while not traveling so often.

Julia: Right, well there's so much we can do right now. I mean, having this conversation...

LeVar: And that's been the response, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. You can. Yes, it is possible. Yes.

Julia: And it's wonderful, so you have your wife, Stephanie, at home, you've got your daughter, and you said your mother-in-law?

LeVar: My mother-in-law, Donna.

And Renee, the miniature poodle.

Julia: That's part of families too.

LeVar: She just turned 2. Just earlier this week. So yeah, yeah that is the core of the family here at home. And my family extends to circles beyond my core as well. And they are important to me too.

Julia: Lastly, what are your kind of hopes for your family in the next few years? What are your priorities you're focusing on?

LeVar: Well, I want to continue to see my children and grandchildren and all the nieces and nephews flourish and move toward their full potential. There's still a lot of things that I feel like I want to accomplish in terms of what I believe my purpose here to be as a storyteller. And I want to spend a considerable amount of time lying on a beach.

Julia: I mean, you deserve it. You only influenced a whole entire generation to become better people, LeVar.

LeVar: I want some serious beach time. That's what I'm visioning for myself as well. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Julia: Well, yes, I'm with you there on the beach time. Absolutely. Well, LeVar Burton, this has been such a pleasure to meet you and speak to you here and talk about your family. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on We Are Family. We've just been so happy to have you.

LeVar: I have really enjoyed the time that we spent together here, Julia. I appreciate you.

Julia: Thanks for listening to my conversation with LeVar Burton.

Come back next week when we will be talking to Real Housewife Dorinda Medley about how motherhood transformed her, plus her tips for dating as a single mom.

Be sure to follow We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen so you don't miss an episode.

And we'd love your feedback. If you could rate this podcast and leave us a review, we'd really appreciate it. You can also find us online at parents.com/wearefamilypodcast.

We are Family is presented by me, Julia Dennison, and produced by Sam Walker. Editing is by Vincent Cacchione. And thanks also to the rest of our production team at Pod People, Rachel King, Matt Sav, and Danielle Roth.

We'll see you back here next week for more We Are Family!

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