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About the Author
Denise SchipaniDenise Schipani has 20 years experience in magazines, where she worked at Child, American Baby, Bridal Guide, and All Woman. She freelances for these as well as Parents, Parenting, Family Circle, Redbook, Real Simple, Woman’s Day, Fitness. She is the founder of www.confessionsofameanmommy.com.
Table of Contents
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #1
It's Not about You. It's about Them.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #2
Hang On to Yourself. You May Need That Person Later (and So May Your Kids).
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #3
Start as You Mean to Go On.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #4
Don't Follow the Parenting Pack.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #5
Take (or Take Back) Control.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #6
Say No. Smile. Don't Apologize. Repeat as Necessary.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #7
Teach Life Skills. If Not You, Who?
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #8
Slow It Down. Slow It Way Down.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #9
Fail Your Child, a Little Bit, Every Day.
MEAN MOM MANIFESTO #10
Prepare Them for the World (Not the World for Them).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Denise, and I’m a Mean Mom.
I’ve chosen a lot of things in my life, such as what college to attend and what to study, the career that suited...
My name is Denise, and I’m a Mean Mom.
I’ve chosen a lot of things in my life, such as what college to attend and what to study, the career that suited me best, and the husband to be my partner in life. And I chose to have my children, my two sons who are, as I write this, eight-and-three-quarters and six-and-three-quarters (they tend, like many kids their age, to value precision). Also, I’ve chosen to be the kind of mother I feel is best, and that kind of mother is mean.
Let me explain and hopefully in the process give you a good idea of what you’re going to get from this book: Being a Mean Mom is, in my view, the surest path to creating good kids and ultimately, of course, good adults, good citizens of the world. I say “mean” not because I’m an ice-cream-denying ogre (I am not!), or because I make my kids go work in the coal mine after the third grade (hey, that’s illegal; plus, no coal mines in my area!). I define my approach as “mean” because it’s not an easy path to take all the time.
It’s mean because it often bucks the prevailing parenting trend. It’s mean because it often involves the use of the dreaded no word (see Chapter Six). And it’s mean because overall it entails taking the long view of parenting by often placing more weight on future outcomes than on present-day happiness. It’s like the slow burn of a warming campfire, as opposed to the brief flare of a match.
I love my children in the natural, elemental, unspoken way that most mothers do. But just as love alone is not enough to sustain romantic attachment, it’s also not enough to raise decent children into independent adults—progeny to be proud of. You need a plan. And it’s been my plan, from day one, to be the kind of mother who would keep her eyes on the real prize of parenthood, which is to say, the end game. The good kids.
Now, I can almost hear what you’re going to say here: Isn’t that what we all want? Of course it is. But it’s been my view that we may be going about it in the wrong way, or in a way that may produce the opposite of what we seek. We say we want our children to be happy, and happy is certainly a terrific thing to want for these children we love so much. But we forget that we can’t actually make another person happy. What we can do, however, is give them the tools they need to define what happiness means to them, as well as the tools to achieve it for themselves.
So here’s a sampling of what I mean by, well, mean. I carved up my philosophy into manifestos, a list of ten principles I try my best to adhere to, which I’ll go into more detail with, chapter by chapter. Here they are:
- It’s not about you. It’s about them. In Chapter One, I’ll talk about how many of today’s parents, besotted as they are with their new babies, begin to see the kids as extensions of themselves, and see their children, as they grow, as reflections of themselves. But parenting is a weird thing: it’s probably the most important thing you’ll do in your life (presuming you are not William Shakespeare or Martin Luther King Jr. or whoever, someday, finds a cure for cancer) that is not about you, at least not in the final analysis.
- Hang on to yourself. Yeah, I know—at first glance, that seems to contradict the “it’s not about you” thing. But listen to what I have to say in Chapter Two: If you submerge your pre-kid personality—your goals, hopes, dreams, likes, and dislikes—into parenting, you’ll go looking for that self later and find no one’s home. Not only that, but if your aim is to raise independent children, you have to model independence yourself. I promise you, it is possible (and in my view preferable!) to raise your children without losing yourself in them. And in the end, they’ll thank you for it.
- Start as you mean to go on. In Chapter Three, it’s all about creating your own set of rules and principles, right from the get-go. Having a new baby is hard, but I caution you to be careful that you’re not setting patterns that are hard to break later. Same thing goes for later in parenting: some things you can wing, like what’s for dinner or where you’ll go on vacation. But if you wing it with discipline and rules—and especially if you change things up out of fear (fear of a tantrum, fear of being called “mean”), you’re just kicking the can down the road. And don’t forget—the end of the road is your child, all grown up. Making good decisions for them now is a major way to show them how to make smart decisions for themselves later.
- Don’t follow the parenting pack. Chapter Four helps you forge your path as a parent without succumbing to peer pressure. Parenting’s hardly private anymore—we all watch each other, and some of us judge (and are judged) for our choices. The net result of all this out-in-the-open parenting is that you may find yourself doing things that don’t really feel right to you. But you do them because they’re what everyone else is doing. Following the pack is for junior high (and it isn’t such a great idea for that), not for parenting. From you, your kids need clarity, consistency, and the sense that you know what you’re doing, although it’s perfectly okay if you don’t know what you’re doing sometimes.
- Take (or take back) control. In Chapter Five I wonder: who’s in charge over at your house? Gosh, I hope it’s you. It’s tough, no doubt, to be the heavy, but if not you, who? It can seem egalitarian and enlightened to let your kids decide they want s’mores for breakfast (and now and then it’s just plain fun!), but when they decide important things all the time, you’ve got the recipe for chaos. Being in control is sometimes being uncool. But in my opinion and experience, the uncool-est parents raise the coolest kids.
- Say no. Smile. Don’t apologize. Repeat as necessary. In Chapter Six, I offer you my favorite mean-mom principle (you’re not allowed to have favorite kids, but you can have favorite bits of personal philosophy, and this is mine). Put simply, an overuse of the word yes—and its cousin, the “have it all/have it now” attitude—is turning us, the parents, into giant blobs of mush. And it is turning our kids into entitled tots who think the world is theirs with zero effort required. A few well-placed and well-timed no’s—those that fit in with your values and your goals—are like spinach to kids. Tough to eat at first, but they grow up to love it, and are all the stronger for having swallowed it.
- Teach them life skills. I talk in Chapter Seven about some pretty old-fashioned stuff. Cooking. Washing cars. Mowing lawns. You know, all that stuff you learned to do as a kid but that you don’t often see kids doing today in our outsource-happy world. So do your kids really need to know how to make a sandwich or clean a toilet? Maybe not on the face of it—but I argue that what kids are missing when they don’t learn life skills is the pride they feel. Your kids have a right to feel that pride. I happen to believe that kids who can do things are smarter, more confident, and ultimately happier.
- Slow it down. In Chapter Eight, I put on the brakes and ask you to consider doing the same. It’s no newsflash that we live in a rush-rush world. Stores stay open later and later, but even when they’re closed, you can find anything you need, anytime you need it, on the trusty Internet. This is the world our kids are living in, and we have to deal with that. But what we should not do is surrender to the belief that this means they have to grow up any faster than they are inclined to. There’s value to slowing down the kind of entertainment they consume (whatever happened to age-appropriateness, I ask you?!) or the fashions they wear (a major reason I’m glad I have boys!), or the tech they are treated to. And we have to be pretty careful, as parents, that we’re not the ones rushing them.
- Fail your child, a little bit, every day. Chapter Nine’s message sounds scary—fail your child?!—but trust me, it’s not. Failing at the whole shebang is not what I’m talking about here. Instead, I’m talking about allowing for the small failures—the fall off the swing set, having to cool his heels and wait for you to be free to play Monopoly Jr., the disappointment of not having his best friend follow him to first grade, and so on—because it’s in those small failures and disappointments that a child stretches, grows, finds new brain cells, new reserves of nerve and strength and self-reliance. Simply put, I’m asking that you land the helicopter and let your child suffer the slings and arrows of life as they happen. Within reason, of course.
- Prepare them for the world, not the world for them. In Chapter Ten I ask you to consider the end game, the grown people you hope to raise. It’s easy in a world where you can buy baby kneepads for your new crawler to think it perfectly acceptable to argue your child into the “best” kindergarten class or, later, into a better grade. You want to make the world ahead smooth for your child. I turn that on its head here: Wouldn’t it be better, in the long run, to make your child smart enough, flexible enough, capable enough, to handle the world with all its inevitable bumps?
The Original Mean Mom
One way I came by my Mean Mom approach was by genetics, and certainly through the way I was raised. Before I had children, I was musing aloud about what sort of parent I might be, and I let slip to a cousin of mine that I figured I’d turn out, more or less, just like my mother. My cousin blurted out—before her internal filter had a chance to stop her—“But Aunt Carol was so mean!” What my cousin was likely recalling were memories of my mother yelling up the stairs for us girls to quiet down and go to sleep! Clean up those toys! And no, you can’t have dessert until after dinner. (My sister, my cousins, and I spent a lot of time together as girls.)
What she left out of that snap judgment of my pronouncement—although I’m sure she didn’t actually forget it—was the flip side of my mother’s brand of “mean”: at my home, there was dinner on the table every night, on schedule; our home was clean and warm and friendly; we always knew what to expect (though we could also expect a swift reaction if we did something unacceptable). And we learned things: We could clean and cook; rake leaves and stack firewood; make bagged lunches and get ourselves to the bus stop in the morning. When my sister and I were old enough, we cleared up after dinner and made coffee for our parents, who rested in the den with the paper and the TV news.
Our house was orderly and my mother ruled firmly, but in my memory, it was also loving. That said, there was not an abundance of “I’ll do that for you’s.” That our parents wished us to be healthy and strong and smart was obvious. That they wished us to be happy? Hmm…Well, yes, I suppose they did want that—though I suspect not in the way today’s parents use the word “happy.” I imagine if you could go back in time and interview my mom and dad as they drank their after-dinner coffee, on our 1970’s pine couch in our dark-paneled den, and ask them, “Do you want your kids to grow up to be happy?”, they’d look up, puzzled, and say, “Yes, happy’s nice—but what we really want is for our kids to be well prepared to create the kind of good lives on their own that will give them contentment.”
And if you asked them, “But don’t you want to make them happy?” I could just see my mother setting down her coffee cup smartly. “That’s not my job,” she might say. If lovingly.
You’d never catch my mother, while she was deep in the parenting trenches, uttering the phrase “as long as she’s happy…” To the extent I suspect my mother thought about this at all, she figured that happiness was a corollary of what she really wanted for us: that we be independent, self-reliant, and pleasant people. That we follow a well-tread path, avoid as best we can common life mistakes, or at least come through them stronger and wiser, and learn to live on our own two feet.
Today’s Mean Mom (That Is, You and Me)
Turns out, my prediction that I’d be a lot like my mom was right, or mostly right. As my boys have grown from helpless infants into the proto-tweens they are today, I’ve stuck as hard as I can to my Mean Mom principles. As a new mother, I protected myself from sinking so far into a glorification of new motherhood and forgetting the woman I was. I chose the methods of baby care and parenting that felt right to me, rather than following whatever was in vogue at the time.
A couple of years ago, struck by how often that approach (a) seemed to go counter to the tide of current parenting styles; (b) mirrored, in an updated-for-the-new-century way, my mother’s approach; and (c) seemed, well, mean, I started writing about it. My blog, Confessions of a Mean Mommy, gave me an outlet to explain why I refused to, say, stuff a bag with snacks to feed a toddler when we were only out for an hour. It gave me a chance to explore notions like how having high expectations for good behavior in challenging situations (rather than fretting over how I could distract them, or worse, making excuses for them) could actually result in good behavior.
So yes, with the help of my husband (a firm disciplinarian with a straight-arrow moral code, mixed with the kind of fun-loving, goofball nature that kids gravitate toward), I’ve tried, for the last eight-and-three-quarter years, to re-tread the path of the Original Mean Mom with a twenty-first-century update.
It’s been a little harder for me than I believe it was for my mother, because while in her mom heyday—roughly from the early sixties, when my older sister was born, to the eighties, when my younger brother was still at home and moldable—being a Mean Mom was the default position of society. My mother didn’t have to wonder if it was “mean” not to sign us up for Gymboree classes, or not to play on the floor with us all afternoon, or to drag us along on errands without a treat in sight with which to reward us. These weren’t options, much less sources of angst or guilt. For me, being a Mean Mom has been more of an uphill climb, more of a push against the prevailing tide.
My Mother, Myself
It’s simple to slide mothers into categories pegged to the times in which they happened to become parents. So, it would be easy to say that my mother was the mother that fit her times; she swam with the tide. But there’s always more nuance than that. Even for her times, my mom was perhaps “meaner” than most; her mother-love manifested itself as practical, quietly fierce, and not—as I like to call it—squishy. She was emotional, but she was tough.
Far from the product of the kind of child-centric, helicoptering parenting style you see these days, my mother—an only child of older, immigrant, working parents—spent a lot of time on her own, well loved and cared for, certainly, but neither coddled nor fussed over. I don’t honestly know if I can draw a straight line from my mother’s existence as a child to her determination, when she became a mother herself, to raise children who could make a sandwich, run a washing machine, wield a dust cloth, and stand up for themselves. Maybe the line is sketchier, more crooked. Maybe the real story is that she didn’t know any other way; never having been coddled, she simply didn’t know how to do it, so fostering independence was her form of mother love, the only kind she had access to.
Here’s how my mother and I are the same, but different: When I was about as little as my boys are now, and I woke in the middle of the night and called out for my mom, the large majority of the time she would call back with a sleepy, “Just put your head back down and close your eyes.” When I hear that call from my sons’ rooms these days, I may wait a few seconds longer than some moms, but I get up and go to them. That is, if my husband doesn’t beat me to it, and to be honest he most often does. (And often, “Dad!” is the cry we hear in the night, not “Mom!”)
And yet there was one time my mom came to me in the night to offer mommy comfort. To be fair, there was probably more than one, but this one stands out in my memory. I don’t remember what was wrong, other than I’d woken up and couldn’t soothe myself back to sleep. My room was at the end of the hallway, and as she walked toward my door, the hall light back-lit her, in a long nightgown. In my memory, the nightgown’s white. (You get the angel reference, yes? It probably wasn’t white, but memory is unreliable and stubborn.) She came into my room, sat at the edge of my bed, put a hand on my back, and gently rocked me back and forth.
It was heaven.
But most of the time, my mother didn’t love with her hands, or her voice, but with action. I didn’t necessarily see this when I was a child, but I see it now that I’m a mother: You can spend every night at your child’s bedside, soothing him back to sleep. But if you don’t also teach him, eventually, how to soothe himself back to sleep, you’re leaving out half the equation.
Another memory: I was in my twenties, living in the city, and I’d taken the commuter train back home for a weekend visit. My mother picked me up at the station. From the platform, I could see her car, and she apparently could see me and watched me walk to the car. As I tossed my overnight bag on the backseat, I could see it: there were tears in her eyes. Little ones, but they were there. “Did I make you?” she asked. At the time I understood intellectually what she meant: “You’re so beautiful; I’m so proud of you.” But I didn’t feel it until just recently, when I was watching my boys run back and forth in a backyard sprinkler, their sturdy, healthy bodies shining in the sun, and I thought, “Oh, my God, I made that,” and my heart felt like it would burst.
You see what I mean, don’t you? The love that’s fierce and visceral—that all parents feel, of course—but in a mom like my mother, and like me, that love is channeled into an equally fierce and visceral need to see them standing up on those strong legs and going forward. Growing up. Growing into good people.
My mother—her upbringing, the times, her personality, her ideals—together prop up one leg of the reason I’m a Mean Mom. But let’s not forget the times in which I came of age, those in-between years in my twenties, already an adult but not yet a parent, watching, listening, and learning. And already, even back then, butting heads with the prevailing parenting style.
By the time I had my first son, I’d had plenty of time to observe other parents, in and outside of my family. I already knew there were a few nonnegotiables. I knew, for example, that going back to work was simply what I had to do, so I’d have to make peace, and fast, with the idea that I’d be trusting someone else to care for my child. I already knew that while a newborn would zap a lot of energy and erase a lot of opportunities for such previously taken-for-granted aspects of my life like sleep, reading, sex, and cocktails (not to mention long brunches and late nights), I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, let it consign all of those completely into oblivion.
I knew, in short, that I needed to stay me. My name was not going to be Mom, at least not until my child started using it with his own voice. (That’s why, when I think of that one labor nurse who kept calling me “mommy,” I still grit my teeth, and it’s not in memory of the pain or that she wouldn’t let me have a sip of my husband’s orange juice. I mean, come on, did I already have to sacrifice everything for an 8-pound blob who didn’t even have the decency to come out easily?)
I quickly saw the problem was that stubbornly remaining myself—with a career, a mind that craved interesting conversation and reading, and a living room that was not redecorated in primary colors—simply was not in vogue when I gave birth. I knew, as the ads say, that having a baby changes everything. But I refused to believe that it had to alter what was most essential about me.
The parenting zeitgeist, though, gave me the message that I was supposed to happily accept the loss of my coffee table (too dangerous) and its replacement with a Little Tikes kitchen; that I was supposed to adore, if ironically, spit-up on my shoes; that I was supposed to love kid music and feel guilty that I wanted to wash my makeup off when I came home from work before attending to my child (who was perfectly happy in his bouncy chair). I was supposed to view two inches of graying roots and/ or a messy, unwashed ponytail and baggy sweats as some sort of badge of honor (“I’m a mom! I can’t even take a shower!”).
Today’s version of ideal motherhood is full of a terrific amount of earnestness, a good-student vibe, a feeling that you have to ace the test and be cheerful pulling all-nighters to do so. You waited so long! You wanted this so much! All that was true, for me, but that didn’t mean I wanted to give in and give up.
I didn’t want it because I was loathe to lose myself, but I also already had a glimmer of understanding: if I drowned myself in the pool of my children, I wouldn’t be helping them out in the long run either.
My relentlessly practical nature, which mirrors my mom’s, combined with my inborn stubborn streak make me ill-suited to a loosey-goosey parenting style. I like schedules and predictability and order. I like to be in charge. I don’t want to be my kids’ friends. I’m not afraid of them slamming their doors and telling me they hate me. (Okay, I’m still a newbie on that score, and the times my young boys have done the slamming and the hating are more cute than chilling, but they’ll get there, I have no doubt.) I get a surge of satisfaction from hearing that my older son is polite, or that my younger son was a good friend to his pre-K classmates. I know there’s plenty I can’t take credit for, and they do have an awfully good dad. But come to think of it, credit isn’t what I’m after. I’m after sending those polite boys, those good friends, those good men, out into the world.
Credit isn’t what I’m after. I’m after sending those polite boys, those good friends, those good men, out into the world.
I won’t do it by being perfect. I won’t do it by being their pal. I love my boys to the ends of the earth and back, and I’d be quite pleased if they loved me back even a little bit (a little bit of the amount that I love them is, as any mother knows, itself quite a lot). But that’s not what I’m looking for from them.
They don’t need a perfect mom.
They don’t need a slacker mom.
They need a Mean Mom (who loves too much to go soft now).
““loaded with the kind of common-sense parenting I was raised with. In fact, I think my own mom would love this book.”” - thestir.com
““This firm yet playful look at the merits of tough-love parenting explains why doing the hard stuff now, like saying no when you need to, results in happy kids later.”” - Scholastic Parent & Child
“Schipani has a solid track record of writing on parenting topics and no shortage of opinions. Self-described as “relentlessly practical” she is also funny, witty, and loaded with suggestions for keeping kids in their place (e.g., stash the grown-up ice cream in the back of the freezer and eat it after they go to bed).” - Publishers Weekly
“What ever happened to raising your kids to leave you someday? Well, the ‘everybody wins,’ ‘my kids are my friends,’ perfect parenting culture got in the way. Luckily, Denise Schipani shares her secret to being a “Mean Mom,” and why it’s better for your kids – and for you – in the long run.” - Jen Singer, author “You’re a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either)
““Mean” moms make kids learn to do things for themselves – from making breakfast to finding inner peace. They are so mean, in fact, that they refuse to treat their kids like darling little dolts. I’m hoping I'm a little meaner myself after reading this book.” - Lenore Skenazy, founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.
Length: 8 in
Width: 5.5 in
Weight: 9.92 oz
Page Count: 256 pages