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Actor Lea Thompson from Switched at Birth on Parenting Teens

Lea Thompson, a mom in real life, gets to play one in ABC’s Switched at Birth. Boomers will also recognize her from her starring roles in teen movie hits like Some Kind of Wonderful and Back to the Future.

Lea Thompson Interview

Q: Did your kids like having a famous mom?

Thompson: That is all they know. I was at my most famous moment when my girls were young, and I was in Caroline in the City. They do, however, mind when I kiss another man. That makes them crazy.

Q: Were you conflicted as a working mom?

Thompson: I tried not to be apologetic about working. Being proud of my work was important to me. I said, “Mommy is going to work, and that’s great.” I didn’t give them the impression that it was a bad thing.

Q: What gave you the wisdom to send that message?

Thompson: Being a working mom is not a terrible thing. My children were always well taken care of. I spent lots of time with them, and working as an actor was what I needed to do. I have always had this feeling that my kids were going to be okay if we all had faith in each other.

Q: Who is your role model for parenting?

Thompson: My mom. She is a wise woman. She always had this saying, “Raise kids with calculated neglect.”

Q: How would you describe your style of parenting?

Thompson: We laugh a lot and I try to be as honest as possible. I don’t hover. I encourage my girls when they are ready to accomplish something by themselves because I believed that is was how they would get their self-esteem. When I let my kids go to the mall alone for the first time, I sent them off with a smile, but then I followed them to make them sure they were safe. They developed self-worth and street smarts. Giving kids control of their own lives is like being the driver instead of the passenger. When you are a passenger, you see the scenery, but when you move into the driver’s seat, all of a sudden you see everything you didn’t see as a passenger. All of a sudden, you have clarity.

Q: Was it challenging raising teenagers in Hollywood?

Thompson: I don’t know what that means. If you are asking whether you can raise wholesome kids in Hollywood, I have spent enough time in the middle of the country to see that the ideals of the wholesome kid might not be geographically designated. Wholesomeness can exist everywhere; it is a state of mind.

My goal has been to raise kids who think about the environment, being kind and leaving the world a better place. A huge number of people in Hollywood are trying to do that. I defend Hollywood.

Q: Do you have family nearby?

Thompson: I have a very strong family base. I see my sister every day. Every Sunday night, my whole family has dinner together. I feel so lucky to have a strong family presence in my life.

Q: What would you have done differently?

Thompson: I wouldn’t have bought so much junk. I became a victim of consumerism. My kids had a great imagination. All they really needed was a stick, a doll and crayons. I felt coerced into buying gadgets and things, as if I wasn’t a good parent if my kids didn’t have some “this.” The same goes for schools. I felt pressure to find the perfect school, the perfect teacher and the perfect tutor. I think this can send a message that they couldn’t manage without all of this. Eventually I changed my message to, “I think you are great, and you will figure it out.” I no longer needed to make sure that they had the absolute perfect everything.

Q: How old are your daughters?

Thompson: My oldest, Madelyn, is 20-years-old and just graduated (with honors) with a music degree from The New School in New York City. My youngest is 16-years-old and just began acting, so she is home schooled. She has a recurring role on the new CW show, Ringer.

Q: How does it feel to have your daughters follow you into acting?

Thompson: Watching both my daughters enter the acting profession is weird. My younger daughter, Zoey, wanted to start acting when she was very young, but I did not let her until she was 15. I did not want to be a stage mom, and I wanted to make sure she was really ready emotionally. That said, I couldn’t be more proud of my girls.

Q: You took a leap from acting to producing.

Thompson: I produced a movie, Mayor Cupcakes, which is available on DVD. I played a mom with two daughters, so I invited both of my real daughters to be my movie daughters (co-starring Judd Nelson and Frankie Faison).

Q: Are there similarities between you and Kathryn Kennish, the character you play in Switched at Birth?

Thompson: In Switched at Birth, I am dealing with two daughters who are 16. Even though Kathryn is very different than I am as a mom, I can still totally relate to the dynamic between a mother and a 16-year-old.

I am playing a mother who is more traditional and less worldly than I am. So, I would handle things differently than Kathryn. But I want to be authentic to my character, so I bite my tongue because I have to respect the writer’s vision of the character.

Q: What did you enjoy most about Switched at Birth?

Thompson: I like working with material that takes kids seriously. Adolescence is a dangerous time for girls. I feel honored to be involved with entertainment that acknowledges the intensity of girls’ emotions in a respectful way. ABC Family has a forum for that. Girls know that their feelings are taken seriously. Switched at Birth can be a vehicle to open a dialogue between teens and moms.

Q: Teen Behavior: Do you think things have changed?

Thompson: I don’t know. I have friends who say, “If my teens do what I did, I will kill them.” So, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Susan Borison

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.