Zibby is joined by mother-son duo Cindy C. Muchnick and Justin Muchnick to talk about their respective books, The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World and The Boarding School Survival Guide. Zibby sought Justin’s book when her own son went off to boarding school, as it features personal accounts from twenty-six students about what they wished they had known before enrolling. Cindy’s book serves as a nice companion for parents learning how to be supportive without overmanaging their children. Read Cindy’s essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write on her experience researching and writing the book with a co-author here.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cynthia and Justin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss so many things, Cynthia’s eight million books that she’s written, especially The Parent Compass: Navigating Your Teen’s Wellness and Academic Journey in Today’s Competitive World, and then Justin’s own book which I bought randomly when my son was going to boarding school, which he wrote. That’s just so crazy. You guys, tell listeners about all of the great work that you do. Justin, why don’t you start? Tell us about the boarding school survival book that you wrote and how you even became a writer. How old are you, even? Twenty? What are you?

Justin Muchnick: I look a little younger. I’m twenty-three. I just graduated from college in 2020. I’ve been teaching English, actually, since I graduated at a private high school in Boston. I think I got the writing gene from my mom. She really encouraged me from a young age to find my passion. One of my passions happens to be writing. Surprise, surprise, I’m an English teacher. The Boarding School Survival Guide, the book that I wrote when I was in high school, was more my brainchild than my mom’s in the sense that I was a boarding school student. I went to Andover boarding school in Massachusetts. One thing that was difficult for me when I was applying to all of these boarding schools as a kid from California who really didn’t know what boarding school was beyond Hogwarts in Harry Potter was that it was hard to find good, reliable information from kids on their boarding school experiences. I, as a boarding school student, wanted to step in to fill that void and to make it easier for future generations of boarding school applicants and students, but really applicants, to get a sense of what life was like at boarding school. I enlisted the help of a lot of different current and former boarding school students. I sent out emails to heads of English departments, different writing clubs on boarding school campuses. I got twenty-six or twenty-seven other boarding school students to contribute chapters to this book, The Boarding School Survival Guide, which I hoped provided a robust and somewhat accurate picture of what boarding school life was from the perspective of students. I’m glad and honored that it, in some small way, helped you and your family on your own boarding school journey. That’s music to my ears and exactly what I was hoping that this book would’ve done. It’s really great to hear that it did that.

Zibby: It was perfect. I was searching for books because I search for books to help me with everything and assume that they will help everybody else even though I end up reading them all. Yes, it was also a good survival guide to read as a parent. I was so tickled. I’m glad we even put that together. So tickled, oh, my gosh, I’m now talking like Chelsea, who works with me. It’s so funny. That’s what she always says. Cynthia, first of all, you must be so proud. How cool is that to have a published author son already before he even got to college? That’s amazing, wow.

Cynthia Muchnick: It was really cool. Truly, saying this out loud, even though professionally, my career, I’ve been a writer, Justin is a much better writer than his mother. He edits almost every word that I still write as an adult. I enlist his support. It’s wonderful when the roles can shift and your kids are better than you at things and you can lean and rely on them and feel like they’re taking care of you. I feel very lucky. Yes, I am a very proud mom. He’s his own thing. Justin went after boarding school. It was something we’d never experienced as a family. I was heartbroken, honestly, at the time when he brought the idea to us. I think he can look back and say it was a great choice that he made for himself.

Zibby: That’s great. It’s so funny, someone posted on Facebook, the essay I wrote when my son was going to boarding school when I was heartbroken and sobbing. I’ll send it to you after. It is somewhere on my website. I looked back on it, and I was a mess. I remember when that happened. I was sitting somewhere. I feel like we were in services, somewhere with my husband. I was just sobbing. He’s like, “He’s still with us. We haven’t lost him.” I’m like, “It’s not the same.”

Cynthia: I know. Zibby, we’re soul sisters in some way. I had that same crying phone call to my own mother. She said, “Your kid is asking you for a kind of educational experience that he wants you to be able to provide. How can you say no to that when he wanted to go for his own reasons of –” What were your reasons? It’s cool to be smart and teachers that teach you around a circular table and have small conversations. It was hard as a parent, as you’re seeing. At the same time, how could we turn it down when he just wanted it for all the right reasons? It’s really impacted his journey. Now he’s a teacher, so here we go.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I know, I felt like before — maybe I shouldn’t even say this. Before I had a child who went to boarding school, I thought that parents who sent their kids to boarding schools — I’m like, I could never do that because I love my kids so much. Do they not love their — how can they not want their kids at home? I shouldn’t even say that I thought that. It’s obviously completely not true. I feel like it takes so much to send them away because that’s not what you want. At least, it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted him home with me, but that’s what he wanted. He knew it would be right for him, and it was. It’s been amazing, but it’s a bummer for the parents.

Cynthia: I know. I have three more kids, just like you Zibby. None of them chose that path. They lost their brother, to some degree, in some formative, important years. Justin is a great communicator. He stayed in close touch. He allowed us to come to campus and visit from time to time. He was home for all the breaks. We forged, in some ways — I remember hearing this from a mom ahead of me in the journey. We forged kind of a deeper relationship than maybe we would have had he stayed home. I wouldn’t wish him away, but I know how much that time meant to him and really watched him grow into a young man.

Zibby: For those listening who couldn’t see, at the very beginning, Cynthia was smoothing out Justin’s hair as if he’s not twenty-three years old.

Justin: I still have a strand or two, actually.

Zibby: Wait, go back to you for a second, Cynthia. How did you get started on all of the writing and all of the advice? Tell me the story.

Cynthia: Just in a nutshell, Zibby, my writing started a hundred years ago in 1996 when my then high school boyfriend proposed to me during a game of Scrabble at the Rodin —

Justin: — Your college boyfriend.

Cynthia: My college boyfriend. Not my high school boyfriend.

Zibby: I was like, whoa, impressive, okay.

Justin: I was going to say, was there another proposal that I didn’t know about?

Cynthia: Anyway, Adam proposed to me on park bench at the Rodin Sculpture Garden in Paris while playing Scrabble. It was a very unique marriage proposal. He scattered the words “Will you marry me?” during our Scrabble game. When I started dating him, I had to become very Scrabble-savvy.

Zibby: I love Scrabble, by the way.

Cynthia: We’re obsessed as a family. We play hundreds of games. During COVID, we have multiple boards going on. We play as foursomes. We play as twosomes. All my kids know every two-letter word, every Q word with no I. We’re not very social players anymore because we know all these tricks. In any event, after the marriage proposal, I started telling Adam, “Someone should write a book of these proposal stories.” I said it so many times that he said, “Why don’t you do that?” I bought a book on how to write a book. I bought the Writer’s Market and I bought How to Market Your Book back in 1996. I sent off this proposal back in the day with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to thirty publishers. Six months later, someone called me from Macmillan, which was a division of Simon & Schuster, and said, “Hey, is your proposal book finished?” My jaw hit the ground. I just went, what? I was, at the time, in graduate school and writing an honors thesis. Suddenly, I was calling all my friends and collecting everyone’s proposal stories. I became the country’s foremost engagement expert at that time and did, back then, the talk show circuit and the radio show circuit. It was hilarious. Then I wrote a couple wedding books.

My background was really college admissions, so one of the books I wrote was a college essay book back in 1997. Then that turned into a private college counseling practice. While the kids were little and for about fifteen years, I ran a company out of my home helping kids apply to college. Out of that love came some study skills books on study skills and time management and a getting-ready-for-college book and another college essay book. Then I just hit a wall and was like, ten books and four kids, I have nothing else to say. Then in March 2019, the college admission scandal broke. I called a friend, a colleague, Jenn Curtis, who is now my coauthor of The Parent Compass. We both just felt like we got punched in the stomach. We couldn’t believe how extreme this news was. The two of us felt we needed to send a clear message to parents on how to stay on the right side of things, A, without breaking the law, but B, while keeping their kids’ mental health intact. We were seeing students come into our office that couldn’t self-advocate, that were listless, that were unhappy. They felt pushed. They felt exhausted.

We wanted to try to teach their parents from what we learned from our mistakes as moms, but our own mistakes and things we’d observed in our offices through the years. The Parent Compass was born then really as a result of the scandal, but turned into just, we really wanted to write a parent etiquette book. Even though it came out right in the middle of COVID right when your book came out, Zibby, we have just felt this surge of how important the message is to get out to really check yourselves as a parent and pay attention to the signs of understanding that this is our own kid’s journey. How do we teach them to speak for themselves? How do we teach them to be young adults? If we coddle and push and manage and fix everything, then they don’t learn these skills that they need. They’re unhappy and miserable and little robots. Then when COVID hit, the book took on a different kind of relevance with so many kids at home. It still made sense to us. It was about to go to press. COVID hit. We panicked. We reread the book. We made a few minor changes. We found that the message has resonated. We’re really excited. This is a full partnership book. If Jenn could be sitting right in between us, she would be here too. That’s a bit of the journey. It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve enjoyed it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. Think about all the people you’ve helped along the way with all sorts of things. I don’t think you’ll ever be done because there’s always more to write about. You can write about being a grandmother eventually.

Cynthia: I’m writing for your platform now. I’m writing for Moms Don’t Have Time. I have some new ideas for you for that.

Zibby: Oh, good.

Cynthia: I do randomly have my first children’s book coming out in 2024. I know you have one too.

Zibby: I do.

Cynthia: Congratulations on that.

Zibby: Wait, tell me about yours.

Cynthia: It’s kind of silly. It’s an alphabet book, so I’ll have something to read to my grandchildren. No rush, Justin, on that.

Justin: I’m not rushing.

Cynthia: Honestly, it’s embarrassing. It was a book that I had an idea about when Justin was little. I’ll embarrass him by saying he was very obsessed with construction sites and construction trucks as a small child. We would go watch construction trucks for fun building things, and the garbage truck. He had a construction site birthday party. The kids brought sponges and we washed the Bobcat that we rented.

Zibby: That’s fun.

Cynthia: It’s a construction site alphabet book, which is very different than anything I’ve done. It was a way for me to cross over into trying this out. It’s very weird to write a book so short after writing a book that takes a lot longer. That’s the news. Maybe we’ll come back and talk about that in 2024.

Zibby: Yeah, look at that. You’re already queuing it up. Amazing. Love it. I hope I’m still doing this. What year are we in now? 2021. I know, it’s so funny, I keep making all these — oh, great, your next book. I’m like, I guess I’m just going to keep at it for as long as — I don’t know.

Cynthia: Your kids are going to be pushing you in the wheelchair as you read the books and you knit. No rush to that. You’ve done a great job.

Zibby: No, no, no, stop. We’re talking about your book. Thank you. There are some great things in here. By the way, I did read this while I was with my son, the boarding school son. I was like, “Ooh, let me ask you some of these questions.” I started asking from the quiz and everything. Wait, let me find the one that we had the best conversation about. All these are great, like what activities. What do you wish your parents knew about you and your school? There were some other ones at the beginning. Wait, hold on, let me find a few. What’s your biggest dream in life? What have you always wanted to try? If you could start your own nonprofit, what would it be? He actually had an answer for that, so that was a good one. What would the title of your autobiography be? What’s your tennis ball? What’s the thing that you chase as intently as a dog chases a tennis ball? What are you trying to get better at? It’s just such a good idea. If I were smart, what I would’ve done is do a little video of him answering all your questions.

Cynthia: You still can. I love that.

Zibby: See, I am smart. There you go. I’m kidding. It would be neat for him to have that to look back on later as well. It’s a good stopgap. I think there’s kind of a void. I haven’t really researched too heavily, but books about dealing with teens do not pop up regularly. People aren’t pitching those books. I haven’t done a similar boarding school deep dive the way I did to find Justin’s book, not even so deep. That’s the one that came up. It’s really, really important. It’s so important. There are eight million advice books on how to get through having a baby. Yeah, that’s really hard, but this is also really hard. This is like emotional finals or something.

Cynthia: I think for parents to go through adolescence shoulder to shoulder with their teens is something you don’t prepare for. You just figure, oh, I got through those hard early years. I kept them alive. They haven’t choked on a Lego. They haven’t broken too many bones. Now we’re at this time period where — lots of movies have been made about parenting adolescents. Jenn and I just felt like there wasn’t this guidebook that could hold your hand as a parent and say, here’s some good dos and don’ts, but also would force you as a parent to look hard back at your own history or the way you were raised, what you were like as a teenager, your academic path, and how it differs from each of your children’s journeys and their personalities and their birth order and their proposed academic path. I think the key message or one of the key takeaways from the book is to really appreciate just the child you have in front of you, to not try to inauthentically create someone different than who they are and what they like.

Justin and I have some amazing interests we share. We have some interests that are so different. I’ve learned to appreciate the things that he’s interested in because he’s my son and it excites him. I knew nothing about classical literature or about Latin or Greek or things that were different and new to me. I learned a lot from him and appreciated his interests. I think as parents, we have a duty to let them be the teenagers, let them make the choices, and not try to force a path that might not fit for them. It’s taken a long time for me to be able to say those words. People kept saying, when are you going to write the parenting book? I said, I’m only as knowledgeable as my oldest child. I’m no real expert. Having worked with all these families for years and seeing some parents who seem to do it right or better and see some parents who are trying so hard that it’s smothering their kids and micromanaging their kids and forming that relationship that — I want my kids to like me when this is all over. Justin came home for the summer. He seems to enjoy hanging with us.

Justin: I think so. I’m still trying to get you to learn Latin.

Cynthia: We want to raise people that still think we did our best and we tried hard. I think when your kids see you reading a book about parenting better, they say, wow, you really want to — we can admit that we’re not perfect and that we want to try harder and do better. We can do that every day of the week. We can read the book in a weekend and just start trying some of these things that might help.

Zibby: Justin, did you vet all these chapters? Did you read it and make sure that it was all good?

Justin: I let my mom and Jenn, her coauthor, do most of the heavy lifting there. I came in for some of the very minute proofreading and all of that, which my mom sometimes like to use me for. This was their book. I let them tell their story and get on their soapbox for it.

Cynthia: He let me write a little bit — I had to get permission because there are a couple stories about my kids. I posted much more about my kids fifteen years ago when there were less restrictions and less fear. Facebook was a new thing. Now I’m careful about their privacy. Even the essay that I wrote for your platform, Zibby, I asked my kids, “Are you okay with this? Can you read it first? I really want to send it if you’ll let me.” My kids have been good about letting me share nuggets and snippets. There are a few stories about Justin as a kid. He was kind to let me include those. Thank you, Justin.

Justin: Absolutely.

Zibby: I definitely try to vet the stories, at least with the older kids. The younger kids might change their mind. What is the spread? How old are all your kids now?

Cynthia: Twenty-three. Justin’s almost twenty-three. You are twenty-three. I don’t even want to tell you how old I was when I got married, so that’s scary for me that I have a twenty-three-year-old sitting next to me. Then I have one that’s turning twenty-one. He’s a sophomore in college. Then I have a sixteen-year-old. Then my daughter, on Monday, is turning fifteen. I’m still in high school with two. Three boys and then the girl, so you see how that went. We kept going and going.

Justin: It could’ve been a hundred boys and then the girl. I think they would’ve kept going until they got that one girl.

Cynthia: I don’t think so. It’s been a good journey. It’s just a lot. Four’s a lot, as you know. Any number’s a lot, really. It’s twenty-four/seven. Even when they’re grown and out of the house, your heart still feels connected and wanting to be there for times they need to share with you and support you and ask you for advice. Then you want them to make their own mistakes too and try not to just catch them every time and see how they get through that. I don’t know, Justin, how does it feel to be a young adult now sort of on your own out in the world?

Justin: It’s good. I’ve been enjoying charting my own path but also knowing that I’ve got a place to come back to if that’s where I find myself.

Cynthia: Good.

Zibby: Aw, that’s really sweet. It’s so funny, Cynthia, your kids, we have the same spread, but they’re all just a little bit older. I’m going to have to get your advice as mine —

Cynthia: — I’m saying we’re friends. You don’t understand why I’ve been —

Zibby: — I get it. I get it.

Cynthia: you. Then when you saw that boarding school book and you invited us on the show, I will say, the first phone call was Justin in Boston. I said, “Look, I love this lady. I love what she’s doing. I love how she’s helping authors.” I just love how real and down-to-earth you are, Zibby. You’re a good human being. I gloom onto that. I like making new friends and meeting new, interesting people. Justin did this for me, for his mom as well as .

Zibby: Thank you, Justin.

Cynthia: I’m so glad he did. I’m so glad that our son was really the catalyst to bring you and I together. It’s been a lot of fun.

Zibby: Do you live in the same place? You’re in Boston?

Justin: Yeah, I’m in Boston. I’ve been here visiting what I guess I still call home for part of the summer. One of the perks of being a teacher is that I’ve got the summer more or less off. I’ve been a little bit more mobile now that I’ve been in the summer. I spend the school year, most of my time, in Boston. I’m in that liminal state between childhood and adulthood where I still have my bedroom at my parents’ house that I go to and feel comfortable going to. Yet I also am sort of living my own life. It’s a little bit of a transition.

Zibby: You should write a book called Can I Still Call It Home? That’s so interesting you said that.

Justin: That’s great.

Zibby: There’s so many people in your position, and obviously, ever year, more and more. It’s a whole rotating cross-section.

Cynthia: I’m going to sleep on Justin’s couch in November when I come visit you, hopefully, for that author retreat.

Justin: I think I will give her the bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.

Zibby: Yes, you will. That is the right thing to do. There you go.

Cynthia: And he’ll change the sheets, maybe. Who knows?

Justin: That might be pushing it, Mom.

Cynthia: We’ll see.

Zibby: Cynthia, what do you like to do when you’re not writing and mothering?

Cynthia: I have some good girlfriends that I’ve collected through the years, so I love spending time with them when I can. It’s been more through Zoom, but starting to be in person again, which has been nice. I enjoy reading a lot. I’ve been doing what I’m calling my homework. I’m reading lots of books on your list so that I can stay current, which has been great.

Zibby: Nice.

Cynthia: I’ve got a great partner. I married a great guy. We got shows we binge. We walk the dog at night. We’re pretty boring, actually. We don’t have too many highs and lows.

Justin: I can confirm. They are pretty boring.

Cynthia: We were able to make one family vacation this summer. You needed a PhD to get all the testing and all the arrival and departure and navigate all of that. We made some good family memories with all six of us. It’s really hard to get everyone on a similar schedule as they get older and they’re off of school schedules. We managed to squeeze a trip in, which was really fun. Then just writing here and there, writing essays, writing some articles, and doing book-related things. It’s been a great career because it’s something I can do and be a mom. It’s fun when my kids share in it in some way, in the love of it. Everyone’s kind of readers. Some are more audiobook readers. My husband’s maybe the one that’s not a reader. He reads legal documents, and that’s enough for him. He doesn’t want to do it for recreation.

Zibby: I’ve actually heard that from some other lawyers. I read all time. I’m like, but that’s a different kind of reading. They’re like, no, I’m done. I’ve heard that quite a bit. What advice, from both of you please, would you have for aspiring authors?

Justin: I come more from the English teacher perspective here because I teach a few classes full of aspiring authors. What I like to tell them, which is something that one of my favorite English teachers, actually, in high school told me is to write in the way that they wished they could speak. I think some of the English teachers will tell you, your authorial voice, write the way that you speak. Write how you speak. Be authentic in that way. For me, I see writing as this opportunity to do something that I wish I could do when I was talking. I wish I could speak as well as I wrote. Writing is your opportunity to — if you’re in the shower after an argument or something like that and you’re going through, oh, man, I wish I could’ve said X, Y, and Z, I would’ve laid it out so well, writing is your opportunity to do that. Don’t write how you speak. Write in the way that you wish you could speak.

Zibby: I like that.

Cynthia: Wow, Justin, that’s a good one. Unfortunately, I kind of do the opposite, so I’m going to try to learn from my son. I tend to just spew it all out there, and that’s my voice. See, there you go. Learn something from your kid, and the English teacher. I have two quick ones. My first piece would just be — through the years, many people have asked me, how do you write books? How do you publish a book? Give me your advice. My first piece of advice is, just write. Just do it. You have an idea for a book. Do it. A lot of times people are like, how do I start? You write a few chapters. You write a proposal. You do a table of contents and a bio. You put it together. You just do it. You start writing. One would be, just do it. The other would be, which I actually learned early from Justin — three of my books, I’ve coauthored. I will say, finding a partner is phenomenal. You can feel less lonely. You can feel motivated by your partner. You can feel supported. You can pick up where each other leaves off. You can split chapters. You can edit each other’s work. Even if it’s just the exercise of writing with someone, not necessarily a book with someone, but maybe start with coauthoring an essay with someone. That’s what Jenn and I want to do. Our next essay for you is about writing with a partner. Really, I love the idea of having someone to do it with because it makes it less isolating and less lonely. It’s kind of a lonely craft until you put it out there. Then for me, the writing was more the homework. The fun part was sharing it with people and talking to people about it. For a lot of writers, they want to write and then move on to the next thing they write. It’s a more, maybe, introverted process. My partner and I, Jenn, our styles really complimented each other well. It was a great experience. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Zibby: I think it’s very complimentary advice. I totally understand what Justin’s saying. I often feel like I can write better than I can speak. It’s what I want to say. It just doesn’t always come out. I get what you’re saying. I totally get it. I also get Cynthia’s advice, which is, don’t get in your own way. Just sit down and start doing it. Then see what happens. Love it. Thanks to both of you. This is so nice. It’s like meeting old friends or something. It’s been great to meet you. I guess I’ll see you in November, Cynthia. That’ll be fun.

Cynthia: I’m excited to see you in November. I want to know, Zibby, is this your first mother-son, ever, podcast interview?

Zibby: I think it must be.

Justin: It could be a good genre for you, actually, mother-son, the authors and their son. Moms and sons don’t have time to be on podcasts.

Zibby: There aren’t that many moms and sons who have both written books. I’ve done interviews with my son, interviewing other people. Although, he’s more and more reluctant to do that. Yeah, I think you might be the one and only. Amazing.

Cynthia: It’s exciting to be the first of anything. We appreciate the time that you’ve given us to share a little bit about who we are and what we’ve been doing, what we’ve been up to. We will continue to be big fans. Justin’s a little busier and doesn’t really go on social media.

Justin: No, I have the water bottle and all of that now. She passes the swag to me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you guys are so funny.

Cynthia: The swag is there. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. The Parent Compass, thank you for writing this and helping so many other parents like us get through these years. That’s really great. Thank you.

Justin: Take care. Thanks for having us.

Zibby: Bye.

THE PARENT COMPASS by Cindy C. Muchnick & Jenn Curtis

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!


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