I used to say that I was a Mean Mom. It was in a joking way, but there was truth there. I felt like I was meaner than other mothers I knew, moms who responded to their kids in sing-songy voices instead of the way they spoke normally. Moms who played Disney soundtracks in the car instead of the music they liked personally. Moms who made fun, kid-friendly foods for dinner instead of the healthier, heartier dishes they might have preferred. Moms who sacrificed almost everything about themselves — their style, their preferences, their time — all for their kids. Compared to other mothers, sometimes I thought I was too strict and too selfish.
I don’t think those things anymore, and I haven’t thought them for a long time. Heck, I homeschool my kids. I’m with them all the time. (Seriously. All. The. Time.)
The truth of the matter is that I’m not mean. I’m just old school.
In the car we listen to The Killers or Mumford & Sons, or if I’m in the mood, Bon Jovi circa 1988 (volume UP). Dinner is whatever I make, whether they like it or not. At 11 and 14-years-old, they don’t have cell phones and they won’t have cell phones for a while longer. When summer rolls around, they go outside and play and can’t come inside until I allow them. The water hose is as good a shower as any. The same goes for when they’re thirsty. Do they get bored? Not often, because if they do, there are toilets to clean. Speaking of chores, doing the dishes and taking out the trash is part of living here. (Welcome to family life, boys. Everyone pitches in.)
Part of this mentality is rooted in our belief that a child-centered house risks producing self-centered adults.
Essentially, in everything we do, we are saying to the kids, “It’s not all about you.” Early on my husband and I knew that if we raised our expectations, our children would endeavor to meet them. By the time our kids were in high chairs, we’d established the importance of eating dinner every night as a family at the table. By the time they could toddle around their rooms, we were teaching them to clean up their own toys and put dirty clothes in the hamper. In their elementary years, they enjoyed unstructured play time and minimal technology. As we creep into the teen years, they do their own laundry, still play with LEGO bricks, and love a good pick-up game of kickball in the front yard with neighborhood kids.
Which signals the other reason why I’m old school: nostalgia, that all-powerful drug of yearning for what once was.
Both my husband and I enjoyed what an ’80s and ’90s childhood had to offer. We were unplugged and free, that is, until it was dinner time and we had to get home. We enjoyed the perks of mindless television and video games, as our kids somewhat do, but it was paired with the expectation that there were other fun things to do too, like hanging out with friends and taking care of responsibilities at home before other privileges are earned.
What does it mean to be an old school mom? It means I feel zero pressure to do what everyone else is doing. I’m not worried one iota about keeping up or getting ahead. We do the things that matter to us and say no to everything else. It means we constantly work to strike a balance of structure and imagination. It means I occasionally give them the option — do you want to listen to The Killers? Or are you feeling Mumford & Sons today? No, you don’t need a device to keep you busy in the car. Look out the window and see what you can see.
It means I don’t care one bit if 13-year-old So-And-So has Snapchat, Instagram, and a gaming console with cable in their bedroom. Go outside and climb a tree. Come in when I call you. Also, if you fall? You’ll live. Life is hard. Some bumps and bruises won’t kill you.
This parenting style has worked well so far. We’re enjoying all the perks of young men who do chores, still go to bed at designated bedtimes, and know all of the neighbors because they’ve been taught to speak to adults with respect. We don’t shield them from failure or allow them to quit something they’ve started just because it’s hard or they lose interest. Say yes ma’am and yes sir. Look people in the eye and have a firm handshake. Now, go play.
While they still wrestle with the natural inclination towards self-centeredness (don’t we all?), our kids aren’t growing up in a child-centered home. They’re part of a family. Sometimes it’s about them, but most of the time it isn’t. Our goal is to raise productive humans who understand the value of hard work, the necessity of boundaries, and how to live in the tension of getting everything you need, some of what you want, and not throwing a fit when things don’t go your way. There is always a hug or a laugh to be had, or a talk, if that’s what’s necessary. There is also unconditional love — both the tough kind and the tender kind.