Bad mums have a movie (which I loved). Mean mums have blogs.
Every few months, a new post pops up extolling the virtues of being the mean mum. Recently it was "9 reasons I'm the mean mum, not the cool mum" on the wildly popular blog Scarymommy.
"It's exhausting," Melissa Fenton writes. "It's mentally taxing. It requires my own personal feelings to be protected by Teflon. And more often than not, it makes me and everyone I live with cranky, irritable, defensive and just plain pissy."
Yikes, I thought. What's the upside?
"Raising kids who don't turn into (expletives) as adults," Fenton maintains.
Fair enough. We've definitely reached our (expletives) quota here on Earth. But I think it's possible to raise good people without being mean to them.
There are a thousand gradations between "mean" and "cool", and setting them up as an either/or gives parents (and their critics) the impression that you're either policing your household with an iron fist or you're delivering Hot Pockets to your kids and their friends while they drink beer in your basement. No in-between.
Among the gradations between mean mums and cool mums? Nice mums. And nice mums are highly underrated.
"Kids will suck the nice right out of you," Fenton writes. "Let them. It's great you want to be nice, but kids can smell nice a mile away and will milk that teat dry, leaving you feeling used and exploited."
And as she points out in reason No. 8, "I refuse to raise little manipulators".
Nice mums aren't easily manipulated pushovers, though. Nice mums have high expectations and give their kids boundaries. They just do it ... nicely.
At some point, that becomes controversial. No one gives you side-eye for being nice to your baby; your teenager's another story.
Remember the ABC lesson from Glengarry Glen Ross - Always Be Closing? In parenting, it's Always Be Calibrating. You start off doing everything for them. They're not manipulating you when they cry for milk - they need you to keep them alive. As they get older, though, they can get up and pour their own milk. Crying for you to deliver it to them is more about being indulged than kept alive.
Are they manipulating you? I don't know. That's not a word I love attaching to kids. Are they wildly better off getting their own milk? Of course. Nudging them to help themselves teaches self-sufficiency and reminds them they're part of a family unit that runs best when everyone pitches in.
So that thing you used to routinely do - the thing they needed you to do, in fact - suddenly becomes a thing that will hamper them if you keep doing it. That calibrating plays out in all sorts of ways, from how much homework help you provide to how much of their social life you manage. (Three-year-olds can't set up their own play dates; 16-year-olds really ought to.)
What does all this have to do with being nice?
First, nice is a conscious decision you make during those calibrations. I work hard at saying, "You can grab your own drink, sweetie" instead of "Are you kidding me with this? For the 100th time, grab your own drink!" (Even if I'm thinking the second one in my head.) Because I want to give my kids examples of speaking up and pushing back without letting frustration and fury creep into their conversations.
Second, nice is going to come in handy when I'm calibrating for the years they stop asking for my help but need it more than ever. The peer pressure years. The drinking years. The drug years. The should-we-have-sex years.
The years when I want them to turn to me - not Google, not their best friend's older sister, not an advice columnist - if they make a mistake or feel alone or can't figure out what to do about that crush/that friend/that class/that party.
I know being a nice mum isn't going to magically turn my kids into wise, level-headed adolescents who turn to their mother to ask if they should do a keg stand. But I don't think being a mean mum will either. I knew mean mums when I was growing up. Their kids didn't stay on the straight and narrow; they were just really good at hiding things.
Kids don't need their parents any less at 16 than they do at six months. Their needs just change. They can fix their own snack, but they can't fix all their own problems.
And I'm going to do everything in my power to create and preserve a relationship that tells them, "Come to me with your questions. I'm not scary, and I'm on your side."
That's my definition of nice, and I hope my kids can smell it a mile away.