Jenna Elfman on homeschooling her 2 sons: 'I'm a feminist, so I'm teaching my kids what it means to be a gentleman'
Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child rearing.
The sitcom Dharma & Greg put Jenna Elfman on the map, but in real life her better half for the last 30 years has been husband and fellow actor Bodhi Elfman. Though the couple met when Jenna was just 19, kids didn't enter the equation until much later, and the pair are now parents to two boys, 11-year-old Easton and 14-year-old Story.
Thanks to Jenna's role on the series Fear the Walking Dead, the family has swapped Los Angeles for Austin, where the Elfmans have been home-schooling their boys throughout the pandemic. Here, she opens up about what taking on teacher duties has taught her, how she copes with a house full of "wild and crazy men" and why she thinks there's no "perfect block of time" to start a family.
Your boys are 11 and 14 now. What is this stage of their lives like?
The context of COVID is always a unique thing because I've been homeschooling them since 2020, and it's been a new sort of chapter as a parent to take on that adventure and put a new hat on in life as a teacher. It's really interesting because I've gotten to know my kids in a whole other way. I know how they learn in life as a parent — I know my children very well. But in terms of them as students and me as a teacher and that new dynamic and learning how each of them learn completely in different ways and intimately seeing their process of learning on an educational, student level ... in such an intimate way. It's not just, like, helping them with homework; this is like a whole new entry into getting to know your children. And it's just incredible.
We are together a lot, and it's been such an amazing growth period for both of us — for them as children and me as a parent. So that's been really interesting and really, really invigorating. ... When you see them look at you and they've got what they just learned and their eyes light up, it's the most fulfilling thing, because your purpose as a parent is to teach them and prepare them for life. That is our job as parents: to prepare our children to be self-educating, competent, compassionate, able, literate human beings. I'm sort of doing that in a very 360 [degree] way, both as a parent and a teacher, and it's been really cool.
It's not online [schooling]. With my oldest, we do online with his math teacher, because I'm not doing algebra [laughs] but I do everything else. There's certain educational videos [they'll watch]; my oldest is learning coding, and there's this great professor who teaches that in these series of lectures. He's really interested in coding, and my youngest is creative. And they're men, so as a woman, I also get to teach them, from a female point of view, what being a gentleman really means. I'm a feminist, so I'm teaching my kids what it means to be a gentleman from the feminist eye and a human eye, and empathy...
The amazing thing is most children, if you're empathetic with them, they're naturally empathetic towards others. And I find the more polite I am with my children, the more polite they are with others. And it's really deep and profound how much our behavior as parents itself is an education for our children. And to set a good example as an individual in the world, in front of your children and with your children, is some of the deepest education they're gonna get. It's kind of profound how much it makes you take a look at yourself and what you want the future to look like. And it's gonna show up in your children. The future of the world is going to manifest in how your children are as adults. It's kind of amazing.
How would you describe your parenting style? Is it bad cop/good cop in your house?
I think we're good cop/bad cop in different areas. [Sometimes] I'm the good cop and he plays bad cop. We're really aligned though, which is really great. We're not that opposed on things. I think my husband's ... way better at keeping things upbeat with them. And sometimes I'll — from just parental overwhelmed of all the things I'm trying to do [laughs] — I'll get less patient or less tolerant of certain things. They're like a little pack of wolves, my husband and the two boys. So sometimes I have to be like, "OK, guys? [laughs] Can we please focus again now — please?"
They'll start being like the Three Stooges, which is totally fine, but sometimes when I'm trying to wrangle the kids for the next [school] subject it makes it a little harder, because they all start being wild and crazy men together. It's adorable, but sometimes for me it is very frustrating, because I'm trying to keep the school day going.
You and your husband Bodhi are both from L.A. Is it nice to now be raising your children outside of Hollywood?
My husband was born and raised in the heart of Hollywood, and I'm from the Valley. I think the scene in Los Angeles, it ebbs and flows over the years. The ’60s and ’70s was one era, the ’80s and ’90s was another era and the 2000s have become something else altogether with social media. Something has changed in L.A. in the last couple years, and I don't really know how to put my finger on it … When we moved to Austin last year, [my sons] were both astounded at how friendly everybody is here — and repeatedly astounded. We're a really friendly family, [but] it was never reciprocated in L.A. … People don't look you in the eyes. People don't engage in conversation in Los Angeles, hardly at all. And [the boys] really noticed that. And so when we came to Austin, they were like, "Everyone's so friendly!" … Being here in Austin for this period of time was a good choice for the family.
You and Bodhi have been together for more than 30 years — which is quite an accomplishment — but parents for only about half that time. Do you think it's made a difference to have that time together just the two of you before becoming parents?
I think every relationship is totally different and is its own DNA and its own ecosystem — every relationship. And so what works for one group of family members or a relationship does not always work for [all]. But there are universal things like communication and maintaining your agreements and keeping your hands clean and being honest when you err in your agreements at any time — those are universal truths, I think, that keep relationships working. In terms of Bodhi and I, I think for sure we got to establish deeply our relationship with each other before we had kids, but I have to say: I could have married him the first day I met him because I felt like I had been with him forever already. And that's the nature of Bodhi. We just have felt like we've been best friends forever.
And so I kind of, looking back, have wished I had started having a family sooner, because you're always evolving, you're always growing. It's not like when you're in your 30s, you've hit some apex of knowledge; I feel like you're just beginning to learn. But at that stage, you know, you can pass it on to the next generation. If I had had kids earlier, I might be able to have grandkids at this point and then pass this amazing knowledge and time and interest onto grandkids. It's even more evolving.
When I was younger, I wanted to have children in my 20s. I wanted to become a parent in my 20s, but I was so career-focused I didn't do it because you think that it's gonna take you out forever — [but] children and career and life is always evolving and always happening. And there is no perfect block of time to either pursue a career or have a family. It all just kind of needs to happen. It's like life happens and you have to just make your choices. So frankly, I could have gotten married to Bodhi the first moment I met him — or second moment, rather. And I don't regret how I've had my kids, but knowing what I know now … if I had had them in my early 20s, it'd be just as awesome and totally OK.
But some people need those years together to get to know each other. I've been with Bodhi since I was 19 and I'm 50 now. In your 20s, you're just getting your head outta your ass. In your 30s you're just becoming cognitive about how things maybe should be. In your 40s, you start to find a stride. In your 50s, you feel the most powerful in terms of your own place in the world and your own confidence and your own ability to move through world without caring what other people think. But it takes that long to realize that it doesn't matter what people think, because people are always gonna think what they think and you can't let that inhibit or determine the choices you make in your life. You don't get that confidence until you get through your 40s. So, you know, it's all part of a thing. And I just say, live life and just do it. There's never a good time for anything, right? Anything that's important always has sacrifice on the other side, in any area. … Don't wait to live your life; just live your life. And then you just work it all out as you go.
What does quality family time look like for your crew? What are the things you love doing with your boys?
We literally love hanging out and talking and laughing. We are really a high communication family. We're always talking with each other. We're always laughing, being silly, making jokes, making up imaginary scenarios of things that make us laugh. We love going for drives as a family and packing the car full of snacks and just going and driving and looking at neighborhoods and houses and nature and buildings. And we just have fun being together, in its most simplest form, really.
It's pretty powerful because you're all focused on each other and you're focused on being a family unit. It's the most fun for me when we're just hanging out; wherever we are is where our party is. But we're focused on each other; it's not dispersed or distracted. We're really communicating with each other. We're interested and we're listening and we're laughing and we're sharing and going and getting a meal and finding a great place to park and hanging out and eating and looking at the view — [that's] some of my most favorite time that I spend with my kids.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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