After dropping off our kids for their freshman year at college, my friend and I found ourselves high-fiving…then sniffling…then getting down to the big question: Had we been good moms?
Eighteen years down, had we done okay?
Focused on the right stuff?
Were they ready?
We analyzed which stuff seemed worth the hassles—family dinners, yes!—and which once-epic worries now only made for funny stories. (thumbsucking, forgetting it was costume day at school, perma-guilt.)
Afterward, I wondered what other moms like us would say. So I tracked down two dozen more who lived in big cities and small towns, in different regions and all kinds of family cultures. They were sending kids off to the Ivy League, to private schools large and small, to state universities from coast to coast. I asked them too:
As you look back, what really made a difference?
What would you want moms still at the beginning or middle of things to know about what helped you build your great kid—and which stuff wasn’t worth the trouble?
Amazingly, they all pretty much credited these same eight things:
1) They loved their kids for who they are (NOT always as easy as you’d expect).
Extrovert or introvert? Athlete or klutz? Gay or straight? Shy or fearless? “At first you have no idea what your baby will be like,” one mom told me. “The true picture of his or her personality, interests, abilities, and all the rest takes a long time and you have to let go and be really open-minded: Oh, she’s not going to be a big sleeper! Oh, I’m shy but she’s social!”
Every mom shared a variation on this idea: “The most important thing to me was taking the time to respect him as a separate human, not an extension of me. That meant not taking it personally when he disagreed or did things differently from what we would.”
Letting go of preconceived notions about your kid can take time: “We tried dance and piano, but it was like fitting a square peg in a round hole—she wound up loving soccer and was a natural leader. Our son, meanwhile, tried several sports but they weren’t his thing. He begged us for a skateboard—not my choice for him—but he’s really good at it and it brings him a lot of joy.”
2) They set clear boundaries and expectations (which btw is rarely fun).
Everybody pretty much agreed: Kids who know what to expect do better.
I heard lots of roadmaps leading to the same goal: Had a daily routine from infancy. Made sure she always knew what to expect. Consistency and high expectations. Rules and consequences that we followed through on every time. Positive discipline. Structure. Love and limits. Don’t be afraid to say no to things that aren’t safe or healthy.
Some of their rules give you the idea:
- “The bus [my car] always leaves on time—for classes, lessons, whatever. Be ready, or walk.”
- “Dinner is served. If you don’t like it, make a peanut butter sandwich.”
- “No TV or phones at the table. No exceptions.”
- “Lights out at bedtime. You don’t have to sleep, but lights are out.”
- “If you text while driving, we’ll take that privilege away.”
- “Don’t use drugs, don’t smoke, don’t get a girl pregnant, and don’t be a jerk.”
3) They let them mess up (but made sure they learned from their mistakes).
Where there are expectations, there will be failures. And that’s okay! It’s just the other, equally important, side of the same coin. As one mom said, “Along with structure, they need the chance to fail (safely). Otherwise they can’t test boundaries.”
Another mom’s example: “In 4th grade, she put together a crappy project for elementary school. It made me cringe and I told her, ‘This is not your best work.’ She said it was ‘fine,’ so I said, ‘fine,’ and let her hand it in. It earned her the elementary equivalent of a C. She was mortified—and was never slipshod again.”
I also heard about great kids who had flunked classes they were good at, who dyed their hair hideous colors right before school picture day, who were brought home by police at 4 am (as tweens!), who were charged with underage drinking, who threw parties when parents were away.
Bad choices brought consequences—though figuring out how to respond was admittedly the hard part:
- “It did not come naturally to play the calm, why-did-you-do-that-son parent when you’re pissed off beyond belief by their stupidity and just want to lock them in their room for five years. But the times I kept my cool and asked a lot of questions were the real teachable times. They know when they mess up, and they want you to lead them to a better way, not just give up on them.”
- “We’d talk about why he made the poor decisions he did and what could have been done differently.”
- “Logical consequences and make the punishment fit the crime—those were best key phrases I ever learned in any parenting book.”
- “We didn’t just ‘accept’ lapses in judgment as a rite of passage but didn’t come down hard on him either—he was actually harder on himself.”
4) They didn’t micromanage the small stuff (or the medium stuff either).
The long-view moms were unanimous about the value of giving kids independence and responsibility even when it meant letting them struggle. How?
- By encouraging effort: From New Jersey: “We let her struggle. We let her feed herself early. I taught her to tie her own shoes at 4. She started to make her own school lunches at 8.”
- By giving them the power to make choices. From Tennessee: “In sixth grade my daughter wanted to cut her really long hair. I loved her hair, but it wasn’t something worth haggling over.”
- By making them pitch in. From California: “Whether it was their dad building something or me cooking, we’d say, “Do it with me.’ We didn’t want her to think her job was just to be a student and an athlete.” From Ohio: “What some people saw as my neglect—not cooking dinner every night, making them make their own lunches—made them more independent and taught them to fend for themselves.”
- By teaching decision-making: From Michigan: “Whenever he had a decision to make, I’d give him all the pros and cons and tell him why I was making the decision I was making. Closer to the end of high school, we would talk about pros and cons, but he would make the decision.”
- By encouraging them to speak up for themselves: From New York: “We never called a teacher to complain about a grade, but we encouraged her to go talk to a teacher if she had an issue.” From California: “Parents don’t do kids any favors by fighting their battles at school. If mom or dad is always rescuing them in the early years, they miss the valuable lesson of learning to succeed on their own.”
- By giving them some proverbial rope. From Kansas: “Don’t micromanage. Resist the temptation to keep close tabs via texting and GPS and phones—they need some freedom.”
5) They read and talked to their kids a LOT (no matter how tedious all that Dr. Seuss can be).
Nearly all the moms put nightly reading on their short list of Best Things I Did for My Kid.
One told me, “My favorite memories are him in my lap, snuggling up with a book. Him turning the pages and asking questions, then starting to read some to me as he got older.”
“When my third child was a baby, I looked at all the board books I’d read literally DOZENS of times and couldn’t believe I’d have to read them over and over again—but I did! I’m convinced talking and reading made them curious thinkers.”
Even when time was tight, they made it a priority: “In order to maximize time,” said a mom who was in grad school when her son was little, “I’d read books on environmental justice and women’s studies to him—I think it helped him sound out words and communicate really early.”
(This same kid went on to read aloud to his younger brother, at least for awhile. Then one day the younger sib complained, “He only reads with his mouth closed, so I can’t hear!”)
6) They were good listeners (an underestimated skill as important as talking).
I loved this nugget: “When they tell you what’s going on or they’re dealing with a problem, figure out do they want your advice—or do they just want you to listen?”
Said another: “I learned to ration my questions—enough to let him know I was still interested in his life but not so many that he would withdraw.”
7) They walked the walk (because we’re being watched way more than we think).
I was surprised how many of the moms mentioned being sticklers for manners: requiring please and thank you around the house, making kids write thank-you notes, showing them through their own example how to treat others with respect and as equals, practicing what goes into a good first impression.
Most made object lessons out of family outings, volunteering, church life—or family dinners: “Everybody worries about gluten and organics and GMOs but really, what your kids eat matters less than where they eat (with you) and how they eat (without TV on in the background or phones in their laps).”
“We tried to show that you never treat another person as though they are beneath you, no matter their job, age, looks, what have you.”
“We picked a different volunteer project every year, like delivering Meals on Wheels.”
8) Yeah, they made education a priority (but grades? not so much).
These were moms whose kids had made it to college. Not surprising, then, that they emphasized school all along. Most mentioned rules about getting homework and music practice in before friends and sports.
Nobody credited obsessing about A’s. “No college asks to see your elementary school GPA.”
Even a self-described Tiger Mom said, “Though both my husband and I both have master’s degrees, our emphasis was on being a well-rounded student with a balanced social life, not getting straight A’s or near perfect SAT scores.”
When her daughter would get stressed, she said, “I found myself carving out time to schedule pedicures with her and would practically force her to go to her favorite place for lunch or dinner or kidnap her to take a break and get frozen yogurt.”
And here’s what they said wasn’t worth the trouble:
When I asked these same moms what they wish they hadn’t spent so much time worrying about, their answers came even faster:
- “What the delivery room looked like.”
- “Obsessing over milestones (not toilet trained by 3, not walking by 13 months, mastering a two-wheeler later than somebody else…). Pay attention, but don’t obsess.”
- “The length of time I breastfed.”
- “Guilt over using a playpen.”
- “Giving way too much thought to the perfect developmental toy—those black-and-white things to hang over a baby’s crib!”
- “Worrying about Barbie.”
- “Working mother guilt! They don’t even remember that I worked full-time and are proud that I have a career I love.”
- “Coat-vs.-no-coat battles! Kids don’t catch colds from cold weather. I finally gave up.”
- “Haircuts! You can still be smart, admired, and well respected even if you don’t have a haircut!”
- “Holiday shopping, wrapping, and baking—nobody remembers if I made three kinds of cookies or two. I wanted to create memories for my sons, but I think some were memories of stress.”
To which I’d add: Don’t worry so much in general!
I’m not even a worrier by nature, but I’ve put in plenty of time at it. Time that could have been spent on more fun things. Like just hanging out with my kids—and my mom friends.