One of our sons came home from school one afternoon and announced that Suzy Q (you guessed it, not her real name) had broken up with him. He and Suzy were in seventh grade. I responded that I didn’t know he was “going out” with Suzy.
“I didn’t either,” he said.
He didn’t sound too upset, just bewildered. His manhood had been bruised, if only slightly. So I said, out loud, “That’s okay. Her nose is too big anyway.”
See? I swatted with my clumsy bear paw before I had a chance to think. It was just a comment, not one I’m proud of, but it’s a little reminder that the Mama Bear is not just a storybook myth. She is real. And she’s not what you think. The furry matriarch with the porridge and the medium-sized bed is atypical at best. I used to wonder why Goldilocks jumped out the window and ran home when, in all the books, the bear family’s home looked so cozy. The bears themselves seemed friendly and harmless. But Goldilocks must have guessed the true nature of those ursine creatures. Smart girl, she exited before things got ugly. There’s a reason bears are in zoos and not in people’s backyards. Think Mama Bear, and you may as well think grizzly.
Contrary to popular belief, what your kids need is a Mama, not a Mama Bear.
I believe this so wholeheartedly, I’ve compiled a list of my reasons not to be a Mama Bear. But before I share, let me say I’m not talking about “Mama Bear episodes.” Maternal fury isn’t safe, but sometimes it’s necessary, because there are real dangers out there. Most of us are prepared for those. We carry sunscreen to the beach, we have the “don’t take candy from strangers” talk, we meet our kids at the bus stop. We know where in the house to gather our children in tornado weather. Which window to help them through in a fire. Where to meet in Disney World if we get separated. How to call 911. When action is required to defend our loved ones, we don’t hesitate. We act.
But the truth is I’ve never climbed out a second story window in a fire, or out any window for that matter. I’ve never called 911. Poison Control a few times, but never 911.
In all our years of raising school-age children, I can only think of two times we called the school to defend or protect our children. (See #3 below for a hint on how that went.) I can think of only once when I barred the door to our house and told a child (an extremely shady 16-year-old who hung out with the 12-year-olds in the neighborhood) he could not come in our house. Only once. That’s because we learned early on that rising up on hind legs and roaring at our kids’ adversaries, real or imagined, was simply not in their best interest, not then or in the long run.
Did our kids experience unfairness at the hands of those we entrusted them to—teachers and coaches—and from others who were less trustworthy—their peers? You bet they did. Did other parents ever judge or scold them unfairly? Did they get a bad grade or two they didn’t deserve? Were they ever left out, uninvited, teased, cut from a team, or placed last on the roster? Yes, all the time. Did these experiences break our hearts harder and longer than they did theirs? You know it. Were we tempted to intervene? To charge in and fix things? Yes and yes.
But usually we did not jump into our children’s affairs, and here’s why:
1. Mama Bears teach their children that they are victims, that the world is a scary place and people are out to get them. Every single adult I know who views the world like this either had a parent who stepped in too often or almost never. And these same adults do not handle life well because life was either always or never handled for them. (Different wounds, same result.)
2. Mama Bears lose out on valuable coaching times. This is really sappy, but think “Sometimes Mom and Dad calm the storm and sometimes they calm the child.” It can be a really sweet thing for your child to know that you are with them in the middle of their trial, to receive your perspective and comfort, and to learn a lesson in the strong arms of their parent. Why would I want to miss out on that kind of interaction with my child?
3. Mama Bears lose the right to bare their claws when it’s time. Once Bill called the school about something (not even involving our children), and the headmaster responded immediately. He told me, “I know if Bill Murray has a problem with us, it’s probably a real problem.” This was not due to our wisdom, but rather to our silence.
4. Mama Bears tip the scale from ownership to entitlement. Every time life is not fair and you tell your child it should be, you at best distract them from taking full ownership of their culpability in their problems.
5. Mama Bears are not the same as Helicopter Moms. A Helicopter Mom’s actions are predicated upon distrust, in her kids and in everyone else. Mama Bear assumes her kid is blameless and everyone else is at fault. Do I have to say how unhealthy this is?
Contrary to popular belief, what your kids need is a Mama, not a Mama Bear.
6. While a Mama Bear’s claws are retractable, her words are not. Whether they agree with us or not, people listen. Maybe we exonerate or extricate our kid in this instance, but our accusations of others lead to judgments. The damage, like fertilizer, spreads. And, like fertilizer, it smells rotten. Which leads to…
7. A Mama Bear is her own worst enemy. In the end, her knee-jerk reaction to any perceived assault on her kids hurts her as much as it does anyone else because it turns her into something she never wanted to be. A Mama Bear is a carnivore with bones in her belly. She lives in a cave and has a tough hide. Great qualities for living in the wild, but not so great for mingling with humanity.
8. Mama Bears teach their kids to pounce first and ask questions later. This, friends, is how prickly people are made. More than once, I drove one of our sons home as he sobbed his heart out in the backseat after an unsuccessful tryout for a team. And more than once, my heart still aching for him, I overheard his phone conversation with a friend who’d also been cut, the two of them plotting how they would “rock the rec league this year and try out again next year.” Had I been that mom, the one who calls the coach to fill his ears with how blind he must be to not see the potential in her child (I have actually heard parents whose children were mediocre athletes claim they could “go pro” if only the coach would give them a chance), I’d have missed this miracle of growth in my son.
9. Mama Bears may even unwittingly mask the greater purpose for the hurt their child is feeling. If we swoop in and try to fix things (control circumstances or people), our children might miss out on seeing for themselves how difficult experiences can create an open door for a better opportunity they wouldn’t have found otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, this unfortunate event or that unfair thing occurred in your child’s life so that they will learn this valuable life lesson.
10. Mama Bears devalue their children. Yes, our kids need us to be their advocates and cheerleaders. They need us to be for them. But that’s the point. They need us to be for them, not just for their comfort, their achievements, their grades, their reputations or even their momentary happiness. When we act as if it’s the end of the world when these things are challenged, we tell our kids this is what matters most. But when we sit with them in their sorrow or their frustration, we show them that they—right now and at the end of a hard road—that they matter.
Mama Bears lose the right to bare their claws when it’s time.
As adjectives go, ursine is a useful word. It anthropomorphizes a noble human action: fierce protection of one’s family. But turn it into a noun, a word that doesn’t just define the action, but the whole person, and, well, that’s another story. To act ursine at the right time, that’s acceptable, noble even. To be ursine, to have the blood of a bear lumbering through your veins, that’s inhuman.
If someone is in real danger, don’t tame the savage beast of the Mama Bear. Sometimes it’s appropriate to act ursine—a toddler wanders close to the edge of the deep end, a stranger approaches your 12-year-old daughter in a parking lot, signs of distress are all over your teenager’s life—go ahead, stand up and roar.
But you were created to be a human, not a bear. Someday your kids will thank you for remembering that.
You’ll also like What Your Kids Get When You Let Them Fail, You Know What to Do, But Do You Know What NOT to Do, Mom? (Video), Your Bad Kid Doesn’t Make You a Bad Mom, Alarmist Mom: How to Fight the Urge to Freak, and 5 Tips for Managing the Teen in Your Life,