WTF Wednesday: Discipline as a single mom is so hard and I worry I’m raising a sociopath

single mom advice


Dear Emma, 

WTF?! I am a single mom by choice. I always wanted to be a married mom — maybe too much.  I never found a man I wanted to settle down with (or who wanted to settle down with me) but I was determined to not let that stand in the way of motherhood. My son is three and a half and it was the best thing I ever did.

My biggest problem is discipline. I can’t be the good cop and the bad cop, and even though I know the bad cop is necessary, it hurts me so much to see my son unhappy when I give him time outs. I think I am so focused on the necessities of life that I am too lenient. My son is a great kid now, but I’m terrified this may lead to a sociopathic 16-year old! 

–Guilty in Gramercy Park

Dear Guilty,

Thank for signing your note “Guilty.”

Guilt. The most useless emotion evah! 

You spent so many years defining a perfect family life for yourself — that of a two-parent household with kids. Single motherhood is your Plan B. This is true for all of us. No little girl lays in bed at night dreaming of living in a 1980s condo raising children alone while searching for love. While you cherish your son and your life, you feel like you’ve failed because your son’s father is not involved. You feel guilty. You worry his life will be compromised by the fact there is no bad cop to play against your good cop.


But maybe not.

A few weeks ago my ex and I went for burgers together with our kids. This is the first time we’ve done anything like this in the four years we’ve been divorced. It was mostly OK, but there were a few tense moments because we disagree about discipline. It is not perfect that we live apart and the kids get different messages about behavior in our respective homes, but it is far better than if we lived together and bickered (or, let’s be real: had drawn-out brawls) regularly about discipline.

My point is that life is imperfect. We find ourselves on paths we did not imagine. Sometimes we find ourselves on paths that we do imagine — and find that dream is not so awesome after all. We see our friends in what looks like ideal homes — but peel away the layers and the reality is less glittering. Their lives — like yours and mine — are real, flawed, human.

None of this is to say that discipline as a single parent is easy. If you had seen the scene at my breakfast table this morning, you would feel so validated! (“THREE BITES OF SCRAMBLED EGGS! WHICH I COOKED BECAUSE YOU ASKED FOR THEM!”). Here is is my advice:

  • Work on that guilt. You are probably doing an awesome job. How do I know? Because you are self-aware enough to be hard on yourself. Your kid is fine. And you’re humble enough to ask for help. Guilt-free decisions — like whether to take away a favorite toy for a day, say no to dessert, or stick to bedtime — are better decisions.
  •   Again with the guilt! Absolving guilt includes guilt that your kid does not have enough — enough time with a loving parent, enough financial resources and all the crap that comes with that, enough of you. When you are at peace that your child has enough, you will do things like make sure they get to bed on time so that you get a break and can recharge your batteries — only to start the shitshow again tomorrow!
  • Call in the troupes. I wrote this post about how much I appreciate it when my brother disciplines my kids. It helps to have another respected adult voice laying down the law. It underscores your position and gives your pipes a break from screaming. Cultivate relationships with friends, relatives and neighbors who will spend time with your children — again, giving you a much-needed break — and will be firm in their discipline.
  • You’re the parent. Period. One of the pitfalls of single parenthood is that it is lonely. If you do not have a strong support network and are not actively dating, it is very easy to rely on your child for companionship in an unhealthy way. Watch yourself. Do not overshare about your worries with your kid. And stop yourself if you’re inclined to go easy on the time outs because you’re worried the child will be angry at you. You’re the mom! It’s your job to make them hate you! (I jest)
  • Give yourself a break. You will likely screw up. That is part of being a mom. Then you get up the next day — and screw up again! And in between you will do most of it right. You’re doing a great job. Keep at it, keep trying. And call me when he turns 16.


Emma Johnson is a veteran money writer, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, REAL SIMPLE, Parenting, USA Today and others.

The Kickass Single Mom: Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children (Penguin, 2017), was a #1 bestseller and was featured in hundreds of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, and the New York Post, which named it to its ‘Must Read” list.

Her popular blog, and podcast Like a Mother, explore issues facing professional single moms: business and career, money, sex, relationships and parenting. Emma regularly comments on these topics for outlets such as CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, The Doctors, and many more. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” one of “20 Personal Finance Influencers to Follow on Twitter” by AOL DailyFinance, “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and “Most Eligible New Yorkers” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker on gender equality, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality.

Emma grew up in Sycamore, Ill., and lives in New York City with her children.

10 thoughts on “WTF Wednesday: Discipline as a single mom is so hard and I worry I’m raising a sociopath

  1. THIS: “A lowered bar.
    When children misbehave, whether it’s by way of public outburst or private surliness, parents are apt to shrug their shoulders as if to say, “That’s just the way it is with kids.” I assure you, it doesn’t have to be. Children are capable of much more than parents typically expect from them, whether it’s in the form of proper manners, respect for elders, chores, generosity or self-control. You don’t think a child can sit through dinner at a restaurant? Rubbish. You don’t think a child can clear the table without being asked? Rubbish again! The only reason they don’t behave is because you haven’t shown them how and you haven’t expected it! It’s that simple. Raise the bar and your child shall rise to the occasion.”

  2. Great post. I seriously wonder this all the time. My kids and I have been seeing the same therapist for about 7 years and I frequently tell him he should have an app, so when I have NO idea what to do with regards to discipline, I can check the app to tell me the right thing to do! I feel like I’m always on the too mean side, or the too lenient side, rarely right where I feel I should be. One of the things our therapist is always saying is to revisit things; come back the next day & say to your kid, “You know, I was thinking about when I yelled at you yesterday and lost my temper, etc.” It does two things- lets your kid know you think about them when they’re not around & lets them know it’s ok to make mistakes & apologize. I try and do this, and when I actually remember it does feel helpful. I can never seem to choose the right words in the moment! Later of course, I’m freakin’ awesome!

    1. I like that advice. Also – trust yourself. When you waffle and want to call your therapist for advice, your kids smell that like a grisly bear smells your menstrual blood.

  3. Hang in there! I have been a single mom for about 4 years. My children are 9 and 6. There are many different stages of childhood. It gets easier as you find your single parenting groove and as your children mature. Set clear limits. Stuck to those limits firmly. And your child will respect you as a parent and as a person. Definately set down the guilt of limiting your child. Their security lies in your ability to prepare them for the real world.

    1. Great advice, Dana – especially in the guilt. The more confident we are, the more secure they feel (not to heap on even more pressure, but …).

  4. I’m not sure that all moms are like this, but my mom surely was; she would gripe and gripe and scold and scold about the same thing a lot. “You didn’t pick that up.” “You didn’t get that done.” “Sit up”. “Sit down”. To the point it went in one ear and out the other, as they say. Essentially, she would just talk and talk about it, without taking action. Now, when she got mad enough she’d say “Wait ’til your father gets home”, and that would get our attention. Our father was a very affectionate dad, but he was also a man of action. If we were bad, Dad told us once, then consequences followed the next time.

    So, if anything, and maybe it works better on boys, don’t keep talking about the issue. Act. I didn’t get paddlings much because for me sitting on a chair for 30 minutes in a corner was enough, but I knew when Dad said “Enough”, that I would face the music in some way. When mom said “Enough”, she would typically just keep saying it over and over…and over.

    1. I’m guilty of being wishy washy. Last night my kids were ignoring my requests to sit up to the dinner table. Finally I shouted: “Get your butts to the table NOW or I’m throwing dinner in the trash.”

      Guess what? Yup.

      1. Action. I like it! Sure the kids may go without a meal, bu they won’t starve. And they will remember the consequence.

        One of the few times my mom actually did act was one night when she told me to get some piece, or pile, of laundry from the laundry room and put it away before I went outside to play that evening. I was probably 8 or 9. I forgot to get it – but I was told more than once, so it was indeed my fault – and went outside. A little while later I was playing with friends, and saw her coming down the street. She made me come inside, get the stuff put away, and I could not play outside the rest of that nice Spring evening. We lived on the East coast with no air conditioning, so the windows were open to the cooling breeze. I could hear my brother and friends playing outside all night, and that helped me remember to put away things when my mom told me.

  5. The talking thing!! I’ve always been good about consequences…but I’d still talk up a blue streak about “Why we don’t bite a chunk of skin out of our brothers arm…”. as they are languishing in time out. Now it’s just, calm voice “time out and loss of phone.” Once they are out of time out, I ask them why, they respond or look at me like “What crazy lady?!? Then we they ask for the phone, leapad or whatevs I say “Remember, you can’t use it now because you threw your food at me because I didn’t present it to you upon hello kitty plate.” :3 year old starts screaming: “Time out”

    It’s tough, but I have to remember that once you give an inch…it’s like war up in your house.

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