I do not think of myself as the nicest of mothers, and I often notice my friends as they watch me discipline M, who is now three and persuasive, as they try to mask their expressions of sheer terror.  They feel the terror, then make a terrible face, then feel embarrassed that they are looking so terrible, then try to return their face to neutral but overcompensate, then sit uncomfortably reminding themselves that even when they think they are being mean, to cut themselves some slack because they would never, NEVER go this far.

No, I am not a very nice mother at all.

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Whenever possible I give M a five- and one-minute warning that play time will be over.  Sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I can’t.  But I want M to be able to handle a warned and non-warned end of play.  Because that’s just good manners.  When play time finally is over and I ask M to clean up, he sometimes agrees right away.  

“Look, Mommy, I’m being a big boy!  I’m cleaning up!”

“Great job, honey.  I’m really proud of you for making a good choice.  Well done.”

And though this story does not yet offer evidence of my mean-momminess, have no fear. It will.

Not infrequently, M will keep playing.  I will tell him again that play time is over and that it’s time to clean up.  I use my nice but serious mama voice.  Sometimes, if I look closely, I can see that he’s finishing one particular element of the game.  I’ll say, “it’s okay if you want to take that orange tinker toy out of the wheel, but please just say, ‘Mommy, can I finish this one part, please?’”  He echos my example, and I tell him that yes, of course, he can finish that one part, but that we need to leave the house soon and that he needs to clean up right after he finishes.

Maybe I leave the room to finish doing the half-ass job I was doing on my hair.  It’s half combed, frizzy, and if I could just have three minutes to braid it, tame it, well, that’s all I need.  I finish combing and check in on M.  He.  Is. Still.  Playing. 

“M G S,” I say in a rather loud mean-mama voice.  Some might call it yelling. “We are TRYING to get ready for PLAYGROUP and it is YOUR job to CLEAN UP.  So clean up NOW, please.”  Transcribed, these words look pretty decent.  I didn’t say anything emotionally damaging.  I even said please.  But that, here get closer, that is my main trick.  I say the right things in a mean voice and can totally get away with it.  Even baby D has grown accustomed to my vocal range and may startle at the first word of the scolding, but certainly doesn’t cry anymore.  Good baby.

I run downstairs, pack the food, the computer, the yoga bag, the diaper bag, my purse, an extra layer for the boys because it is finally (FINALLY) not hot, switch the laundry, and run upstairs to check on M.  

He is playing happily, and my blood goes hot in my cheeks. “If you don’t clean up, I am going to spank your bottom,” I say very clearly and carefully and on the louder side of polite.  He kicks into gear immediately and the Tinker Toys are put away in thirty seconds.  When he doesn’t make an immediate move toward cleaning up, I follow through with a little swat.  The whole I-don’t-want-to-teach-him-that-hitting-is-okay argument doesn’t really work for me in my mean-mama land.  There are lots of things that I do that are not okay for him to do:  I use the stove.  I drive the car.  I say four-letter words.  I am the bigger person and I am not hitting him out of frustration; I am hitting him as a consequence for his own behavior that he chose to engage in.  So really it’s up to him: he can make good choices and avoid a spanking, or... not.


In fact, I spanked him the other day when I was in the middle seat of a minivan and he was in the back.  My seatbelt was designed in a way that let him pull it with his foot.  The first time he yanked me backward by kicking my belt, I asked him not to and explained what was happening when he touched this part here with his foot, and that this was irritating and even painful; the second time he yanked me backward I told him not to and said that if he did it again I would give him a spanking; the third time I hit his leg because I couldn’t reach his bottom.  He stopped.  This is all to say that the spanking is not an empty threat.

When friends are over they get an eyeful of this whole shebang.  I’m pretty sure I don’t censor myself, though it’s hard to say for sure considering the inability of my point-of-view to be anything other than mine.  If anything I think I’m a bit more strict with the boys when there’s company.  If M has asked to paint and I say yes, but only after I get this meatloaf in the oven, and he asks again, and I ask if he remembers when he can paint, and he starts whining and screaming “but it IS in the oven,” (it isn’t) or “I want to paint now, now, NOW,” or any derivative therein, I will absolutely tell him to sit on the stairs until he’s ready to speak nicely and stop whining, all while our dinner guests try to look at their hands.  He often pleads, “I’m ready!  I’m ready!” before actually sitting on said stairs, and if he shows me that he really is done crying, well, no harm no foul and he’s welcome to join the party.  I’ve considered apologizing to people who would never treat their children in such ways, but the truth is that I’m not sorry.

Because even as a mean mama, I’m pretty sure I’m a good mama.

Sometimes I have a short fuse and I delivery unfair consequences and subsequently feel like a total asshat, but for the most part I explain my expectations, offer verbal praise for compliance OR a progressively more serious/ mean voice for non-compliance until, if necessary, I use not my words but my hands.  Sure I’m a mean mama if my kids make a bad choice, but they have plenty of opportunity to choose another route.  In short I expect my son (at least the one who is walking and talking) to be well-behaved but I will not hesitate to deliver consequences if he is not.

And for the record, I don’t tell him to “be well behaved,” or “be nice,” or any of that fluffy, meaningless non-instruction.  I give him concrete, behavioral choices.  “I understand that it’s frustrating (to not get a sponge capsule, or whatever), but it’s not okay to scream and cry in the kitchen.  You can stop crying or you can sit on the stairs.”  If he makes any effort to reign himself in, I offer more support.  “Okay, deep breath,” modeling the inhale/ exhale.  Sometimes this just pisses him off more and I will repeat the original question:  “calm down or take some time on the stairs.”  Sometimes I add “you’re not in trouble, but if you need to take some sad time, please go sit somewhere else and cry.”  

Yes, I want my son to feel emotionally safe and have good self esteem and all that jazz.  But I’m pretty one hundred percent sure that I’m not sacrificing those things by being a mean Mama.  If he’s really hurt, I am happy to hold and cuddle him.  I comfort him when necessary and snuggle when he’s in the mood.  But making bad choices and throwing a tantrum hardly seems like coddling-worthy behavior.  In fact, I see it as my primary job to help M, and eventually D, and perhaps a little unmade child to come, build coping skills.  And kids can’t learn them unless they actually practice coping.  I see it as my job to help my boys through the innocuous frustrations of childhood (which, all kidding aside, truly must feel like the end of the world for a three-year-old) so that they have the skills to eventually deal with not getting into their first choice college, or the disappointment of a friend bailing on a road trip, or a guy cutting them off in traffic, or whatever adult problem you care to substitute for these.  

I want M (and eventually D, poor little parenthetical baby) to cope with not wearing his olive green shirt and lime green shorts (though he is, I tell him, welcome to wear his green shirt and khaki shorts OR his white shirt and green shorts) and with sharing a favorite toy when the friend asks instead of grabs, and with watching said friend play with said toy in a novel way, and with reading a book that his brother chose, and with eating oatmeal for breakfast because that’s what we have in the cupboard even though he wanted cereal.  

I want my children to develop these skills because  I want them to be able to navigate the world without me and if this makes me a mean-mama, so be it.