Julie Bowen and sons attend the Baby2Baby Holiday Party Presented By Tiny Prints At Montage Beverly Hills on December 6, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. Credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Baby2Baby and Tiny Prints

Living in a house full of boys leaves Julie Bowen craving time with fellow moms. “You need those friends you can tell, ‘Oh, my lord, I have three jackasses for children!” she jokes about Oliver, 9, and twins Johnny and Gus, 7, her sons with software developer husband Scott Phillips. “And she’ll be like, ‘Let’s just leave our kids at the beach and never pick them up!’”

Calling from a getaway to Santa Barbara, the Modern Family star sounds a bit like her ABC show’s alter ego, slightly frazzled mom Claire Dunphy. Mid-interview, she confesses: “P.S., I’m sweeping something really weird off the floor as we speak.” In the background, Oliver, sidelined from surf camp with a broken arm, chimes in with his own thoughts. (“Oliver is apparently part of this interview,” she quips.) The Neutrogena spokeswoman, 46, shares the dirty details of motherhood with Us Weekly:

Us Weekly: Do you have a mom philosophy?

Julie Bowen: I read some article where Reese Witherspoon said, “If you’re not yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them.” It made me feel so much better. I was like, “Oh, this must mean I’m a good mom!” Reese Witherspoon, who I’ve only met once, saved my life with one quote.


Us: Three boys are a handful!

J.B.: They are rambunctious. … We’ve had four or five casts in three years. There was a point when I thought the Department of Children and Family Services was going to show up at my door! ...* There’s a lot of naked wrestling. How many times can you say, “No yanking on one another’s genitals?” Everything is hilarious until someone starts crying.

Us: Do you feel outnumbered by the guys?

J.B.: There’s a lot of boy humor around here that I don’t get. One time Oliver didn’t want to go to camp for whatever reason. He insisted on staying home — so I made him clean the toilets. It’s like, if you think it’s hilarious to pee all around the toilet, then you can clean it up. It backfired: He put on an apron and started singing, like, “I’m a working man!”

Us: How do you discipline?

J.B.: With a stick! [Laughs.] No. We make them earn the stuff they want. They’re not going to play with their iPad today unless they do their chores. I use an app called ChoreMonster. The kids earn points for brushing teeth or picking up the dog poop. It’s genius. 

Us: What are some of your house rules?

J.B.: We can’t have iPads until after 7 p.m. Otherwise the entire day is, “iPad time? What about now?” It makes me crazy. And no TV on weekend mornings. I discovered on school days, when they’ve got to get up at 6:30, they won’t get out of bed. But on the weekends, they were up at 6 a.m. I was like, “Why do you guys wake up so early on the weekends?” It’s like, “Because I wake up and I think, Is it a TV day? And if it is…” So we had to change that rule. I’m like, “Thank you for telling me what I need to do.”

Us: Do your sons understand why you have rules? 

J.B.: I tell my kids, “Look, your life is a video game, and I have to get you from level zero to 18 as an independent person with all your skills and limbs intact. Every time you hit your brother or throw food, you’re taking us all back.” I thought that was a smart analogy, but Oliver looks at me and goes, “Wait, are the levels weeks or years?” I think I’m so smart and they’re like, “What is she talking about?”

Us: Do you and your husband share parenting styles?

J.B.: My husband is very funny and his humor has gotten us through a lot. He’s good at defusing me. The kids will go to bed and I’ll be like, “Well, it’s time to bleach the cabinets!” And he’s like, “Or not.” He helps me realize that making sure everyone’s socks are matched properly is a waste of time. He’s like, “Who cares? Let it go.”

Us: It sounds like you’re a very prepared mom.

J.B.: I have this fancy Givenchy bag. I don’t know what the Kardashians have in their bags — I bet they have really expensive products or six cellphones or something. I have a cellphone and some lipstick for me, and the rest is just filled with stuff for the kids — sunscreen and lip balm and little Ziploc bags of pretzels and cheese sticks. Kids don’t seem to recognize when they’re hungry until they’re starving and in the emergency zone, so I’m like, “Who wants some apple slices and cheese?”

Us: What gives you guilt?

J.B.: Kids think the world is about them, so if you forgot to put the right flavor yogurt in their lunch, and they have too much homework when they come home, they’re like, “You know I hate peach!” There’s a part of me that’s like, “I’m so sorry. I could have shown my love more.” But then I’m like, “You know what? It beats digging ditches. There are kids in Syria who have never seen yogurt, so stick it!” A lot of these conversations happen in my brain, by the way.

Us: What do you do together as a family?

J.B.: Everyone can ride a bike now, so the park has had a big resurgence in our life. We also play a lot of dumb drawing games. At restaurants, I carry paper and markers and tell everyone to draw a picture with a unicorn, an octopus and an explosion. That keeps them still for a minute.

Us: What about vacations?

J.B.: I take the kids skiing every year, and my husband doesn’t always go. The way I grew up, that’s very normal. My mom would take us skiing, but my dad hates cold weather. In my family, Mom can lead the sports activities, no problem! Except football — that, my husband does.

Us: What has Claire taught you about motherhood?

J.B.: I’ve learned a lot from Claire! Somewhere early on in the series, she said wisely that her job wasn’t to be the kids’ friend; it was to be the mom. I don’t think I fully understood it at the time because my kids were really little, but I get it now. Also, Claire has made that mistake over and over, which makes me feel better. It means a whole room full of writers have agreed they made that mistake too.

Us: Do you share parenting tips with your costars?

J.B.: It was very satisfying when Ty [Burrell, who plays Claire’s husband, Phil] started having kids. He would go, “How did you do this? I’m exhausted.” I said, “Ty, you know what’s the best? When you Don Draper them.” And he’s like, “What’s that?” And I was like, “You come home from a great day at work, and it’s 7 and the kids are all clean from the bath ready to go to bed, and you pour yourself a drink and pat them on their clean little heads and give them a hug and say good night!” Every now and again it’s delightful to Don Draper your children. But for the most part, it’s not.

Us: Describe a dream mom day for you.

J.B.: I would love to get up, take the kids to school, work out. Maybe have lunch with a friend. I really like putting the kids to bed. Everyone is cozy and snuggly. Nobody is giving anyone a hard time, and everybody reads. Then I would want to sit on the couch with my husband and watch Game of Thrones, asking him every five minutes, “What just happened?”

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