She's a Tony-winning actress and singer who's played Elsa and Elphaba and, soon, Camila Cabello's stepmother in the upcoming musical rom-com adaptation of Cinderella. But despite conquering the world of stage and screen, Idina Menzel admits that, when it comes to parenting, she's "always second-guessing" herself.
One thing she's got down pat: brightening 12-year-old son Walker's day by sneaking a little love note and a Rice Krispies Treat into his lunchbox as he heads into the sixth grade. Menzel has kept up the tradition started by her own mom, who would send her off to school with heartfelt messages tucked inside her lunch. Now, she's encouraging other parents to take part by promoting the limited-edition Rice Krispies Treats 365 Days of Love and Support Kits; from Aug. 19 to 26, parents can enter to win a year's supply of the snack and a daily planner packed with feel-good prompts for writing messages on the wrappers.
It's a project that hits home for the Broadway icon. Here, she opens up about the importance of connecting with kids during a complicated back-to-school season, and why parenting is never "worry-free."
What about the Rice Krispies Treats kits resonated with you as a mom?
The company is really asking us as parents to reflect and think about what our kids really need and what they need to hear from us, especially in this chaotic, anxiety-provoking time. Having our kids go back to school or not go back to school and what to expect them, what do we feel comfortable with? And what's going through our kids' minds — what are they really thinking? And just really making sure that in our effort to control everything and fix everything as parents, that we're taking a moment to listen to what they really need.
I know for myself personally, that I always think my son is so adaptable and flexible and yet the minute he found out that last summer they canceled his summer camp, he was devastated. And then this summer, camp figured out how to do a bubble for them and keep everybody safe and to see the weight that was lifted from him — to know he's going to be able just to go and run around and swim in the lake and play sports with his friends — I realized how maybe depressed he was all year and the fear that these kids probably feel... It's just a good opportunity for us all to reflect and look inside and see how we can connect even deeper with our kids.
You mentioned going back to school. It's an anxious time for lots of parents, too, right now. How do you work through those feelings?
God, I'm always second-guessing myself. To put myself on any kind of pedestal, or to think that I have the advice for parents or that I know anything more than anybody else, that is not what I'm here to do. I am here to commiserate, to empathize, to look at myself, to see all the crap that I may be projecting from my own experiences onto my child. It's an exploratory time for me [but] everyone's experiencing different things.
All I know is that now that he's turning 12 soon, looking back at all the things I obsessed about and stressed about and all the books that told me "you should be doing this by this age or this by this" or the friends that tell you... all that is just totally irrelevant. Our kids do what they need to do at the right time. With the pacifier, the dentist said, "He's not going to be in college with his pacifier [laughs]." He does still sneak into the bed with me and my husband if he has a bad dream, but he's not too reliant on Mommy. He went away to summer camp for a couple of weeks and was completely independent and self-sufficient, and frankly, didn't write enough letters home to me.
So there's a balance and we all should just sort of trust our instincts as much as we can. [When you're about to be a parent, people] always say your life is going to change completely, and we'll never know this kind of love. But the thing they forget to tell you is you're never going to live another day of your life worry-free [laughs]. You worry about your kids forever! That's quite a weight that we carry and every time my phone rings and every time the doorbell [rings], if he's not with me, I'm worrying that he's not OK. So I think we just all need to support each other during this time and respect each other's parenting decisions.
How would you describe your parenting style?
A little of everything. I'm a worrier. My sister's younger than me, but she had kids before me and I remember being very judgmental and thinking, Oh, if I have kids, I would handle it this way or Oh, it'll be fine. Let them do this. Or, or she's being too much of a helicopter mom. And then I had my own kid and I did everything different than I thought I would.
I was completely uncool, worrying about every choice that I made. I just am a worrier, so I try very hard to counteract that and relinquish control and know that he's going to be OK. And that if I just approach everything from love and really just listen to him... I've tried to help him verbalize his emotions, to be able to put words to how he feels. I think that's something he's really good at. I found out this summer that his friends told their moms they really like him because when there's an argument between two friends, Walker's really good at being the mediator. He doesn't take sides. I think that's probably because my husband's a therapist, and so is my mother [laughs] so he hears a lot about the proper way to communicate. Poor kid, he's probably going to be screwed up for the rest of his life.
What has being a mom taught you about yourself?
It's taught me a lot of things. The positives are that I'm resilient, that I'm easy to talk to, that I'm strong. I have a lot of love to give. The things I need to work on are not being too controlling, listening more, not trying to solve everything. Sometimes he'll tell me something... if there's a kid that's bullying him or something, I'll say, "Well, let's think about what that kid might be going through." And he'll say, "Mom, can you just be on my side for once?" Sometimes, kids, they don't want to hear the other perspective, you know, they just want you to support them and be there for them. And so, in an effort to make this fully rounded human being and teach them that there are all different perspectives to people and humanity, sometimes I forget that our kids just want to be heard.
What's more fun: Being a Disney princess or being the foil to a Disney princess?
The interesting thing is that all the characters I've played are actually not your quintessential Disney princess; they're all people that have been a nemesis in some way. Elsa is looked upon as being scary and having this power that could hurt people, and Elphaba was the green witch, misunderstood. And so there's actually more of a through-line with all the characters and the stepmother in Cinderella than there are differences. That's the thing I gravitate to: the kind of characters that are complicated and that give us an opportunity as an audience and as a society to really understand that perspective, and that people are complicated and that they've had an experience and a journey in life, and that informs who they are and why they do things.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.