EXCLUSIVE: Melissa Joan Hart says raising older kids is hard because ‘no one prepares you for the lasts’

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Growing up in public on shows like "Clarissa Explains It All" and "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," Melissa Joan Hart has been in the spotlight for decades. But her three sons aren't necessarily eager for a chance to shine.

Sitting down backstage after her appearance on TODAY May 1, Hart says that her oldest son, Mason, 18, might not be "thrilled" that she mentioned him on the air. Her 16-year-old, Braydon, isn't necessarily interested in performing but realizes it might be a way to finance his sneaker obsession. Tucker, 11, "could act," Hart says, "but I'm not ready to devote my time to that either."

As for her own acting, Hart admits that her sons and husband, musician Mark Wilkerson, aren't the first in line to watch her on screen.

"I think they think it's weird," she shrugs. "My husband too. Especially if there's a make-out scene."

Does Hart have a favorite among her sitcoms?

"Everyone thinks I should like 'Clarissa' or 'Sabrina,' but I really like 'Melissa and Joey.' It’s my favorite because it was just so silly," she says of the show she starred in alongside Joey Lawrence.

As fast-talking and funny as the characters she plays, Hart dishes on her family life, her advocacy work and her son's newest exotic pet.

Looking back on child stardom

Though the recent "Quiet on Set" documentary has had viewers buzzing about the circumstances surrounding Nickelodeon child actors, Hart says she never experienced distress growing up on the "Clarissa Explains It All" set in Orlando, Florida.

"The story is really heartbreaking," she says, "but I did not have that experience." She points out that she had a different group of producers on her show than the group in Los Angeles, where the incidents took place. "It seems to me from the documentary, at least, that it's sort of an isolated incident on certain sets with certain people."

She did, however, miss some childhood milestones that most kids experience. Though she often contemplates what she may have missed, she shrugs, "I didn't know anything else."

Hart went to a public high school through 9th grade, which was when she began starring in "Clarissa." She attended a private school in New York City for 10th grade and then she closed out her high school years with tutors.

"I fought hard to go to college," she says, noting that "Sabrina" kept pulling her away from her studies. "I enrolled for seven years but never graduated. Never even got far enough that I had to pick a major." But some of her favorite memories are of living in a New York University dorm.

Hart doesn't necessarily feel like she missed out, but she does feel bad that she can't guide her kids through these moments because she's not familiar with them. Right now she's struggling to navigate "this whole 'senior life' thing" alongside her son, Mason.

From her recent Instagram video, it looks like she aced Prom 2024. The proud mom captured dozens of Mason’s classmates snapping photos together before heading to the end-of-the-year dance. Mason went with his girlfriend ... who just happens to be named Sabrina.

As it turns out, this teenage witch wasn't too busy casting spells to hit up the prom.

"I had a long-term boyfriend in high school and I got to go to his prom," she shares. "I did get to dress up and feel pretty and take the silly picture."

Protecting the vulnerable

Hart's latest project, a Lifetime movie called "The Bad Guardian," focuses on one woman's fight to save her father from the clutches of a corrupt and greedy court-appointed “guardian” (played by La La Anthony).

There is a clear through-line in Hart's off-camera advocacy work that also centers around her trying to protect the vulnerable.

Hart, who was living in Connecticut during the Sandy Hook massacre and in Nashville for the Covenant school shooting, has been fighting for gun-control legislation.

"I just never want to see that happen again. And unfortunately, we hear about it every day all the time. It's the number one killer of kids and I just can't accept that," she says.

She's also a passionate advocate for World Vision, a global Christian humanitarian organization. She has brought her family to Zambia twice to visit the girls they sponsor and view local progress.

Locally, she does community outreach for the football team, hosts fundraising dinners and she's helping to build a gym for a Nashville women's shelter.

"Anytime I can serve in any capacity, it just takes away my problems and shows me a bigger stage of what needs to be happening in the world," she says.

All the 'lasts'

Now a mom of bigger kids, Hart is dealing with "bigger problems," like the fact that Mason went to an exotic animal show and legally purchased a caiman.

"So basically we have an alligator living in our house now," she says with a laugh. Noting that Mason used to school his third grade teacher on the crocodilian family, she adds, "It turns out some of the reptiles he brought home are actually illegal in other states. Thanks, Tennessee!"

("Clarissa" fans are telling him to name it "Elvis" in honor of the title character's house pet.)

"They are a little spoiled. I'm not going to lie," says Hart. "You want to give your kid everything and you want to make their life easy. But by doing that, you're actually hurting them."

She and her husband are now trying to practice stepping back and allowing their children to experience "natural consequences." If a child is failing a class, it's up to that child to turn things around. If a child has a car with a broken headlight, they cannot drive their car until it's fixed.

"Sometimes those natural consequences are harder on the parents, I think, but the kids learn a lesson from it," she says, noting that in the last example, she had to become the driver.

Hart is also learning parenting lessons ... like how to celebrate the "lasts."

"Everyone prepares you for the firsts. No one prepares you for the lasts," she says, pointing to Mason's last year of high school as an example. She admits that she felt unprepared for college talk and transitions and goodbyes and will likely restructure her approach for her younger sons.

She says sheepishly, "I just hope I didn't burn the first pancake."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com