By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent magazine
We all know parents who find their own kids kind of annoying. It never comes as a surprise that the children of those parents end up struggling socially or academically.
But Dr. Wendy Mogel’s book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, will strike fear into the hearts of many thoughtful, well-intentioned parents, too.
Here’s what the child psychologist sees amongst the well-intentioned parents she counsels:
- You want to model respect and democratic values, so you allow your kids an equal voice in family decisions.
- You want your teenage children to help out with chores, but you don’t want to fill any more of their limited time away from school with more demands, so you and your spouse do all the housework.
- You want your school-age children to go to bed on their own when it’s time, but they are afraid of being alone, so every night you sit with them until they’re asleep.
“By trying to make the world as nearly perfect as we can for our children, many of us are preventing our children from learning what they need to know to mature—in the examples above, respect for authority, fairness, and facing and overcoming fears,” says Mogel, pictured right. “As a result, many fine parents raise children who are rude, cowardly, and greedy.”
Note that Mogel isn’t out to play “gotcha!” with caring parents. Rather, in “Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” she provides sage advice—and encourages us to have a backbone—for raising independent, compassionate, well-adjusted children. What’s more, she doesn’t just want us to take her word for it. As made clear in the subtitle, she cites the wisdom of the Torah and the Talmud to prove her points.
In the 10-chapter book, we find insights into “The Blessing of Acceptance: Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child” (chapter 2); “The Blessing of Longing: Teaching Your Child an Attitude of Gratitude” (chapter 5); and “The Blessing of Faith and Tradition: Losing Your Fear in the G Word and Introducing Your Child to Spirituality” (chapter 10).
The reason Mogel wrote the book, she explains in the introduction, is that in her practice, she started noticing a disturbing trend among her privileged clientele. Instead of being relieved when Mogel found nothing clinically wrong with their children, they were alarmed.
“They wanted me to diagnose a clinical problem so that they could turn to an established cure,” Mogel shares. “And if there was no disorder, they wanted me to explain why were their children—and often the parents themselves—so miserable?”
Her epiphany, and her new focus in her career, came as she rediscovered her Jewish roots.
“My goal with this book is to help mothers and fathers develop a spiritually based parenting philosophy that will enable them to handle the rough spots in their children’s development themselves,” she explains.
As the mother of three girls, ages 12, 16, and 18, I can tell you that this book hits home. Accessible and useful for non-Jews and nonbelievers alike, the chapters in “Blessing of a Skinned Knee” each cover an aspect of parenting that Jewish thinkers believe are crucial to raising children. These include:
- Accept that your children are both unique and ordinary.
- Teach them to honor their parents and to respect others—family, friends, and community.
- Teach them to be resilient, self-reliant, and courageous.
- Teach them to be grateful for their blessings.
- Teach them the value of work.
- Teach them to make their table an altar—to approach food with an attitude of moderation, celebration, and sanctification.
- Teach them to accept rules and to exercise self-control.
- Teach them the preciousness of the present moment.
- Teach them about God.
Here’s one lingering question that I have: Isn’t “Because I said so!” a weak crutch?
According to Mogel, it’s ok to explain the rationale for your decisions about how you parent your children. But in her view, “it’s your word, not your reasoning” that matters.
“Parents know that children won’t always want to do what’s good for them or good for the family,” she says. “Young children won’t always want to leave a play date when it’s time to go; teens may want freedoms that have consequences that parents think their child is not mature enough to handle.”
So what do parents need to do to establish their authority so that children will obey even when they disagree—and without a tantrum?
“Not only is ‘honor they father and thy mother’ a commandment from God,” she insists. “Teaching your children to respect their parents will result in better-behaved children.” Children who won’t interrupt you when you’re on the telephone, who won’t argue with you or criticize you in public, who will respect their parents’ privacy.”
“Your children are not our equals, and they don’t want to be. … Your children don’t need two more tall friends,” Mogel believes. “What they need are parents.”
The Value of Chores
In this issue of Be Inkandescent magazine we highlight the philosophy from the “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” series. What I find most interesting about Mogel’s book is that it is all about sweating the small stuff.
For example, in chapter 6 — “The Blessing of Work: finding the Holy Sparks in Ordinary Chores,” — Mogel writes: “In Judaism, the path to holiness lies in human activity. Judaism values deed over creed, and learning by doing. The sages believed that life should be a work-study program—we have to apply our knowledge. In fact, ordinary chores are the foundation of our children’s character and spiritual well-being.”
Here are Mogel’s five ways to get your kids on board:
1. Embrace the concept that chores have value. “The parent who avoids assigning household tasks because she feels guilty for working or takes pity on her children is doing them no favor. Instead, she is buying their immediate goodwill with their future well-being. … Children deserve more than our love and devotion. They deserve to be taught how to fend for themselves and eventually contribute to society. Seen this way, chores are not extracurricular activities, they are the basics. When your children realize you are serious about them, they will get serious about them, too.”
2. You have to start somewhere. Children learn responsibility in phases. What’s important is that your child continue to take on more tasks as the years go by. In general children start with self-care, which includes taking care of their bathroom needs, their own grooming, and feeding themselves. Then they can move to taking care of dressing themselves, taking care of their belongings, and taking care of the family and the household. Introduce responsibilities gradually.
3. Grant authority with responsibility. “When you give children a job to do, let them, as much as is reasonable, decide how to get it done. … If you demand that they do it exactly your way, you’ll take the creativity out of the task and increase their resistance to it.”
4. Stop nagging, start following through. “When instructing your children about the chores you want them to do, be friendly, matter-of-fact, brisk, and specific. You can avoid misunderstandings by having your children repeat back to you, in their own words, what you’ve asked of them. … Constant reminding, nagging, or screaming leads to death—of your child’s sense of accountability. … There is a job. It needs to be completed. You delegate, they do. You do not do everything and then simmer in frustration and resentment.” For example, if Sara is in charge of putting glasses of ice water on the table for dinner and forgets, she will have to get up from the table, interrupting her own meal to bring the water she forgot. Come up with reliable, appropriate consequences, rewards, and privileges—consistency of consequences is the key to compliance.
5. Give them what they need to succeed. A lightweight tray for clearing the table, a carpet sweeper for a child who isn’t yet ready for a vacuum, a rod in the closet that they can reach. “Also, match your expectations with the moment. … Aim for a broad pattern of helpfulness rather than punctilious compliance every time.”
The book concludes with a section of recommended books for parents, organized by questions a parent might have, such as, “What are some good books about raising children in a changing world?” and “Can you recommend any children’s books that teach about self-reliance without being preachy or dull?”
I found this incredibly useful, because not only did Mogel get me thinking, I actually have begun to institute some of her ideas at home.
Also useful is Mogel’s Parenting Guide for Blessing of a Skinned Knee. This can help facilitate book-club discussion groups, grade-level parent meetings at your child’s school, synagogue parenting classes, and community-center or neighborhood parent-support groups. The parenting guide includes suggestions for size of group, frequency of meetings, rules, and even a curriculum for a six-session parenting class.
If all this sounds harsh, take heart, Mogel concludes: “The rules regarding child-rearing are not primarily about making children feel good, but about making children into good people.”
Here’s to that!
About Wendy Mogel, PhD
Mogel is an internationally acclaimed clinical psychologist, parenting expert, and the author of the New York Times bestselling parenting book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” Her new book, “The Blessing of a B Minus,” is about raising teenagers. A popular keynote speaker, she lectures widely at conferences and schools.
To buy the book, visit, http://www.wendymogel.com/books/skinned_knee/.