Judge Judy discusses modern parenting, her daily rituals and fond childhood memories of Bridgeport
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize the celebrity moniker “Judge Judy.” Judith Sheindlin is the star of the Emmy award-winning “Judge Judy,” the No. 1 court show in daytime television since its 1996 debut and America’s top program in first-run syndication for the last 10 years. The Brooklyn native is known for her signature outspoken, no-nonsense style and for her philanthropic initiatives. The 76-year-old Sheindlin, now the highest paid host on television, calls California, Florida, Newport and Greenwich her home. During a recent conversation, she got right to the point about parenting, responsibility and her secret to success.
Q: Your sensibility and work and hard-boiled approach to your television work “Judge Judy” is legendary. How would you describe yourself?
A: I would describe myself as very lucky to be from Brooklyn. Nothing about me or my personality was developed for TV. I started this process of who I am as a child and there is a point when you are fully and completely cooked as a person. And that’s who you are. I remember as a practicing lawyer in family court, watching this judge, using poly-syllabic words to show off how smart he was. He was remanding a 15-year-old and trying to show off and says, “I hope this will have a very prophylactic effect on you.” Not only did the 15-year-old not understand what the judge was talking about but there was a 50-year-old who apparently didn’t understand the difference between a condom and a profound effect. That was within my first couple of years as an attorney and I remember saying to myself that if I were ever in a position on the bench, nobody was going to leave my courtroom without understanding where they are going or what was happening. I am about direct, common sense, plain speak and no nonsense.
Q: Your exasperation with youths and parents is so very clear on a lot of episodes. What is your take on parenting today and this generation of young people?
A: At the beginning, we are comfortable in the womb. And when we are born, the first thing parents learn is to swaddle that baby, mimic the womb so the baby feels safe and has boundaries. I legitimately believe that people are more comfortable when there are basic boundaries of life. There are laws and we work within those laws. Those are boundaries. Parents too often make excuses for bad behavior and that’s a mistake. I remember when you got a note from a teacher because of bad behavior and had to bring it home to your parents to be signed, you were scared. It was like walking The Long Green Mile home. Now it’s never your fault anymore. It’s the teachers fault. Parents want to be their child’s friend, not their parents. Everybody gets a prize now, you don’t earn it. That lends itself to entitlement and, really, sometimes laziness. If you grow up in an environment with loosey-goosey rules, you don’t have those boundaries.
Q: What do you think the secret to your television success is?
A: I think there is a large swath of people that long for some measure of the old days when people knew the boundaries. I have to deliver that message, which is easy for me because I believe in it. But I deliver it in an entertaining way. And that comes from a mother and a father, especially, who had a great sense of humor and I like to think I naturally took some of that from him. Without getting political, and I have no intention of getting political on this, I think the vast majority of people in this country but all over the world like the message. See what happens is, there are those majority of people who are the worker bees. Young people and old who want to achieve and want to realize an American dream, who want to make a positive footprint. There are a minority of people who feel differently, who want what I call a Montessori way of life. I remember when I was looking for a pre-school for the one of the kids and visited a school that has that kind of philosophy. Every child was doing their own thing. I asked a teacher why the kids were not paying attention to the lesson on letters she was doing and she said they would come around when they felt like it. I left and said, “This is not for me.” When it’s time to sit down and learn your letters, you sit down and learn your letters. I think most people feel that way. Sadly, sometimes those voices are shouted down by other people. I don’t think my message is a minority message. It’s a majority message. And it must be or my show would not be the success it is for all these years.
Q: You have several homes, including Los Angeles, Naples, Newport and the one in Greenwich. Why there?
A: My favorite, favorite uncle, my father’s brother, lived in Bridgeport when I was little. I had cousins there, too, and we are still close. Every Sunday we would get in our car in Brooklyn and drive up the Merritt Parkway to Bridgeport to visit. They had a house with a little pond in the backyard. I loved going there. I told myself if I ever grew up and could afford a house in Connecticut, that would be my dream.
Q: What is your favorite room there?
A: I spend most of my time in the office, but probably my favorite room is the kitchen. We have a large kitchen that accommodates the whole family.
Q: Speaking of Connecticut, that little lawsuit a few years ago with Connecticut attorney John Haymond about using your image in his ads without permission. All good?
A: I think it was resolved and was just a misunderstanding. He doesn’t do it anymore and I think we both wish each other well.
Q: What was your proudest moment so far and what moment do you wish you could do over?
A: The proudest is when I was sworn in as a family court judge. I was only 39 and that was a big deal. As far as taking a moment back, I can’t think of one. I really don’t see things as bad experiences. My attitude is everything is a learning experience.
Q: What would you tell your 17-year-old self, based on what you know now?
A: I would tell myself what I tell my mentees in the “Her Honor Mentoring” youth program that I have with my daughter. Life is a journey and it’s your journey. You have the capacity of being the hero of your own story. And don’t take any pictures of yourself or have pictures taken that you don’t want to see on the Internet. ... I say that to my grandchildren and now they have blocked me from their Instagram accounts
Q: You are amazingly fit. I have friends who want to know how you do it?
A: I exercise like crazy. When I am not working on the show in California, I am at the gym two hours a day that includes a quick run. I don’t eat a lot of carbs.
Q: Do you drink?
A: Two cocktails a day. Happy Hour starts at 5 p.m. I fill an oversized wine glass filled with ice, Chopin vodka, a splash of grapefruit juice and diet cranberry juice. I even bring it in my pocketbook to restaurants.
Q: What is always in your refrigerator?
A: Diet cranberry juice. We don’t eat at home a lot, usually just breakfast. My husband is a healthy eater. There is always cottage cheese in the refrigerator. I think his mission is to outlive me.
Q: If you had not pursued law, what do you think you would have wanted as a career?
A: No idea, I can’t imagine anything else. I think the greatest gift a parent can give is to nurture a child at what they are naturally adept at. My parents did that.
Q: Are you always the way you are on TV?
A: Sometimes I am sweet and maybe people have seen moments of kindness and gentleness on the show. A surgeon is one way in the operating room and another way on the golf course. You know, you have a work mode and another one for when you are not working.
MaryEllen Fillo is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.