Interview with a Mean Mom

So I got the chance to (virtually) interview this awesome writer/mom named Denise Schipani, author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later. Her book makes such a convincing case, I found myself cheerleading the whole way through. And of course my first thought upon finishing it was -- other parents need to read this! Because if I've made a convincing case for anything on this blog (which is far from certain), it's that over-indulgent parents drive me nuts. 

So, here are my questions and Denise's answers (in blue), plus a few pictures and a link to the book of course.

Q: I’m a huge fan of your book. I definitely think I’m a mean mom – but I’m way more consistent and confident about my approach after reading Mean Moms Rule. I wish all the helicopter, snowplow, over-indulgent, over-involved parents could read it. I just want them to know that this kind of parenting that you’re making the case for– the more old-fashioned, boundary-drawing, limit-setting approach where parents have the control and kids have to pitch in around the house and don’t get everything they want the minute they want it– is not just better for the parents but better for the kids too!

In the first chapter you summarize nicely some of the dangers of over-indulgent parenting, such as kids who can’t deal with criticism, “feel little genuine compulsion to try their best” and aren’t grateful.

I’ve often thought about the fact that by over-indulging our kids we are ruining holidays and birthdays for them. There can be little excitement and anticipation if you already have everything you want. I love that line in there (and now I can’t find it) about kids in a roomful of presents ripping the open and tossing them aside, completely uninterested in them because of the overload. How do you manage to titrate gifts in terms of what others give them? Do you tell friends not to bring gifts to parties? Are holidays and birthdays exciting for your kids the way you remember them to be when you were a kid (full of I “hope I hope I hope I get…” daydreams leading up to the big day)?

A: I think, in terms of gifts and gift-giving, I’ve been fortunate in that my kids have not, since birth, been showered with piles of gifts. In part this is me, of course: I never gave them gifts before they had an idea what gifts even were. I remember one time, at a family party for a boy about my younger son’s age (I think it may have been his third birthday), after we all watched this nice kid open up a ton of gifts, everyone around us was making the same noises about “oh, my goodness look at all this stuff!” and “wow, now where will you put all this stuff?” It occurred to me that we all say these things as though we have no control over it at all. But of course we do, and we should take that control. Why invite 25 kids to a preschooler’s party, for example? Then you’ll just get 25 gifts, and invite a whole lot of chaos. Keeping parties very small is a great way to keep the tone right, too. Don’t think you’re disappointing your child if you keep parties low-key; they’ll enjoy them more that way, probably. You can also institute a policy of clearing out older toys prior to birthdays, for charity.

As for family, well, I was lucky there. We don’t have, on either side, grandparents who are eager to buy the kids’ love with too many toys. In fact, both my parents and my in-laws have always asked what the boys need, not what they want. And because the kids’ birthdays are in the fall, they always end up supplying those big-ticket things they need, like winter coats or school clothes. And for Christmas they’ll give them one thing, and maybe slip us some cash for their college savings.

You asked whether my kids had that same “can’t wait!” wide-eyed holiday feeling I used to have. I think they do. We never go overboard ourselves in the “from Santa” category. In fact, the kids got exactly zero from Santa presents before they were old enough to know who Santa was. And since then, they both get a reasonable stack of presents and stocking stuffers on the holiday, and that’s it. In my wider family, we long ago instituted a family Secret Santa, for both adults and kids. There are just too many kids for every one of them to get gifts from everyone else. Each member of the family gets one gift to open on Christmas day, and it’s a huge hit. And it has the advantage of being exciting all in itself – everyone gets a turn to sit in the special chair, wear a Santa hat, open his or her one gift, and get pictures taken. It’s exciting, much more so than if each kid were by him or herself with a stack of mostly un-wished-for junk.

Q: That does sound fun. Much better than the Yankee Swap our family tried a few times, which inevitably ended in kids wailing because presents they liked had been ripped out of their hands. Wonder if we had the rules wrong. Anyway, I liked your anecdote about being baffled that a mom who gave her baby buttercream frosting way before the baby would have ever known or cared that something that delicious existed. I felt the same way when I saw people handing out cupcakes and ice cream to their babies while my toddler happily slurped down pureed carrot, not realizing there was any difference. I guess this is all part of wanting one’s offspring to be happy every single second and focusing on being well-liked rather than respected.

A: I remember when my first son was a baby and I made it clear to family that he wasn’t to be given sweets that he wasn’t reaching for, and certainly not without my knowledge. My mom sort of smirked and said, “just you wait!” But if anyone thought I was planning or hoping to maintain a pureed-carrot stance forever, they were mistaken; I knew that was unrealistic. My point always was, let them come to it naturally, after they’ve developed a taste for carrots. If they think a whole grain muffin is exciting, why swap that out for a sugary cupcake?

Q: Exactly! Were you at all anxious that the “buttercream” moms in your life or the ones who always have the dollar ready for the vending machine or the quick “yes” in response to any request would feel judged by your book? Have the moms in your family and among your friends been critical of your ideas? Supportive? Split? Have any changed their behavior for the better?

A: Honestly, yes, I did wonder if those moms would feel judged, but when I thought about it (and I did think about it, as I was writing certain anecdotes, and believe me I left out some anecdotes that I thought would be too easy to identify) I made the decision to open myself up to criticism that I was being judge-y, in order to make certain points. It’s hard to say that I feel that giving in to relentless vending-machine requests has the opposite effect from what you want (you want to be the cool fun mom; you end up being the mom who gets no respect with the kids who don’t know the meaning of “no”), without ruffling some feathers.

As for mothers I know: I haven’t heard anything critical. Most mothers I know, such as friends and family, already know that this is how I am. Anyone who knows me for more than 10 minutes knows I’m not the shy, retiring type; my opinions are usually well-known. They also know my heart is in the right place! I do have a funny story about my sister, who is three years older than I am, but whose kids are mostly grown already (hers are 25, 20, and 17). There’s at least one anecdote in the book that has to do with one of her kids – her son, now 20, is the one who didn’t know how to hold a rake.) When my book was about to come out, she told me that she said to colleagues in her office who have young kids, “Buy my sister’s book! It’s too late for me, but it might help you!”

Denise Shipani, mean *and* stylish

Q: Ha! The wanna-be cool mom that ends up being a doormat reminds me of those overly nice but ineffectual teachers. As with mean moms (better outcome for kids), so with mean teachers.  

Your kids are past the toddler age so I’m guessing they are more influenced by peers no, more aware of what others are doing. Have you been able to maintain a slowed-down rhythm to your lives and avoided the over-scheduling so rampant among families now?

A: I’ll take that in two parts. First, yes, they have more outside influences, at ages almost-8 and almost-10, than just their mom and dad. But that fact doesn’t erase the influence we do have. I think that right there is a major point many parents miss. You get to this phase, the “But Jack has an iPod” and “Joshua brings $10 to camp every day,” and you think: that’s it! My influence is over and all I can do is choose a few battles and fight them! But you do still have influence. You can still say, “Sure, I know jack has an iPod. I still don’t think you need one, but if you really want one, save up your allowance and birthday money, kiddo.” You can still be honest with them and say that you simply don’t have a spare $10 a day, and if you did, it wouldn’t be spent on Slushies and cheese fries.

As for the second part, the over-scheduling: Again, isn’t the scheduling up to the parents? I don’t have a hard time with this because my kids, even given their ages, aren’t all that into activities. Much as my younger boy loves soccer, he grumbles about going to practice (and his dad is the coach!). To my mind, that’s him saying he’s not ready to be over-scheduled with sports, and doing that, in my area and I’m sure in many parts of the country, is very easy. I could sign him up for one-on-one lessons to sharpen his skills. I could have signed him up for a week of intensive soccer camp this summer. My kids like to hang out at home, and I encourage that. We point out how nice it’s been when we’ve had a relatively fallow Sunday putting around as a family.

Q: You're right! Even the way I phrased the question makes it sound like it's out of your hands. Have you been able to avoid over-scheduling, like, were you able to avoiding traffic on the FDR? All right, let's talk about other books in for nonconformist parents. What parenting books have particularly influenced you? Do you see your message as overlapping with others who are promoting the values of old-fashioned childhood like Lenore Skenazy (author of Free-Range Kids) or Tom Hodgkinson (The Idle Parent)? I’ve also heard quite a bit about Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman who was amazed to see French kids sat at the table to eat and played by themselves at the playground without interrupting their parents but haven’t read it myself. Seems like there might be a fair amount of common ground there.

A: Funny you should mention those three! I haven’t read the Hodgkinson book, but I do want to (one of the perils of writing a parenting book is then you have so many others you’d like to read, but less time – always a problem!). But I did read Lenore’s book (she is a friend of mine, as it happens), and Pamela Druckerman’s, which I enjoyed. Both Free Range and Bebe overlap with me, which I love and felt validated by. I feel like the gamble I took – that the “time” was right for a book like mine – has paid off, or is paying off. 

Q: Do you see this backlash against over-indulgent parenting gaining momentum?

A: Yes, I do, but these days in the intense media soup we all swim in, a backlash can get its own backlash within days. It’s more like whiplash. But aside from the media storm, I think just parents in general are getting tired of either watching over indulgent parenting, or seeing its results in spoiled, entitled kids, or not being able to say that they wish it were different. Many of the messages I’ve gotten since Mean Moms Rule came out have been from folks who thank me for validating what they have themselves thought. I feel like I may be part of creating a safe atmosphere to say, “Yep! I’m a mean mom, too! Count me in!”

Q: You definitely are. And that's so true about a backlash getting its own backlash. Since way before I had a child I noticed the model of peer parenting that I wrote about on my blog last month. You put it very simply: kids don’t need another friend, they need parents. I’ve been using it as a mantra whenever I’m faced with a decision point where I’m tempted to cave to the friend answer – yes you can have an ice cream, yes I’ll play another round of Go Fish even though I should make dinner, yes you can watch one more Fireman Sam even though I said only one and you already watched two, yes I’ll help you get dressed even though you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. What are some of the toughest moments for you to hold firm? Do your kids have strategies to make you cave? Have you had any noticeable failures lately, not the good kind that you talk about in Mean Mom Manifesto #9, but moments where you lost sight of the end goal and gave in to your kids in the moment (gave them control)?

A: Just this morning, I had a bad moment that made me see that I had not been standing firm on some of the stuff I talk/write a good game about: chores. My younger son was helping me make French toast, and I said that after breakfast, I wanted him and his brother to empty the dishwasher. And he started crying! Like it was too hard, too much to ask. Oh, my goodness – how did I go so wrong?! My older son started emptying the dishwasher last year some time, spontaneously, though he gave up the spontaneous part (I guess the novelty wore off) and started having to be asked. But the younger kid really plays the younger-kid card (even though he bristles at being called “my baby”), and I realize I’ve let it go for the sake of keeping the household moving and at peace. This will stop as of now, and I’m doubling back down on my chore/responsibility manifesto.

Denise with her husband and two boys, none the worse for having to empty the dishwasher
Q: I hope it works out. I know you started writing about this issue on your blog, as well. 

Overall in thinking about some of these modern parenting issues, I’ve found such an odd duality between parents doing too much (their kids’ homework, all the chores etc.) and letting their kids do too much (make decisions about activities, schedules, dinners, vacations). Where we should be hands off we’re hands on, and vice versa. Any thoughts on how things got so out of whack?  I know you speculate about the pendulum swinging to indulgence after strict parenting, a kind of Child Knows Best following the era of Mother/Father Knowing Best, but it seems to me that throughout history parents have generally had more control and now have – in many cases – almost entirely relinquished it.  It’s so true that in the past, as you write, “A parent was strict, or in control and in charge, because that was her job.” That it wasn’t unusual. A mom who said no would be seen as a mom, not a mean mom. Sometimes I wonder if the pressures of a consumer culture have eroded our grip a little bit. We are basically bombarded with messages that our kids are missing out if we don’t give them this or that educational toy or sign them up for some enriched learning opportunity before they can sit up. Do you think there’s any correlation there – between media exposure, cradle-to-grave marketing, and more indulgent parents?

A: Asked and answered! You are right, in my opinion, that there’s a pendulum that swings back and forth in a general way (strict to permissive and back again, with the generations). And you’re also right, also in my opinion, that an intense and pervasive consumer culture has been effective in persuading us that we have to give our kids all this stuff and opportunities and an “edge” over others. When you focus on that, as a parent, it’s harder to keep your eyes on the present, on discipline, on character-building. It’s a good impulse at its core – wanting to give your children the tools to succeed, a better start in life than you had, etcetera – but it goes out of whack when you believe that the path to better opportunity means pushing others out of the way, or buying stuff.

I absolutely agree! I hope lots of people hear your message. After reading and thinking about your book, it became clear to me that to raise the kind of kids we want to raise – ones who are independent, grateful and in control of their lives – we have to take more control now, delay our own gratification, as well as theirs. To see our kids (with a good shot at being) happier in the future means seeing them, at various times, sad, disappointed, bored, and angry with us in any given moment now. Maybe those moments would be a good time to play The Rolling Stones album “Let it Bleed”, assuring our kids that they can’t always get what they want, but if they try sometimes, they just might find, they get what they need. And parents will find lots of parenting advice they may not want, but desperately need, in the pages of your book. Thanks Denise. 


  1. Thanks to both of you for a great interview. Even though my own children are raised, their parenting issues - the 11th grandchild is coming any day now - keep me interested in the topic. It's fascinating to watch as they work at raising happy and responsible children. They and their spouses seem to be really good at being just "mean" enough.

    Your summary at the end, "To see our kids (with a good shot at being) happier in the future means seeing them, at various times, sad, disappointed, bored, and angry with us in any given moment now" nails it.

  2. Thanks Gretchen for your comment. Must be neat to have a new generation of parenting styles to compare. That's great that they're just "mean" enough. It's a tricky balance. I'm sure I don't get it right most days.

    I really think about that a lot-- at what point did it become so hard for parents to see their kids unhappy? This expectation that everyday should be absolutely amazing or it was a failure. By so many accounts we're busier today than ever, and yet I'm really starting to wonder if that's true. Didn't parents in past generations have way too much to worry about to focus on a four-year-old feeling bad that he can't have a certain toy or bigger party, lollipop or longer time at the playground?

  3. Rachel, thanks for the terrific interview! And for being such a cheerleader for my book -- I have been so gratified to find more of my "tribe" out there, you know?!

    As for the busier-than-ever thing: In some ways, given that there are more dual working families out there (all in all, a GOOD thing in my opinion), we are busier. But in many other ways, the whole crazy-busy thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and something foisted on us by the media and advertising culture.

  4. IMHO, there is absolutely no way to argue we are "busier than ever" - with the advent of machines that make it easier to have food, cook food, clean and the pure luxury of even the idea that one person's full time job could be rearing children. One could argue that our society now has jobs that are less amenable to families and integrating small children into our daily lives (i.e. okay for a farmer, store owner to bring children along and make them do work) which provides the pull between two worlds. All these "first world problems" (such as obesity, effects of spoiling kids) are so fascinating to me to show you never know what will come out of "progress". Anyways, loved the interview and the book sounds really great.

  5. Thanks Denise. I definitely agree about crazy-busy schtick as self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me know when your next book is coming out!

    Eli - Very well argued. "pure luxury of even the idea that one person's full time job could be rearing children" -- this is *so* true and really gives me pause. (When Wally's home from school, like yesterday & today, I feel like I can hardly get anything else done -- anything beyond child-rearing that is -- a ludicrously entitled position. There are definitely new pulls I think -- the whole ongoing mom battle (between stay-at-home and career moms), the fact that like you say many new jobs (office jobs for ex) are not suitable for accompanying children let alone having them help out (like in farming where all of us would be put to work by age 4 at the absolute latest). It is fascinating to think of the first world problems having grown out of "progress". Just looking into this new book *An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases* by Moises Valasquez-Manoff -- from the sell copy online "In the past 150 years, improved sanitation, water treatment, and the advent of vaccines and antibiotics have saved countless lives, nearly eradicating diseases that had plagued humanity for millennia. But now, a growing body of evidence suggests that the very steps we took to combat infections also eliminated organisms that kept our bodies in balance. "

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about.


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