Manager Moms: Who Are They and How Can Families Help Them?
Do you enjoy being the family nag? I’m sure you don’t. However, in most American families, an unwitting conspiracy involving children, mothers, and fathers too often produces a condition known as the Manager Mom phenomenon. Manager Mom means that a mother’s supervision, direction, and monitoring are seen (by everyone in the family, including Mom!) as constantly essential for a smoothly running home.
This unfortunate state of affairs has several big, bad parenting consequences. First, Manager Mom involves major violations of the Equal Suffering Law when it comes to the division of household labor. Mom gets stuck with too much. Second, it directly attacks family bonding by causing resentments that fly in all directions. And finally, Manager Mom assaults children’s autonomy by creating a state of chronic parental supervision.
Manager Mom syndrome reflects a specific—and not at all unusual—parenting goal. That primary goal is to get the daily family jobs done now—today. The bottom line is that people in the family don’t get to enjoy one another’s company. That’s too bad.
Where does Manager Mom come from? Unfortunately, studies reveal it comes from getting married (or living together) and from having children. Once most couples move in together, their relationship satisfaction begins a steady decline. Once children arrive, the speed of that decline doubles. Mom begins to take on more traditional childcare and housework duties, while Dad tends to pull back. Mom becomes more anxious, guilty, and depressed. She becomes more resentful about the unequal division of labor and feels like the family nag. Predictable Mom vs. Dad arguments occur frequently, such as this all-time favorite:
Mom: “I need some help around here!”
Dad: “Every time I try to help out, you tell me I’m screwing up!”
Actually, the good news is that, with both spouses often working outside the home, dads these days are doing tons more housework than they used to. And their partners do appreciate that. So let’s focus here on how we can get the kids to help relieve Manager Mom. My theory is that parenting strategies that help with the Big Three—(1) family bonding, (2) kids’ independence, and (3) the division of labor around the house—will help eradicate Manager Mom syndrome.
Too often, our parenting strategies cause Big Trouble with the Big Three. Think about nagging for a second. Mom asks her eleven-year-old son if he has any homework. He says maybe, he’s not sure. Mom asks him why he doesn’t know, and he responds that homework is stupid—even his teachers think it’s useless. Mom says that’s ridiculous and get upstairs right now to get started. Junior tells Mom to do it herself if it’s so important. At this point, Dad tells his son to watch his mouth.
What’s the parenting strategy here for getting Junior to do his homework? It’s Manager Mom at its worst. It’s a sloppy combination of an assumption that the boy won’t do his work without being asked, a spontaneous question by Mom, a passive Dad, a silly argument between Mom and Junior, an angry command about homework, and another angry command from Dad about disrespect.
The effect on family bonding? Bad. The effect on this boy’s independence? Bad. At best, the kid is only learning to respond to nagging, not how to self-start. The division of labor? Mom and Dad are mad at Junior for not doing his part. Mom is mad at Dad for being passive and letting her do the nagging. Dad is mad at Mom for nagging and arguing.
We need new strategies to get rid of Manager Mom. Tactics that focus on family bonding, kids’ autonomy, and the Equal Suffering Law. Also, if Mom is doing too much, we have to find effective ways to transfer responsibility from Mom to others. We often suggest the following process to parents for responsibility transfers to children ages six and older:
A. Agree with the child on what the new deal will be. This may involve some training if the issue involves something like cooking, laundry, homework, bedtime, or money management.
B. Let go and see what happens. This is the hard part. Some parents feel anxious; some, guilty. Some want to scream as they watch their offspring fumble around for a while.
C. Parents may not use tactics that have been proven not to work. These include parental behavior such as nagging, yelling, or arguing; corrective comments; and doing the job for the child. No responsibility will switch from you to a child if you talk or act like that!
D. Thoughtful follow-up. While the child is finding her own way, parents can praise legitimate progress, but they may not criticize or provide direction. Periodic family meetings are helpful for discussion and monitoring progress. But parental criticism or direction in between meetings is the same as saying “I still have to be in charge here and you’re still a dimwit!”
Here are a few examples using our A-B-C-D format:
1. Can a seven-year-old do his own laundry? Dad and Mom agree that Mom shouldn’t have to do everyone’s laundry. From that point on, Dad will not only wash his own clothes, but he will train his son on how to do his own wash. Except for praise, Mom has to keep quiet! She can only provide feedback at weekly family meetings. Family bonding effect? Excellent. Effect on the child’s independence? Great. He loves running the washer and dryer and is proud of himself. Equal Suffering Law? Two fewer violations to worry about!
2. Getting Miss Daisy to school on time. Eleven-year-old Daisy was often late for school. Her mother was going crazy in the morning trying to wake her, comb her hair, get her breakfast, etc. Her parents bought her an alarm clock. They told her that getting up and out was now—TOTALLY—her responsibility. Daisy laughed. She didn’t believe them. The first day, Daisy woke up twenty minutes after school had started. She panicked, yelled at her parents angrily, and grimly ran off to school. Her parents kept quiet. The second day, Daisy was twelve minutes late. The third day, and every day thereafter, she was on time. Cured of Independence Deficit Disorder! Family bonding—great; independence—super; division of labor—as it should be.
3. Junior and his homework. Here’s what Mom and Dad could: Dad calls the teacher and tells her they will be inaugurating a period of independence training with their son. Mom and Dad tell Junior they have called his teacher, and for the next two weeks, they will say NOTHING about homework to him. At the end of two weeks, they will ask his teacher how things went. If this approach does not work, they will try something else, but not nagging or “Do you have any homework tonight?” Hmm. I’ll put my money on the kid.
Some say kids in the last one hundred years or so have gone from “economically useful” to “economically useless but emotionally precious.” I’d like to keep the economically useful part—kids should carry their weight around the house. By the time they’re nine, kids can do their own laundry, cook a few meals for the whole family, get themselves to bed and off to school without help, make their own lunches, manage their own money, do some food and clothes shopping, dust and vacuum, and a lot more. That’s being responsible.
The problem is not with the kids. It’s with us parents. We don’t train them to do these things. If we did, they’d be a lot prouder of themselves, family affection would be strengthened, and Manager Mom would be a lot less of an issue.