Wendy Mogel Ph.D



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Parenting Group Guide (The Blessing of a B Minus)

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The Blessing of a B Minus
Parenting Group Guide

      I’ve written this guide to provide parents of teenagers with a framework for discussing the topics of The Blessing of a B Minus in a group setting. Teachers and school administrators can also use the guide to form a group of their own. Talking about your concerns and getting the perspective of peers can be cathartic, reassuring, and eye-opening. Yet parents of teens are less likely to participate in parent education programs or discussion groups than parents of young children.

      I witnessed this reluctance firsthand when I decided to hold my first classes for parents of teens a few years ago. I expected the classes would be similar to the ones I’d held for parents of children in elementary school, when the participants would arrive at my office like butterflies, wearing happy colors and alighting gracefully in their chairs. They talked a lot, commiserated, and smiled. We had fun. But when I walked into my first class for parents of teens, it felt as though the lighting had changed in the room. The parents wore darker clothes and darker expressions. They raised their hands to speak, and even when I called on them they didn’t speak much. A few of them admitted reasons for their reticence: they were afraid of betraying their teen’s privacy or worried the others would judge them for having poor parenting skills. After a few sessions, however, the parents discovered how much they had in common, even though their problems looked different on the surface. Once the ice was broken these parents were movingly honest and very funny. The payoff for overcoming the initial inhibition was a sense of proportion, a deeper understanding of the normal pain of raising adolescents, a feeling of hope, and an appreciation of the power of fellowship.

      Despite reservations you might feel about sharing your parenting worries, I encourage you to give a parenting group a try. Here are a few guidelines I’ve developed over the years to create strong groups and get the discussion flowing.


Nuts and Bolts

      Group size is an important element. A group that is too small can devolve into a chat session; one that’s too large will lack intimacy. Aim to have ten to twelve members in your group. (If you have a professional leader, such as an adolescent development specialist, counselor, or psychologist, the group can be larger, with up to twenty members.)

      When and where should your group meet? The answers depend on the group’s composition. Parents working outside of home will be available on weekday evenings; those who have more flexible schedules may prefer to meet in the morning shortly after school drop-off.  Weekend meetings are often harder to schedule because they conflict with teens’ activities and parental driving obligations. An exception to this rule occurs when parents whose children attend Sunday school together form a group of their own. If the school or your synagogue or church can offer you a meeting room, your group can conveniently assemble while the children are in class.

      Most book discussion groups are held at members’ homes. The advantage of rotating among member’s residences is distribution of responsibility for hosting and traveling, the advantage of meeting at the same place each time is ease of navigation and familiarity.
I suggest scheduling an hour and a half for each meeting if you can start promptly, two hours if you want to allow for a brief schmoozing period at the beginning. Consider holding meetings weekly for a predetermined period: six to eight weeks is a typical duration. Of course, you can alter the schedule or extend the group as the members wish.

      Groups can also meet in cyberspace via videoconferencing sessions and online discussions. But because of the technological requirements and the challenges of maintaining privacy, I recommend virtual meetings only when in-person groups are not possible.


How to Find Participants

      As I mentioned, parents of teens are notoriously reluctant to discuss their problems. At one high school, the school counselor, desperate to boost enrollment in her parent education programs, changed the title of her discussion group from “Understanding Teen Social and Emotional Development” to “A Workshop on How to Get Your Child into College: The Impact of Teen Social and Emotional Development.” Since few parents got as far as the subtitle, the room was packed. I doubt you’ll need to employ trickery to find group members, but unless you already know several parents who want to start a discussion group, you’ll need persistence as well as a light touch. Try submitting an announcement to your school, church, synagogue or community center newsletter, or message board, or post it on a social networking site.  You can write something like, “Escape from your teenagers! Meet new people with similar problems, make new friends; sharing of personal stuff is encouraged but not required…if you are a perfect parent with perfect child, you are not invited.” Or pass a similar email message announcing your group to anyone who has regular contact with parents of teens. This includes school administrators, coaches, private music teachers, tutors, the librarian, the head of the parents’ association, or the mom in your neighborhood who knows everyone. Ask these people to forward the message to possible group members. Another option is to look for members on Goodreads.com, a book lovers’ website that offers opportunities for its three million members to form book discussion groups.


Leadership

      Almost everyone knows of a book club in which books are never discussed. If you want your parenting group to have some meat on its bones, consider hiring or appointing someone to lead it. A leader helps provide some structure; structure allows the members more confidence; and confidence leads to a deeper conversation.
If your group elects a moderator from one of its ranks, the members should grant her the authority to say things like, “We’ve gotten off track,” or “Let’s hear from someone else now,” or “That’s a great point. We’ll talk about it more in a few weeks.” A professional leader can perform these services and also offer expertise in adolescence. You can ask a counselor, social worker, or member of the clergy to take on the role. Make sure the leader has experience with teenagers. Although school administrators and teachers can make capable leaders, avoid using someone who works in a school attended by children of group members. (An exception is an exclusively school-based group led by a counselor from that school.) Otherwise the familiarity can make it difficult for parents of teens to be candid. 


Ground Rules

      A few good ground rules will keep the group members feeling comfortable and protected. Here are some possibilities for your group:

•       If the group leader is not in charge of organizational details, appoint someone else to manage this task. This person will maintain contact information, send out meeting reminders, and handle other logistics as they arise. Members should contact this person if they are unable to attend a meeting.

•      Meetings will be held at a regular time and won’t be rescheduled to accommodate the needs of individual members. Group members will do their best to arrive on time and stay for the full meeting.

•      Group members acknowledge the privacy concerns of both parents and their teenagers; they also acknowledge the honor of being trusted with information about others’ families. What is said in the group will be kept confidential.

•      No one is required to share personal information about themselves, their families, or their teens. The group agrees that members can opt to “pass” out of a discussion and remain quiet, without being badgered about this decision by other members.

•      Members also agree to stay aware of the natural impulse to monopolize the discussion. They will refrain from excessive interruption and attempt to give equal airtime to everyone.

•      Members will phrase comments about one another’s parenting decisions in respectful, positive terms.  They agree to do more listening than advising and to refrain from psychoanalyzing, haranguing, or offering predictions about the fate of other members’ children.


Curriculum for a Blessing of a B Minus Parenting Group

      Below is a curriculum for a parenting group that meets for eight sessions. Each session includes a reading assignment and discussion questions. Don’t be alarmed by the number of questions; I’ve included more questions than a group can reasonably expect to discuss in a ninety-minute session. The leader or group members can pick and choose from the questions according to the group’s interests. Questions should be forwarded to members in advance of each meeting, since some of them require personal reflection or a bit of research.


Session One

Reading assignment:

Chapter 1. The Hidden Blessings of Raising Teenagers
Chapter 2. The Blessing of Strange Fruit: Accepting the Unique Glory of Your Teen

      Open the first session with introductions. Invite members to say their names and the gender, ages, and grades of their teens. If they wish, members can describe topics they hope the group will cover. Next go around the room and share brief general reactions to the assigned chapters. (“What stood out? What did you relate to?”) Then move on to the members’ answers to the chosen questions. Remind members that they are entitled to say “pass” when their turn comes up. Expect the class to take a few sessions to hit its stride. Be patient and as tolerant as possible, both with yourself and the other members, as many of these subjects are delicate and/or sensitive.

1. Discuss the idea that adolescence can be compared to the Israelites’ journey across the desert. In what areas are your teenagers still too green to enter the Promised Lands they long for?

2. How would you characterize your own teenage years? Do you wish to shield your child from what you went through, or would you like him or her to have some similar experiences?

3. How would you describe your child’s adolescence so far? What are your fears about their journey? What are your hopes for the next few years?

4. What is your leadership style as a parent? Do you tend to micromanage and worry a lot; do you issue orders from the top and expect them to be followed; or are you more laid back? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each style? How can you cultivate the quality of “compassionate detachment”?

5. Think of parents whose teenagers have grown into happy, productive, non-neurotic adults. How would you characterize their parenting style? Or interview one or two teachers or school administrators you admire. Ask them about the strategies they use to detach themselves from dramas while remaining respectful, effective leaders. Share these with the group.

6. What are your dreams for your child’s future? Where do they differ from your child’s own dreams?

7. Take an inventory of your child’s innate gifts and inclinations. Have you expected your child to change in ways that may not be possible due to his natural temperament? Where can you reasonably ask your child to stretch?

8. When is it appropriate for a parent to insist that a child develop skills that will contribute to a well-rounded, successful adult life? What is your view about requiring teenagers to master a musical instrument, become fluent in a second language, play at least one sport, or develop a specialized area of academic knowledge, even if the child resists?

9. Looking back at the past week and month, make your own appreciation list similar to the one on page 28. Try viewing your teen from the standpoint of a cultural anthropologist. What do you appreciate about your “strange fruit”?


Session Two

Reading assignment:

Chapter Three. The Blessing of a Bad Attitude: Living Graciously with the Chronically Rude

1. Are teens today truly less polite than teens of previous generations, or do elders always despair of the callowness of youth?

2. What manners did you learn at home that stood you in good stead in your adult life? Were any oppressive or unnecessary? What was neglected in your social education?

3. Fill in the blank: I wish to foster mutual respect and decorum in my home but consistently struggle with ___________.

4. Make a list of standards for minimum politeness in your home. How does it differ from mine? From others in the group? Do you find that there is a general consensus, or does there seem to be a lack of community agreement about what constitutes good manners in adolescents?

5. Many of the parents I work with guiltily describe their pattern of interaction with their teens as “Nice, nice, nice…mean!” In other words, they accommodate their teens’ challenging behavior until they explode in fury. Does this describe your own pattern? What would a more productive pattern look like? What can you do to shift your rhythm of emotional responses?

6. Is it possible that your child is too polite? Is she a people pleaser? Inhibited? Not as forthright with peers as you would like him to be?

7. Do you believe in double standards for parents and teens when it comes to salty language, keeping your word, and being on time?

8. Do you wake your teen each weekday morning? Do you mind starting your day this way? What are the potential disadvantages of this courtesy?

9. List some ways you put “money in the bank of goodwill” for your teen. Are they effective?


Session Three

Reading assignment:

Chapter Four. The Blessing of a B Minus: The Real Lessons of Homework, Chores, and Jobs

1. What are your own household chores? What is your attitude toward doing them?

2. Make a list of the tasks you’d like to add to your child’s to-do list. (This list could include specific chores, or responsibility for keeping track of homework assignments, or getting a paid job.) Then list the obstacles that may prevent you from following through on this list. If you wish, share the two lists with the group and ask for suggestions for overcoming hurdles.

3. How much parental involvement in homework is appropriate? Is a hands-off approach ever best? How has your view changed from your child’s earlier school years?

4. Do you agree that a teen should be allowed to have a messy bedroom, or do you feel that a disorderly space means a disorderly mind?

5. If your child lets stuff pile up in his room, is it ever appropriate to go in and sort through the notebooks, clothes, paper, and junk? What about discarding these things without your teen’s permission? What are the costs and benefits?

6. In an economy where jobs are scarce, unpaid internships are becoming more and more popular as a way to gain work experience and build a resume. Yet in this chapter I compare such internships unfavorably to ordinary, unglamorous paid jobs. Do you find my view old-fashioned, impractical or sensible?

7. Does your teen have a job? What are the best opportunities for part-time work in your area?


Session Four

Reading Assignment:

Chapter Five. The Blessing of a Lost Sweater: Managing Your Teen’s Materialism, Entitlement, and Carelessness

1. What was your favorite item of clothing, sports equipment, room decoration, gadget, tool, or other “toy” as a teenager?

2. When you were a teen, were there specific items you coveted but never received? Did you feel deprived? Did this feeling have a negative impact on you? Or was there an advantage in it?

3. Is your child too materialistic? How might the example you set reinforce this tendency?

4. Some teens like to look sharp, while others prefer worn out, sloppy, or dirty clothing. If your child is uninterested in what you consider proper attire and grooming what might he or she be trying to communicate with this style? What role do you wish to take in enforcing standards of dress?

5. Invite a member of the group to read the story of Lily and the rejected BMW aloud in class. What is your reaction to Lily’s parents’ response? How would you react if your child complained about a generous gift?

6. Think of an exchange in which your teenager was angry with you for not providing a particular item or performing a particular service. How did you react? If you wish you could have handled the situation differently, try role-playing it with another parent in the group.

7. Do you possess “healthy narcissism”? What are some ways you can demonstrate conviction about the importance of looking nice and caring for your needs?

8. Re-read the graduation dress story. Do you find yourself sympathizing with either Mom A or Mom B? Why?


Session Five

Reading Assignment:

Chapter Six. The Blessing of Problems to Solve: Letting Your Teen Learn from Bad Judgment and Stressful Situations

1. Where is your child too intolerant of suffering? Is it in math, sports, or dull tasks such as proofreading or memorization? Do you see your child as oversensitive to teasing from friends or criticism from adults? 

2. And where is your child too tolerant and unable to stand up for himself when a legitimate problem arises?

3. Do you frequently rush in to save your child from unpleasant situations? Think of a specific instance. Are you glad you intervened or helped out, or do you regret your actions? If you wish to respond differently in the future, how can you remind yourself to stop and reflect before rushing in too quickly?

4. Teens have a right to make mistakes and learn from them—and so do parents. How do you feel when you realize you’ve made a parenting misstep? Are you modeling the self-acceptance you want your teenager to develop?

5. Page 102 describes the need to distinguish dramas from emergencies. Share ideas with the group about ways to tell the difference.

6. What were your experiences of good danger during adolescence? Did you travel without adult supervision? Spend time with people very different from your own family or community? Lie to your parents about your whereabouts to gain some freedom? How did these experiences prepare you to navigate life on your own?

7. Do you suffer from “mean world syndrome”? How can you cultivate a nonalarmist but realistic view of your environment?

8. Did you ever experience danger that left a lasting, upsetting impression? Did the experience teach you street smarts? Or did it wound you in some way? How do these experiences affect the way you raise your teenager?


Session Six

Reading Assignment:

Chapter Seven. The Blessing of Staying Up Late: Making Time for Rest and Fun

1. Did you take your children to religious services when they were young? If so, is your teenager enthusiastic about attending now? What are the best ways to handle a teen’s reluctance to participate in religious activities?

2. Did you celebrate Shabbat or a day of rest when your child was smaller? Do you now? What are ways you can draw the spirit of Shabbat into your week?

3. Does your teen have enough time for sleep and relaxation?

4. How do you feel about stepping in when an overworked, overtired teenager insists that she “likes being busy” or that he “doesn’t need to sleep”? Where do you draw the line between letting a teen learn the downside of overscheduling and protecting him from the pressure of our hypercompetitive culture?

5. What activities provided you with the most fun and flow as a teenager?

6. What is your teenager’s preferred method of chilling out? Does it offend, frighten, or annoy you?

7. Many parents of teens say they feel left out and depleted. What pathways to flow have you tried? Have you expanded your social world? What is working? What isn’t?

8. What’s your policy about your teen entering your bedroom? Do you have a private space that is entirely your own?


Session Seven

Reading Assignment:

Chapter Eight. The Blessing of Breaking the Rules: Real Life as Ethics Lab

1. Re-read pages 136 through 139 about the “traps” parents fall into when their child breaks rules. Which of these traps lure you most often? How can you avoid them?

2. When you were a teenager, how did your parents discipline you? Were they hands-off? Did they use physical punishments or humiliation? Did they follow through on the consequences they threatened? Ask yourself which aspects of their disciplinary techniques helped you acquire an ethical sense, and which aspects left you feeling rejected or ashamed.

3. Think of three or four common teen misdeeds and come up with an example of teshuvah for each. Share these with the group.

4. Quickly, name your child’s five worst traits. Don’t think too hard! Now recast each as a talent, gift, or positive attribute. Resist sarcasm. How can you provide your child with channels for the productive expression of these traits?

5. Explore your double standards (we all have them) by answering the questions on page 152. Can you spot any contradictions between what you say and what you do? Can you make changes? What obstacles do you anticipate facing if you try to improve?


Session Eight

Reading Assignment:

Chapter Nine. The Blessing of a Hangover: A Sanctified Approach to Substances and Sex
Chapter Ten. The Courage to Let Them Go

1. What did your parents or childhood religion teach you about the role of pleasure in life? Were you taught that sex or inebriation is shameful? Were you around adults who couldn’t control their drinking, drug use or other impulsive behaviors? How do these experiences affect the way you are raising your teen?

2. What is your stance toward teenage experimentation? Are you the pleasure police? Or do you cover your eyes, ears, and intuition?

3. Were you surprised by my philosophy that teens may benefit from experimentation with substances and physical affection while they are still under their parents’ protection? How do you feel about expecting teens to remain celibate and sober until they are in college or on their own?

4. When your teen approaches you about a delicate topic, do you tend to overreact? Or underreact? What strategies can you use to remain composed while feeling embarrassed or unsure?

5. Come up with a couple of situations in which a parent might have to make a difficult decision about a child’s readiness. (Some ideas: A teenager wants to go out with a friend whom you distrust; wants to study in the bedroom with friends of the opposite sex; asks you to help procure birth control.) Ask yourself how a thoughtful parent would break down the request and apply the “natural laboratory” concept to make a decision. Role-play the request with another parent in the group.

6. Where do you stand on the concept of “friends with benefits”?

7. Do you agree with the idea of “truthiness” as a parental stance?

8. Take an inventory of your daily delight quotient. How might you bring more sensual pleasures into your life?

9. When your child leaves home to attend college or live independently, do you expect to feel as sad as the father in chapter ten? Or mostly nervous? Or joyful? Or relieved? Or all four? If your child has attended sleepaway camp or an out-of-town program, use your reaction to that experience as a guide.


Conclusion

      It’s so enlightening and such a relief to get together with other parents who are fellow travelers in the desert of adolescence that it may be as difficult to end your group as it was to begin it. When the eight sessions are over, say a warm goodbye…or exchange email addresses or become Facebook friends with those members whose company you particularly enjoyed. You can also consider holding further meetings. The Jewish custom of the havurah, a small group of people who meet regularly to celebrate Shabbat, lifecycle events, and holidays, provides a model for a possible Promised Land for parents, especially those who have an empty nest facing them in the near future.

 

 

October 12, 2010

The Blessings of a B Minus (New York Times Magazine)

This blog has such a lively readership.  To see their comments or to add your own, visit this blog in on the New York Times Magazine website.

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October 12, 2010, 10:41 am

The Blessing of a B Minus

By LISA BELKIN


“Little kids, little problems,” the Russian version of the proverb says.

In Italian, it’s “Little children, headache; big children, heartache.”

And in Yiddish: “Small children disturb your sleep, big children disturb your life.”

In her new book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers, psychologist Wendy Mogel acknowledges that parents have more reason to worry as their children grow:

The main difference between raising small children and teenagers is the danger involved, both perceived and real. There’s a difference between teaching your child to ride a two-wheeler and teaching her to drive a car. Between worrying that she will eat too much sugar at a birthday party and fearing that she might take Ecstasy at a rave. Between your disappointment that he wasn’t placed in the top second-grade reading group and worrying that he won’t make it into college.

But, she warns, the fact that the dangers are scarier does not change the fact that facing them down is what allows a teen to become a healthy adult. Mogel’s first book, “Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children,” sent the message that bumps and bruises (both the literal and the metaphorical kinds) are part of how children learn to be pick themselves up and move on. In this new book, her goal is to assure us that everything alarming about older children — their lack of motivation, their bursts of anger or surliness, their tendency to treat us like an A.T.M., their recklessness, their rudeness — are exactly the things they must do in order to become responsible, resilient adults.

As she explained in an interview:

…rudeness… is a sign that your teen is working to separate from those she trusts the most. So see it as a chance to teach tolerance and respect. What looks like runaway materialism is a chance to teach the virtue of moderation. And it’s also a blessing for parents to live with these creatures who have such a lusty capacity for delight, who vibrate with the perfection of the universe when they find the perfectly perfect pair of skinny jeans.

I’m guessing that most of you don’t see your child’s insistence on buying and spending, or grunting and snapping, as “blessings.” I suspect that you see these as signs that you have failed. Most parents take the ups and downs of teenagers personally, Mogel says, and the result is a cycle that might well be familiar to you:

Well-intentioned parents perceive the world as so competitive and dangerous — there are only 10 good colleges, the drugs are stronger, sex more dangerous — that they wish for their child to go straight from sweet third grader to junior statesman. They hope that with the right strategy their child can skip the stage of adolescence — of risk-taking, bad choices, oversleeping and sketchy friends — entirely.

So they get very involved and become very helpful on one hand and become overly reactive and suspicious on the other. Normal teen ups and downs seem like tsunamis. And here’s the outcome: instead of typical teen moodiness, arrogance and annoyance-with-parents these overhandled, overstressed kids feel anxious, demoralized and helpless, and some become very angry. Instead of taking it out on their parents — who already seem so vulnerable — they take it out on themselves in the form of eating disorders, self-injury, homework strikes and anxiety and gloominess about the future.

  Then when these teens get to college they are unprepared to manage without their handlers. The deans call those who have been overprotected “teacups” and those who have been fried from overscheduling and overwork “crispies.” Some get into top schools but come home before the end of first semester.

In other words, she believes, it is the overreaction to adolescence, rather than the actual dangers of adolescence that threatens our kids. Her book is filled with reassurance, much of it summed up into spoonful-sized statements, like:

1. Teenagers need to make dumb mistakes to get smart.

2. Be ALERT but not ALARMED.

3. Be compassionate and concerned but not enmeshed.

4. Love them but do not worship them like idols or despise them when they let you down.

5. Be observant without spying or prying.

6. Pretend you have seven kids: Dopey, Bashful, Sleepy, Grumpy, Doc (the “know it all”), Sneezy (Does he have a learning disability? An undiagnosed handicap of some kind?), Happy (Is he too laid back? Where is his passion, focus, ambition and drive?) and that which ever of these seven appear in your child’s form on any given day, they are all just going through a phase.

7. When they come to you in distress, resist responding like a concierge, talent agent or the secret police. Assume that they are capable of figuring out — through trial and error — how to solve their own problems.

8. Be forewarned that the college Common Application asks about “paid” employment with the word “paid” in bold. Remind yourself that ordinary chores and nonfancy paid jobs provide a great education in ordinary but vital life skills.

9. Remind yourself that watching dumb YouTube videos is a healthful form of decompression and entertainment for teenagers.

10. Remind yourself that they are unlikely to fulfill all of your dreams or all of your nightmares.

11. Remember that a snapshot of your teenager today is not the epic movie of her life.

12. Recognize that once they get to college, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) laws don’t allow parents to see their child’s grades so it’s a good idea for students to learn the relationship between effort and outcome long before they go.

13. Plan parental obsolescence, raise them to leave you. The Talmud requires that parents teach their child how to swim.

14. Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child.

15. Find support in other adults instead of letting shame or fear about your teenager’s twisting path cause you to isolate yourself.

She dubs her philosophy “compassionate detachment,” defined as “viewing the upsetting aspects of adolescence as normal and necessary — as blessings that represent healthy growth, parents can put them in perspective and react thoughtfully instead of impulsively. Thus, bad grades, emotional outbursts, rudeness, breaking the rules, staying up late and experimentation become signs that a teen is on course, not headed for disaster.”

A blessing indeed.

October 12, 2010

The One Parenthood Book I Couldn't Live Without (Child Magazine)

CHILD Magazine, March 2005

By Elizabeth Fishel


The One Parenthood Book
I Couldn‘t Live Without

 

Our children don’t come with an instruction manual, but a good book about parenthood can be the next best thing.  Here, 13 notable American writers reveal their favorites.  With a few classics, old and new, and a few surprises, these are the books that guide, inspire, reassure, and nudge us to grow as parents along with our children.


—Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.

“We like the emphasis this book places on the parents being the center of the wheel of the family and the importance of raising children who appreciate their place in the world and their obligation to be mensches [Yiddish for ‘people of integrity and honor’].” —Waldman is the author of Murder Plays House and Daughter’s Keeper; Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Final Solution, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Summerland.  They are the parents of Sophie, 9, Zeke, 7, Ida-Rose, 3, and Abraham, 23 months.

—Joyce Maynard

Expecting Adam

by Martha Beck

“This is a book I have reread more than once.  Beck tells the story of her discovery, early in her pregnancy with her second child (and while she was a student at Harvard Business School), that she was carrying a fetus with Down syndrome and of her decision not to abort.  In no way a treatise against choice, the book quietly explores what is to me the true essence of parenting: namely, that the decision to raise a child inevitably represents a huge risk, offering no guarantees, and that the ultimate joys of parenting have little—no, nothing—to do with your child’s IQ or potential to get into Harvard himself.  Written with a distance of enough years from the birth of her son that it had become clear what a gift he’d been to her family, the book stands as a soaringly optimistic affirmation of all the things our children give us that we weren’t asking for (which is lucky, given that so much we thought we’d get may elude us).  Beck reminds us that we do not simply raise our children.  They raise us too.”  —Maynard is the author of At Home in the World and The Usual Rules and the mother of three grown children.

—Jacquelyn Mitchard

Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care

by Benjamin Spock, M.D.

“When I became a mother, I had no mother:  She’d died when I was 19.  And I had no mother-in-law, no older woman to show me the ropes.  And so I had to learn from Benjamin Spock literally how to put on a diaper and wash a bottle.  Dr. Spock has a special place in the souls of those of us who came to parenthood without role models (or with awful ones) for giving us the operating manual.  His reassurance was of inestimable comfort.  He told us babies couldn’t be ‘spoiled’ by picking them up when they cried.  He told us that fostering love and protectiveness in older siblings was more important than protecting a baby from germs.  He insisted that what we felt was important to do for our children probably was the right thing.  I once interviewed Ben Spock.  He said reflectively that he had not been, perhaps, the best parent he could have been.  I answered, ‘But you were a wonderful parent…to me.’  My copy of Baby and Child Care, tattered and much taped, lasted through the first five children; I had to buy a new one for the younger two.”  —Mitchard is the author of Twelve Times Blessed and The Deep End of the Ocean and the mother of Jocelyn, 28, Rob, 21, Dan, 18, Marty, 15, Francie, 8, Mimi, 5, and Will, 1.

—Po Bronson

Operating Instructions

by Anne Lamott

“Prior to actually being a parent, but in the expecting phase, this book was—and remains—my favorite because it helped teach me that for the first year of my child’s life, I just need to give love and milk and shots, and I could do that.”  —Bronson is the author of What Should I Do With My Life? and the father of Luke, 4, and Thia, 9 months.

—Mollie Katzen

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

“I learned from this book how to ‘play back’ to my daughter her gripes and upsets instead of judging the situation or trying to fix it.  This was especially challenging in cases where she was totally irrational (often!) and had trouble calming down.  My solution, as gleaned from Faber and Mazlish, was to become neutral in demeanor and to let her tell me as best she could what was bothering her.  I would then try to say the whole thing back to her, in a ‘let me see if I understand this correctly’ framework.  I could not believe the calming effect this had on my explosive child.  To have a parent listen and then replay her story, with eye contact, soft tone, and zero judgment, created an emotional salve.  She felt heard and validated.”  —Katzen is the author of The Moosewood Cookbook and Honest Pretzels and the mother of Sam, 20, and Eve, 13.

—Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

All Kinds of Minds

by Mel Levine, M.D.

“When our daughter, Joanna, was struggling and unable to read in first and second grade, she became frustrated, discouraged, and ultimately depressed.  As psychologists, my wife Theresa, and I had explained learning disabilities to other families, but we weren’t having success explaining them to our own child.  Mel Levine’s book gave us a way to read to Joanna stories about other children who suffered from different kinds of disabilities, some of which she had and many of which she didn’t.  It was a great relief for her and for us.  She felt relieved not to be the only kid (after all, there was a book written about kids like her).  The book made us feel less helpless in our struggle to comfort her.”  —Dr. Thompson is co-author of Raising Cain and Best Friends, Worst Enemies and the father of Joanna, 19, and Will, 14.

—Jennifer Egan

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

by Mark Weissbluth, M.D.

“I waited to have kids till I was older, and one of the hardest things about parenting was dealing with sleep deficiency over months and years.  This book was useful in helping me figure out how much sleep my children needed.  I thought my first kid didn’t need a lot of sleep because he wouldn’t nap much.  Weissbluth says there is no such kid.  The more a child sleeps, the more he wants to sleep.  This book taught me how sleep cycles should work, and sleeping became more healthful for my sons and for me.”  —Egan is the author of Look At Me and Emerald City and the mother of Emmanuel, 3, and Raoul, 1 1/2.

—Cathi Hanauer and Daniel Jones

The Seven Worst Things Parents Do

by John C. Friel, Ph.D., and Linda D. Friel

“Almost all the ‘worst things’ mentioned in this book were things that we were doing and that many parents of our generation do: baby your child, put your marriage last, be your child’s best friend.  The best-friend one particularly resonated with us.  All parents want their kids to like them, but his book taught us that kids need a parent much more than another friend.  It made us feel okay about not being perfect parents and offered suggestions to help without having to change our lives dramatically.”  —Hanauer is the editor of The Bitch in the House; Jones is the editor of The Bastard on the Couch.  They are the parents of Phoebe, 10, and Nathaniel, 6.

—David Denby

The Uses of Enchantment

by Bruno Bettelheim

“When my boys got older, this marvelous, imaginative book [about the meaning of fairy tales] really influenced how I thought about their learning.”  —Denby is the author of American Sucker and Great Books and the father of Max, 21, and Thomas, 17.

—Hope Edelman

Attachment Parenting

by Katie Allison Granju

“As a motherless mother, I tend to rely on parenting books for guidance.  This book was not only instructive but also a good resource, listing Web sites and groups that led me in useful directions.  I did a home birth for my second child, and this book is for parents who believe in the family bed and the importance of holding their kids, as I do.  In theory the advice was good, but in practice it was more difficult to implement than I expected.  The family bed was a failure for me as a working mother—I was dangerously sleep-deprived at work after eight months of nursing the baby all night long—but the book itself offered a type of community and encouragement for me that was invaluable.”  —Edelman is the author of Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers (in progress) and the mother of Maya, 7, and Eden, 3.

—Jennifer Lauck

Night Lights

by Phyllis Theroux

“Theroux was ahead of her time, a divine writer and mother with remarkable boundaries and a loving attitude.  In the last story in Night Lights, her youngest child has gone away to school and her older two have also left home.  She’s walking in her neighborhood where she’s raised her children and she realizes it’s done; there won’t be any more days of diapers or little hands reaching for her.  At the beginning of my mothering days, Theroux gave me a vision of what the end is going to be like.  It humbled me.  Even when parenting sometimes feels like an 18-year sentence, she impressed on me the value of savoring each precious moment and drinking it in.”  [Note: Night Lights is out of print but may be available at libraries and through used-book dealer.]  —Lauck is the author of Blackbird, Still Water, and Show Me the Way and the mother of Spencer, 7, and Josephine, 3.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Elizabeth Fishel is the author of several books about families, including Sister and I Swore I’d Never Do That.  Her favorite parenthood book is Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot.  Says Fishel:  “Lazarre’s book showed me the tangled connections between the way we were parented and the way we parent and suggested how to begin untangling those patterns across generations.”

March 1, 2005

Parenting Group Guide (The Blessing of a Skinned Knee)

Download as a Word document.

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
Parenting Group Guide


Welcome! This on-line guide was developed to help parents who would like to participate in a parenting class using the concepts in The Blessing of A Skinned Knee as a foundation. There are many ways you can benefit from the ideas in the guide, however, and I invite you to use it for:

  • Book club discussion groups
  • Grade-level parent meetings at your child’s school
  • Faculty in-service workshops
  • Community center or neighborhood parent support groups
  • Individual guidance while reading The Blessing of a Skinned Knee


Setting Up A Parenting Class or Discussion Group

If you’re interested in gathering a group of parents together to discuss issues of concern, below are some general guidelines you may find useful.

Size & Participants

Parent groups can range from a minimum of six members for informal parent support groups to up to twenty participants for professionally led parenting classes. With fewer than six members you run the risk that typical rates of attrition, plus one or two parents home with a sick child or a competing commitment, may leave the group with only two members – intimate but without the potential for the same vitality and shared learning that a larger group affords. My favorite group size is twelve. Classes work best when the parents have children in the same age range: early elementary, later elementary, middle school, or high school.

When & Where

Groups can meet in members’ homes, at synagogue, church or after drop-off or pick-up at school. Weekdays usually work best, but another good option is a Saturday or Sunday morning class that meets while children are in religious school. When possible—for example, if the class is sponsored by a synagogue or school—provision of on-site child care is a wonderful asset and will increase enrollment.

Length & Frequency

No matter how dedicated and enthusiastic, every group needs ten minutes for the arrival of stragglers and for settling in and warming-up. An hour and forty-five minutes to two hours is an ideal class length. With less time the class is not worth the effort of investing in child care and travel.

Weekly meetings for six consecutive weeks work well for parenting classes with a designated leader and structured curriculum. Havurot (family friendship groups) and leaderless support groups often meet less frequently (biweekly or monthly) but continue for months or even years. I led one group that lasted for two years. My colleague, parent educator Marilyn Brown, has a continuously running class that began with mothers of new babies and toddlers and now consists of mothers of pre-teens.

Rules For Parenting Groups

No one would want to attend a parenting class that followed Roberts Rules of Order, but some guidelines for conduct and attendance will help things to run smoothly. During the first meeting, the group can decide whether or not a set of explicit guidelines is needed. Here are some rules other groups have adopted:

  • Meeting times will be established during the first meeting and won’t be changed to accommodate the schedules of individual group members.
  • No taping of the group for spouse or friends.
  • Each group member is obligated to call if they are unable to attend and to leave a message with the leader or designated person in charge of organizational details.
  • Since latecomers distract others, everyone will make the commitment to arrive on time.
  • For classes held at the school attended by the children: the topics of the administration, teachers, and curriculum are off limits.
  • Maimonides teaches us to rebuke and at the same time to elevate. Translated to parenting class etiquette, this means that we phrase comments in positive terms, do not criticize one another, and respect opinions that diverge from our own.
  • Parents agree to keep what is said in the group confidential. Confessions, harangues and problems will not be repeated outside of the group.
  • No one should be pressured to reveal anything about themselves or their family if they choose not to. If group members are responding to questions “around the table,” any member can decline to speak by saying, “I pass.”


What Can You Expect From A Jewish Parenting Group?

Martin Luther King, Jr. described the goal of his ministry as comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. A Jewish parenting class should also accomplish these goals. A Jewish parenting class examines the everyday challenges of child rearing from the perspective of the beit din (the ancient court of Jewish law). Every decision we make as parents has not only psychological dimensions but moral, ethical, and spiritual ones as well. Using a Jewish perspective to understand parenting problems gives us a long view and reveals the underpinnings of the problem, not just the surface cuts and scratches. In a Jewish parenting class, the goal is not to put a Band-Aid on the current difficulty—to simply comfort the disturbed—but to stretch ourselves by learning basic Jewish principles of living.

You can expect to leave a Jewish parenting class with:

  • A deeper understanding of Jewish thought
  • Insight gained about your individual child: his or her temperament, natural endowments, interests, and inclinations
  • Resources for finding basic information about different stages of your child’s social development
  • An understanding about how certain aspects of our culture impede parents who are trying to raise self-reliant, compassionate, optimistic children
  • Guidelines about defining appropriate expectations for children
  • Insights about how your own psychological needs may be hampering your child’s growth

A good Jewish parenting class is profound but never solemn or staid. Pilpul (from the Hebrew, “pepper”) is a dialectical method of Talmudic study and debate, consisting of drawing out the broadest range of logical possibilities in the text. The purpose of pilpul is both to deepen the participants’ understanding of the applications of the law and to sharpen their wits. Disagreements, laughter, tragic stories, laughter, juicy stories, laughter, teasing and tenderness — a good Jewish parenting class is peppery.


CURRICULUM FOR A SIX SESSION PARENTING CLASS

Each class has:

  • a central topic
  • one or two chapters of required reading to be completed before the class
  • a reflection assignment to be thought about before the class
  • a quote or quotes of the day to be written on a board or read aloud before each class
  • a list of discussion questions that will be handed out at the beginning of each class

Each member can download or photocopy this entire guide and review the reflection and discussion questions before each class. I’ve intentionally provided more questions than even the most ambitious and organized group can cover in a two-hour class. The leader or group members can select from among the questions listed based on each particular groups’ interests and concerns.

Name tags should be provided for all participants for each session.


SESSION ONE

Topic
Helping our children realize their potential without creating stress.

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 1. How I Lost One Faith and Found Another
  • Chapter 2. The Blessing of Acceptance: Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child

Reflection Assignment

Look at a photo album with pictures of you when you were your child’s age. Try to recall your natural interests and passions at that time. Think about how the expectations of your family and the environment you were living in helped these inclinations flourish or wither.

Quotes of the Day

  • “If your child has a talent to be a baker, do not ask him to be a doctor.” (Hasidic)
  • “When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.” (Early Hasidic leader, Rabbi Zusya)

Begin the first class with introductions around the table. Participants should tell the names, ages, and grades of their children and mention any topic they hope to cover in the course of the six meetings.

Discussion Questions

  • Think about your child’s talents, inclinations, passions? How would you describe his nature? Is he like you? Different in tempo, interests, volatility?

  • What opportunities does he have to express his natural inclinations?

  • Are there telltale signs (bedwetting, fears, apathy, irritability, sleeplessness, nail chewing, hair-pulling) that you may be pressuring your child to achieve at a high level in areas in which she is not endowed?

  • Reflect on whether you are accepting “good enough” or looking for perfection from your child? From yourself as a parent?

  • Think of a family where the kids have turned out well. Ask them for guidance about their expectations (for grades, for music practicing, for help around the house) of their children. Share what you learn with the group.

  • Share strategies you’ve used for resisting the “flu bug” of competition with other group members.


SESSION TWO

Topic
Granting our children freedom: Where do wise parents draw the line?

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 3. The Blessing of Having Someone To Look Up To: Honoring Mother and Father
  • Chapter 4. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Why God Doesn’t Want You to Overprotect Your Child

Reflection Assignment

When you were growing-up how did you address your parents and their friends? How did you address teachers? If you were required to be more formal than your children are, what were the advantages and disadvantages?

Think back to your childhood. On a summer night, were you able to play outside until dark without adult supervision? Could you ride your bike freely in your neighborhood? Recall the bones you broke, the adventures you had. What were the benefits of this degree of freedom? Any harm? Compare your experiences to your child’s current level of freedom.

Quotes of the Day

  • “When a person honors the parents, God says, ‘I consider it as though I lived with them and they honored me.’”(Talmud, Kiddushin, 30b)
  • “Do not to put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus,19:14)

Discussion Questions

Take an inventory of honor by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you allow your children to interrupt you when you are on the phone?

  • Do you have a designated place at the dinner table? Do the children sit in your place?

  • Do your children consistently contradict you?

  • Do they talk back to you in public?

  • Do you give your children enough opportunities to help out? To demonstrate thoughtfulness? To take care of you?

  • Do they respect your privacy? Do they enter your room or take your things without asking?

  • Do your older children commandeer the remote? Tie up the phone line? Forget to give you phone messages they have taken?

  • What are your family’s rules of hakhnasat orchim (hospitality to guests and playdates)? Compare your ideal to your real situation.

  • Do you set an example in the way you treat your own parents?

  • Share strategies around the table for combating rude talk and entitlement. Share consequences and rewards that have been effective.

  • What creative ways have group members found to give children freedom while still keeping them safe?


SESSION THREE

Topic
Giving and receiving.

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 5. The Blessing of Longing: Teaching Your Child an Attitude of Gratitude
  • Chapter 6. The Blessing of Work: Finding the Holy Sparks in Ordinary Chores

Reflection Assignment

When you were growing up, did you have as much stuff, clothes, books, vehicles, athletic equipment, and toys as your children do? Was the stuff in as many places in the house? Did your family try to repair things before replacing them? If yes, what lessons did this teach you? What chores did you do? How did you help your parents in other ways? What did you learn from having these responsibilities? What did you sacrifice?

Quotes of the Day

  • “He who has one hundred wants two hundred.” (Jewish saying)
  • “Slavery is responsibility without authority.” (British psychoanalyst, W.R.Bion)

Discussion Questions and Activities

  • Make a list of those things you believe your child is entitled to and those that are privileges to be earned. Compare lists with other group members.

  • Does your family have a ritual for expressing gratitude?

  • Do you let your children know what makes you grateful towards them?

  • Do you frequently lift your spirit by going shopping? How often do you buy something and then regret it or find you already have the same or a similar thing at home?

  • Does your child know which charities to which you contribute? Does she know why you’ve chosen them?

  • What chores does your child do daily? Weekly? Do you need to nag or remind?

  • What methods have group members found to encourage their children to take initiative about helping out at home?


SESSION FOUR

Topic
Discipline.

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 8. The Blessing of Self-Control: Channeling Your Child’s Yetzer Hara

Reflection Assignment

Take a moment to think about the way your parents disciplined you. Were they laissez faire parents? Guilt inducing? Overcontrolling? Trial and error? What aspects of their techniques of discipline were constructive and helped you develop self-control and a sense of security? What aspects caused you to feel anxious or rejected?

Quotes of the Day

  • “Be it ever your way to thrust your child off with the left hand and draw him to you with the right hand.” (Talmud, Sotah 47z)
  • “What is the normal child like? Does he just eat and grow and smile sweetly? No, that is not what he is like. A normal child, if he has the confidence of his mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time he tries out his powers to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle and to appropriate. Everything that takes people to the courts (or to the asylums for that matter) has its normal equivalent in infancy and childhood, in the relation of the child to his own home.” (Pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott)

Discussion Questions

  • Think of your child’s worst trait: anything from a little annoying habit or attitude to a big problem that has his teachers exasperated or deeply concerned. Then reframe it—think of this trait as your child’s greatest strength. What are the good aspects of the trait? How might it benefit your child now and in adulthood?

  • Ask yourself which aspects of your child’s environment are obstacles to this trait being expressed positively: An overly busy schedule? Inappropriate expectations for school performance? Sleep deprivation? Poor organization of his room, desk, supplies? School work that is too difficult? Too easy? Not enough playtime or downtime?

  • Examine your discipline strategy: Are you pumping up small problems? Being inconsistent? Making empty threats? Sticking with an ineffective approach?

  • Share strategies with other group members for consequences for misbehavior and rewards for compliance and good attitude.


SESSION FIVE

Topic
Food and eating.

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 7. The Blessing of Food: Bringing Moderation, Celebration and Sanctification to Your Table

Quotes of the Day

  • “The Jewish mother betrays an unusual amount of concern about the problem of feeding her children. In general, she should stop worrying so much about how much they eat and what they wear.”  (A 1923 article in the Froyen Zhurnal, a Yiddish advice magazine for newly arrived immigrants)
  • “Since the destruction of the Temple, every table in every home has become an altar.” (Talmud, Pesachim 4b)

Reflection Activity

What are your most pleasant childhood memories of the tastes, smells and presentation of food? What were your holiday food rituals? What are your least pleasant memories of food tensions or battles with your family?

Discussion Questions

  • Explore the attitudes towards food that you bring from your childhood. Did you grow up with destructive attitudes that you don’t want to pass along to your children? Are there memories you wish to preserve?

  • Take an inventory of the example you set for your children. Do you eat leftovers from their plates? Do you eat standing up in front of the pantry where the crackers and cookies are kept? Do you frequently eat in the car?

  • Are you so afraid of having fats and sugar in the house that you deprive the children of a normal range of foods?

  • What are your children’s’ favorite foods? Do they know what foods you love?

  • Are you teaching them how to cook?


SESSION SIX

Topic
What are our goals in raising our children?

Reading Assignment

  • Chapter 9. The Blessing of Time: Teaching Your Child the Value of the Present Moment
  • Chapter 10. The Blessing of Faith and Tradition: Losing Your Fear of the “G Word” and Introducing your Child to Spirituality

Quote of the Day

  • “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.” (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk)

Reflection Assignment

As a child, how much time did you have to daydream and reflect? What activities did your family do together that you enjoyed? What religious education and worship experiences did you have as a child? In what ways did they enrich your life? Did you feel frustrated and oppressed by them? Confused?

Discussion Questions

  • Has your home life gotten so pressured that you often prefer to be at work?

  • What would be the obstacles to a “tech free” (no computer, no beeper or cell phone) day of the week at home? What would be the benefits?

  • What aspects of your childhood religion do you want to pass along to your children? A predictable cycle of ritual events and celebrations? A lens on right and wrong, fate and justice? Sounds, odors, tastes, and beautiful images? What was missing from your childhood experience that you would like to provide for your family?

  • Does lack of skill or self-consciousness prevent you from taking part in religious rituals?

  • What obstacles are in the way of finding a community that shares your religious or spiritual beliefs? Geography? Snobbery? Shyness? Finances?


Class is over! Say goodbye, trade e-mail addresses, consider continuing your learning as a group by finding a rabbi or Jewish educator to teach you from Jewish texts or plan a parenting book discussion group using the list of recommended readings at the back of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

July 4, 2001

Balancing Act: Love and respect trump a parent's imperfections (The Chicago Tribune)

February 2, 2014

BALANCING ACT
Love and respect trump a parent’s imperfections

By Heidi Stevens

There’s a lovely passage about parenting tucked inside “A Hologram for the King,” Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel about a lost soul whose midlife setbacks mirror those of recession-ravaged America.

The book, dubbed “Death of a Globalized Salesman” by The New York Times, is only tangentially about parenting; the protagonist, Alan Clay, pens tortured letters to his daughter, Kit, whom he can no longer afford to send to college. But a portion of one letter has me questioning the way I’m raising my kids.

Kit, you know the key to relating to your parents now? It’s mercy. Children, when they become teenagers and then young adults, grow unforgiving. Anything but perfection is pathos. Children are judgmental on an Old Testament level. All errors are unforgivable, as if a contract of perfection has been broken. But what if one’s parents are granted the same mercy, the same empathy as other humans?

Will my children grant me mercy?

Anything but perfection is pathos.

Where would they get that idea?

My kids harbor no illusions of my perfection. I asked them the other night at dinner, inspired by Eggers’ book, which I just finished reading.

“You know how sometimes it’s hard to see your parents as regular people who have feelings and make mistakes?”

They stared at me.

“How it sometimes seems like parents are supposed to be perfect?” I continued.

“Not really,” my daughter answered. “You make mistakes all the time.”

My husband stifled a laugh. I struggled to remember my point.

“And mistakes are OK, right? That’s what I’m talking about!”

Again, the stares. This wasn’t going as planned.

I guess kids know their parents aren’t perfect. But do they know we’re human?

“Parents have this desire to be so pleasing to their kids, and for their kids to never be uncomfortable or unhappy or disappointed or have a social setback or a bruised feeling,” said family therapist Wendy Mogel, whom I called the next day. “It’s a terrible agenda; good intentioned but impossible to achieve.”

Many of us, she said, push aside our hobbies, our health, our identities to act as butler, Sherpa, concierge, ATM, short-order cook and talent agent to our kids. And then we wonder why we’re exhausted. And a little ticked off.

“What happens so consistently is parents are nice, nice, nice, enraged,” she said. “It becomes a mutual indignation competition, where the kids’ currency is to complain about their parents, and the parents’ currency is to feel demoralized about their children.”

I would like to avoid this, I told her. What if I encourage them to ask me about my day when I pick them up from school?

“I’d rather hear them say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and not slam doors and not interrupt when you’re on the phone,” she says. “I’d rather have them flush the toilet and … not leave their shoes where someone can trip.”

Well, me, too, obviously. What does this have to do with reminding them I’m human?

“The point is empathy and sensitivity and kindness to others,” Mogel said. “It’s about family citizenship and communal responsibility.

“It’s careless and insulting on the part of the child and does not demonstrate empathy for parents if children aren’t doing their part to keep operations running smoothly.”

I think this is huge. We’re teaching our kids how to live, which means growing their minds, stretching their imaginations and keeping them active, fed, balanced.

We’re also teaching them how to love.

We get first crack at their hearts. They love us truly and, if we’re lucky, for life. But there will be others — partners, friends, in-laws and, maybe, children of their own.

I want my kids to love with all their energy. I want them to love with compassion. I want them to know that errors are both inevitable and forgivable. I want them to show mercy.

If I don’t teach them that, I’m not sure who will.

February 2, 2014

Rethinking Mistakes & Learning From Your Missteps (PsychCentral.com)

Read this article as it was originally posted on PsychCentral.com.

January, 2014

Rethinking Mistakes
& Learning From Your Missteps

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Many of us — though more likely most of us — fear making mistakes. And it makes sense. We live in a mistake-phobic society, according to clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.

Take social media. We’re tempted to become our own publicists, she said. “We curate our persona,” rarely letting imperfections show (hello Facebook). Thanks to our 24/7 news media cycle, the smallest blunders get broadcast and picked apart by readers all over the world.

We also learn as kids that mistakes are bad. It’s better to get the answer right. The right answer leads to higher grades and scores, and greater success. And it’s a competitive world out there.

But mistakes are also valuable teachers, if we can only learn to listen.

One father told Mogel he fought with a pediatrician over his son’s Apgar score (and won). A kindergarten teacher recounted a meeting with two parents who complained the class curriculum wasn’t on the proper track for pre-med.

Mogel’s teen client was afraid to tell his mom he was writing a play. When asked why, he said, “Because she’ll get too excited.”

Mogel has worked with scores of parents who are afraid to let their kids make mistakes. It’s no wonder we try to minimize and mask our own imperfections.

And yet mistakes are essential steppingstones. They’re vital for growth and creativity. “If we don’t focus on process over product, we cannot be innovators. We cannot learn about ourselves and learn about the world.”

Think of trial and error learning. “With no trial, there’s no error and no learning,” said Mogel, also author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus.

And the reality is we’re going to make mistakes, said Alina Tugend, a journalist and author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. “There’s no way to protect ourselves.”

The key lies in how we view mistakes – and what we do with them. Here are several strategies for rethinking mistakes and learning from your missteps.

Acknowledge your mistakes.

When making a mistake many of us deny it, get defensive, blame others or beat ourselves up, said Tugend, who also writes the ShortCuts column for The New York Times. These are natural tendencies. But they also prevent us from learning.

When beating ourselves up, we have a tendency to say everything from “I’m so stupid” to “I’m such a loser.” We view failure as permanent, and success as temporary, she said, stressing the importance of moving away from this sense of permanence.

“Beating yourself up over mistakes is actually a form of vanity, because it’s as though you’re supposed to be good at everything or always know what to do,” Mogel said.

When you make a mistake, take a deep breath and acknowledge it, Tugend said. Remind yourself that mistakes are normal. Perfection is a myth.

Mine your mistakes.

We tend to confuse reasons with excuses, Tugend said. In other words, sometimes we’re afraid to go into the reasons we made a mistake because we worry that we’re just making excuses.

But, sometimes, “there are valid reasons” behind our mistakes. And exploring those reasons helps you make important discoveries and improvements. It helps you set up systems to prevent mistakes in the future.

So explore your mistakes. Do you make this mistake a lot? Tugend said. If you do, how can you prevent it from happening next time? What kind of system can you set up?

If you forget to pay the cable bill every month, maybe you can create a reminder in your calendar a week before your due date, or set up an automatic withdrawal. Maybe your spouse is more organized, and you can delegate the task to them.

System changes have created positive results everywhere from the aviation industry to the medical field. For instance, implementing simple checklists along with instituting feedback and cultivating a culture of collaboration has saved lives, reducing medical mistakes at hospitals around the world.

Distinguish between valid and invalid criticism.

Sometimes we ignore the criticism aimed our way or internalize every morsel, Tugend said. Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach, try to distinguish between valid and invalid criticism.

For instance, if you misspelled a prominent person’s name in an article, criticism that says you need to be more careful in the future is valid. However, criticism that says it’s solely your fault is not, because the editor and copyeditor also should’ve caught the error. The entire system may need to change, not just your actions.

It also helps to talk to someone you trust. Tell them what happened, and ask for their feedback in figuring out what’s right, she said.

Find a sponsor.

When Mogel works with parents on developing the courage to let their kids make mistakes, she suggests they find “a sponsor or one sane friend,” who isn’t caught up in the pressure for perfection, and “does not feel they have to have an inserted GPS into their child’s brain.”

Find one person who’s relatively unashamed and adventurous – without being reckless – about trying new things in various areas, she said.

Branch out.

“Instead of staying in the habit of doing the things you’re good at, learn something new,” Mogel said. Take a new class. Take up a new hobby. Try a solution that may not work. Practice taking chances and making mistakes.

We forget that mistakes can be instructive. “We know [from the research] that people who are allowed to make mistakes when they learn things often learn deeper and more comprehensively,” Tugend said.

Give yourself the opportunity to focus on the process, mine your mistakes and truly learn.

January 4, 2014

Child never gets A grades (The Chicago Tribune)

The Parent’Hood

December 18, 2013

Child never gets A grades
Psychologist Wendy Mogel says parents shouldn’t focus all their energies on whether 8th grader brings home A’s

BY HEIDI STEVENS

Your 8th grader has never gotten an A. Ever. Is it OK to be OK with this?

Parent advice
From our panel of staff contributors

Yep. If your kid is applying himself, working hard, doing the assignments and still doesn’t score an A, maybe it’s not to be. Offer your help, maybe get some tutoring. If that helps get him an A, great. But if it doesn’t, don’t convey the idea that your kid is a failure. A hard-working, earnest B or C student deserves that hug.
— Bill Hageman

The first thing I’d wonder is whether A grades are tough to come by at your child’s school. If the course work is challenging and A grades are given only for truly excellent results, then I wouldn’t sweat a B grade, though I’d want to confer with the child’s teachers as to whether he/she is working hard enough.

Fair or unfair, college admissions are driven by grades, and a high-school transcript devoid of A grades will substantially limit your child’s options. So this year, the last year in which your child’s grades won’t follow him/her around, I’d investigate to make sure the child is doing his/her best, and I’d consider tutoring to make sure he/she is on an even footing with the other kids when high school starts.
— Phil Vettel

Expert advice

“We’re so automatically focused on grades to take the temperature of a child’s whole character and whole future,” says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a B Minus” (Scribner). “There’s so much more to look at.”

Academically, Mogel says, pay attention to the teacher comments.

“If they’re saying things like, ‘She’s spending most of her time chatting with her neighbors,’ that’s one thing,” she says. “Or maybe it’s, ‘I see him maturing and really applying himself, and he’s brought his algebra up to a B.’”

Keep an eye on homework time, she adds. “Is he playing ‘World of Warcraft’ too much? Is she sending Snapchats all night?”

Grades are just one sign of whether he is applying himself and grasping the material. Take stock of his non-academic pursuits as well, Mogel says. “Is he stretching himself and deriving satisfaction from any area of his life? Is he an artist? An athlete? How does he treat his grandparents? The neighbors? What does the coach say?”

Take a look at your child’s friends.

“Are they devoted kids who are interested in their futures and respectful to adults?” Mogel asks. “We’ve narrowed down our thinking about individual children so much that we use grades to measure them, ourselves and whether the Earth will continue to rotate on its axis.”
That said, performing at school is an eighth-grader’s primary job.

“During the school year, their task is to do their schoolwork and behave properly and follow the school rules and enjoy extracurriculars,” Mogel says. “If they’re not doing their work, they’re slacking off on their job.

“Eighth grade is already somewhat serious and predictive,” she adds. “But in moderation. We’ve become so crazy about achievement that we’re stealing their childhoods from them.”

December 18, 2013

Raise a Trailblazer (Parents Magazine)

Read this article on the Parents Magazine website.

October, 2013

*raise a trailblazer

You can encourage innovative thinking
by letting your child take the lead.

By Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.

The 5-year-old girl stood out from the throng of hikers striding up a steep hill. While the adults plowed upward, she leaned down, concentrating on selecting the next dusty rock worthy of adding to the collection she’d gathered up in the delicate tulle of her pink tutu. Her mother stood patiently nearby, neither encouraging nor discouraging, or commenting on, her young ballerina-geologist’s project. I wanted to give this woman a high five.

Rather than simply following the familiar path, the girl was immersed in her own compelling discoveries—and this childlike willingness to blaze one’s own trail may just be the most crucial skill for the 21st century. In our era of rapid change and daunting job competition, experts say that the capacity for thinking creatively and bravely doing one’s own thing is essential for future success.

After all, the modern definition of creativity isn’t just being imaginative, expressive, or artistic. It involves using mental muscles, planning, and self-control to produce something that is both original and useful. Many kids today will grow up to have jobs that haven’t even been invented yet, so being able to find fresh solutions to ever-changing challenges is more valuable than ever.

Indeed, according to an IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs, creativity is now considered to be the most valuable trait for managers. Fascinating research by Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, in Storrs, found that creativity tests given to elementary-school students in the 1950s were three times better than IQ tests at predicting adult achievements more than 30 years later. Having a creative outlook may mean that kids will grow up to design a radical new piece of software, discover a cancer cure, mediate a thorny global dispute, or found an innovative nonprofit.

It’s helpful to know that there are two general approaches to problem solving: convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking uses prior knowledge and logic to choose the one correct solution. This is the kind of thinking measured by most standardized tests with multiple-choice questions. Eight times seven is 56 ... every time.

Divergent thinking uses facts and experience to generate new ideas. Through brainstorming and free-flowing experimentation, solutions are tried on for size, and unexpected connections emerge. Of course, this is the mind-set that’s integral to creativity, and it’s what researchers like Dr. Plucker try to assess with quantitative creativity tests. For example, how many different uses can you think of for a paper clip?

As a psychologist specializing in helping parents raise self-reliant, resilient, enthusiastic children, I have the opportunity to study family dynamics and parental expectations on a micro level in my private practice, while taking a macro view of larger trends when I give talks to parents and educators around the world. For the past year, I’ve also been interviewing employers about their new hires as part of research for my next book, and I’ve heard repeatedly that young adults are often afraid to think out of the box.

The good news is that all children are endowed with massive creative potential. They may be natural philosophers, physicists, theologians, fresco artists, rappers, choreographers, general contractors, and even poets. Masters of the colorful metaphor! Sadly, however, cuts in arts funding, the emphasis on standardized testing, and parents’ fears about giving kids freedom to explore on their own are making it increasingly difficult for children to follow their creative instincts. That’s why we need to give them room to discover and lead the way.

Be an Enchanted Observer

Like the mom who watched her small daughter curate a dirty rock collection without panicking over a potential tear in a tutu, you can help your child develop creative zeal by doing less rather than more. “Treat your child like a seed that came in a packet without a label,” an anonymous educator once said. “You can’t tell what kind of flower you’re going to get or in what season it will bloom. Your job is to pull the biggest weeds, provide sufficient food and water, and stand back and wait.”

Of course, when it seems like every other parent is racing to music lessons, private sports coaching, and Kumon sessions, doing “less” can feel like neglect, like swimming against the tide of parents readying their children for a global race. In fact, our culture’s focus on showcasing kids’ talents—as if every night is opening night on Broadway—can make them inhibited or even rebellious. The child who feels pressure to contribute his gifts to the family portfolio may withhold them.

One boy told me that he was writing a secret play. “Why secret?” I asked. “I’m hiding it from my parents because if they find out, they’ll get too excited and then I won’t want to do it anymore.”

For loving parents, it’s tempting to offer praise for every brushstroke, lyric, or strum. Yet making a big fuss over every creative gesture can sow the seeds of doubt rather than pride: “My mom thinks I’m such a great artist, so I better not draw something that will disappoint her.” Instead, just be a cherishing witness. Appreciate your child’s effort and intrinsic pleasure in his work. Talk casually about the process, not the end product.

Go With the Flow

On a beach vacation, I befriended the mother of 2-year-old Theo. I sat with her as she watched him fill a bucket with sand, carefully pour the sand into a sieve, jiggle the sieve to get all the particles through, and then scoop up the pile with the bucket and begin again. She told me he’d been doing this for three hours. “It’s so hard,” she said. “I want to interrupt him and ask, ‘What color is the bucket?’ or ‘How many toys do you see?’ But I keep reminding myself that this is Theo’s vacation too.”

Children often seem to have a short attention span, but they can become deeply engrossed. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., founding codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Claremont Graduate University, in California, has devoted his career to studying how creativity emanates from what he calls a state of flow: engaging in a challenging and pleasurable activity so intently that you lose track of time.

By letting Theo concentrate on his sand and strainer, his mother was introducing the toddler to the experience and habit of flow. As he grows older, this kind of focused and uninterrupted play might lead to the creation of elaborate sand castles and perhaps later to the design of new buildings or parks.

Embrace Nature

In our digital age, spending time outdoors is especially invigorating for children. Using all five senses in the three-dimensional world bathes the mind and the body in the kinds of rich sensations that can’t be had with a screen. Playing and exploring in nature encourages children to repurpose materials and be inventive. Certainly, nature has always inspired painters and poets. As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Resist the urge to turn play into school. There is much to teach your child about the natural world, but he’ll be more mesmerized if discussions are driven by his own curiosity.

Keep Eyes on the Prize

Although it’s normal for young kids to want to explore in different directions, we should be striving to inspire them to have patience and commitment. Unfortunately, when every 5-year-old’s dance class ends in a “recital” with bouquets, and every “emerging artists” exhibition is heralded with publicity, it distorts our children’s perception of what is worthy of celebration and the effort required for real success.

Researchers who are studying the factors that help kids accomplish great things are now focusing on grit—the ability to stick with a goal even when the going gets tough. Gritty people are more like the tortoise than the hare, says Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and they’re less likely to get discouraged or distracted by new interests.

How can you help your child develop creative grit? When she’s involved with something that truly captivates her, she’ll be more motivated to stick with it. Your job is to notice and respect her unique gifts and inclinations—even if they are not ones that are typically recognized by teachers and coaches. Then try to give her the tools, materials, or opportunities to help her hone her craft, whatever that is.

Kids need to develop skills in areas like music, art, science, woodworking, computer programming, or writing in order to be truly creative, and that requires time, practice, and sometimes even tears. This type of discipline and hard work is embodied by the spread of Maker Faires (makerfaire.com) around the country, family festivals in which kids and adults showcase their DIY creations that celebrate “invention, creativity, and resourcefulness.” To encourage persistence, make space in your home for ongoing projects—block cities, murals, machine constructions, or botany experiments—so that they don’t have to be cleaned up every day and can unfold over time.

Celebrate the Power of Play

Of course, young children should be focused on play rather than work. Creative play—whether it’s building a rocket ship or pretending to be aliens with a group of friends—teaches your child to rehearse scenarios in his mind and anticipate that his efforts will pay off in a way that delights others. As Bruce Nussbaum, professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design, in New York City, says in his book Creative Intelligence, “When people are playing, they take risks they would not ordinarily take. They experience failure not as a crushing blow but as an idea they tried that didn’t work. Play transforms problems into challenges, seriousness into fun, one right answer into any number of possible outcomes.”

I believe that young kids whose parents value playfulness can continue to tap into this childlike quality as they get older. As the years go on, it’s easy for us to place increasing emphasis on performance and grades, but I have seen how that has backfired with today’s stressed-out college graduates.

In my interviews with employers, I’ve learned that even young adults who had stellar transcripts and extracurricular activities are struggling on the job. They worry about carrying out assignments perfectly and lack initiative, decisiveness, and a zest for taking on challenges. Wound too tightly to think flexibly, they’re unable to come up with novel connections and solutions—in other words, to be creative visionaries.

Thinking about their bosses’ frustrations reminds me of a high-school art teacher I met. Her students had been stymied when she asked them to do an assignment without very clear parameters. They’d ask, “But what do you want? What will you base the grade on?” Instead of giving them more direction, she decided to stock her art room with Play-Doh, Legos, and jumbo cardboard bricks. The students started coming in during their free periods to play and build—and suddenly they stopped obsessing about their grades on their formal art assignments. Remembering what it felt like to play and make things as a little kid was the creative fuel they needed to relax and think big.

As for the young ballerina-geologist, she was already on the right trail. No smartphone, no agenda, no educational narration from a parent. Instead, she had self-directed, unhurried immersion in nature and the opportunity to collect the materials needed to curate her own art show titled “My Favorite Rocks. Collected by Me. All by Myself.”

September 19, 2013

In Defense of the Wild Child (The New Republic)

Read this article on The New Republic‘s website.

September 2, 2013

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids.
Here’s How.

In defense of the wild child

BY ELIZABETH WEIL

Of the possible child heroes for our times, young people with epic levels of the traits we valorize, the strongest contender has got to be the kid in the marshmallow study. Social scientists are so sick of the story that some threaten suicide if forced to read about him one more time. But to review: The child—or really, nearly one-third of the more than 600 children tested in the late ’60s at Bing Nursery School on the Stanford University campus—sits in a room with a marshmallow. Having been told that if he abstains for 15 minutes he’ll get two marshmallows later, he doesn’t eat it. This kid is a paragon of self-restraint, a savant of delayed gratification. He’ll go on, or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health.

I began to think about the marshmallow kid and how much I wanted my own daughter to be like him one day last fall while I sat in a parent-teacher conference in her second-grade classroom and learned, as many parents do these days, that she needed to work on self-regulation. My daughter is nonconformist by nature, a miniature Sarah Silverman. She’s wildly, transgressively funny and insists on being original even when it causes her pain. The teacher at her private school, a man so hip and unthreatened that he used to keep a boa constrictor named Elvis in his classroom, had noticed she was not gently going along with the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program. “So ...” he said, in the most caring, best-practices way, “have you thought about occupational therapy?”

I did not react well. My husband reacted worse. I could appreciate the role of O.T., as occupational therapy is called, in helping children improve handwriting through better pencil grips. But I found other O.T. practices, and the values wrapped up in them, discomfiting: occupational therapists coaching preschoolers on core-muscle exercises so that they can sit longer; occupational therapists leading social-skills playgroups to boost “behavior management” skills. Fidget toys and wiggle cushions—O.T. staples aimed at helping children vent anxiety and energy—have become commonplace in grammar-school classrooms. Heavy balls and weighted blankets, even bags of rice, are also prescribed on the theory that hefty objects comfort children who feel emotionally out of control. Did our daughter need what sounded like a paperweight for her young body in order to succeed at her job as a second-grader?

My husband grilled the teacher. How were her reading skills? What about math? Did she have friends?

All good, the teacher reassured us.

“So what’s the problem?” my husband asked. “Is she distracting you?”

The teacher stalled, then said yes.

“And have you disciplined her?”

He had not.

This is when I began to realize we’d crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. “Self-regulation,” “self- discipline,” and “emotional regulation” are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing “appropriate” behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy. That orthodoxy is embodied by a composed, conforming kid who doesn’t externalize problems or talk too much or challenge the rules too frequently or move around excessively or complain about the curriculum or have passionate outbursts. He’s a master at decoding expectations. He has a keen inner minder to bring rogue impulses into line with them.

Emotional regulation is psychology’s new pet field. Before 1981, a single citation for the term existed in the literature. For 2012 alone, Google Scholar turns up more than 8,000 hits. In popular culture, self-regulation is celebrated in best-selling education books, like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, manuals for success in a meritocracy extolling a pull-your-socks-up way of being. Some of Tough’s ideas are classically liberal, built off Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman’s theory of human capital and the importance of investing in the very young. But then the book turns toward the character-is-destiny model pioneered by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth and the KIPP charter-school network. The key to success, in this formulation, is grit. (Though Duckworth acknowledges on her own website that nobody is sure how to teach it.) One KIPP school features a tiled mosaic that reads, “DON’T EAT THE MARSHMALLOWS YET!”

“Long may this book dwell on the best-seller lists!” Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, giving How Children Succeed a hearty endorsement. Yet though widely embraced by progressives, the grit cure-all is in many ways deeply conservative, arguably even a few inches to the right of Amy Chua and her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The parent of the well-regulated child should not, like Chua, need to threaten to burn her daughter’s stuffie if that daughter is curious or self-indulgent, AWOL (or god-forbid, dawdling) somewhere between school, soccer practice, and the piano tutor. The child should be equipped with an internal minder. No threats necessary.

But at what cost? One mother I spoke to, a doctor in Seattle, has a son who has had trouble sitting cross-legged, as his classroom’s protocol demanded. The school sent home a note suggesting she might want to test him for “learning difference.” She did—“paid about two thousand dollars for testing,” she told me—and started the child in private tutoring. “After the third ride home across the city with him sobbing about how much he hated the sessions, we decided to screw it,” she said. She later learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing. Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

In the meantime, he’s part of an education system that has scant tolerance for independence of mind. “We’re saying to the kid, ‘You’re broken. You’re defective,’ ” says Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America. “In some ways, these things become self-fulfilling prophesies.”

Education is the business of shaping people. It works, however subtly, toward an ideal. At various points, the ideal products of the American school system have been extroverts and right-handed children. (Lefties were believed to show signs of “neurological insult or physical malfunctioning” and had to be broken of their natural tendency.) Individuality has had its moments as well. In the 1930s, for instance, educators made huge efforts to find out what motivated unique students to keep them from dropping out because no jobs existed for them to drop into. Yet here in 2013, even as the United States faces pressure to “win the future,” the American education system has swung in the opposite direction, toward the commodified data-driven ideas promoted by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who at the turn of the century did time-motion studies of laborers carrying bricks to figure out how people worked most efficiently. Borrowing Taylor’s ideas, school was not designed then to foster free thinkers. Nor is it now, thanks to how teacher pay and job security have been tied to student performance on standardized tests. “What we’re teaching today is obedience, conformity, following orders,” says the education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “We’re certainly not teaching kids to think outside the box.” The motto of the so-called school-reform movement is: No Excuses. “The message is: It’s up to you. Grit means it’s your problem. Just bear down and do what you have to do.”

As a consumer of education—both as a child and a parent—I’d never thought much about classroom management. The field sounds technical and dull, inside baseball for teachers. Scratch two inches below the surface, however, and it becomes fascinating, political philosophy writ small. Is individuality to be contained or nurtured? What relationship to authority do teachers seek to create?

One way to think about classroom management (and discipline in general) is that some tactics are external and others are internal. External tactics work by inflicting an embarrassing or unpleasant experience on the kid. The classic example is a teacher shaming a child by making him write “I will not ...” whatever on the blackboard 100 times. My own second-grade teacher threw a rubber chicken at a boy who refused to shut up during silent reading. But such means have become “well, problematic,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, director of the History of Education Program at New York University. In 1975, in Goss v. Lopez, the Supreme Court found schoolchildren to have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

In Goss’s wake, many educators moved toward what progressive education commentator Alfie Kohn calls the New Disciplines. The philosophy promotes strategies like “shared decision-making,” allowing children to decide between, say, following the teacher’s rules and staying after school for detention. This sounds great to the contemporary ear. The child is less passive and prone to be a victim, more autonomous and in control of his life. But critics of the technique are harsh. It’s “fundamentally dishonest, not to mention manipulative,” Kohn has written. “To the injury of punishment is added the insult of a kind of mind game whereby reality is redefined and children are told, in effect, that they wanted something bad to happen to them.”

A different, utopian approach to classroom management works from the premise that children are natively good and reasonable. If one is misbehaving, he’s trying to tell you that something is wrong. Maybe the curriculum is too easy, too hard, too monotonous. Maybe the child feels disregarded, threatened, or set up to fail. It’s a pretty thought, order through authentic, handcrafted curricula. But it’s nearly impossible to execute in the schools created through the combination of No Child Left Behind and recessionary budget-slashing. And that makes internal discipline very convenient right now.

To train this vital new task, schools have added to reading,’riting, and ’rithmetic a fourth R, for self-regulation. The curricular branch that has emerged to teach it is called social and emotional learning, or SEL. Definitions of SEL are tautological. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines it as involving “the processes of developing social and emotional competencies” toward the goal of making a child a “good student, citizen, and worker” who is less inclined to exhibit bad behaviors, like using drugs, fighting, bullying, or dropping out of school. The aim is to create a “virtuous cycle” of behavior. As Celene Domitrovich, director of research at CASEL, told me, SEL instructs children in “the skills that undergird” grit. “Paul Tough doesn’t talk about SEL, even though his whole book is about it,” says Domitrovich. “Tenacity, grit, motivation, stick-to-it-iveness—we’re all talking about the same thing.”

CASEL was founded by Daniel Goleman, the former New York Times reporter whose 1995 blockbuster book, Emotional Intelligence, was based on the work of two psychology professors, John Mayer and Peter Salovey. (Salovey clearly has all kinds of intelligence. He’s now president of Yale University.) Emotional intelligence sounds unassailably great. Who wouldn’t want high ratings for oneself or one’s children, especially given Goleman’s claim that emotional intelligence is a more powerful predictor of career success than IQ? Besides, SEL filled a need. On top of the discipline vacuum created by the Goss ruling, in the 1990s, says Domitrovich, “you start having school shootings. There’s a surge of interest in the idea of prevention—bullying prevention, character development.”

Since then, CASEL has been pushing hard. It’s an advocacy group. The NoVo Foundation, run by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and Peter’s wife, Jennifer—and endowed with roughly $140 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock—has taken up social and emotional learning as one of its four primary philanthropic interests. SEL is now mandated at all grade levels in Illinois. Some form of it is taught in half of school districts in the United States.

Certain SEL lessons are embedded into school practices like “morning meeting.” The peace table at my daughter’s school, inspired by psychologist Thomas Gordon’s suite of alternatives to “power-based” classroom management techniques, is sort of an SEL extracurricular. Anyone can call a peace table to address a grievance, which can range from I think you smacked that tetherball into my head on purpose to I’d like to hang out more with your best friend. At the table, the children complete a worksheet. When you ______, I feel _______. I need you to _______.

SEL curricula also offer direct instruction on discrete skills. For example, a teacher might do an active-listening exercise, laying out the components—you look the other person in the eye, you’re quiet when they talk—then asking the children to role-play. This, of course, is a useful life habit and a dream to a lecturing teacher. Yet Domitrovich takes it further. “You can see where it’s so obvious that this is essential to learning. What if a child is not good at stopping and calming down? What if a child is really impulsive? What if a child is not good at getting along with everybody? How’s that going to play out?” To her, the answer is clear. The other students in the class are going to ignore and exclude the poorly regulated child. As a result, that child is not going to be “learning optimally.” Academics will suffer due to deficient social and emotional skills.

The only problem is: It’s not clear that’s true. In 2007, Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California at Irvine, did an analysis of the effects of social and emotional problems on a sample of 25,000 elementary school students. He found, he says, “Emotional intelligence in kindergarten was completely unpredictive.” Children who started school socially and emotionally unruly did just as well academically as their more contained peers from first through eighth grades. David Grissmer, at the University of Virginia, reran Duncan’s analysis repeatedly, hoping to prove him wrong. Instead, he confirmed that Duncan was right. A paper from Florida International University also found minimal correlation between emotional intelligence and college students’ GPAs.

In 2011, CASEL volleyed back at the skeptics, publishing a gigantic meta-analysis (213 studies, 270,034 students) claiming that SEL programs raised academic performance by 11 percent. Such a large and divergent finding sent up a red flag for NurtureShock co-author Ashley Merryman, who’d read just about every published study relating to emotional intelligence and academic achievement while researching the book. So she examined CASEL’s source studies and discovered that only 33 of the 213 reported any academic results at all. She also uncovered a far more likely reason for CASEL’s fortuitous finding: Many of the students in the sample populations received academic tutoring.

In 2007 a UNICEF paper on child wellbeing ranked England dead last in the 21 developed nations it surveyed. (Apparently all those books and movies about horrid British childhoods are accurate.) SEL, the British hoped, would make its children emotionally healthy. The Department of Education rolled out programs countrywide. Six years later, England’s experience with SEL (or SEAL, as they call it) offers some cautionary tales. For starters, the programs didn’t seem to work as hoped—or, as an official 2010 brief reported politely, “[O]ur data was not congruent with the broader literature” promising “significant improvements in a range of outcomes.”

Among the most cutting assessments of the British SEL experiment is an ethnographic study called “Social and Emotional Pedagogies: Critiquing the New Orthodoxy of Emotion in Classroom Behaviour Management,” by Val Gillies, a professor of social and policy studies at London South Bank University. Gillies describes the new emotional orthodoxy as a “calm, emotionally flat ideal” that “not only overlies a considerably more turbulent reality, [but] also denies the significance of passion as a motivator.” In theory, SEL gives less well-regulated children a more stable foundation from which to learn. In reality, writes Gillies, “Pupils who dissent from sanctioned models of expression are marked out as personally lacking.”

According to the human development theory of Dandelion and Orchid children, certain people are genetically predisposed to grow fairly well in almost any environment while others wilt or blossom spectacularly depending on circumstances and care. Some kids—the dandelions—seem naturally suited to cope with the current system. As Sanford Newmark, head of the Pediatric Integrative Neurodevelopmental Program at the University of California at San Francisco, puts it, “You can feed them three Pop-Tarts for breakfast, they can be in school twelve hours a day, and they can go to kindergarten when they’re four, and they would still do OK.” But many children crumble.

“We’ve been around for a couple hundred thousand years, reading only for the last five thousand years, and compulsory education has only been in place for one hundred fifty years or so. Some kids are going to be thinking, ‘Why is my teacher asking me to do this? My brain doesn’t work this way,’ ” says Stephen Hinshaw, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Heidi Tringali, an occupational therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers a hypothesis built on shorter-term influences: Many of the nonconforming children she treats may need wiggle cushions and weighted balls because they’ve grown up strapped into the five-point harnesses of strollers and car seats, planted in front of screens, and put to sleep at night flat on their backs, all of which leaves them craving action, sensation, and attention when they’re finally let loose. “Every child in the school system right now has been impacted. Of course they’re all licking their friends and bouncing off the walls.”

One crude way to measure the population of kids who don’t meet today’s social and behavioral expectations is to look at the percentage of school-aged children diagnosed with attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Over the past ten years, that figure has risen 41 points. (A lot of these kids were just born at the wrong time of year. The youngest kindergarteners, by month of birth, are more than twice as likely than the oldest to be labeled with ADHD. This makes sense given that the frontal cortex, which controls self-regulation, thickens during childhood. The cortexes of children diagnosed with ADHD tend to reach their thickest point closer to age eleven than age eight.) The number climbs higher still if you include syndromes like sensory-processing disorder, which Newmark jokes just about “everybody” has these days. When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984. Not coincidentally, that decrease happened as schools were becoming obsessed with self-regulation.

As Stanford Professor James Gross, author of Handbook of Emotional Regulation, explains, suppression of feelings is a common regulatory tactic. It’s mentally draining. Deliberate acts of regulation also become automatic over time, meaning this habit is likely to interfere with inspiration, which happens when the mind is loose and emotions are running high. Even Tough acknowledges in a short passage in How Children Succeed that overly controlled people have a hard time making decisions: They’re often “compulsive, anxious, and repressed.” Last year, a study out of the University of Rochester took on the marshmallow kid himself and challenged his unconditional superiority. What if the second treat won’t always be available later? There can be an opportunity cost to not diving in right away.

Valorizing self-regulation shifts the focus away from an impersonal, overtaxed, and underfunded school system and places the burden for overcoming those shortcomings on its students. “Even people who are politically liberal suddenly sound like right-wing talk-show hosts when the subject turns to children and education,” says Alfie Kohn. “ ‘The problem is with the individual.’ That is right-wing orthodoxy.”

Maybe the reason we let ourselves become fixated on children’s emotional regulation is that we, the adults, feel our lives are out of control. We’ve lost faith in our ability to manage our own impulses around food, money, politics, and the distractions of modern life—and we’re putting that on our kids. “It’s a displacement of parental unease about the future and anxiety about the world in general,” says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “I’m worried our kids are going to file the largest class-action suit in history, because we are stealing their childhoods. They’re like caged animals or Turkish children forced to sew rugs until they go blind. We’re suppressing their natural messy existence.”

I do worry about my little Sarah Silverman. She’s frenetic and disinhibited. My life would be easier if she liked to comply. But we did not send her to O.T. Parents make judgment calls about interventions all the time. What’s worth treating: a prominent birthmark? A girl with early puberty? Social and behavioral issues can be especially tricky, as diagnosing comes close to essentializing: It’s not your fault that you’re acting this way, honey. It’s just who you are. As one mother told me: “The insidious part is, you can start losing faith in your child. You go down this road ...” Your child’s teacher tells you your child is not showing appropriate emotional regulation. You’re directed toward psychological evaluations and therapists. They have a hammer. Your kid becomes the nail. “The saddest, most soul-crushing thing is the negative self-image. We think kids don’t understand what’s happening, but they do. There’s this quiet reinforcement that something is wrong with them. That’s the thing that’ll kill.”

September 2, 2013

Should kids unplug over summer break? (Amplify.com)

Read this article as it was originally posted on Amplify.com.

July 9, 2013

Should kids unplug over summer break?

By Liz Logan

The debate over how much tech is too much tech is particularly anxiety provoking during the summer, when children are freed from their rigorous school-year schedules and have more time to play—with or without a screen. While some summer camps require that students turn in their devices, Longacre, a popular summer camp for teens and tweens, announced earlier this year a new “anything goes” policy for tech usage, in response to demands from parents and campers.” In 2013, asking students to go without their devices—and asking parents to be out of touch with their kids—is unrealistic,” says the camp’s website.

Whether kids are at camp or not, summer brings big challenges, so we sought out advice about family tech use during the summer from a few experts. Here’s what they said:

Unplugging entirely is cheating (not to mention cruel).

School is a social place, and some kids lose that social interaction during the summer, which is why it’s important not to unplug completely. “Staying connected, which might be through social media or texting, is a way for kids to preserve their social connection,” says Matt Levinson, author of “From Fear to Facebook” and head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California.

Meredith Sinclair, a parenting columnist, blogger and mother of a teen and a tween, agrees: “I have to be respectful of my teenager, who wants to communicate with his peers over the summer, and he does that via text.” Banning tech—which breeds resentment—avoids the real challenge of helping kids learn how to manage and moderate their tech time, she says.

Parents need to set an example by being thoughtful about their own technology use.

If kids can’t unplug, it might be because their parents never do. A recent survey from Northwestern University estimated that roughly 40 percent of families are “media-centric,” meaning the parents consume an average of 11 hours of screen media per day. So, how do children learn to do anything less?

“Don’t ask your children to do things that you don’t do yourself,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist who has written two books on parenting. “Parents first have to examine their own habits, dependencies and preferences. We can’t ask our children to unplug if we don’t change our relationship with the ‘iDistractions.’ “

Just as kids get addicted to texting their friends, parents are often addicted to being constantly in touch with their children, whether it’s through a school’s online portal, or services such as Bunk1.com, where parents can scroll through and buy photos of their kids at summer camp. Summer is an opportunity for respite from technology—that is, if parents can loosen the electronic tether.

There’s also time in the summer to talk with kids about why too much tech can be harmful. “I talk to my kids about the effects of tech, like feeling uncomfortable in your own skin and getting a little grumpy,” Sinclair says. Because she has built up her reputation as a parenting blogger through social media, she says, “I talk to my kids about the struggle that I have turning it off.”

Find an approach to regulating technology use that works for your family.

It’s always good to have at least some ground rules that the whole family follows when it comes to technology at home, such as:

Setting a time limit for recreational tech use each day.

No devices at the dinner table (should be year-round, Mogel suggests).

No devices in the bedroom at bedtime (especially important with teens).

No media starting one or two hours before bedtime.

On summer vacations, Sinclair has worked hard at giving up all media for days or weeks at a time. But with her teenage son, she find that letting him use his phone for 15 minutes here and there makes it easier to maintain the overall “offline” experience.

Instead of banning devices, do fun things that don’t involve technology.

Since there are fewer and fewer places that don’t have Wi-Fi, families really have to work at doing face-to-face activities together and making that “a spiritual value,” Mogel says. It might be something everyone enjoys, or something the kids really enjoy—a horse show, a concert, motocross, hiking in the mountains. She suggests involving kids in cooking and menu planning for the family, for example, and encouraging creative projects to continue for more than just a short time.

The duties of good family citizenship, including chores that might not be required during the school year, are another good (albeit less fun) way to get kids offline. “Their privileges are earned; they’re not entitlements,” Mogel says.

And finally, a little boredom never hurt anyone. “Parents get afraid of the word bored,” Sinclair says. “We want to fix that right away, and sometimes you just have to let them be bored for a good 20 minutes. Then, miraculously, they begin to uncover things to do and tap into their own playfulness.”

July 9, 2013

Their Fragile Future (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Dr. Mogel was interviewed by journalist Linda McSweeny for her article, Their Fragile Future, published in The Sydney Morning Herald

Click here to read this article on The Sydney Morning Herald‘s website.

June 27, 2013

Parents must learn dangers of speeding at home (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Read this article on The Sydney Morning Herald website

Parents must learn dangers of speeding at home

June 16, 2013

By JOSEPHINE TOVEY & AMY MCNEILAGE

To the helicopter parents who micro-manage their children’s lives, obsess over academic performance and treat child-rearing as a competitive sport, Wendy Mogel has a simple message: you’re not helping.

The Los Angeles child psychologist and best-selling author says this modern, middle-class form of parenting is so out of control many of today’s teenagers resemble ‘‘teacups’’ and ‘‘crispies’’ by the time they get to university.

’‘The teacups are so fragile that they get their first bad grade, they don’t like the professor and they just fall apart,’’ Mogel said.

’‘And the ‘crispies’ are so burned out from the academic load they’ve been carrying since they were in pre-school that they’ve lost their intrinsic pleasure in learning, they don’t challenge the professor and they don’t take intellectual risks.’‘

Mogel, author of The Blessing of a B Minus, is one of a number of speakers who will be advocating a more relaxed, tolerant style of parenting at the Young Minds conference in Sydney this week.

Building resilience and character, not the perfect school record, should be a parent’s goal, she says.

One of the major targets of Mogel’s concern is the growing popularity of private tutoring for children who are not really struggling, but whose parents expect perfection in all areas of schooling.

’‘They feel like they’re being considered handicapped, when all they are is average instead of above average in some area,’’ she said.

’‘It deprives them of developing learning grit, which is persistence, curiosity, self-control, optimism.’‘

Carl Honore, author of the 2008 book Under Pressure, has a similar view. He coined the term slow parenting, a philosophy which encourages children to explore the world at their own pace and on their own terms.

’‘It’s understanding that child-rearing is not a competitive sport, it’s not product development and it’s not project management,’’ Honore said. ‘‘It’s about bringing a sane balance back into the home because it seems that this virus of hurry has infected our approach to childhood.’‘

’‘Children nowadays are often born and they hit the ground running with Baby Einstein DVDs and Mozart to generate brain development and baby sign language and Mandarin lessons. We’ve turned childhood into a race to perfection.’‘

June 16, 2013

Blessing of a Pulled Hamstring (Forbes)

Read this article as it was originally posted on Forbes.com

FORBES

May 30, 2013

Blessing of a Pulled Hamstring

By Andrew Goodman

In the parenting tome, The Blessing of the Skinned Knee, Dr. Wendy Mogel discusses the importance of children learning lessons of fortitude and self-reliance when they are allowed to face life’s complications unprotected. The message: let them learn early; don’t make everything so easy for them.

Charles Young, a former NFL prospect, understands that lesson all too well. As an un-drafted free agent of the Cleveland Browns in 2010, he had, until a training camp injury, been bubble-wrapped by his talent and size, never having to face football’s (or even life’s) complications, unprotected. Because of his injury, he was cut from the team even before he took to the pro-field.

At the age of 22, Young suddenly found out what it was like “to be a real person. Since everything had always been taken care of for me, for the first time I had to figure everything out for myself. I had always been the best. By the time I got to college it was still all laid out for me, my classes, my Pell Grant, my books, my schedule.”

Young had been raised “in a world where entitlement and competition abound.” It happens to be a quote from Mogel’s book about today’s generation of children, but it’s particularly applicable to pro-athletes. With the recent NFL draft, dozens of athletes will be handed salaries they have no idea how to handle. Statistically speaking, of those who “make it,” 78% will end up jobless or divorced causing them financial duress or even bankruptcy. Others will end up injured and forgotten, abruptly left to fend for themselves after a lifetime of coddling for their athletic gifts.

“Life really started to kick in when I got hurt,” says Young. “For the first time in my life I had to figure everything out myself, even how to pay bills; and time management, that was a rough lesson. In the real world, there was so much pressure, a different kind of pressure.”

Charles Young has gone on what some may call a reverse journey, learning the hard lessons of life before heading back to the football field. He understands what few pro-bound athletes understand, that he needs to plan for his life after football, before … now. And because of the blessing of his pulled hamstring, I’m betting on Charles Young to make it, not only on the football field, but off the field as well, as he looks forward to an invitation for a team’s training camp.

As the weeks progress through the NFL offseason, those fortunate enough to be drafted in the early rounds will be signing contracts for multiple millions of dollars. Most of these young men will not know how to plan for their eventual retirement from football (note, the average NFL player has a pro-career of only 3.5 years), how to invest their money or, frankly, even the basics of a checking account or credit card.

Charles Young’s reverse journey back to football is a lesson learned and a lesson that can and should be taken to the proverbial bank. Currently working two jobs, training for the NFL as well as working as a psychiatric specialist at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Young has one message: “learn early, start the hard part now.”

May 30, 2013

Invasion of the Machines (Reform Judaism)

Read this article on the Reform Judaism website.

SUMMER 2013

Invasion of the Machines
A conversation with Dr. Wendy Mogel

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist, international lecturer, and author of two parenting books, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus. She was interviewed by the RJ editors.

Why are young children so mesmerized by computer technology?

For one, video game manufacturers spend lots of money studying the neuroscience of behavior. Talking to the owner of one of these companies, I was stunned by his knowledge of children’s brain development. He told me straight out that his corporate mission is to understand how to make games as addictive as possible.

So, while parents struggle with whether or not to use stickers, praise, or punishment to motivate kids to do their chores and homework, game developers skip straight to the most up-to-the-minute findings on how to keep dopamine pumping and gamma waves flowing, how to light up the brain’s reward circuitry and captivate players for as long as possible.

And the charm of electronic portals starts young. Ever watch a two- or three-year-old navigate an iPad for the first time? Because the interface is designed to be intuitive, to gracefully follow the path of human curiosity, even very small children figure out what to do in minutes. And once they realize that this magic machine, with its beautiful backlit screen, follows their command-as so little else does in a tiny person’s life-they are hooked. It’s startling to watch them handle complex technology like pros. They’re nimble, deft, and patient-until a parent separates them from their new companion. Then they melt down, whine, and wail: “I want iPad! Give me! Now!”

Young children can be very demanding.

As can preteens, who are just as passionate and far more sophisticated in their approach. Lobbying for a phone, they’ll tell their parents: “Then I can TEXT you and tell you when to pick me up after practice…or…I can call you in an EMERGENCY! Mom, EVERY single one of my friends has one! What’s wrong with you? Don’t you trust me?” For a laptop, they’ll play the homework card: “I can’t do any assignments without it! Do you want me to just not turn things in?” Then the computer goes straight into the bedroom, the door closes on the parents, and the child enters the wired universe. Only later do most parents realize they’ve now given their child the equivalent of keys to a racecar, without driver’s lessons or a license.

Of course, all this technology does offer children wonderful benefits. Our kids can be in touch with friends and relatives anywhere in the world instantaneously. They can text a parent who’s traveling and Skype with grandparents across the country. They can also take advantage of rich resources for Jewish learning, and hang out at a virtual campfire with their bunkmates long after summer is over.

At the same time, parents are right to fear that their children will venture down dangerous digital highways, surf or socialize when they should be studying, or humiliate friends or themselves by sending pinup self-portraits to their crush. But what are they to do?

When parents just say “no” and forbid any kind of electronic connectivity, kids complain that they’ve lost essential social currency: boys feel excluded from the schoolyard conversation about total zombie kills; girls feel painfully deprived of expressing themselves on their “pages” and analyzing the important issues of the day with friends. It’s the old digital native/digital immigrant divide. And it’s growing.

How can “immigrant” parents set digital boundaries that make sense for their “native” children?

Rather than automatic indulgence or denial, parents can empathize with their children’s desires, but take time before making decisions. Instead of using age as the yardstick of readiness for online access, they can base digital privileges-access to networks and ownership of devices-on an individual child’s overall level of maturity, accountability, and reliability. Do teachers describe him as a respectful and cooperative classroom citizen? Does he hand in his homework on time? Does she refrain from lashon hara (gossiping)? Does she weigh her words before speaking, or are there frequent self-created dramas with friends or family? When he interacts with other people, does he practice chesed (compassion)? Everything from fibbing to outright lying, from shouting and fighting, to teasing and joshing with friends IRL (in real life) is exaggerated online as kids become emboldened by asynchronous exchanges, anonymity, and the lack of nonverbal cues inherent in online communication. When in doubt about a child’s readiness to manage these powerful social tools, a parent can always say: “Not yet. Here’s what I need to see first. Then I’ll be glad to reconsider.”

Once parents are ready to grant some gaming rights or online freedoms, it’s helpful to have a business meeting with their child to discuss particulars. What are the family rules for permissible web exploration? Policies about downloading? Guidelines regarding screen time? Agreements about sharing of personal information and general standards for netiquette? Measures that will be used to evaluate whether or not these standards are being respected?

Two simple practices can help avoid daily negotiations and tension: leave devices outside of bedrooms at night to avoid temptation and sleep deprivation, and outside of the dining room at mealtimes. In addition, parents need to keep encouraging children-who don’t yet have the cognitive ability to anticipate the impact of present actions on future outcomes-to remember the fundamental principle of cyberlife: everything they do electronically is public and permanent. Author Richard Guerry (Public and Permanent: The Golden Rule of the 21st Century) writes: “Before you do anything with a camera, cell phone, or computer, imagine the person who means the most to you in the world standing over your shoulder. If you’re [comfortable] with that person seeing what you’re about to do, and you’re [comfortable] with what you’re about to do becoming part of your permanent legacy, go ahead. If not, don’t do it.”

Some parents have created a “no cybercommunications at Shabbat dinner” policy. Protecting Jewish time, in particular, has the potential to make a deep spiritual impact and help draw families close.

For example, by making the Shabbat table off-limits to the automatic habits and reflexes of the week-alerting to every beep, feeling pressure to be productive-we give ourselves the opportunity to usher in holiness. By erecting a fence against cyber intrusion, we replace the public sphere with family and friends, the new with the time-tested, the rhythms of everyday life with the sensual experience of seeing candles glow and hearing beautiful ancient melodies. By putting machines in the background, we put spirituality in the foreground.

How can parents go about designing digital agreements that meet their family’s needs?

Parents can craft all-inclusive agreements and standards for appropriate computer use by using some of the great resources available online (of course, where else?). For a quickie introduction, safekids.com spells out Internet safety guidelines by age, from two to 17. Protectkids.com provides sample family Internet safety contracts. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, pewinternet.org, offers comprehensive guidelines on such topics as kindness and social cruelty on social networks, social media privacy management, and the stealth methods advertisers utilize to track user data via innocent-appearing mobile game applications. Investing time in this kind of consciousness-raising reduces paranoia and raises parental awareness. It shrinks the digital divide.

Should parents be concerned about their children becoming cyber-addicted?

Yes, they should. In one South Park episode, nine-year-old Cartman, in agony over having to wait three weeks for the release of the new Nintendo Wii, and suffering from extreme insomnia, hallucinations, and an inability to stop staring at the clock, decides to freeze himself. When his mother drags him out of the refrigerator he convinces his friend Butters to bury him in the snow in the mountains so he can pass the time in a state of deep cryonic suspension. In another episode, Cartman and friends, in hopes of defeating a World of Warcraft opponent, play non-stop for days, drink only Redbull, and grow fat, filthy, and covered in acne. Such cautionary tales may seem bizarre, but they are rooted in reality.

There is still much debate within psychiatry and psychology about whether Internet addiction should be classified as a formal mental disorder, but there is consensus that overuse is a serious, growing problem. Signs of pathological dependence include a preference for chat rooms, social networking, and online role-playing games over interacting with real friends and family in real life and in real time. Other symptoms are losing track of time when web surfing and playing mobile games, and not completing tasks or meeting responsibilities. And it’s time to be concerned when you observe your child relying on online activity as a means of alleviating feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, or stress, or denying extreme use when confronted.

Even when boys and girls are not addicted, excessive use of devices can have serious consequences.

What are the consequences of young people spending too much time online?

By spending so much time in front of screens, our children’s lives become information rich but experience poor. Excessive use can result in social isolation, an underdeveloped love for reading, eyestrain, bad grades, poor posture, a pasty complexion-and difficulty navigating important real-world situations later in life.

From my research interviewing employers about the characteristics of their interns and job applicants, I’ve learned that many of these young adults are very accomplished academically but have developed habits that hurt them on job interviews, such as retaining the ultra casual mode of online communication when answering questions, or revealing too much personal information because they’re accustomed to the public diary of Facebook. They are also at a disadvantage because of having missed out on sufficient exposure to the rich set of cues people have always used to frame their responses in face-to-face conversations: hearing the tone of another person’s voice, seeing his or her body language, smelling pheromones, responding spontaneously/thinking on your feet.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and founder of the “No Child Left Inside” movement, summarizes extensive research showing that if kids don’t spend enough time using all five senses in the three-dimensional world, they are at greater risk for obesity, attention disorders, fearfulness, and depression. Spiritually, too, they are deprived of the restorative power of nature. If you shoot a slingshot on your phone to launch an imaginary angry bird, you get a split second of satisfaction. In contrast, if you’re on a hike and hear songbirds, or discover a running brook or see a rainbow, you may feel moved to celebrate God’s creations by saying Shehecheyanu, the prayer of gratitude for bringing you to a sacred moment.

Do some parents also overuse digital devices?

Besides the usual temptations to “marry our machines,” there are now new seductions for devoted parents. Some are sucked into their child’s school’s web portals. These poetically named Illuminate, Teacher-ese, Edmoto, Pinnacle, Snapgrades, and Powerschool programs give parents access to their children’s grades, even on a quiz, the moment the teacher posts it, or information about whether or not the child handed in a paper. Originally these portals were instituted as a way for low-income parents who were working two jobs to monitor their kids’ progress; but now they’ve become a surveillance tool for helicopter parents, who often snoop to reduce free-floating anxiety about their child’s performance. Other parents feel isolated and lonely and find a balm in the vicarious stimulation of their child’s online world. It’s easy to rationalize: I’m just checking to make sure she’s behaving appropriately, not in any trouble. In truth, when parents invade the social network of a responsible, reliable, and accountable child, they are engaging in a disrespectful intrusion, equivalent to reading a child’s diary.

Many parents are also constantly checking their own devices. While Jewish tradition offers us the opportunity to recite the Modeh Ani prayer, saying “Thank you God for returning my soul to me,” immediately upon awakening in the morning, more and more people tell me they reach for the phone before rising from bed, as if to say, “Thank you God for returning my iPhone to me.” The three-year-old daughter of one of my patients gently directed her father who’d returned home from work in the Blackberry posture-hands elevated, head down-“Daddy. Sit down. Lie back.” From a child’s perspective, these devices serve as an uninvited family member or the favored sibling, preventing him from having his parents’ attention.

What other Jewish lessons can we learn?

Jewish activities offer powerful antidotes to the invasion of the machines.

My favorite form of respite is Jewish summer camp. The children are unplugged (see “Camp Unplugged”) and in nature, bonding, and using all their senses, through prayer and candles and grape juice and challah and song.

Being aware of such Jewish ethical standards as derech eretz (good manners, proper behavior) and middot (good character traits)-which are taught in Jewish day and religious schools-can encourage young people to practice discernment in curating their digital imprint. Being cognizant of habanat panim (refraining from public humiliation of yourself or others) can lead to practicing tsnuit (modesty), as well as shmirat lashon hara and rechilut (guarding one’s speech, avoiding gossip, talebearing, and slander) by refraining from posting showy or crass images or messages. Hakarat hatov (recognition of the good/gratitude in our real lives) can be applied by noticing a negative or cynical bias in online interactions. Families can practice shalom bayit (peace in the house) by implementing rules about digital intrusion and preoccupation to reduce daily friction, and by protecting time for face-to-face relationships.

Is there anything else parents should know?

Parents need to recognize that their children need the Internet as an outlet from the controlled and high-pressured life we’ve imposed on them. Past generations of kids could play outside without supervision on a summer night. Today’s kids are not free to hang out at the corner drugstore or in a vacant lot. They are cloistered, spending long hours in school and in adult-supervised after-school activities.

In today’s world the Internet is the corner stoop.

That’s why it is essential that parents devote time to updating their own technical skills. I advise moms and dads: Don’t risk losing your child in the cyber wilderness. As an Internet-savvy parent, you can keep an eye on your child’s travels and companions, just as you do in real life. Putting fences in place allows the whole family to travel freely and discover unexpected treasures, connections, and delights. In this way, the energy driving the digital revolution can enrich your family’s life, as it transforms how we interact with each other, with the larger Jewish community, and with the wide world.

May 15, 2013

You Took 10 Years of Piano Lessons. Should You Be Your 7-Year-Old's Teacher? (The Chicago Tribune)

The Chicago Tribune

May 8, 2013

You took 10 years of piano lessons. Should you become your 7-year-old’s teacher?

By Heidi Stevens

Parent advice
(From our panel of staff contributors)

You’ve already taught your child to eat correctly, get dressed and myriad other skills. How did those teaching sessions go? Did your child eagerly adapt or fight you every step of the way? The answer should guide you as to whether to hire a piano teacher.
— Phil Vettel

It depends on how serious your child is about piano. By all means, sit down at the keyboard with your kid for some casual instruction. If there’s a good rapport, go forward from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But once it’s time for more advanced pieces, perhaps it’d be better to be the parent and turn the instruction over to a teacher. That doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the kid’s piano experience—but more for support, which is crucial.
— Bill Hageman

For a few sessions, great. Equate it to Little League. It is wonderful to teach the basics: catching, batting, discussing rules, explaining piano keys, reading music, playing scales. But would you want to be the only coach your young baseball player ever has? Same with music teachers.
— Dodie Hofstetter

Expert advice

“Here are the conditions under which this would work,” says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner). “One: If this girl is begging for lessons. Two: If the parent has been a professional piano teacher for a minimum of five years. Three: If the mother has a very special trick she knows for helping children get the hang of the metronome. Four: If there will be no other child related to the parent in the house at the time of the lesson. Or any pets. And the parent is willing to turn off her phone — including vibrate — during the course of the lessons. Five: If the child is willing to do extra chores or pay the mother for the lesson.”

In other words, it probably isn’t going to work.

“You’re taking your children’s musical future into your hands,” Mogel says. “And the circumstances we live in make it harder than ever for a parent and a child to sit and concentrate and do work together in a patient, respectful, skillful, impersonal way.”

The “impersonal,” part, Mogel says, is key.

“People who get paid to teach your child piano care just the right amount how well your child does at piano,” she says.

It’s not personal.

If you teach your child? “Because we’re so invested in our children and every snapshot predicts your child’s whole future, their love of music and their ability to appreciate and entertain other people is, at each second of every lesson, on the line,” she says.

Fun!

“The odds that your child will have an enduring and positive attitude toward piano is much greater with a professional teacher,” Mogel says. “It’s hard to teach people things. You need tricks and skills. And you need a nondistracted approach that doesn’t leave room for answering the phone or tending to a sibling or a dog or the doorbell or dinner.”

Have a solution?

Your daughter, 8, says “I hate myself!” when she makes a mistake. What gives? Find “The Parent ‘Hood” page on Facebook, where you can post your parenting questions and offer tips and solutions for others to try.

May 8, 2013

Wendy Mogel keeps luncheon guests in stitches (Houston Chronicle)

Read this article on the Houston Chronicle website.

HOUSTON CHRONICLE

April 9, 2013

Wendy Mogel keeps luncheon guests in stitches

By Lindsey Love

If only Wendy Mogel’s book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee had been written before 2004, the teenage years might have been less painful for both parents and their children. Mogel’s candid humor about overindulgence, chores and self-control kept those in the River Oaks ballroom chuckling during the annual Children’s Museum Friends and Families luncheon. And chairs Gina Gaston Elie (dressed in yellow) and Kelli Cohen Fein (pretty in pink) were the fashionable complement to this beneficial organization, ranked the No. 1 children’s museum in the nation by Parents Magazine.

 

April 9, 2013

Remaking the Grade (The Wall Street Journal)

Read this article on The Wall Street Journal website.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

March 2, 2013

BY LETTIE TEAGUE

Remaking the Grade

What do those ratings you see at the wine store really mean? The A+ bottles get all the attention, but it’s the B students that provide some of the best values out there.

image
Photo Illustration by Jonathan Kantor for The Wall Street Journal

ONE OF THE BIGGEST problems in education today is grade inflation and the devaluation of the B grade, according to education expert Wendy Mogel (“The Blessing of a B Minus”). “I travel around the country and hear high-school students say ‘I feel like my future is doomed’ if they get a B,” she said.

Winemakers today might be excused for feeling the same way. The wine-rating equivalent of a B grade (85-89 points) can mean a wine might be hard to sell or might not show up on certain store shelves, especially when the competition scores 90 points or more. For example, when I asked Chad Watkins, assistant manager of Gary’s Wines in Wayne, N.J., to recommend “a few good 88-point wines,” he couldn’t help me since “90 is the lowest number on our rating filter.”

Wine scores have come a long way since critic Robert M. Parker Jr., their most famous proponent, first popularized them decades ago in his Wine Advocate newsletter. Mr. Parker, inspired by Ralph Nader, wanted to empower consumers against the insular, elitist world of wine. As he says on the front of his newsletters today, “Scoring wines is simply taking a professional’s opinion and applying some sort of numerical system to it on a consistent basis. Scoring permits rapid communication to expert and novice alike.” (The 100-point system is really a 50-point system, as all wines earn 50 points simply for showing up.)

Although the difference between an 88-point wine and a 90-point wine may seem like a fine distinction, “it’s the job of a critic to make fine distinctions,” said Thomas Matthews, executive editor of the Wine Advocate’s chief competitor, the Wine Spectator. “A wine with some distinctiveness and concentration is very good, in the 85-89 range. And if it’s a little better than that—if it has personality and some ageability—it’s outstanding. That’s a 90-94 point wine.” And what earns 95 and above? “If tasting the wine gives you an emotion—surprises you and teaches you something—then it’s an A-plus, over 95 points,” Mr. Matthews said.

Distinctiveness and concentration are all well and good, but at K&L Wines in California, Burgundy buyer Keith Wollenberg says that if a wine received an 87, he isn’t likely to publicize the score. If it got a good review as well, Mr. Wollenberg might post the review without revealing the score. “The wine will sell better without the number,” Mr. Wollenberg said.

It isn’t that Messrs. Matthews, Watkins and Wollenberg eschew the sub-90-pointers—in fact, Mr. Wollenberg said he drinks “a lot more 89-point wines” than he does 98-point wines. Wines at that lower number offer solid value and wide appeal, according to Mr. Wollenberg. And yet, it’s getting harder and harder for wine drinkers to find them. As Mr. Watkins observed, “It’s becoming rare to find a wine under 90 points.”

Have wines actually gotten that much better, or has grade inflation become as common among wine critics as it has among high-school personnel? Consider the praise that Mr. Parker gives to wines that score in the 80s, in his newsletter: “...Such a wine, particularly in the 85-89 range, is very, very good; many of the wines that fall into this range often are great values as well. I have many of these wines in my personal collection.”

Yet you’d be hard-pressed to believe that the high-scoring wine critic owns a stash of B’s. After all, Mr. Parker is far more famous for his 100-point scores than for his 88-point finds. By my count, he and his deputy critics awarded 78 wines perfect 100-point scores in his newsletter last year alone (most were awarded by Mr. Parker himself). By contrast, the Wine Spectator didn’t award a single 100-point score in 2012.

The Wine Spectator has actually awarded fewer than a hundred perfect scores since the publication began using the point system, in 1985, Mr. Matthews said in a recent email. (Like the Wine Advocate, the Wine Spectator has individual critics who cover specific countries and regions—although almost every wine drinker and retailer refers to Wine Advocate numbers as “Parker” scores.)

The Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate are the two most powerful point sources in the wine industry, but there are many, many reviewers who use the 100-point system. A shortlist includes Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar); Allen Meadows aka the Burghound; Claude Kolm (Fine Wine Review); the Wine Enthusiast; James Suckling; and Antonio Galloni, who recently announced his departure from the Wine Advocate to start his own website.

Critics who score wines are more visible than critics who do not; and the bigger the number, the more likely it will be repeated somewhere. As Daniel Posner, owner of Grapes the Wine Shop in White Plains, N.Y., said, “If you slap 100-point scores on wines, retailers will start using your name.” Mr. Posner sells wines without scores via his email offerings to a devoted clientele but acknowledged than an email featuring a 100-point wine will guarantee much a greater response. Mr. Posner said he’s not a point advocate but simply a pragmatist. “I’m a businessman,” he said. “I have a family, and at the end of the day I have bills to pay.”

Clearly, points are a boon for critics and retailers, but what of the winemakers? I contacted a famous Napa Cabernet producer whose wines have always scored very well. This vintner (who requested anonymity, fearing numerical retaliation) has turned out wines that have earned scores in the mid-90s for years. But it wasn’t until a wine garnered 97 points from the Wine Advocate that there was “a mad rush,” said the vintner, noting that nothing of the sort had happened with wines that scored 93, 94 or even 95 points. “It’s really a four-point scale—97, 98, 99, 100—that moves the market,” said the vintner.

If collectors of high-price Cabernet require near-perfection before they will buy, what about regular drinkers purchasing less-fancy wine? Is there a number that moves them to action? I conducted a short, highly unscientific poll, and the answer came back over and over again: 90. “I’ll take a chance on a 90-point wine,” said one friend. “Even if I don’t what it is.” And if it was just a few points shy of that number? Probably not.

The grading system offers the reassurance of a seemingly objective truth—but it also provides clarity of another sort. The language of wine can be arcane, and some descriptions may further bewilder. Take, for example, this Wine Advocate tasting note for the 2010 Bodegas Breca “Breca”: “Black raspberry, truffle, kirsch, lavender and liquid-rock-like characteristics. Astonishing.” You may not know what liquid rock tastes like or why it’s astonishing, but the wine costs only $16 and got 94 points.

In exploring the validity of the grading system, I was tempted to seek out wines that scored 90 points or higher, but decided that would be too easy. I would go a few points lower and look for the B’s—the wines that offered value and were, in the words of Mr. Parker, very good. I decided to look for wines that had been rated 88 points.

I bought some 20 bottles, ranging in price from $13 to $45, made from regions all over the world. They had one thing in common: Some critic somewhere had awarded each one 88 points. I asked a few wine-drinking (though not wine-collecting) friends to join me, including a former teacher turned administrator who usually only drank wines that scored “at least” 90 points.

The tasting revealed some quite solid wines. None was astonishing, but a few were very good and most were priced very well. The A to Z Pinot Gris from Oregon, for example, was an excellent deal at $13.50. Ditto the Nebbiolo-Cabernet blend from Pio Cesare, as well as a lively red from Pic St. Loup that was a good buy at $16. (The former schoolteacher liked the Pio Cesare Oltre so much he awarded it a few extra points—thereby committing a small, private act of grade inflation.) The list of pleasing bottles went on and on, including a Washington-state Merlot, a Chianti Classico, a couple of Riojas and an Austrian Riesling.

A few days later, I called Dr. Mogel. I told her about the B tasting—and my fear that some very good wines were being overlooked by drinkers chasing higher scores. I wondered if Dr. Mogel thought the value of the B grade would ever be restored. She said she’s pessimistic—there’s so much negative emotion attached to the grade. For her part, however, she’s a big fan of B students: “They’re more varied, more colorful and often more interesting.”

If only wine drinkers could be convinced.

 

 

 

March 2, 2013

Why Secrets Matter to Children (Independent School Magazine

SPRING 2013

Why Secrets Matter to Children

BY WENDY MOGEL

In chapter two of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Our Gang’s Dark Oath,” seven boys unhitch a skiff — that I’m sure did not belong to them — and “pulled down the river two mile and a half, to a big scar on the hillside and went ashore.” Led by Tom Sawyer, they clamber through the underbrush and into a small cave where, with their faces lit by candlelight, they agree to join Tom Sawyer’s Gang — a self-declared band of dangerous robbers — and swear an oath of secrecy. As Mark Twain puts it:

Everybody was willing. So Tom got out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn’t eat and he mustn’t sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band…And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off of the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever.

In a contemporary setting, if, say, one of the boys had broken the oath, recorded the gathering, and posted it on Facebook, Tom Sawyer and his gang would be in a heap of trouble. But the truth about this secret gathering is that the boys weren’t actually committing to a life of robbery; they were committing to each other, to the exhilaration of a private moment — in the book, there is no evidence that the gang ever meets again — and to a fantasy of imagining themselves valiant adventurers.

Parental anxiety runs high these days, especially in light of the abuse of children by adults. Secrecy may seem an old-fashioned luxury in a world where a football coach, boy scout troop leader, or priest might ask your child “not to tell.” Parents want transparency, to have access to knowledge of everything that happens when their children are not on their watch. And independent schools, for the most part, are willing to oblige them with rapid response emails or phone calls about playground scrapes and classroom conflicts, and through Web portals, like the poetically named Illuminate, that give parents up-to-the-minute access to details of their child’s day.

But a certain level of secrecy — what I’ll call joyful secrecy, as opposed to shameful or scared secrecy — is an essential part of growing up. Even in our nervous world, healthy child development still requires it.

Joyful secrecy doesn’t hurt anyone. Like surprise parties, or the hidden methods of a magic trick, it leads to happy outcomes. As children move out into the wider world, temporary tribes with secret dares and oaths help them feel both bold and protected. Children who banter with each other, who negotiate an ever-changing set of rules for made-up games are exploring the pivotal stage of child development that Harry Stack Sullivan, the great theorist of interpersonal relations, calls “chumship.”

Secret languages and codes, private jokes, wild bravado, and silliness are an exercise in creativity and imagination. They provide a breather from the formal structure of the classroom, the after-school enrichment activity, or the sports team. In order for kids to have an opportunity for joyful secrecy, adults need to recognize its value, turn off scare-mongering newscasts, and give kids the opportunity to connect with each other without vigilant surveillance. This can happen in school, at the park, at a sleepover, at camp, on a family vacation, or by spending the whole night in a tent in the backyard.

It’s important for parents to stay closely involved in their children’s lives and to share experiences with them. We want them to know that they can turn to us or to trusted teachers about the kind of secrets that cause pain. But we also need to give kids a certain amount of space — their space.

We can know our kids well without knowing everything they do. When I talk to groups of parents, I ask them to raise their hands if they were able to play outside on summer nights until dark with no adult knowing where they were. Nearly every hand goes up.

How many of you did things your parents didn’t know about?
Same response.

And still don’t know?
Same.

And how many of you don’t regret it?
Again, nearly every single one.

March 1, 2013

New Year’s resolution: Be a more neglectful parent (The Washington Post)

Read this article on The Washington Post website.

THE WASHINGTON POST

January 2, 2013

New Year’s resolution:
Be a more NEGLECTFUL parent


BY TRACY GRANT


It’s the second day of the new year, which means — if you’re like me — that the resolution of being a better, more understanding, more perfect parent in 2013 was broken sometime before New Year’s Day dinner.

So I offer up an alternate resolution for the rest of the 2013: Be a more neglectful parent. I’m not actually advocating neglect — just a little less hovering, a little less worrying, a little less intervening. If we give it a try, we might just wind up with less gray hair and better relationships with our kids by year’s end.

I do not, for one minute, posit that this is an easier resolution to keep than being a more perfect parent. In fact, it may be harder. At least society supports the notion of perfect parenting. Mention in the carpool line that you intend to be a more neglectful parent in 2013 and face being unfriended.

You can blame Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the parenting books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B-” for giving me this harebrained notion. I mean, the woman wrote about a B- being okay. How much more counterculture can you get?

I spoke to Mogel recently about following the path to more neglectful parenting. Here’s what she suggests:

1. Don’t assume the worst. “We have become a society of good parents gone bad: loving, devoted, intelligent parents who keep saying to themselves ‘what if. . . ’ ” Mogel says. The reality is that this biological imperative toward overprotection — think mama lion on the African savanna — is not well-suited for 21st century life. “But still we use those same instincts to make sure our kid gets the best second-grade teacher or makes the right soccer team. It’s a little crazy,” Mogel says.

2. Don’t make your children assume the worst. Children live in a very different world from adults and that’s sometimes hard to remember. “Children aren’t nervous until we make them nervous,” Mogel says. So the antidote to assuming the worst is to spend time seeing the world as your child does — at any age. “Babies are mesmerized by lights. As a parent, you see lights in a new way when you have a baby,” she says. “. . . With teenagers, you had better have seen Gangnam Style by now. It’s not a coincidence that it’s the most-viewed YouTube video. It’s so inventive, so hilarious, so delightful.” Children give us the chance to see the world as a less hostile place, but we have to open our eyes to those possibilities.

3. You don’t want to be your child’s best friend. This idea never would have occurred to our parents, Mogel points out, noting that our parents may have struggled to correctly answer what grade we were in. Today, many parents can recite their children’s class schedule, teachers’ names and grades by heart. “We take their emotional temperature all the time, and if they’re unhappy, we’re unhappy,” she says. Mogel warns that we take our children’s lives too personally, in a way that isn’t healthy for them or for us.

4. Get outside. Want to engage in quality time with your child? Take a hike — together as a family. Even if it’s cold out. Mogel is a big fan of Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” (Algonquin Books, $15), a book about the power of using our five senses in a three-dimensional world that cannot be experienced on a tablet or in front of a wide-screen TV. It’s also a wonderful way to see the world through your children’s eyes. And if you’re the parent of a teenager, what starts out as a replication of the Bataan Death March might actually lead to some real conversation and — gasp — laughter.

5. Find another neglectful parent. Finally, support on this journey is critical. So Mogel advises finding “another somewhat neglectful parent; a person who refuses to overprotect, overindulge and overschedule” their child. On her Web site, Mogel has created a 13-step program called Overparenting Anonymous. It’s wise and witty and the concept of having a “sponsor” is empowering. After all, neglectful parents of the world must unite!

January 2, 2013

School Shooting: How Parents Can Help Their Children Cope (The Washington Post)

Read this blogpost on The Washington Post website.

December 14, 2012

School shooting:
How parents can help their children cope

By Tracy Grant

What should parents do this weekend to help their children cope with the Connecticut school shooting?

“Turn off the television,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. If weekend plans include decorating a Christmas tree, having a play date or attending a holiday concert, all of those things should go on as planned.

Both Finkelhor and Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of two books on parenting, warned against parents transferring their anxiety about the shooting to their children. “Don’t feel the need to overshare,” Mogel advised.

“The reality is this kind of thing is very, very rare. Schools are the safest place kids can be; much safer than being at home,” Finkelhor said. In 2010, the last year for which there are statistics, 17 children were killed in schools in the United States, according to Finkelhor. That accounted for less than 2 percent of all child-related homicides that year, he said.

So what should parents do and what are some of the signs that their children are upset?

* Have a discussion (and this is the important part) if you think your kids need it. “Answer their questions, but don’t dwell on it,” Finkelhor said. Part of any discussion must include telling children “that schools are very, very safe places ... kids need to know that” to calm their concerns, he said.

* Don’t be afraid to not have a conversation. “I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk about this if you don’t think your child has heard about and seen something about” it, Finkelhor added. Or as Mogel put it, parents don’t need to “make sure our kids find out the worst about human nature and our society” at an extremely young age.

* Do what you normally do. “Routines are extremely important to kids, especially when there has been any kind of trauma,” Mogel said. And don’t let them see you upset. Mogel echoes the “turn off the TV” advice, adding “don’t let kids hear you talking about it all the time.” That will only add to their anxiety.

* Don’t expect your child to have a bad reaction. “You don’t want to cross-examine your child about how he is feeling about this news,” Mogel said. “Have the conversation and then just observe them for any signs of distress.”

* What are some signs that your child is upset? “For younger kids, you’ll see difficulty sleeping, tummy aches, headaches,” Mogel said. If your child shows those signs, “then more reassuring discussion is in order,” she added.

* Talk about bigger issues with older kids. Discussions about “political issues, gun safety and how laws and society protect us” can be a good way for parents and teenagers to have productive conversation about the tragedy, Mogel said.

December 14, 2012

Keeping the Faith at Home (The Chicago Tribune)

Read this article on The Chicago Tribune website.

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE

August 28, 2012

Keeping the faith at home
Even if families don’t belong to an organized religion, instilling spirituality in children still matters

By William Hageman

We are a nation of believers. Mostly. A Gallup poll last year found that 91 percent of Americans believed in God or some universal spirit. Yet a more recent poll by WIN-Gallup International and published by Religion News Service found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 to 60 percent today. And in that poll, 5 percent of Americans said they are atheists, up from 1 percent in 2005.

Believing in God doesn’t necessarily translate to belonging to an organized religion. And parents who do not belong to a religious institution, as well as those who don’t believe in a higher power, are faced with a difficult question: How do they instill spirituality and faith in the children?

Kara E. Powell, assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says parents need to make themselves available to talk about spirituality and religion at home. They should be extra diligent in making faith a topic that can be discussed so that children won’t be confused or ashamed about any observations or questions they might have. Even if there is no organized religion in the home, she says, religious holidays such as Easter and Hanukkah and their rituals can be one of the entry points into the discussion.

”(Another) thing we’ve seen that’s powerful is using current events,” says Powell, whose book “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids” (Zondervan), offers parents ways to develop long-term faith in teenagers. “Why would God allow X amount of people to be killed in a hurricane or earthquake? Use it as a springboard to talk to kids.”

Fighting the cultural tide

Indeed, getting the ideas of spirituality, faith and respect for faith across to our kids is an uphill climb with or without organized religion.

Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Penguin), says that society today is awash in irony and cynicism. Couple that with a world that seems to be melting down around us, and parents without organized religion face a deeper challenge.

“We have gloom and doom, a cynical, mocking culture,” she says, “and that will be your family’s religion if parents don’t actively balance that by showing examples and other counter-cultural ways. That means not being cynical, not being apathetic, and not being extremely prejudiced in your beliefs.”

That also means letting kids see your values: how you treat others, what your priorities are, how you spend your time.

“Children, absolutely, from birth are theologians and philosophers,” she says. If we’re not careful, she says, “we can kind of burn it out of them.”

There are endless opportunities to instill spirituality. Start with meals. Mogel points to the Jewish tradition of the leisurely meal of Shabbat, and says the idea works for any family, any religion (or nonreligion).

“It’s an opportunity to slow down our speedy lives and appreciate what we’ve been given rather than what we want to go shopping for tomorrow,” she says.

That principle can be applied elsewhere: Make sure in your family schedule there’s time for music, time for being outdoors, and time to talk and listen to each other.

Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” (AMACOM), is an atheist. He gets his kids to think about the implications of evolution. “One of the fun things is to chase it as far as you can,” he says. “Tell them it’s nice to take a walk in the woods, but it’s a different experience when you realize you’re related to those trees. We’re related to our dog, we’re related to our front lawn. Most of these are spiritual realizations.”

Raising a child outside religion has other hurdles. They’ll hear about God from their friends and will have questions for you. And neighbors or other family members may object to your parenting. Mogel says to explain to relatives your reasons, and “they can then take it or leave it.”

She says that she encourages children who are not being raised in a home where there’s religion to go to religious services with friends. The parents can treat this as “cultural anthropology,” an opportunity to learn and not be prejudiced about religion.

“Even if the kids go to visit their grandparents and the grandparents drag them to church or the synagogue, I would hope parents would be OK with that, in the spirit of, ‘Let’s look at the whole wide world and see what’s happening in it.’”

Open minds and hearts

McGowan, too, sees family playing a role, if the relatives can be trusted not to frighten the children or scare them into beliefs, talking about hell, about making God angry and such. “We have a couple of very religious relatives on my wife’s side. They’re entirely trustworthy and welcomed the opportunity to talk about their faith to our children. Her mother, I think, assumed I wouldn’t be OK with that. She wanted as a grandmother to share her faith with her grandkids. And when I told her that was OK, she was very happy. What you end up with are some real highlights in kids’ religious literacy.”

The best course a parent can take is to show their character through their actions.

“Absolutely,” Powell says. “Kids ... pick up far more from what we do than what we say. Who we are makes more of an impression than what we say. For parents who don’t come from a particular faith persuasion, who don’t have a religion that is motivating them, when they show character, they should explain what motivates them.”

Raising kids’ consciousness

It’s one thing to be a parent who doesn’t believe in joining a religious institution. But what happens when you don’t believe in God? Although recent Gallup polls have found the great majority of Americans believe in God, Religious News Service recently reported that 5 percent of Americans say they are atheists.

Dale McGowan is an atheist who is raising his three children without religion, exposing them to a wider view of the world. He believes they should make an informed decision on their religious beliefs, not have it imposed upon them.

“I think it’s been so much fun exploring it with my kids — and not being dismissive of their questions, which is a fault with a lot of atheist parents,” McGowan said.

Philosopher Alain de Botton, Swiss author of “Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion” (Pantheon), says that instilling not faith, but a respect for faith, seems to be most important because atheism is in danger of sounding shrill and angry against religion.

“Spirituality is being awake to our situation,” McGowan explains. “Thoreau wrote about this a great deal. We get involved in our day, we’re stuck in traffic, the grind of our lives. One of best things parents can do for their kids is to lift them from that way of living and get them in touch with the wonder and amazement of our situation. Being aware of our world.

“I think religion at its best can do that very well. But it can also put you to sleep. It can paste over that awareness. One of the things I try to do is talk about our situation. My 10-year-old daughter, I walk her to the bus stop every morning. Almost every morning there is something cool in the sky. Stars doing something or the moon doing something. And I always say, ‘Wow, what a planet you picked to be born into.’ “

August 28, 2012

Back-to-school gifts? Really? (The Chicago Tribune)

Read this article on The Chicago Tribune website.

August 7, 2012

Back-to-school gifts? Really?
Your daughter’s friends get back-to-school gifts from their parents. Can you resist this trend without guilt?

By Heidi Stevens

Parent Advice
(from our panel of staff contributors)

Yes, with pleasure. Going back to a good school where friends and great experiences abound is gift enough. Plus, I think we are on gift/treat overload with our kids. It’s not a gift or treat if it’s a habit and it robs them of the feeling of pleasure at receiving them. Which is not a gift at all.

— Wendy Donahue

Going back to school can be really stressful for kids, which manifests itself in crankiness, self-doubt and fatigue. Summer is over, they’re wearing uncomfortable, uncool clothes, and they’re loaded down with a ton of books and supplies and massive expectations. If there ever was a time to help her chill out, this is it. So instead of material gifts, help her get though the next couple of weeks as stress-free as possible. Favorite dinners, family movie nights, games, walks, whatever she likes to do to relax. Also, give her some space and take it easy on the discipline, if possible, until she gets in a groove and feels like things are going OK. I think she’d appreciate those things more than anything bedazzled.

— Michael Zajakowski

Expert Advice

A back-to-school gift is likely purchased for one of two reasons: to console a child on summer ending or to express pride and joy at the entry into a new grade. They’re both problematic, says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner).

“External reward reduces intrinsic motivation,” she says. “It communicates to the student that the parent might feel a little bad about the student going back to school, which is actually the student’s job, (and) that there’s some bribery needed, instead of a matter-of-fact, direct, robust transition from the delight of summer to the opportunity for learning and fellowship” that comes with school.

This apology of sorts also transfers kids’ healthy share of responsibilities to the shoulders of their parents. “In trying to sweeten the deal for kids, we actually communicate to them we feel that certain very ordinary responsibilities are kind of hardships,” Mogel says. “Then kids think, ‘It’s not my homework, it’s yours. It’s not my problem with this less-than-doting teacher, it’s yours. It’s not my problem with this group of kids, it’s yours.’”

If the gift is presented in a celebratory vein, it sets up a different set of challenges.

“We get in this cycle of graduations with a cap and gown from kindergarten and celebrations for graduating middle school and what happens when you win the Nobel Prize?” Mogel laughs. “Everything is a comedown from how much celebrating we’ve been doing. Yes, you’re going into third grade. That’s what happens after second grade.”

When you find the resolve to take a pass, guilt-free, on this trend, prepare for the inevitable, “But McKenna’s mom and dad …” to which you can reply: “We can afford all kinds of things and there are all kinds of other things we can’t afford. Some of your friends’ families have different-size budgets or different values. I know it’s hard when you see your friends getting that third American Girl doll, but if you’re still longing for one in a few months, that would be a great birthday present to ask for,” she suggests.

 

August 7, 2012

‘Skinned Knees’ are More Than OK; They're the Whole Point! (Jewish Voice & Herald of Rhode Island)

JEWISH VOICE & HERALD OF RHODE ISLAND

JULY 2012

‘Skinned Knees’
are More Than OK; They’re the Whole Point!

BY VINCE WATCHORN


Last Fall, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story called “What if the Path to Success is Failure?” [Paul Tough, September 14, 2011]. The educational community went into a frenzy; for weeks conversations were driven by this ‘new’ concept.  Clinical psychologist and Jewish educator Wendy Mogel beat the Times to the punch by more than a decade in her famous The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.

What better time of year to revisit this theme than just before the Class of 2012 heads off to their new chapters; to college, to their own lives.

Mogel guides parents towards raising self-reliant children. “According to Jewish thought,” she writes, “parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are. A Hasidic teaching says, ‘If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t tell him to be a doctor.’” In her equally thoughtful follow-up, The Blessing of a B Minus, she warns against succumbing to the idea that every child must be “above average.” She reminds us that making mistakes is essential to a child’s ability to face bigger adversities later in life, and that parents have to resist the urge to intervene and rescue.

Her theory is supported by other cognitive scientists, too.  In Dan Willingham’s informative and readable Why Students Don’t Like School, [Jossey Bass, 2009] he professes that, from a cognitive standpoint, “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.”  Anders Ericsson determined in a study popularized by Malcolm Gladwell [Outliers, Little, Brown & Co, 2008] that it is those people who practice for about 10,000 hours who develop mastery of a given skill.  Willingham expands that practice is important because of the experimentation inherent in the process.  By trying different solutions to see what works and what doesn’t, we gather the “negative examples” – or mistakes – that we need to learn any concept.

Does it not then make sense that experiencing the anatomy of error–accepting fault, reflecting on a mistake, and focusing on alternate solutions or future improvement—will help build a working expertise on handling the larger challenges life will dole out later on? 

The irony is rich: by over-assisting our kids through Mogel’s ‘skinned knees,’ we can actually inhibit their ability to address proverbial broken bones later in life.  Most of us probably want our students to navigate life as people of high character.  Yet their success is so desirable – and hovering now so easy through the ubiquity of electronic communication—that we might forget the most meaningful lessons are often found in how adversity is handled.

Mogel calls her philosophy “compassionate detachment,” which she defines as “viewing the upsetting aspects of adolescence as normal and necessary — as blessings that represent healthy growth.  Parents can put them in perspective and react thoughtfully instead of impulsively.”  The formative years of college provide some of the best opportunities for learning—not just about academia, but about life: about the humbling failure and confidence-building success.  The collegiate who can’t – or won’t – self-advocate or accept responsibility because of hovering parental involvement doesn’t become proficient at the mental task of success.  Conversely, s/he is under-practiced for coping with difficulty.

So as parents and educators prepare students to meet the challenges of the coming school year, our instinct may be to try to sweep all the obstacles out of the child’s way.  It is understandable.  We want to show love and extend privilege.  The freshman year is a perfect time to watch the success of parental and educational impact forge into independence and individuality; not to hover, but to let go and let shine the responsibility we’ve spent years teaching them. A strong partnership between parent and school has probably built a great foundation for their decision-making.

Throughout our lives, we need our parents and mentors.  We need their support and love; the relationship grows and changes with the many turns and twists of life, but the job done in childhood and adolescence lasts a lifetime.  There may be times when rescue is needed; but Wendy Mogel reminds us….over an emergency, not over a skinned knee. 

Our greatest gift to the Class of 2012 may be to know the difference.

 

 

July 1, 2012

Making the Case for Summer Camp (Make It Better)

Read this article as it was originally posted on makeitbetter.net

January, 2012

Making the Case for Summer Camp

By Kristina Tober

It’s the same question every year: What are my kids going to do this summer?

Should he go to lacrosse camp to get a leg up on fall tryouts? What about math camp to lighten her load this fall? Better yet, maybe this is the summer to learn Mandarin? After all, there’s no time like summer to get ahead.

Then that little voice reminds you that your kids are burned out and need time outside, away from technology. Maybe this is the summer to stop over-thinking it all and send your kids to a traditional sleep-away camp.

More than just fun
While some might deem this a slacker route, there’s plenty of evidence that good things happen when you go to summer camp.

A study conducted by the American Camp Association between 2001 and 2004 found that summer camp builds skills for life. Kids become leaders—building independence, a sense of adventure and self-confidence—while also learning how to be team players by working together to solve problems and survive failure. These skills define lifelong success better than any report card.

So what’s the magic of camp?

Getting dirty in the woods
Kids aren’t just sleeping in the woods. They’re learning to identify poison ivy, spot animal tracks and navigate rushing water. They have time to study a bug, ask questions about what they see and learn a new skill. Even better, there’s no technology to distract them.

“If we don’t get our kids into the woods, learning about and loving nature, we’re not going to have people passionate enough to save our planet in the future,” says Ellen Flight, director of Songadeewin, an all-girls camp and one of three summer camps operated by the Keewaydin Foundation in Vermont.

Navigating the wild and unpleasant cabin mates
Camp isn’t always fun. The food is different, the showers are cold and at least one kid in your cabin will drive you crazy. But with this discomfort comes a lot of good.

“Old-fashioned sleep-away camp is the best antidote to the extreme nature of our culture,” professes Dr. Wendy Mogel, acclaimed clinical psychologist and the author of the best-selling parenting books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” and “The Blessing of a B Minus.” “We try to protect our children from every danger, from failure and discomfort. Our goal should be to keep them as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

“Even better, you don’t have your nervous, over-intelligent, meddling parents there to step in and save you,” Mogel says. “You have to learn to be a team player, sleep on an uncomfortable bed, and get along with the annoying kid in your cabin.”

All this “good suffering” prepares kids for the realities of life better than any academic setting.

Learn to work together—or you may not eat
Camp offers authentic experiences and real consequences. If you forgot your raincoat, mom can’t bring it and you will get soaked walking in the woods. If you aren’t willing to paddle, the canoe will not move. Skipped the mosquito repellent? Prepare to scratch.

“Kids learn what they are capable of, particularly in the wilderness,” says J.R. Verkamp, director of Kooch-i-Ching, an all-boys wilderness camp in Minnesota. “It’s amazing to see on a canoe trip how each boy figures out what he can do to help. More importantly, each begins to quickly understand that if I don’t do my part, everyone suffers. And through this process of working together as a community and helping others, these kids are building confidence and character.”

January 1, 2012

The Whole Against the Sky (Independent School Magazine)

View this article in its original post on the Independent School Magazine website.


The Whole

Against the Sky

THE NEW ART OF SEPARATION.
(HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP GUIDE PARENTS)

BY WENDY MOGEL

Winter 2012


During the first two days of kindergarten, a girl sobs. On day three, she dials it down to sniffling and decides to join four other students at the clay table. Her teacher overhears this conversation:

Boy: Why are you crying?

Girl: Because I miss my Mommy.

Boy: We all miss our mommies.

This normalizing of emotion through the provision of context has an apparently good effect. The girl nods, albeit with a look of resignation. The next morning, for the first time, she hugs her mom and says goodbye without protest.

The boy, our separation guru, grasps an essential truth. Growing-up is hard, but also necessary and unavoidable, so we might as well accept it and get down to the business of making snakes out of clay. T’was ever thus and always thus will be… except, of course, that times change, and leave-taking these days takes on greater complexity and nuance — which means that independent schools face new challenges in helping children make a smooth separation from their home and their parents.

The New Kindergartener

I love the Gesell Institute series of classic child development books — Your One-Year-Old, Your Two-Year-Old, and on up — for two reasons. First, they are so wise and eloquent. Second, they provide an enlightening window on the past.

For example, Your Five-Year-Old, originally published in 1979, asks the following question of the reader who wishes to know if a young child is on track in terms of independence and school readiness: “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (two blocks) to a store, school, playground, or the homes of friends?”

In Your Six-Year-Old, the authors ask: “Can he travel alone… four to eight blocks?” It’s hard to imagine many parents allowing this today.

Times have changed. Polly Klass, Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard: every parent knows these names and the chilling stories attached to them. In the past, noncelebrity news stayed local, but today we have a 24-hour news cycle hungry for product-selling attention. This leads to a fear industry that exaggerates everyday risks and sensationalizes highly dramatic but low-probability occurrences like abduction. Jittery parents justify keeping a close eye and tight hold on their children, saying, “I could never live with myself if (fill in the blank).” The rule is, “Better safe than sorry.”

This level of caution and surveillance leaves the average five- or six-year-old protected, but hesitant and inexperienced in unfamiliar environments. Few have had the chance to travel alone anywhere, certainly not to the store or the playground. Few have the opportunity to get even a dash of street smarts: to practice getting themselves out of even a minor jam, to develop wayfinding skills, to navigate their neighborhood and choreograph their day — all valuable components of school readiness.

Experienced kindergarten teachers see the fallout from this increasingly supervised life — with many incoming kindergarteners more sophisticated than past cohorts, but also clingier and less sure of themselves. Some have visited Paris or Hawaii, but haven’t developed the skill to fall asleep on their own. They may know how to operate an iPhone, but are reluctant to spend time alone in their room, go on a play date or sleepover, or be dropped off at a birthday party without an adult companion (parent or babysitter) in tow.

Some dash right into the crowd the first day of school, but get unsettled when they discover that teachers don’t offer them the kinds of choices and accommodations that are automatically provided at home.

A special challenge for students in independent schools is the geographic diversity of the students. A child’s neighborhood is full of familiar faces, the local public elementary school a familiar landmark. Even if the rising kindergartner hasn’t been inside the school, she’s passed it often. But because independent schools are selected by families and because they draw from many preschools in a broad geographical area, families may have a long commute and the incoming student might know few, or no, children in her class.

In addition, flexible birthday cut-offs and redshirting (the protective strategy of holding children back a year to help the less mature, typically boys, cope with an accelerated academic curriculum) mean that kindergarten classes have broader age spans than in the past, often a full year-and-half or more.

Despite independent schools’ cozy class sizes, devoted and well prepared teachers, and attunement to the best practices for separation, this distance from home and range of age and maturity (and immaturity) of fellow students can add to a student’s sense of uncertainty.

The New Kindergarten Parent

Neighbors to the two small boys who moved onto the street: Where do you go to church?

Children: We don’t go to church, we go to Country Day.

One school head contrasted his experience in his first year at the helm of an independent school with his struggle to find creative ways to engage parents in the low-income area where he had previously worked. “At my old school,” he said, “we had nearly empty classrooms at back-to-school night. At this school, the parents are furious if you say you’ve reached the limit of chaperones for the fieldtrip. Some days I can’t get them out of my office with a gun.”

I once gave a talk to a misty-eyed group of 40 parents of graduating sixth graders — whose children were moving on to more than a dozen different middle schools. I called it “Cast Out of Eden.” The subject was respecting normal parental nostalgia and even grief about leaving the lower school community.

Psychologist Michael Thompson, who writes eloquently about parent/school relationships, notes that past generations of independent school parents dropped off their children at kindergarten and picked them up at 12th grade graduation with little more than a wave in between. In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, I talked about a starchy British father who would only attend a school play if one of his children had seven lines or more. But today’s independent school parent finds school a warm and welcoming haven in an increasingly competitive and isolating world. This makes a school so alluring — and so hard to leave. The effect can cause parents to send unconscious clues to their children that it’s best if mom or dad sticks around a bit longer, especially during the early days.

And then there’s the kindergarten classroom itself: so colorful, warm, and inviting. A rug for circle time! Hmm… New friends for Trevor! New friends for me? Certainly many parents are delighted by the new freedom afforded them by having a child in big-kid school, but, for others, it’s difficult to turn away, to let go.

The verb “parenting” was not part of the lexicon of past generations, and few parents tended to the art and science of parenting beyond reading Spock and consulting with relatives or the pediatrician when they hit a rough patch. In contrast, today’s parents are ambitious and determined to do it right and produce children who reflect their talent and devotion. Parents magazine and The Today Show recently surveyed 26,000 women about their biggest, darkest secret. The secret turned out to be… judgment. The women respondents confessed that they harshly judged both other mothers and themselves.

And what is the first week of kindergarten if not Judgment Day? Parents study the evidence: Did my child cry the loudest? Will I have to stay the longest? Will I be the only one whose daughter doesn’t look back once? Are all my parenting flaws showing already?

How Schools Can Guide Parents in the Art of Separation

Perhaps the best advice I can give schools and parents comes from T. S. Eliot. In his poem “Ash Wednesday,” he writes, “Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.”

Let’s deconstruct this dictum a bit.

Separation practices that are ruthlessly matter-of-fact — the just-pry-’em-away-from-their-parents-in-the-parking-lot approach — can have the unintended consequences of forcing children to soldier on in order to protect against humiliation. The downside of this approach? Consistently sour morning battles, crabby afternoons, bedtime meltdowns, or outright school refusal.

At the other extreme is what the Buddhists call “idiot compassion,” and 12-step programs call codependency: practices in which we handicap people because we cannot bear their suffering. This happens to both parents and students when separation practices are overly precious, gentle, and drawn-out, when we pamper kids and cater to parents’ desire to hang out as long as possible, stretching out time and resources and depriving everyone of the opportunity to get on with the business of educating the children.

What follows are some strategies schools can use to help parents help their children through the process of separation.

Some prevention strategies

Most systematic programs for socializing puppies require the owner to expose the dog to many different kinds of surfaces underfoot (wet grass, linoleum, sand, gravel, tall weeds); sounds (cars honking, gunshots, loud music, cats meowing, an electric saw); people (the elderly, crying babies, those in hats, with beards, in uniforms), and human environments (crowds, different cars, a dog park, city streets with traffic) so the dog will grow accustomed early to the texture of life and not become fearful, skittish, or aggressive.

At an orientation meeting for incoming parents or in your new family information packet, encourage parents to provide their children with lots of opportunities to practice independence during both the summer before and weeks leading up to the start of school: stay alone with a babysitter, go on a play-date or outing with another child’s family, spend the night at a friend’s or grandparent’s or cousin’s house, ride a bike with other kids in the neighborhood (even just down the block), go to day camp, or simply spend some free-range time alone with other children while visiting relatives or on vacation.

These experiences help build flexibility and ease in new environments.

Expect regression

When the boy who separated beautifully for preschool balks or whines or bawls when left at the kindergarten door, parents naturally think: He used to love school! What happened? Must be something awful! But the gregarious toddler may be passing though — or have landed in — a more tentative, discerning, cautious, slow-to-warm stage. Or the incoming kindergartner, both aware and wary of the changes in his routine, may have transient difficulty falling asleep or some bad dreams or start wetting the bed for a few nights.

This doesn’t mean that his parents have made a terrible mistake, chosen the wrong school, or that the child has developed an anxiety disorder. Kids go through phases. Transitions bump up worrisome behaviors. Schools can help parents anticipate normal regression and prevent overreaction to natural shifts and periods of adjustment by letting parents know what to expect. Here again, even the titles of the Gesell books are an education. The subtitle of Your Five-Year-Old is Sunny and Serene, but of Your Six-Year-Old it’s Loving and Defiant. And while, in six-year-olds, nervous tics and tantrums (I hate you! I hate school!) pop up (in previously easy going five-year-olds), doom-and-gloom worries and fretting often emerge at seven. The subtitle of that volume? Life in a Minor Key.

In other words, childhood is full of phases. It’s when parents confuse a snapshot of their child at any particular moment with the epic movie of his life that panic trumps reason.

Watch the gap

Summer’s more leisurely schedules, vacations, picnics, and family time is followed by an acceleration of activity in the weeks or days leading up to the start of school. Shopping for clothes and school supplies, filling out forms and planning carpools takes up a great deal of the parents’ time. When this bustle of activity culminates with The Big Goodbye in the parking lot or at the classroom door, both parent and child may feel a shock of poignancy or regret. Having an attentive mom or dad or the nanny right there with me! in the classroom can lead the child to want to hold on tight, to reclaim the closeness of a slower season.

Advising parents to end vacations and run errands early, leaving time for relaxed togetherness during the week before the start of school, can help decrease the perception of an abrupt abandonment.

Also urge parents to make the first day as easy-going as possible by working backwards, starting with an unhurried late afternoon, a pleasant suppertime, a relaxed, familiar, same-old bedtime ritual the night before, and a sufficiently early wake-up to allow the new incoming student time to make an outfit change, complain that her tummy feels funny even when presented with her favorite waffle, and to be captivated by a rolly-polly bug on the sidewalk.

The Talk

Encourage parents to elicit and answer questions about school in the week or the day before school starts, not right before bed or en route. And discourage enthusiastic hyperbole. Adults lose credibility fast when they say, “You’re so lucky to be in Ms. Lloyd’s kindergarten class! It’s going to be so fabulous! You’ll just love it! The kids will all be great!”

When parents try to sell or spin joy, by taking on the role of public relations agent for the school and their child’s experience in it, even the most trusting five-year-old will grow suspicious and either tune the parent out or worry that the real truth is being covered up.

Instead, like Winnie the Pooh, the parent can venture out on a gentle little “Explore.” “School starts next week. Anything you’re wondering about? Any questions about how it will be?”

A friend of mine’s son, anxious about going off to college, asked his mother, “How will I get food?” The incoming kindergartner has similar basic questions: “How will I find the bathroom? What will I do if I miss you a lot? What will happen if I throw up?”

Child development specialist Betsy Brown Braun tells parents to explain to children that worry and excitement can feel the same, that excitement doesn’t always feel like happy anticipation, and that worries go away when the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Parents can remind their children that first-day jitters are natural, and that most every child in their class is feeling the same way about now. To a child who seems quiet, irritable, super goofy, or wired-up, a parent can say: “When I started kindergarten, I was nervous, too. And then on the first day of middle school and high school and college and graduate school. It just seemed to go that way for me, and then it always turned out fine.”

If this degree of drawing out and encouragement feels like leading the witness or a bit precious or indulgent, think of it as prep work, preventive mental health, an investment in a smooth transition and good adjustment.

Make arrival and departure time a priority

In my practice, one of the first questions I ask of parents whose children are having difficulty with school adjustment is if the child tends to be dropped off early, in the nick of time, or late. And I ask the same questions about pick-up: Does your child know who will pick her up each day? Is that person ready and waiting when school gets out? Are there any times the schedule got mixed-up and she was left at school? I really probe about this. If the parent says that she (or he, or the carpool driver or the caregiver) is “sometimes late,” I ask for a definition of “sometimes.” How often? I make such a big deal about this because it has such a big impact on kids. Four- and five-year-olds are the transition police. Unable to generate an adult-like range of explanations, they become like Piaget’s seven-month-old research subjects — if you put the ball behind the curtain, they don’t even look for it; it’s gone forever. In other words, they lack object constancy. While waiting for a tardy parent, many children, especially those of a sensitive nature, will resort to catastrophic thinking: My mommy/babysitter is dead. My mommy doesn’t love me anymore. I will never ever see her again.

Tell parents how reassuring it is for children to know who will be picking them up. If families find themselves with a chronically late carpool team member, encourage them to drop out and find an alternative plan — even if the tardy driver is a longtime nanny, a good friend, or the next-door neighbor.

Emphasize the power of consistency and predictability — how knowing the who and when of the boundaries of the school day creates security in children, how a tense and hurried morning and split-second arrival isn’t invigorating, but leads to a tense and awkward re-entry into the rhythm of the classroom. Reinforce this message in every form possible: in written materials, orientation meetings, and — if problems with lateness are cropping up right away — with an email or call home. If it’s a chronic problem with a particular family, make it a top agenda item at the first parent-teacher conference.

Keep the script short at the door

Parents know better than to say (although I’ve heard it): “Sweetie! Are you sad that Mommy is leaving? Do you want to cry?” But it’s common to hear parents punctuate sentences with what the teachers call “The Big Okay.”

“I’m leaving now, okay? Okay? Okay?” until the child wails, “Nooooo!”

Tell parents, instead, to make it quick and efficient. If they wish to take first-day-of-school photos, request that they do so at home rather than in the bustle of the classroom — an environment where the agenda is building the team rather than celebrating each individual star. And saying, “What color pen should I use to sign in with today, honey?” just introduces more options and connection.

A good parting phrase? “Have a great day. I’ll see you at lunch time/this afternoon and you can tell me all about it.” Without getting too adorable or complicated, you might come up with a private goodbye ritual — a special handshake or salute or code word that means, “I love you! You’re my guy.”

After the first day, resist trawling for trouble

Mom: How was your day, sweetie?

Child: Fine.

Mom: (Oh no! What is he hiding from me?)

I treasure the wisdom offered to me by parents and teachers on the book-signing lines after my talks at schools. In Nashville last spring, a woman introduced herself and told me that she was an orthodontist. Her motto for parents? “Don’t ask if the braces hurt.” To this, I add, caution parents against gathering data to reassure themselves.

Don’t ask… if her teacher is nice. It invites a negative assessment of the person you’re trusting to care for your child every day, all year long. Don’t ask who she sat with at lunch, what she ate, or if she used the bathroom. It’s none of your business. Don’t cross-examine. If kids sense that they need to reassure you, it causes them to doubt even perfectly tolerable experiences.

Do ask… what she found most interesting, and link up school learning with home activities when possible. This continuity offers a “we’re all on the same page/one big community” kind of security. If the students are studying bugs and worms, dig up some dirt in the backyard and see what lies beneath. Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Be a subject-matter cheerleader rather than a happiness detective.

Of course, if your child spontaneously begins an information download or shares a highlight about the day, you can be rapt. Oh! Wow! Sounds like you had so much fun painting sunsets and monsters with your new friend, Olivia! I’ll bet daddy and grandma will be excited to hear about this.

Let them know you held them in mind but survived and thrived

All therapists see kids who have to come home early from sleep-away camp or college to keep an eye on their parents’ fragile marriage, depression, or drinking. They worry: Will mom and dad be okay? I’d better go check.

Let parents know that even the wee kindergartener benefits from hearing how well they functioned on their own — while, of course, keeping him in mind. To be reassuring, parents might say something like, “Today I noticed that more of the leaves on the maple trees are turning red and gold. It’s going to be so beautiful soon. And I thought of you when I saw a huge banner in front of the museum advertising the new fossil show…. And what did you look at in school today?”

Okay, When to Worry

Unfortunately, for some students, the temporary regression triggered by starting school does not abate. What are the red flags? Any group of these behaviors: a previously toilet-trained child is wetting the bed every night, waking up complaining of nightmares, chewing on his shirt, complaining of lots of stomachaches and headaches, or protesting if parents want to leave him with a babysitter.

Encourage parents who notice these signs of distress to ask the teacher whether or not the child brightens soon after arriving at school or if he is withdrawn, irritable, or provocative with other children. Does he approach new activities with enthusiasm or react to frustration with whining, tears, or tantrums? Some parents want to wait it out, fearing they will prejudice the teacher against the child or get him “labeled” if they tell the school about only problems, but the kindergarten teacher is an experienced surveyor of the range of normal behavior in children this age and her observations and insight can lead to a helpful plan of action.

Put Money in the Bank

The new web-based parent information portals — Pinnacle, SnapGrades, Powerschool — are a mixed bag for schools because the steady flow of information from school provides, in the language of teenagers, “tmi” (too much information). Parents repeatedly scan the screen, hit the refresh button, and get increasingly agitated about what they do, or don’t, see. I saw on Pinnacle that you didn’t hand in your science project today… He took his history test second period! Why isn’t the grade posted yet? Why has his national varsity ranking dropped? In many cases, these services invite overinvolvement, or addiction-like behavior.

Yet, one form of increased school/parent communication yields nothing but positive benefits.

Bob Ditter, a psychologist who gives guidance to summer camp administrators and counselors, recommends that the counselors send a brief email to each family telling parents that the bus trip was happily uneventful and adding one specific and personal detail about their child: I’m already enjoying his sense of humor…. It’s so nice to have her bright smile in our group…. He was so helpful to other kids as they unpacked…. He proudly showed me his blue flippers.

Ditter calls this small gesture “money in the bank.” The investment of time pays off if the counselor has to call a parent about a behavior problem or rule violation later in the summer because there’s already a foundation of mutual respect in the relationship. A short email home after the first day of school demonstrates your appreciation for your new student as both an individual and a member of your team. You can call or write to say, “Lucas had a great day. He told his classmates about your new puppy, Prana, and graciously helped a new friend open his lunch box.” This sets a tone of mutual respect and collegiality.

Seeing the Whole Sky

German poet Ranier Maria Rilke wrote, “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

The boy who said: “ We all miss our mommies,” understands. Growing up is work. It’s hard to become a member of a team, to be in a strange new place, to miss your familiars. And the new kindergarten parent — so knowledgeable, devoted, eager, wary of judgment, and aware of loss — has a hard time, too. To both parent and child, I offer consolation and respect for the initial bumps on the path and the happy prospect of a richer and deeper connection as the year progresses and each sees the other more fully. Mom! Mom! Did you know that the sun is actually a star? And that it’s the closest one to earth? And that in China they don’t see a man in the moon; they see a rabbit? And that my friend Jack has a real tarantula for a pet! Did you? Did you?

And to school leaders, I encourage you to be understanding, kindly, firm, and confident in guiding parents and children in their shaky first steps of necessary separation and in their pursuit of loving the distance between them.

Special thanks Lois Levy and Baudelia Taylor at the Center for Early Education (California), Joan Martin at Crossroads School (California), Julie Tepper at The Mirman School (California), Tina Wooten at Stratford Academy (Georgia), and Los Angeles-based child development specialist Betsy Brown Braun for their insights into the art of separation.

December 1, 2011

Your Teen is No Teacup. (TODAY)

Read this blog post on the Today Show website and see Dr. Mogel’s appearance on TODAY.

Your teen is no teacup.
If you want to hold on, let go.

November 14, 2011

Exposing small children to lots of environments isn’t terribly scary because we’re right beside them holding their hands, scanning the surroundings for any danger. But once they become teenagers — so reckless, so dopey, so sleepy — it’s much more challenging.

Last week, the mother of a 13-year-old boy told me that she enjoyed my book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, but hasn’t been able to bring herself to read The Blessing of a B Minus. She said:

Lucas must get A’s. And he’s not much of a student so I help him with his homework for at least two hours every night. I have your book on my night table but I can’t open it. It’s the title. It makes me want to throw-up.

A teen we interviewed for TODAY said her mom’s top three fears are “me learning to drive, choking, and me being abducted. And somehow she ties everything into those three issues.”

Other teens complain that their parents demand that they text them at every turn. When you get to the party…when you leave the party…when you arrive home if I’m already asleep so if I wake up in the night I can check to see that you got home safely.

Some tell me they can’t win in communicating with their parents: If I don’t tell them stuff they seem sad, or betrayed or imagine the worst, but if I do they overreact and want to take over.

I’m starting to think that the most loving, intelligent parents wish their children would just skip adolescence entirely, that our world is just too dangerous and competitive to chance any risky moves. They pray that their child will go from pleasant, diligent third-grader to junior statesman with no experimentation or mistakes or the possibility of blemishes on the high school transcripts in between.

But there’s more danger in this formula than in a robust, rocky adolescence because if they go off to college — land of beer pong, co-ed dorms and no one taking attendance in class, land where the only person in charge is the 19-year-old resident adviser in the dorm — without learning how to drive, both literally and metaphorically, there’s a greater chance they’ll end up being in a wreck.

College deans have nicknames for overprotected freshman who lack resilience, stick-to-itiveness and spirit. They call them “teacups.” And they call the incoming students who have been grinding away at their studies, extracurriculars and test prep throughout middle school and high school “crispies.” The fragile and the fried. Neither type is likely to flourish on their own.  Neither is properly prepared.

So how can parents ultimately let go? I’ve found inspiration in poetry. Here are a few lines to repeat to yourself when the temptation to rescue, protect, spy, pry, and prod becomes overwhelming.

Hitting the road:
For parents with beginning teen drivers.

The best way out is through. (Robert Frost)

The sages teach that every parent has an obligation to teach their child how to swim. This means that where you see danger (think about the places he could go, the company he could keep, the things he could do in that car!) your child sees freedom and opportunity to study for the big history test at Olivia’s house.

The only way for your child to become an experienced driver is for your child to drive — a lot! In all different conditions! — even if you keep gasping and hitting the imaginary brake on the floor of the passenger seat.

Please check in:
For the text-addicted parent.

Teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still. (T.S. Eliot)

If you need constant reassurance from your child, you project your own insecurity and make them nervous, too. You also invite them to lie, since unlike the days when parents actually answered a landline and you could ask to speak to your child, a text actually tells you nothing about your teen’s actual coordinates.

So unplug! You’ll set a good example and give your teen a chance to learn good navigation skills.

On prying, spying and cross-examining:
For the parent who wants to be as close to their teen as they were to their cuddly, talkative, friendly young child.

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. (Ranier Maria Rilke) 

Beware suffocating your teen and be grateful that they spare you the details. The closer you get to anything, the more you see the flaws and the potential for peril. So step back and give your child space to grow.

Unless you want your daughter calling you from the salad bar in the college cafeteria asking, “Do I like Russian dressing?” or e-mailing her papers for you to edit, you can think of the teen years as a launching pad, or an entertaining, three-ring circus, or a midnight sail underneath a starry sky.

Scary? For sure. But exciting, too.

November 14, 2011

Bully-Proofing Your Kids (CNN.com)

Dr. Mogel was interviewed by journalist Katia Hetter for her article, Bully-Proofing Your Kids, featured on the CNN website. 

Click here to read this article on CNN.com.

October 11, 2011

When Your Kid Isn’t Invited (CNN.com)

Read this article on CNN.com.

CNN.com

October 4, 2011

When your kid isn’t invited

By Katia Hetter

Olivia Nakamura can still remember the neighbor who always hosted a barbecue in his front yard for his son’s birthday party. He’d invite all the kids on their suburban Seattle block, except her son and the Asian-American children who lived there.

“I think it was racially motivated since he never invited the other family as well,” says Nakamura (not her real name), who has since returned with her husband and two sons to her home state of Hawaii. “My son was only 3 years old, so I just told him they were having a family party.”

Welcome to exclusion on the play date circuit.

What should parents do when someone else won’t let their kid play with yours? No matter who you are, some parents won’t like your family.

It’s not just having the “right” skin color, ethnicity or religion anymore. These days, parents might be nervous about your two-mommy family, the sugary soda you let your kid drink, the peanut butter or other food that might kill their kid, your refusal to vaccinate, your habit of cursing or the war games your son is always playing.

Or maybe they won’t say why.

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Toddlers learning how to interact with their peers exclude each other on the tot lot. What really matters is how you teach your kid to react to that reality now. Otherwise they’ll come home from college sobbing when they don’t get into their first-choice classes.

The birthday party invite. Once your kid’s circle of potential friends expands to 30 classmates, some parents won’t invite the entire class to the birthday party. It’s too expensive, their two-bedroom condo won’t fit the entire class or perhaps your kids don’t like each other. Or maybe they don’t like you. That means Janie or Bobby will not get an invitation.

If your child notices the exclusion, address it but don’t dwell on it too much, says Ashley Merryman, co-author of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.” “You can say something like, ‘It would have been nice to be invited, but tomorrow someone else will have a party,” says Merryman. “Let’s go to the pool or the park.” The message: Brush the dirt off your knees and move on. We have other fun stuff we can do. (Be honest with yourself. Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to buy another present?)

Empower your kid. What do you do when your kid falls flat on his face on the playground, and everyone laughs and calls him “Trippy” for the day? There’s a key distinction between the kids who wear that nickname for the day and the kids who wear that name into high school. Research shows that the child who blamed the bullies for doing something wrong didn’t stay in the bullied position, says Merryman. He knows they were mean and shakes it off. The child who gets bullied long term thinks the teasing is his fault: “They laughed because I’m a klutz,” he thinks.

Don’t reassure your kid he’s such a great kid. Of course he’s great but you’re actually telling him he can’t change his fate, says Merryman. “Think about it from the kid’s perspective: ‘I’m really a wonderful kid and they still hate me, what chance do I have?’” says Merryman. “Parents can change that dynamic by telling their kid, ‘They did a bad thing. You did a klutzy thing but you can be different tomorrow.’”

Overall, kids need to be praised for their efforts, not their innate abilities. “The more you praise them for who they are, the more you are telling them that success depends on innate skill rather than what they do,” she says. “You are telling them not to try. It’s really hard to change who you are, not what you do.”

Be a mensch. Sometimes the discrimination is obvious and requires you discuss it with your child. But take a breath first. Don’t start the conversation with your kid when you are feeling the intense anger or pain of the exclusion. That makes the conversation more about you and your feelings of rejection than teaching your child how to handle the exclusion. Be thoughtful and calm with your response, making sure you’re teaching them how to act effectively against bigotry.

Before you act, make sure the bigotry occurred the way you think it did. Even when you think it’s obvious racism or other insidious discrimination, sometimes it’s not. At the Jewish day schools where noted psychologist Wendy Mogel consults, she often notices historical splits between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic children. (Ashkenazis are traditionally of Western and Central European descent while Sephardic Jews trace their roots to Spain and Portugal.) When the Ashkenazi children weren’t invited to a Sephardic child’s birthday party, the default explanation was racism. When asked, the Sephardic parent explained that they didn’t think the other families would want to come.

“If that happens for the parent, you could be a mensch and make an overture to the family, understanding that family’s discomfort,” says Mogel, author of the crossover best-seller, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.” “If they reject it, just let it go. You’re teaching your children character.”

Be proactive. Avoid misunderstandings by educating your child’s teacher (and therefore the students and parents) before anyone has a chance to say something offensive, suggests Stephanie Meade, founder and editor-in-chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine featuring articles about raising multicultural and multilingual children and parenting around the world. She and her husband are raising their children largely in his Muslim faith.

Meade sees it as their role as parents to ensure their child’s identity is positively represented at their preschool. “For our main religious holiday (Eid, to celebrate the end of Ramadan) we brought in a fun book to read and special treats for the kids to share,” says Meade. “We gave each of the teachers a nice plant. I am pretty sure everyone at their preschool has a pretty positive association with our religion now as a result.”

Make explanations age-appropriate. When Kelly Wickham’s son was in second grade, she learned that his friend’s mother wouldn’t let him come over to play because he read Harry Potter books. Wickham, who writes the Mocha Momma blog, says the other mother took that to mean that “we allowed witchcraft in our house.”

“My son was too oblivious to be devastated by this but he kept asking when John (not his real name) could come over and play, thinking we couldn’t come up with a time to get together,” says Wickham, a Springfield, Illinois, mother of four (mostly grown) children.

By the time Morgan had turned 12, he started asking questions about the incident. “We discussed at length why we can’t be friends with everyone if people aren’t open to differences” says Wickham. “This led to a great conversation about differences and biases, and all the -isms that prevent humans from understanding one another.”

Create your own fun. If your children don’t fit into the dominant culture at school, don’t make them feel like losers. Instead, make sure they have other nonschool friends and activities they enjoy. Football and cheerleading aren’t for everyone, but there’s no reason to let the kids on top define what’s fun. Your child may prefer an art class, a reading group, a religious social justice movement, a political campaign, creating video games, hiking or dance.

“If they’re doing an activity they enjoy with students from other schools who don’t have preconceived notions about them, they can gain confidence both in their skills and in their relations with other kids,” says Alexandra Robbins, author of “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.” “Praise them for thinking differently, creatively, out of the box. Kids need to see that they don’t need to be, act or look like everyone else in order to have a solid relationship, and that can start at home.”

When to worry. It’s OK to seek help when you think something’s wrong in your child’s world. Worry about your child’s mental health when you see real symptoms, Mogel says. That includes them losing pleasure in things they used to enjoy, over- or under-eating, becoming socially isolated, coming to your bed at night, complaining of tummy aches, or for little children, chewing on their shirts.

Don’t argue about a child’s life. Some parents exclude to protect their children’s health, whether it’s deadly allergies or cancer. Chrystine Ammari’s 10-year-old son has battled a malignant brain tumor twice and has a weakened immune system. The Fullerton, California, mom won’t allow play dates with kids who haven’t been vaccinated or enroll him or his siblings in a classroom where any children haven’t been vaccinated.

“The risks of not vaccinating to my child can be devastating, with death being the obvious answer,” says Ammari, an original member of 46 Mommas, an advocacy group for childhood cancer. The name of the group, whose members shave their heads to draw attention to the disease, refers to the number of U.S. children diagnosed with cancer each weekday. “But it’s also the risk of what they may have been exposed to. Most unvaccinated kids aren’t going to carry a disease, and most don’t, but that small percent scares the crap out of me.”

Take a look at yourself. If your kids get out of hand or won’t listen to adult directions, they’re not going to get invited to my sister-in-law Noemi’s house to play in Clovis, California. (Even my brother and I behave better around her.) With a husband who travels a lot and three children, she doesn’t have time to clean up whatever bad habits badly behaved kids are going to teach my superpolite niece and two nephews.

“There was one little girl who would talk back to her parents and say bad words, and my daughter (who was 5) started doing it when we spent time with her,” says Noemi Hetter. “I immediately told her to stop and asked her why she was doing it. She said, ‘I don’t know, I was just doing what my friend was doing.’ It didn’t take long for me to stop bringing my daughter around this little girl.”

October 4, 2011

Family Happiness and the Overbooked Child (The New York Times)

Dr. Mogel was interviewed for Alina Tugend’s piece in the Business section of The New York Times.

Read this article on The New York Times website

August 12, 2011

Homework overload: For certain families, enough is enough (Los Angeles Times)

Dr. Mogel was interviewed for Deborah Netburn’s piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Read this article on the Los Angeles Times website.

July 2, 2011

Tennis Pressure Strains Bond of Parent and Player (The New York Times)

Dr. Mogel was interviewed for Karen Crouse’s piece on the effects of parental involvement in professional sports, in the Sports section of The New York Times.

Read this article on The New York Times website.

July 2, 2011

Overparenting Anonymous

View or download in printer friendly format.

OVERPARENTING ANONYMOUSA 26-step program for good parents gone bad

I’ve written these steps to provide encouragement to well-intentioned, devoted, loving, intelligent parents who feel powerless to stop themselves from overindulging, overprotecting, and overscheduling their children. Parents who get jittery if their offspring aren’t performing at a high level in every area. And parents who have unwittingly allowed traits like self-reliance, resilience, accountability and a spirit of adventure to slip to the bottom of their parenting priority list.

1. Don’t confuse a snapshot taken today with the epic movie of your child’s life. Kids go through phases. Glorious ones and alarming ones.

2. Don’t fret over or try to fix what’s not broken. Accept your child’s nature even if he’s shy, stubborn, moody, or not great at math.

3. Look at anything up close and you’ll see the flaws. Consider it perfectly normal if you like your child’s friends better than you like your child.

4. Work up the courage to say a simple “no.” Don’t try to reach consensus every time.

5.Encourage your child to play or spend time outside using all five senses in the three-dimensional world. How come only troubled rich kids get to go to the wilderness these days? Send your kids to camp for the longest stretch of time you can afford.  Enjoy nature together as a family.

6. Don’t mistake children’s wants with their needs. Don’t fall for a smooth talker’s line about the urgent need for a cell phone “in case of an emergency, Mom!” or a new car “because it’s so much safer than your old van.”  Privileges are not entitlements.

7. Remember that kids are hardy perennials, not hothouse flowers. Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they’ll appreciate the chance to be warm, dry, and fed.

8. Abstain from taking the role of Sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, secret police, short order cook, or lady’s maid. Your child is hard-wired for competence. Let them do things for themselves.

9. Before you nag, remind, criticize, advise, chime in, preach, or over-explain, say to yourself “W.A.I.T.” or “Why am I talking?” Listen four times more than you talk.

10. Remember that disappointments are necessary preparation for adult life. When your child doesn’t get invited to a friend’s birthday party, make the team, or get a big part in the play, stay calm. Without these experiences she’ll be ill-equipped for the real world.

11. Be alert but not automatically alarmed. Question yourself. Stop and reflect: Is this situation unsafe or just uncomfortable for my child? Is it an emergency or a new challenge?

12. Learn to love the words “trial” and “error.” Let your child make mistakes before going off to college. Grant freedom based on demonstrated responsibility and accountability, not what all the other kids are doing.

13. Don’t be surprised or discouraged when your big kid has a babyish tantrum or meltdown. Don’t confuse sophistication with maturity. Setbacks naturally set them back. They set us back too, but we can have a margarita.

14. Allow your child to do things that scare you. Don’t mistake vulnerability for fragility. If you want her to grow increasingly independent and self-confident, let her get her learner’s permit when she comes of age; don’t offer a nuanced critique of her best friend or crush.

15. Don’t take it personally if your teenager treats you like crap. Judge his character not on the consistency of in-house politeness, clarity of speech, or degree of eye contact but on what teachers say, whether he’s welcomed by his friends’ parents, and his manners towards his grandparents, the neighbors, salespeople, and servers in restaurants.

16. Don’t automatically allow your child to quit. When she lobbies passionately against continuing an activity or program that “isn’t how I thought it would be!” it’s tempting to exhaust yourself selling him on the benefits. Instead remind yourself that first impressions are not always enduring; that a commitment to a team or group is honorable; and that your investment (of time and/or money) is not to be taken for granted. But do take her reasoned preferences into account when making future plans.

17. Refrain from trying to be popular with your children just because your parents weren’t as attuned to your emotional needs as you might have wished. Watch out for the common parental pattern of nice, nice, nice…furious!

18. Avoid the humblebrag parent lest you begin to believe that your child is already losing the race. Remind yourself that kids’ grades, popularity, or varsity ranking are not a measure of your worth as a parent (nor theirs as people). Recognize that those other parents are lying.

19. Wait at least 24 hours before shooting off an indignant email to a teacher, coach, or the parent of a mean classmate. Don’t be a “drunk texter.”  Sleep on it.

20. Consider the long-term consequences of finding work-arounds for the “no-candy-in-camp-care-packages” rule. If you demonstrate that rules are made to be broken and shortcuts can always be found, you have given your child license to plagiarize or cheat on tests.

21. Maintain perspective about school and college choices.  Parents caught up in the admissions arms race forget that the qualities of the student rather than the perceived status of the school are the best predictor of a good outcome.

22. Treat teachers like the experts and allies they are. Give your child the chance to learn respect. It’s as important a lesson as Algebra 2. Remember how life-changing a good relationship with a teacher can be.

23. Praise the process and not the product. Appreciating your child’s persistence and hard work reinforces the skills and habits that lead to success far more than applauding everyday achievements or grades.

24. If you want your child to be prepared to manage his future college workload and responsibilities, take care before you hire a tutor, a private coach, or college application consultant. There’s no room for all of them in a dorm room.

25. Rather than lurking, snooping, sniping or giving up, practice sensible stewardship of your child’s online activities. Evaluate her level of self-respect and good judgment in other areas.

26. Treat ordinary household chores and paid jobs as more important learning opportunities than jazzy extracurriculars. With real-world experience, your child will develop into an employable (and employed) adult. That said, accept that older children will get chores done on AST (Adolescent Standard Time).

June 20, 2011

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy (The Atlantic)

BY LORI GOTLIEB

Read this article on The Atlantic‘s website.

 

June 15, 2011

Push for A’s at Private Schools Is Keeping Costly Tutors Busy (The New York Times)

View this article in its orginal context.

The New York Times

JUNE 7, 2011

Push for A’s at Private Schools Is Keeping Costly Tutors Busy

BY JENNY ANDERSON

Siddharth Iyer spent eight Mays cramming for finals, first at Stuyvesant High School and then at Columbia University.

Nine years later, it is still crunch time for Mr. Iyer, a top tutor at Ivy Consulting Group, as his clients face a deluge of end-of-year exams. “He’s been prepping my son all week,” said the mother of one, a senior at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, speaking on the condition that she not be named because Riverdale discourages both tutoring and talking to reporters.

“Prepping” — in this case for an oral exam in Riverdale’s notorious Integrated Liberal Studies, an interdisciplinary class laden with primary sources instead of standard textbooks — did not start the week before the exams, the mother pointed out. She said she had paid Mr. Iyer’s company $750 to $1,500 each week this school year for 100-minute sessions on Liberal Studies, a total of about $35,000 — just shy of Riverdale’s $38,800 tuition.

Last year, she said, her tutoring bills hit six figures, including year-round SAT preparation from Advantage Testing at $425 per 50 minutes; Spanish and math help from current and former private school teachers at $150 an hour; and sessions with Mr. Iyer for Riverdale’s equally notorious interdisciplinary course Constructing America, at $375 per 50 minutes.

Private SAT tutors have been de rigueur at elite New York private schools for a generation, but the proliferation of subject-matter tutors for students angling for A’s is a newer phenomenon that is beginning to incite a backlash. Interviews with parents, students, teachers, administrators, tutors and consultants suggest that more than half of the students at the city’s top-tier schools hire tutors, an open secret that the schools seem unable to stop.

“There’s no family that gets through private school without an SAT tutor,” said Sandy Bass, the mother of two former Riverdale students and the founder of the newsletter Private School Insider. “Increasingly, it’s impossible to get through private school without at least one subject tutor.”

A decade ago, Advantage Testing, perhaps the city’s premier tutoring company, was essentially an SAT-prep factory; in the years since, said its founder, Arun Alagappan, academic tutoring has grown by 200 percent.

“More and more you have ambitious and intellectually curious students signing up for difficult classes,” said Mr. Alagappan, whose 200 tutors bill $195 to $795 for 50 minutes (though he said pro bono tutoring accounted for 26 percent of the work). “It’s no longer O.K. to have one-on-one coaching for sailing but not academics.”

What is most troubling to those trying to curtail academic tutoring is that instead of remedial help for struggling students, more and more of it seems to be for those trying to get ahead in the intensely competitive college-application race. Gone are the days of a student who was excellent at math and science just getting by in English and history; now, everyone is expected to be strong in everything (including fencing, chess, woodworking and violin).

As more solid or even stellar students hire expensive tutors, the achievement bar rises, and getting ahead quickly becomes keeping up.

“B used to mean good,” said Victoria Goldman, author of “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools” and a Riverdale board member until 2007. “Everyone’s forgotten that.”

Michael Michelson, director of academic studies at Riverdale, said the school’s policy was to discourage tutors, and to make teachers accessible for extra help. “We believe that all of our students are capable of fully understanding this course material without the aid of tutors,” Mr. Michelson wrote in an e-mail. “We are troubled by the inequity that exists when families (we believe unnecessarily) employ tutors.” He said he believed that the vast majority of Riverdale students did not use tutors.

At a gathering last month of the heads of private school Parents’ Associations, the Dalton representative voiced concern about the escalation of tutoring, wondering how schools could better track it and what it meant for students who could not afford it, said one person who was at the meeting. (Ivy Consulting, Advantage and other tutoring outfits do offer free tutoring for low-income students.)

At Nightingale-Bamford, the May online newsletter linked to an article about the downside of tutoring, after the prevalence of high-priced help even in elementary grades became a frequent topic at lower-school coffees this spring, according to a parent who attended.

Some parents are outraged that the sky-high tuition no longer seems to fully buy the brand-name education.

“There’s always resentment when you are paying that much money and you have bright kids, that you have to supplement that,” said one Dalton parent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the school does not want parents to speak to the news media.

But Larry Roth, who was head of the Parents’ Association at Dalton while his two sons attended the school, said the sentiment he heard was “If I am an affluent person, why wouldn’t I help my kid out?” a notion he found wrongheaded.

The schools have a complicated relationship with tutoring. Generally, they discourage it: Riverdale requires students to specify on graded take-home assignments whether they have had assistance; Dalton asks families to exhaust the school’s resources first, and then if outside help is deemed necessary, the school’s learning specialists try to coordinate it. But if tutoring lifts students’ scores and grades, and thus their admission chances at the most competitive colleges, that can benefit the schools’ reputations.

“The policy is that you are not supposed to have a tutor,” said the Riverdale mother. “The reality is that they all have them.”

Dalton has tried to level the playing field by offering free tutoring, starting in middle school a decade ago, then adding elementary grades and high school last year. The after-school service draws between 25 and 50 students, said a person familiar with the program. Dalton has 1,300 students.

And while the schools encourage students to work with their teachers instead of racking up tutoring bills, parents said teachers were often unavailable — because they have taken second jobs tutoring students at another school (they are prohibited from tutoring for pay at their own schools).

Some families are afraid to use the school services or let the administration know they are hiring outsiders, lest their child be perceived as struggling, leading to the widespread practice of what some call “stealth tutoring.”

Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Blessing of a B-,” said excessive tutoring, stealth or declared, can damage a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem. “The tutoring is saying, ‘You have to perform at a high level in every subject and we don’t believe you can solve your problems on your own,’ ” Dr. Mogel said.

One common parental complaint is that a tutor seems almost expected for certain classes, like Riverdale’s Integrated Liberal Studies and Constructing America. “There are tutors who have bought an apartment with the money they’ve made on Constructing America,” said Ms. Bass, whose older daughter took the class the first year it was offered, 2003, and did not use a tutor.

Mr. Michelson said that a few years ago, Riverdale administrators met with Mr. Iyer’s business partner, Ryan Chang, out of concern that by Ivy Consulting marketing itself as “experts” in the school’s interdisciplinary classes, the tutoring was “harming our community.”

“Naturally, the only people they could appeal to were the families that could afford their high fees,” Mr. Michelson said. “Because they had worked with so many of our students, they had our materials, and they were using it and giving our students access to information — it created an inequity that was profoundly disturbing.”

Mr. Iyer denied it had a curriculum tailored to the course and said about 70 percent of their tutoring was geared toward standardized tests. He said the meeting was amicable.

June 7, 2011

When a Teenager Can’t Be Trusted (The New York Times)

This blog has such a lively readership.  To see their comments or to add your own, visit this blog in on the New York Times Magazine website.

image

JUNE 1, 2011

When a Teenager Can’t Be Trusted

BY LISA BELKIN

The purpose of parenting is to help children reach the point where they don’t need you anymore. To gradually let go of the back of the bike until they are riding it on their own.

But how and when to let go? There’s the tricky part. And with some children the timing is particularly complicated. A reader wrote asking for advice about her daughter. The details she is willing to share are necessarily limited, but you will get the idea from the broad strokes: teenage daughter lies; her mother responds by questioning everything; daughter lies further to deflect the questions.

As the mother writes:

…compassionate detachment regarding raising teenagers … is fine advice if you know what you are dealing with, but what about when trust breaks down on both sides?  With one lie told by my teenager, I find it all but impossible to trust what she is telling me again. And with the discovery that I went through her bag looking for alcohol, she feels the same toward me.  So two questions: 1. How to parent when you don’t know what’s really going on because your teenager lies and 2. How to build trust back between parent and child when it is shattered?

In this case the subject of the lie is alcohol. But I have had similar letters from readers whose children have lied about schoolwork, or their whereabouts or their relationships.

I have asked Wendy Mogel, who coined the phrase “compassionate detachment” in her book The Blessings of a B Minus to weigh in, and I will post her thoughts later this afternoon. Meanwhile, what is YOUR advice for this teenager’s mom? For all mistrustful parents of teenagers?

UPDATE: Wendy Mogel has been reading over our shoulders, and has this to say:

  Yes, I heartily agree with rf#21. All teenagers lie. I did and you did too. Your reader’s comments “now she feels the same towards me” and her concern about building back ”shattered” trust” remind me of psychologist Anthony Wolf’s observations in “Get Out of My Life but First Can You Take me and Cheryl to the Mall.” He writes: “To be able to trust one’s teenager is nice for parents, but more frequently it is a fool’s paradise.” He also says: “Trust is to adolescence what fairness is to childhood.”

  Teenagers react to accusations of lying, sneaking or general slimy behavior with indignation. It’s an attempt to level the moral playing field and induce shame. Just like your young child shouts “It’s not fair!” teens tell you that the relationship is shattered…forever…and ever. They’re hoping the drama, the morality play, will distract you from ferreting out a real problem or real danger.

  So when the lie emerges ask yourself: Is my child lying because she fears telling me the truth? Is she lying because she knows I’d rather believe her deception than confront her with her genuinely reckless choices? Or is it an experimental floater lie, a gentle truthiness, to see how much she can get away with? And when she reacts to your probing with outrage consider her a creative tactician.

June 1, 2011

10 Ways to Raise Resilient Kids in Turbulent Times (The Huffington Post)

Read this article as it was originally posted on the Huffington Post website.

03/29/11 3:48 PM

10 Ways to Raise Resilient Kids in Turbulent Times

By Lori Day


In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, parents, teachers, journalists and bloggers all over the world are discussing best practices for talking to children about disasters. Among my friends and colleagues, there is palpable angst about the effects of social media exposure on their children, who see and hear daily accounts of the war in Libya, destruction in Japan, and the threat of large-scale radiation exposure for thousands of citizens across the Pacific. As one friend posted on Facebook, “The world is on fire and I don’t know what to tell my son.”

Seemingly absent from the global conversation is a more interesting question: “What makes children resilient?” So many discussion threads I am reading these days suggest shielding young children from knowledge of wars and disasters—anything that could scare them or threaten their feelings of safety in the world. I can’t help but question this uniquely American choice to overprotect children, often treating them like delicate hot-house flowers with fragile egos and a bottomless need for support, lest they wilt under the stress of everyday life.

Resilient kids usually become resilient adults, able to roll with the punches of being human in an imperfect and unfair world. The quality of resilience—long studied yet not well understood—is nonetheless recognized as critical not only to the individual’s adaptation to life’s challenges, but to society’s collective survival. It is those individuals who can persevere through their own adversity, be strengthened by it, and actually catalyze others to do the same. In the best of cases, these children grow up to become those agents of change who give back to the world more than they take, making it a better place for all of us.

While a child’s natural temperament and genetic makeup are factors in his or her ability to successfully face challenging circumstances while learning and growing from them, there are many things adults can do to help children develop strategies for offsetting anxiety, managing stress and learning to overcome fear and trauma.


Here are 10 things that loving parents and other adult role models can do to foster resilient children who become resilient adults:

  1. Let children experience adversity, real or contrived. A child who is caringly supported through, but not shielded from, news of natural disasters or war, deaths or illnesses of loved ones, parental divorce or job loss, and so on become stronger children (and adults) who are more empathetic to others facing similar stressors. Children who have the good fortune of escaping trauma during their childhoods need #2 below even more than those for whom life has provided sufficient challenges in the formative years.

  2. Allow age-appropriate “micro-failures.” Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, warns against succumbing to Lake Wobegon parenting where all the children are above average. Parents must be willing to let their children fall and pick themselves up. Making mistakes while young is essential to a child’s ability to overcome larger adversities later in life, and parents must resist the urge to intervene and rescue. Skinned knees and B-minuses are character building!

  3. Participate sparingly in the “Congratulatory Culture.” It can rob children of the ability to appreciate a job well done. When children are glowingly affirmed for everything they do—usually out of adult fear that the child will have low self-esteem—they are deprived of authentic feedback and become cynical, mistrustful of effusive adults, and doubtful about their abilities. In other words, excessive A-pluses, blue ribbons and hyperbolic praise usually backfire.

  4. Model comfort with mild anxiety. Let kids solve their own problems when adult intervention is not truly needed. Put children in situations where they need to be flexible, to explore, to structure their own time, to socialize without supervision, to be out of their comfort zone. For example, let a city child walk in the woods with a friend in the country. Bear attacks are exceedingly rare, but projected parental anxiety is exceedingly common and harmful.

  5. Do not overindulge. It is OK for kids not to have everything they want or everything their friends have, and to have to earn some of the material things they desire or the privileges they seek. It is OK for kids to have to wait or to prove that they are responsible.

  6. Love your children unconditionally. It’s become a platitude, and unfortunately that undermines a very important message: Parents must love who their children are, not what their children are and do. They must love them even if they make a B-minus, even if they do not make the travel team (and schmoozing/threatening the coach is forbidden). Parents of course still love their children, even when they do not keep up with the Joneses’ children, but kids often mistake parental competitiveness and disappointment for lack of love.

  7. Cede control when reasonable. Let children, in an age-appropriate fashion, have as much power, as many choices and as many opportunities to succeed or fail as possible—without worry that parents will disapprove, swoop in or take the control back.

  8. Teach children to be independent but to seek help when needed, and to understand that these are not mutually exclusive. Kids who feel empowered to be agents of their own destiny, but to ask for help along the way as needed, are operating from a position of strength and confidence. The latter without the former leads to weakness, while the former without the latter leads to folly.

  9. Help your children develop at least one talent. While the differences between kids who have one, two, three or more areas of interest and accomplishment are negligible, the difference between kids with one talent and none are significant. Adults should open as many doors as possible for kids to explore interests when they are young, and to proactively nurture at least one athletic, artistic, academic or other area of talent that the child can be proud of as he or she grows up.

  10. Teach and model social justice. Show children how to stand up for themselves and others, how to be empathetic, how to carry out thoughtful acts for others, and how to integrate acts of service into daily life, throughout life. This is both formative to developing resilience, and a positive outcome to doing so. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you seek in the world.” If the key adults in kids’ lives live this way, the kids will be more likely to follow suit.

Resilience is a somewhat elusive quality, but children in firm possession of it can weather not only hearing long-distance stories about the tsunami in Japan, but also actually being there and emotionally surviving it. We can continue discussing the degrees to which we should shelter our American children from seeing and hearing accounts of the tragedy, or we can refocus on what is really important—helping our children understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that life does go on. The message is one of the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the face of disaster, and that is noble indeed.

March 29, 2011

Parents Take a Deep Breath (Los Angeles Times)

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March 12, 2011

Parents,
Take a deep breath

Expert after expert in child-rearing has told parents to back off. But anxiety still seems to be the rule in parenting.


By Mary MacVean

image
In Bel-Air one bright and cold morning, a full crowd of moms, wearing sumptuous knee-high boots and beautiful sweaters, gathers in a church to hear Ashley Merryman, coauthor of the child development book “NurtureShock.” After one mother asks about letting her son wait to start soccer, another wonders whether the late-starter might be too far behind to be competitive. At age 7.

Across town at USC, it doesn’t take long for the small talk to turn to college among a small group of parents waiting on a Saturday for an advanced high school art class to let out. As one mother tells of her daughter’s interviews with Princeton and Brown and her expectation not only of acceptance but also of financial aid, anxiety ripples almost visibly.

And every morning, children up to eighth grade walk to a mid-city Catholic school, their hands free. Nearby, their parents lug the lunchboxes, backpacks and class projects.

The hovering, worrying, competing and fear that inhabit many parents from the birth of their children well into college are alive and kicking. Didn’t parents get the message? Expert after expert has advised them to calm down, back off a little, allow children to gaze at the stars rather than sign them up for a summer astronomy course. Plenty of outrage greeted “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” author Amy Chua’s my-way-or-the-highway style, but the desire for children to have the best lives possible is still translating to heavily involved parents full of anxiety.

The battalions of mothers — and they’re mostly mothers — managing their children’s lives these days are talking about their anxiety. They see the frighteningly stressed children in “Race to Nowhere,” a film in which teen after teen talks about how his or her life is all college prep and no play. They test their homes for hazards such as radon, and they provide lists of foods children may not have during playdates.

“There seems to be a conversation going on. It’s kind of coming to a head,” Merryman said. But no one knows yet how — or if — parents will change their behavior.

“I don’t see the pendulum moving that much. There’s still a lot of anxiety,” said Joanna Port, the executive director of a new organization called the Parents Education League of Los Angeles http://www.parentseducationleague.org which means to help parents through one of their most anxiety-producing decisions: choosing schools.

“Most of my parents are just scared,” said Sonya Gohill, a pediatrician in Brentwood. “Scared they’re going to do the wrong thing, not do enough, they’re going to miss the boat. It’s like they’re in competition from the minute their kids are born. Whose kid is crawling first, and why does my kid just sit here in my lap?”

Parents hire doulas, night nurses, nannies, camp consultants, batting coaches, SAT tutors. They try to be deeply attuned to every pimple in their child’s life path and scurry to remove it. They fret they’ve destroyed their 4-year-old’s future if she doesn’t gain acceptance to the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood.

They fear predators, or that kids are having oral sex at bar mitzvah parties, or that only 10 colleges in the country are worth going to, said Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B Minus,” at a recent talk to parents at the private Westside Neighborhood School. She knows of a school where the washcloths were red so that children who got cut were protected from the sight of blood.

College officials are calling students “teacups” and “crispies” — the former so overprotected they’re fragile, the latter pushed so hard they’re burned out, said Mogel, a clinical psychologist.

Unable to let go

“If there was one piece of advice I could give, it would be to relax a little,” said Susan Engel, the mother of three grown sons and a developmental psychologist at Williams College in Massachusetts. She wrote the new book “Red Flags or Red Herrings” to offer insight into the research about what parents can change and what they cannot.

Her first sentence reads: “You cannot dictate who your children will become.”

It’s a “dangerous myth, especially among middle-class parents,” Engel told a group of mothers, that if you just parent well enough, make all the right decisions about schools, discipline, activities, friendships, “that you can fix your child, that you can tailor a child. But you can’t.”

So why are so many parents unable or unwilling to banish their anxiety?

“I think most parents really want to do the right thing,” said Leslie King, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. “But when they hear all the opportunities other parents may be giving their children, their own hearts get lost, even parents who have that feeling that enough is enough.”

To some extent, the irrational nature of anxiety is to blame, said David Anderegg, a psychologist and author of the book “Worried All the Time.”

“Anxiety thrives on superstition. If you worry about something happening, and it doesn’t happen, there’s a part of our irrational mind that feels it didn’t happen because we worried about it,” he said. “So worrying is very, very hard to give up in any domain.”

And some anxiety has a purpose.

“If you think about what makes parents anxious, there’s sort of a biological propensity for parents to be worried about and protect their children. That makes sense evolutionarily,” said Wendy Grolnick, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts who has studied families. “Parents who didn’t [worry] had kids who died and got eaten by the lions.”

The lions of the 21st century are just as voracious, if figurative. Add an uncertain economy, world instability and fears for the environment and the fact that only a tiny percentage of children will ever go to an Ivy League school, and it’s no wonder there’s so much apprehension.

“Right now the level of competition that’s in our environment is just unprecedented,” Grolnick said. “You now have to compete in community service, to help people! My kids are applying to help someone and worrying about if they will get in.”

Survival of the fittest

In some circles, talking about that competitive feeling — perhaps insomnia over whether your child will make the travel soccer team — is more taboo than talking about sex, Grolnick said.

“For my patients, I have a lot of moms who are extremely well-educated, who were practicing lawyers or have their MBAs,” said Gohill, the Brentwood pediatrician. “And they’ve retired to be stay-at-home moms. They’re rechanneling their energy. Their kids are their project. The outcome is so important because they’ve put so much time and effort into it.”

And with just one or two kids, how dare they fail?

It’s not that a child-centered society is new. In this country, after World War I, the idea of motherhood as a vocation took hold, Ann Hulbert writes in her history of child-rearing, “Raising America.” She also notes that the term “smother love” was invented early in the last century. Of course, the suggestion to relax alsohas been made before, coming perhaps most famously from Dr. Spock, who in 1946 reassured parents, “You know more than you think you do.”

But for many parents, their sense of doing it right is so fragile that every new theory offers an opportunity to second-guess the last one they latched onto. Chua faced vitriol for her “Tiger Mom” approach, but at the same time, parents wondered along with her whether they should have let their kid quit the piano.

The achievement race is the domino theory of parenting, Merryman said. Baby boom parents worry that their “boomlets” will face a scarcity of spots in good high schools and colleges, so they have to make their kids more appealing from an early age.

The children of the 1960s filled out their own college applications, maybe two or three of them. Today, children as young as 14 (ninth grade) are touring colleges and practicing SATs; parents provide more and more “unique” experiences, hoping that organic farming in the inner city might make an appealing college essay to at least one of the 10 or more schools where their children apply.

Hollywood, Engel said, contributes to parents’ anxiety.

Today’s models of motherhood have morphed from the lovingly lackadaisical, overworked mom in the sitcom “Roseanne” to devoted star mothers — Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow, for example — who appear to keep their figures and their tempers while they act in films and raise gorgeously clad youngsters.

Parents Education League’s Port has four elementary school children, too many to allow for helicopter parenting, she said with a laugh. They walk to their public school, and the older ones get to choose one activity. Her daughter had to pick between musical theater and Girl Scouts.

But even Port looks ahead to college with anxiety.

“You have to be a superstar. You can’t just get straight A’s,” she said. “So it feeds down.”

Barbara Osborn, director of strategic communications at Liberty Hill, a social justice-oriented foundation and mother of a 7-year-old girl, said parents have good reason to be “incredibly anxious” about schools.

She also notes how hard it is to be a working parent. “I see how humorless parents are. We drop off our kids and the parents look so grim. It’s the working mother thing. I do think it’s unbelievably difficult.”

Experts say anxiety is not limited to families who can afford lessons and vacations and tutors. Rather than worry about a private school, parents with few financial resources may worry about lingering on waiting lists for popular magnet or charter schools, as the recent film “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” dramatized. The sort of anxiety felt on the Westside may seem a luxury to families who cannot afford decent childcare or who fear neighborhood crime.

Anderegg suggested that parents look at actual probabilities. Is it more likely that your child will be snatched off the sidewalk or sustain serious injury playing soccer?

Holding on to your values and keeping what’s most important in mind are difficult.

“When you talk to parents, one on one, the issues are simpler than all this,” King, the Crossroads counselor, said. “They want their children to be happy, that they feel good about themselves, that they know themselves, that they’re safe, that they find a job in this world and support a family.”

And parents might find another way to spend their time, Engel said.

“If you’re spending more than an hour a day thinking about your kid when they’re not there, find something else to do,” Engel said. Try working, she said — for pay or not — to make schools better for all children.

March 12, 2011

Retract Your Mom Claws (The Jewish Journal)

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January 26, 2011

Retract Your Mom Claws Wendy Mogel sets new rules for reasonableness

BY JULIE GRUENBAUM FAX


Amy “Tiger Mother” Chua might want to cover her ears right now because clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel has a message for parents that would likely send Chua into one of those shrieking fits she reserves for her daughters’ subpar piano practices, or a verboten A-minus.

Here goes:

Your teen may not be a genius-entrepreneur-athlete-altruist-artist.

He will probably experiment with drugs, drinking and sex. The small stuff — like rudeness, irresponsibility and utter obliviousness to the effort and money you put into his well-being — will test you daily.

And — take a deep breath, upper-middle-class Jewish parents — your teen might not get into Harvard. Or even UCLA.

But that’s OK.

In her latest book, “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers” (Scribner, 2010), Mogel offers a counter-cultural, sometimes counter-instinctual approach to parenting that stands in stark contrast to the unbending so-called “Chinese” approach in Chua’s much-discussed new memoir/guidebook, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press). And if Chua has hit a nerve with parents who are as obsessed with their children’s academic success, Mogel offers both common sense and Jewish values as a counter-guide. Inadvertently timed to come out within weeks of one another, the reassuring tone of Mogel’s very sane book may be a life-saver to parents on the Chua-style edge.

Chua is a Yale law professor married to a Jewish Yale law professor; she describes with pride how she didn’t allow her daughters, now 18 and 15, to have playdates or go on sleepovers, watch television or play video games, or bring home anything less than in A in any class other than gym or drama. The girls had to practice hours a day to master both violin and piano, even on vacation. Any hint at deviation from Chua’s standards merited insults, punishment and harsher demands.

But well before an excerpt from Chua’s book appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal, sending parents — and journalists and talk-show hosts — into a frenzy, Mogel, whose first book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Scribner), came out 10 years ago, had been challenging parents to step outside the transcript-perfecting circus and acknowledge that there are dozens of paths to dozens of kinds of success — and those paths depend on knowing and understanding your child. She asks parents to set standards and then back off, to give kids space to err and stumble, and to allow them get up again — by themselves.

“Raising teens is the hardest thing parents have to do — it makes pregnancy and childbirth look like a picnic in the park,” said Mogel, who treats teens and children in her Larchmont Boulevard private practice. “Our instincts are to overprotect them, to overindulge them, to over-schedule them and to fight their battles for them. But that deprives them of the most critical learning they need to do.”

Mogel will be discussing her approach to raising teens at a forum sponsored by The Jewish Journal/TRIBE Media Corp. and the American Jewish University on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 2 PM.

Indeed, in many ways, Chua and Mogel start from the same premise. Both believe Western parents over-coddle their children, demanding little of them but wanting everything for them. Both wonder at teens’ lack of respect for elders, and both fear for children whose half-baked efforts are breathlessly praised.

But the similarities end there. Chua’s response is to place impossibly high standards and demands on her children — she rejected her 4-year-old daughter’s homemade birthday card as a feeble effort. Chua picked up her children during recess so they could spend the time on more lessons, rather than waste it playing. She called them “garbage” to their faces when they under-performed.

Mogel also advises parents to place demands on teens — not just academically, but in the home and in society — and counsels parents to set standards and model values. But she views the process of raising offspring as much messier and nuanced than Chua’s black-and-white version, requiring a more moderate and compassionate approach modeled on the Jewish ideal of finding a path between two extremes.

It’s also a harder approach for parents to undertake. Mogel doesn’t lay out a neat list of dos and don’ts, nor does she offer blanket prescriptions, as Chua does. She instead offers information and ideas and asks parents to customize their skills and tactics as they learn about their own motivations and their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Her approach of moderation and resisting the urge to always fix everything requires work from parents. And not all parents will be up to the task.

Especially because teens can be so hard to understand.

Teens’ brains are in a scrambled state of development as they work to forge their own identities, oscillating between unexpected maturity and unbelievable impulsivity, Mogel writes, describing the neurological science behind their emotional rollercoasters. Teens, therefore, live in their own self-centered universes of screeching hormones and intense passions for people and possessions; their wiring can make them feel invulnerable and so, so much smarter than their parents.

The parents’ challenge, then, is to appreciate their teen’s quirks for the blessings they embody — passion, growth, idealism, energy — and to help the teen achieve what she is most trying to do: become an adult. Plus, parents have to do all this without getting sucked into a personal battle with their child, and by fighting the urge to constantly swoop in to rescue the teen from herself.

“I call it compassionate detachment — you detach from this individual moment, but you don’t detach from the person,” Mogel said during an interview in her office. “You have to recognize that they can’t be good problem solvers unless they have problems to solve. They have to make dumb mistakes to get smart. You need to be alert, but not alarmed. So there is definitely involvement, but not this anxious hovering.”

As she did in her first book, Mogel again combines psychological analysis, biblical and rabbinical sources, and practical, real-life parenting skills she says she honed while guiding her own two daughters, now happily in their 20s, through bumpy adolescent years.

Allow Teens to Grow From Experience

A parent’s instinct may be to rescue a child from the normal problems of adolescence, but that does the child a disservice, Wendy Mogel writes.

“When we intervene to prevent the pain of tough situations, we create a reflex: Whenever the child feels any sadness, confusion, frustration or disappointment, she believes she cannot survive the feeling,” Mogel writes. “If teenagers don’t have an opportunity to recognize their bad feelings or problems and learn to manage them, they go off to college and seek out quick, reliable methods to make the pain disappear — meaning they substitute denial, alcohol, drugs, sex, dramatic relationships, frantic overwork or daily calls home for actual problem solving.”

So, how do parents step aside?

Wait it out: “Teenagers’ problems can catch fire, flare spectacularly and then fizzle out just as quickly,” Mogel writes.

Be empathetic, not entangled: “Be curious and kind, but not alarmed,” Mogel writes. Give teens an opportunity to vent and unload and then express faith in your teen’s ability to solve the problem herself.

Normalize setbacks: When the situation is settled and feelings are less raw, talk to teens about how you’ve coped with frustrating situations.

Encourage them to seek help: Teach teens to problem-solve directly with other adults, such as a coach or a teacher, instead of intervening on her behalf.

Demonstrate confidence in your teen’s ability: “Before you swing into action, allow your teen to surprise you with his resourcefulness,” Mogel writes.

Distinguish dramas from emergencies: If a situation is one where you would consider calling 911, or if it looks like it could head in that direction, immediately intervene. Otherwise, learn to read your teen’s demeanor to distinguish situations that are truly out of the ordinary.

Mogel’s dead-on anecdotes offer parents a knowing laugh that easily slides into a grimace, and her practical tips provide action-items, guidelines and responses to those moments when it looks like your 16-year-old is about to ruin her life. (Mogel also helps you discern whether that might really be true.) Plus, the book is not just for Jews, despite the Torah-intensive bent: Everyone, from Bible Belt church groups to Catholic schools to Jewish community centers around the world, has invited Mogel to speak, looking to her to help make sense of the alien beings that have transmuted from once-adorable children and taken over their homes.

“I think, in our culture, we are very afraid of teenagers. We’re terribly afraid of them, and we envy them, and we despise them if they don’t fulfill our dreams. And that is very potent, and it’s complicated,” Mogel said.

Mogel asks parents to define their children’s success not by which college accepts them but by how well they handle themselves when they get to that college (or vocational school or art institute, if that is what is right for them), and, more important, what kind of adults they become when they get out.

Mogel debunks the must-go-to-Yale myth. She asks parents to look around them and notice that there is little correlation between successful adults and where those adults went to college, and she offers studies and admission officers’ anecdotes to support her argument.

So, if — and Mogel understands that it’s a big if — parents can get their heads around the idea that there are many paths to success, they also need to consider why they are so focused on high achievement and top universities.

Are they projecting their own unrealized dreams onto their teens? Do they need their teen to reflect the family’s status? Are they using their teen’s success as a mission to keep their own life focused? Is their grief at no longer having a small child clouding their ability to let go and let the child develop as an individual?

Mogel observes that over the years, a trend has developed, where, college administrators say, teens are getting to college as “teacups” — easily cracked by any sign of adversity. Mom and Dad, in their supreme efforts to make sure their teen’s path to college was smooth and padded and foolproof, spent the previous four years battling the high school, orchestrating social situations and clearing the teen’s schedule of any work or chores or real responsibility, so the teen might focus on what the parents thought really mattered — grades and the right extracurriculars.

“The teen is expected to study, study, study, while the parent acts as a cross between a sherpa, concierge and the secret police,” Mogel writes.

The teen never sees the actual consequences of procrastinating, laziness or irresponsibility, because parents always come to the rescue.

In extreme cases, the outcome can be dire. Mogel says that in her practice, she has met with well-meaning parents in privileged families who are baffled by their troubled children’s behavior — which can include self-injury, eating disorders or acting out with sex or drugs.

Mogel’s advice and remedies tend toward common sense and healthy choices — down-to-earth aids to living: outdoor time, unstructured fun, cooking, family Shabbat dinners and taking on actual responsibility.

Chores, she advises, keep teens tied into family life and give them practical knowledge of how to take care of themselves and their stuff. Doing dishes, taking out trash and helping around the house also provide a sense of connection and responsibility toward others. Kids who have no chores become what she calls “handicapped royalty.”

“They suffer from both loneliness (because they believe they are too special to cooperate with others) and anxiety (because they feel they are too fragile to cope with everyday life),” she writes.

The best tool for learning about consequences and real life is actual work — the kind teens get paid for, Mogel said.

“I think paid jobs are so wildly undervalued,” she said. “And the reason a paid job is so great is that if you don’t do it well, you get fired. And if you do it well, you get money. And money is freedom for teenagers, so they don’t have to negotiate with parents over every decision. It’s this fantastic reality curriculum that’s free for parents.”

Not to mention that college admissions officers have told her they would rather get a good reference from a Starbucks manager than hear about another summer volunteer program in Africa that parents paid thousands of dollars for.

Work will also help teens pay for some of their own stuff. Self-centeredness and passionate materialism are part of being a teen, Mogel writes, but that doesn’t mean parents need to drop inordinate amounts on the perfect skinny jeans.

Of course, telling your teen he has to unload the dishwasher, get a job and pay for his own $120 sunglasses can provoke that innately teenage weapon: attitude.

Mogel believes, though, that rudeness to parents represents a teen’s way of separating himself from his parents and asserting his own identity, so to some degree it can, and should, be tolerated. Parents are a safe punching bag to let off steam, say, after a teen has kept it together all day (much like a toddler’s post-preschool meltdown).

She advises parents to customize a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors when it comes to sass, and to retain authority by staying cool and focused on the issue at hand, even when teens push buttons and make personal attacks. Mogel asks parents to remember that the flip side of the rudeness coin is that teens today are infinitely closer to and more comfortable with their parents than in past generations. Today’s teens talk to their parents more, share more cultural experiences — Facebook, music, movies — and sometimes even consider parents as friends.

Still, for unacceptable lip and serious infractions, she advises, don’t be afraid of instating consequences. Stand up to teens’ lawyerly arguments when they need to be punished by, say, taking away the car keys, or telling them they can’t go to a party.

And she cautions against becoming a creepy parent-friend type who comments too much on Facebook or becomes too permissive about alcohol or sex.

Mogel’s take on substances and sex is nuanced, and rules and reactions inevitably will vary from kid to kid and as the teen grows older. But she has a basic premise when it comes to what she describes as the “ethical fieldwork” the teen will inevitably try.

“The later, the better, for everything, and that is what you communicate to your kids. And, for some things, never is even better than later,” she said about sex, alcohol and drugs. “There are biological, emotional and spiritual realities that should lead parents to encourage their children to wait with everything and to help them manage peer pressure. But,” she cautions, and this is where the nuance comes in, “don’t be a naïve dope.”

She urges parents to acknowledge to themselves (not necessarily aloud to their kids) that they did — and survived — similar things when they were young, and that their children will, too. Let that “truthiness” come out in interactions as you proactively discuss (in small, natural doses — no sit-down lectures) values surrounding sex, drugs and alcohol. Respond openly to the media barrage and discuss decisions about particular events — unsupervised parties, relationships, what everyone else is doing.

“Zero tolerance is a blunt instrument, and it makes you into a poor resource for your child,” Mogel said.

It is this nuanced understanding of the humanity of teens that makes Mogel’s approach more challenging, and more realistic, than the hard-core demands of Chua’s Chinese model. In Chua’s world, the parent has all the right answers and absolute authority all the time, no matter who the kid is or what the situation.

Mogel, however, asks parents to do some tough work: to look deeply into themselves, and then look deeply into their children, so that both parents and children can emerge whole from this complicated period.

Because, she assures parents, how your teens look and act now is not how they will look when they emerge as fully formed adults — sometime in their 20s.

“We think they should go from sweet, adoring toddlers who say, ‘Mommy, please lie down here, don’t go, read me another story, I love you so much,’ to sojourner statesmen with nothing in between,” Mogel said.

“But there’s this whole thing in between that is a parent’s best opportunity to learn leadership. But it’s really, really hard.”

January 26, 2011

Raising Good Kids, With a Good Deal of Restraint (The Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Tribune, CHICAGOLAND EXTRA


October 8, 2010


Raising Good Kids,
With a Good Deal of Restraint



BYLINE: Lisa Pevtzow


While I was driving the car recently, my 5-year-old son had a question. Some of his most interesting conversational topics seem to occur to him in his car seat.  “Is it better to look good or be good?” he asked, out of the blue. “To be good,” I told him, a little relieved that this one was so easy to answer. “That’s what I thought,” he said matter-of-factly—and immediately dropped the subject.

I, on the other hand, have been thinking about it ever since.

When my friends and I talk honestly about what we want for our children, it is not about excellent grades or a prestigious university or a successful career, although we can get caught up in that. What we want is for them to be good people: compassionate, kind and respectful of things and people deserving of respect. We want them to work hard, pay their bills on time and be resilient. We want them to feel fortunate, not entitled. We want them to be good citizens. And ultimately, of course, give us grandchildren.

But all that seems a long way away. At this point in their lives, my two boys are so new they can’t tell time or cross the street by themselves. According to the latest scientific findings, their brains won’t be fully mature for roughly 20 more years. I don’t think I can wait that long.

It’s no secret that parents are overinvolved in their kids’ lives, said psychologist Wendy Mogel. About a decade ago, Mogel wrote The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, a book that has become a quiet classic among my friends. 

Some of this is for the best of reasons, said Mogel, who is coming out with a new book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers.  Our children are precious to us and so we try protect them at all costs from harm. But the result can be anxious kids who try to live up to impossibly high standards and never really learn how to fend for themselves.

For Mogel, the way you make them into good kids, rather than just smart kids, is to make them ordinary family citizens. Give them chores and hold them to them to their responsibilities, no matter how much homework they have or what else is on their plate. Don’t lie or cut corners, Mogel said, because your kids will, too.

Mogel is also a great believer that the school of hard knocks teaches resilience in children. “I want them to be unhappy, frustrated, bored,” Mogel told me. “I want them to be in a jam—emotionally, socially, academically. I want them to have an uninspired fourth-grade teacher, a slutty best friend in middle school, a bad grade.” 

Yes, parents should be there as compassionate, detached consultants, she said, but to guide the discussion, not solve the problem or directly intervene. The purpose of a parent is to see his or her child as a seed that came in a package without a label. “Stand back and pull the biggest weeds and wait and see whom God has given you,” she said.

Every Friday night, Mogel and her family take turns saying what they feel grateful for in the past week. Gratitude needs to be taught, she said. Even a 5-year-old child is not too young.

I give it a shot. I ask my 5-year-old son what he is grateful for. Instead, he tells me a long-winded story about the fire drill at his school this week and the classmate who forgot to cover his ears. “What are you grateful for, Mom?” he asks.  As I sat there trying to come up with something good (I think I should have gone first!), he answered for me: “Are you grateful you have a medium-size kid and a baby?”  Of course, he’s referring to himself and his little brother, who is 2 1/2. 

It’s a start.

October 8, 2010

Review of The Blessing of a B Minus (Tablet Magazine)

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September 20, 2010

By Josh Lambert

For those parents still looking ahead to the college years as a welcome respite from their current entrenchment in adolescent angst and emotional pyrotechnics, Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers  (Simon and Schuster, October) presents strategies for dealing with the junior-high and high-school set. Following up on her surprise hit, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Mogel draws as much from contemporary psychological research and frank common sense as from the Jewish pedagogical tradition: Don’t expect her, for instance, to endorse the Vilna Gaon’s advice to his wife and daughters that “every amusement is worthless” and so “the main thing is to remain at home.”

September 20, 2010

The Blessing of a B Minus Review (Publishers Weekly)


image Social-clinical psychologist Mogel concentrates on the hidden blessings of raising teenagers in this engaging follow-up to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Intermingling wisdom and guidelines from Judaism and adolescent psychology, Mogel compares the teen years to the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. As kids wander in the “desert” of adolescence, she advises parents to offer counsel and guidance, demonstrate empathy without entanglement, and resist the urge to intervene or rescue.

In chapters peppered with true-to-life examples and humor, Mogel examines the blessings of a B minus, staying up late, hangovers, breaking the rules, and a variety of other teen topics, urging parents not just to look on the bright side, but to help kids benefit from the learning opportunities inherent in difficult situations. Some of her advice may be challenging for readers to follow: for instance, she recommends that parents refrain from broaching the subject of college until grade 11. She also encourages parents to let teens learn from their own mistakes and to respect their yetzer hara (aggressive impulse), while seeking balance with a sense of teshuvah (repentance).

Mogel’s compassion and authenticity will ring true with parents of all faiths facing the tumultuous teen years.

September 7, 2010

Guilty secrets of slacker parents! (Parent Map Magazine)

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JULY 14, 2010

Guilty secrets of slacker parents!
Are you ruining your kids with your lazy parenting ways?

BY KRISTEN RUSSELL DOBSON


You know who you are.
image

Yes, you, in the stretched-out yoga pants, juggling your latte and iPhone as you load your toddler into your DVD-equipped car. You whip the wrap off a Lunchables and hand it back to the kid, then crank up The Backyardigans for a little slack-jawed commute to the gym day care.

Supermom? As if. You landed that helicopter years ago. You are so over sweating the small stuff; the kids will be fine! Or will they?

Good news, slacker parent! The experts are on your side (for the most part). Turns out, “helicopter parenting” can have unintended — even harmful — results. Instead of growing into the hypereducated, self-actualized person you envision, your kid may become an über-precious and entitled member of the so-called “T-ball generation,” in which every swing gets a standing ovation.

The antidote? Slacker parenting! We’re here to help. We asked top local experts to weigh in on your top 10 “bad habits.” Some are OK, some are no way! Read on — and then get slackin’!


IS “FROOT” A FOOD GROUP?

Hey — it says “fortified” right on the label, so how bad can it be? You have a sneaking suspicion that you should be paying closer attention to your kids’ nutrition. Maybe you give them a daily multivitamin to take up some of the slack. Is that good enough?

Not according to Dr. Janice Woolley, a retired Mercer Island pediatrician and the co-author (with writer Jennifer Pugmire) of Food for Tots. “There’s a lot more to food than vitamins,” Woolley says. “We need the fiber, the phytochemicals that we are just beginning to understand, and of course, it’s ideal for a child to learn to enjoy a variety of healthy foods.”

If you’re not dishin’ up the leafy greens, you’re not creating healthy eating habits, Woolley says. “It’s likely that the child’s growth won’t be stunted, but there are bigger long-term problems, like obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, that can be the result of lifelong eating patterns.”

But the news is not all bad. “Will an occasional Happy Meal be a huge problem? Of course not,” Woolley says. “But good nutrition — including eating plenty of vegetables — is an important goal to work towards.” Woolley says veggies often go down best when served raw with dips. As for Froot by the Foot? “Nothing trumps fresh fruit,” she says.


BABY ZOMBIES

“It’s educational!” you tell yourself, as you plop your tot in front of the tube. Hey, it’s the only way you’ll ever see the inside of your shower! Are you melting baby’s brain?

“I think the majority of parents feel guilty about their child’s use of media,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, “and I don’t think that’s very constructive. It leads to them not taking appropriate actions to use media wisely.”

Christakis would know. He’s the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the author of The Elephant in Your Living Room: Making Television Work for Your Kids. Christakis has studied a lot of slacker media moves. His bottom line? “Don’t focus on quantity — which is what most parents worry about — focus on what they’re actually watching. The truth is there are a lot of programs for young kids that are actually good for kids.”

But, go easy there, slacker. Christakis says the typical Northwest toddler watches two to three hours of TV a day (and if they’re in home-based day care, add another two to three hours) — and that’s just too much. Christakis’ advice to parents: “Keep it short and keep it good.”


MY LITTLE VIDIOT

Your 10-year-old locks on right after finishing his homework. You figure those video games are better than TV, because at least they’re interactive. Are you fooling yourself?

“It’s complicated,” says Christakis. “It comes back to content. Violent video games are very bad for children. And I have real concerns about some Internet games which put kids at risk for Internet addiction.” Once again, the message is moderation. “Be mindful of what is being displaced by video games,” says Christakis. “What else might your child do?”


DINNER AND A SHOW

Bonus points for this superslacker move: Feeding the kids dinner — in front of the TV! Maybe you have work to do. Maybe you’re just exhausted. Is eating with iCarly all that bad?

“It’s a terrible habit!” says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, pediatrician and the author of the popular Seattle Children’s blog Seattle Mama Doc. “Some of us grew up doing it. It’s called ‘distracted eating.’ Rather than listening to your body and how the food is making you feel, you overeat.” Besides contributing to the obesity epidemic, Swanson says, having the TV on during dinner obliterates the benefits of family meals, such as better family bonding and success in school, and reduced delinquency and incarceration rates. And Swanson points out that many commercials that air during the dinner hour are for foods that are terribly unhealthy.

“Look, we all do this crud to get through our lives,” Swanson says, “but in reality, why is the TV on? Is anyone watching anything that’s necessary?”


SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE

It stays light until 10 p.m., and besides, the kids are not UN hostage negotiators! How well rested do you need to be to play clappy-clappy and make mud pies? You let bedtime slide — especially in summer. Are your kids at risk of chronic sleep deprivation?

“A late bed time here and there, you can’t beat yourself up about it,” says Swanson. “But what you have to think about is this: If you’re doing it all the time, you may be phase-shifting your kids.” Phase-shifting is the process of actually readjusting your child’s natural melatonin spike, which usually hits around 8 p.m. Mess with beddy-bye too much and you could reset that spike to 10 p.m., and that, Swanson says, can lead to sleep deprivation.

And that can lead to irritability, inattention, poor school performance, and plenty o’ tension in the house. “You’re maybe setting them up for picking a fight, screaming at you — you may pay for it in another way,” Swanson says. General rule: Toddlers need between 12 and 14 hours of sleep. School-age kids: nine to 10 hours (yes, really!). And from about age 13, kids had better be getting between eight and nine hours of sleep.


KINDERMUSIK YOURSELF!

Forget Mandarin lessons and music enrichment! You don’t sign your kids up for anything — school and real life are plenty. Are you setting your child up for failure?

“One problem with not signing our kids up for anything is that it really feels like neglect,” says Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of the New York Times bestseller The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. “Since everyone else has swallowed the Kool-Aid, it feels as though you are depriving your child of essential social, academic and cultural opportunities, and that they will slide right off the track that would lead them to future success.”

Gulp.

OK, but really, Dr. Mogel says she doesn’t like to see a child with no extracurricular enrich­ment whatsoever. The problem, she says, comes with overkill. “All of this adult-supervised activity, where you can do things right or wrong, is kind of creepy,” Mogel says. “I want kids to have time where they can make up the rules of their own games, use their imagination, get dirty, get skinned knees.”

But Mogel warns parents not to slip into the trap of too much downtime: “Kids will say, ‘I’m fine! I’m happy not to have all of these enrichment activities! I’ll just sit with Nintendo all day.’”


THE “ROOM MOM” DASH

You know the one, where you bolt for the door when you see that clipboard being passed around? Heck, you’re not signing up for anything! You’ve got a life! Maybe a job or two! When it comes to field trips and class parties, you’re strictly a no-show. Are you disappointing your kids by not stepping up?

“What the schools say to me a lot of the time is ‘Oh, my gosh! How can we get these parents out of the classroom?’” says Mogel. “School is a little haven of privacy for kids, away from parents’ prying eyes.”

Still, your total slacker avoidance of all things glue-sticky might be a little extreme. “Kids have a good feeling when their parents are part of the school community,” she says. “Moderation is what’s appropriate.

“Just being present to listen to them talk about what interests them without asking a million intrusive, nervous questions is just as good as being room parents,” Mogel says, and thousands of slacker parents everywhere stand up and applaud.


PLUG UGLY

He’s 4 years old and still using a pacifier. Are you stunting his speech development?

“Most specialists and studies find that pacifier use doesn’t cause speech delays,” says pediatrician Swanson, “but it really makes me wonder if it causes them to talk less. If that kid’s got a wad of silicone in his mouth, he’s not going to communicate in the same way.”

Swanson recommends getting rid of the pacifier at around 6 months of age, before it becomes a serious habit. “Most people — including myself — blow right past that deadline,” she says.

“My next deadline comes at age 2,” because after age 2, pacifier use often causes malocclusion of the front teeth (i.e., “buck” teeth). And besides, “You’re just showing them that non-nutritive sucking is normal and acceptable,” Swanson says. And that undermines a very important safety lesson: Don’t put things in your mouth that are not food.


10-SECOND RULE

Your baby’s pacifier just fell on the kitchen floor. You pick it up and pop it back in. Are you introducing deadly microbes into your baby’s fragile system?

Rejoice, oh slacker parent: The 10-second rule is real! That’s according to my new best friend, Erika Schreder, staff scientist for Washington Toxics Coalition. “I have looked at studies that basically confirm that the 10-second rule isn’t altogether off,” Schreder says, then goes on to kill the buzz: “This is assuming that you do clean your floors at least once a week.”

Errr . . . what?

“You do have to vacuum at least once a week,” insists Schreder, and you also have to mop the kitchen floor. “Toxic chemicals build up in house dust — everything from lead to phthalates to toxic flame retardants — so we recommend you damp dust and vacuum at least once a week.”

Schreder does offer a glimmer of hope for us no-scrub slackers, though. “Skip the obsessive cleaning! You’re actually doing your kid a favor by not bleaching your countertops.” According to Schreder, those harsh, expensive chemicals are unnecessary. “Soap and water is fine for cleanup of practically anything in your home.”


BOOSTER MADNESS

For years, you’ve meticulously strapped, unstrap­ped, restrapped, tight­ened, heightened, rotated and relocated that child’s car seat. You even have a special designated rearview mirror just so you can keep one eye on Precious and one on the road. Now that your child is 7, you don’t always bother. Should you?

“When you look at how kids die, this is a big one,” says Swanson. “The odds of injury are 59 percent less in a booster than just a seatbelt. It’s super clear.”

Booster seats reduce injury in car crashes because of the way they distribute the crash forces, says Swanson. They place the seatbelt over strong bones, rather than soft tissue. Without a booster, “You can get these horrific exo-spinal injuries,” Swanson says. “Your child’s body is going 60 miles an hour. Without a booster, they can just be ejected.”

When your child is 40 pounds, he can make the transition to a booster seat. But he can’t transition out of that booster seat until he is eight years old . . . or 4-foot-9! “Which could mean you have near-teenagers who you know will be safer in a booster,” says Swanson. That can be a tough sell, but it needs to be a hard and fast rule, she says. “There should be no bending. You are trying to protect your child in the best way you can. It’s not anything to negotiate.”

Kristen Russell Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor. Her fave parental slacker moves include Eat Dessert First Night, “hemming” pants with safety pins and “educational” Mythbusters marathons. She is a fully recovered room mom.

July 14, 2010

A Reading List For Harried Parents (The New York Jewish News)

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June 23, 2010

A READING LIST FOR HARRIED PARENTS

by SHIRA VICKAR-FOX

I’m not one to read parenting guidebooks — who has the time if they’re truly parenting? — but I adore Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin Compass, 2001). Her book is easy to read and her approach is sensible. She and my mother are my two voices of parenting reason. I anxiously await the October publication of her new book, The Blessing of a B Minus (Scribner).

Lenore Skenazy is a humorous author and her Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) (Jossey-Bass, 2010), recently released in paperback, is a lot of fun. Skenazy blogs at freerangekids.com, and she is a firm believer in taking your kids outside and leaving them there — alone. It’s no wonder she recommends,  Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005) by Richard Louv.

If you want to know more about the harmful effects of micro-managing our children’s lives, read Hara Estroff Marano’s A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (Broadway Books, 2008) or The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind (Da Capo Press, 1981). Elkind’s book has been updated to reflect technological advances and more, but his main theme remains relevant more than 25 years after its initial publishing. Carl Honoré takes a global approach in Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (HarperCollins, 2008). 

For tools on how to remove you and your children from today’s hectic pace there’s The Overscheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) by Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise. Mommy Guilt: Learn To Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids (AMACOM, 2005) uses experiences from real moms and dads and aims to make the burden of parenting an enjoyable one.

No one said it would be easy. – Shira Vickar-Fox

June 23, 2010

Tips For Avoiding Overscheduled Family Syndrome (The New York Jewish Week)

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June 23, 2010

Tips For Avoiding
Overscheduled Family Syndrome

STAFF WRITER

When parents sign up for ice skating lessons on Thursdays and yoga on Mondays they have the best interest of their child in mind. But the constant running and shlepping to after-school activities can be draining for parents and in fact, harmful to children. (Not to mention the expense of class fees, sports uniforms and meals purchased on the go, rather than prepared at home.)

“We’re stealing from them downtime and time to fart around and accomplish nothing and have fun,” said Wendy Mogel, clinical psychologist and author of the popular Jewish parenting tome, The Blessing of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin Compass, 2001).

Enemy No. 1 in the battle to protect our children’s best interests is the lack of unstructured playtime. “Kids do need down time to see what they gravitate to besides the television,” said Lenore Skenazy, mother of two boys and author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Skenazy’s free-range movement is about common-sense parenting and giving kids the freedom to be well, kids.

“You can’t discover stuff if it’s all presented on a platter as an educational activity,” she said. Children need the opportunity to explore and discover hobbies and activities on their own terms. 

Lily Langer, a mother of four in Scarsdale and part-time export manager, limits after-school activities to one per semester for each child. She didn’t let her sixth grader try out for the town’s traveling softball team. “It’s 25 games, it’s a lot of traveling and there are so many other things you could be doing,” she told him. “I’m a huge believer in opening the front door and letting the child play outside.”

Devra Renner, a social worker who is co-author of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids, had one client who found an adapter for her crockpot that plugged into her minivan. “If you are cooking in your car and you think having an adapter for the car is brilliant, then that’s a definite sign” that you need to scale back those activities, she said.

Moderation is a word associated with diet but it can also be applied to our child’s enrichment. “Somehow we’ve gotten into this world where good is the new bad,” said Renner. “You can have a good amount of activities; you don’t have to have the most excellent amount of activities.” 

One way to reduce the stress in your home is to color-code your family’s activities on a large wipe-off calendar, recommends Renner. Assign a color to each parent, child and another one for family time. “Then when you look at it you can see who is really overscheduled,” said Renner. “You have a visual key there. It also helps you figure out, wait we’re not getting any family time.” 

Choose activities that work into your schedule. “I pick the ones that are the most convenient and check off the most things I want to accomplish,” said Susan Marder, a mother of seven and clinical social worker for 11 years at the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck. She chooses ones at school, where she can easily form a carpool, or reserves activities for Sundays.

She also recommends making the most of the chosen activity to reduce the frenzy.

“What’s your attitude while you’re doing these things and how can you best utilize the time?” she said.

Take advantage of travel time to ask your child about his or her day. Make sandwiches before an evening baseball game and have a picnic beforehand.

Tzippy Cohen, a mother of three living on the Upper West Side, packs after-school activities into the beginning of the week. On Thursdays and Fridays her children come home after school. “I don’t want to feel hurried, but I don’t want them to miss out on these activities,” she said. “This is the way I found that works for us.”

Protect your child’s bedtime, advises Mogel. “Parents need to be valiant and courageous defenders of their children’s spirit and energy,” she said.  Assign a homework deadline by which time all homework must be completed.

Make sure parents get enough rest, too. “It creates a really cranky country where we all just need a nap because we’re overscheduled,” said Renner. 

No parent wants their children to look back on their youth and remember mom and dad screaming, “Put on your shoes, we’re going to be late.”

“It’s not about you running ragged,” said Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and professor of psychology and child psychiatry. “It’s about time together.”

June 23, 2010

Trying Eyes... (Better Homes and Gardens)

May 2010

Trying Eyes… ...Make peace with the eye-roll, a tween girl’s rite of passage that can feel oh so wrong.

By Rachel Simpson

Lucky me.  Just in time for Mother’s Day, my 11-year-old daughter has mastered a new skill:  the eye-roll.  I suspect this “gift” will be one that keeps on giving.  When she wonders what’s for dinner and I innocently answer “hamburgers,” she rolls her eyes.  I ask her to put her laundry away and this time I get a sigh to go with the eye-roll.  No matter how vividly I can recall doing this to my own mother, my feelings are still hurt.  (And my own mom just shakes her head and valiantly refrains from telling me “I told you so.”)

IT’S INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT NOT TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY.
-PSYCHOLOGIST AND AUTHOR WENDY MOGEL

The classic adolescent eye-roll, says Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is one of the ways that a child can show you she has complete disdain for what you’ve just said, how you run your home, who you are—the complete adult-ness of you.  And no matter how many of your friends are experiencing the same thing, it’s always a tough pill to swallow, she adds.  “It’s incredibly important not to take it personally,” she says.  “Nearly all mothers of girls go through this.”

These ocular expressions of contempt usually begin at about age 11 and occur more frequently with girls than boys, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard psychologist specializing in girls’ issues.  Anything can set them off.  And while it’s some comfort to know that it’s not you, it’s her, there are some strategies for dealing with this stop on the adolescent express.

Don’t react in the moment, Steiner-Adair advises, especially if the eye-rolling happens in front of her peers.  Wait until later, and then say, “You seemed mad.  Is there something I should know?”  Sometimes that’s all that’s needed to open the door to a conversation the child wants to have but doesn’t know how to start.  Another tip:  Make sure you aren’t answering too fast.  She may feel as if you’ve made up your mind before she even finished.

Knowing how to handle the eye-roll is one thing, but what about the hurt it causes?  There’s only so miuch you can do, Steiner-Adair cautions.  “If it’s really starting to hurt you a lot, call another mom, commiserate, and get some support.”  In other words, get used to it.  And be comforted by the knowledge that, to some extent, the girls really can’t help it.

“Part of it is just hormonal,” says Mogel.  Changing levels of hormones and the uncomfortable processes of brain development make adolescents anxious and irritable.  And girls, in general, are closer to—and interact more with—their mothers than anyone else, whch is why we get the brunt of it.  “They are worst to their mothers.  They’re lovely in school, good with friends, nice to their dads, and just hideous with their moms,” Mogel says.  Perversely, that hideousness is a sign of your good parenting, the goal of which is to produce a healthy, strong individual adult.  Eye-rolling is a lead indicator that that’s happening.  Really.

It’s an adolescent’s job to be this way—to ridicule her parents—because it’s such a long process of breaking away and becoming an independent adult,” says Trisha Thompson, mother of two teenage girls (14 and 17) and a frequent blogger on her life with them at thefastertimes.com.

While those rotating eyes might look a lot like disdain or embarrassment to you, “It’s the way girls punctuate their transition from little girlhood to adulthood,” Steiner-Adair says.  It’s just another perfectly appropriate developmental stage behavior.  “When they were little they would get upset and cry,” she explains.  “But now, instead of doing that, they doubt you and question your not letting them be as grown-up as they think they are.”

Until then, however, we parents have to negotiate their job with ours:  setting limits, instilling respect, growing decent adults.  Which also means not doing what Thompson says she’s always tempted to do—roll her own eyes back at her daughters in an even more dramatic fashion.  “That doesn’t make anything better,” she says.


WHERE THE BOYS ARE

Boys share with girls the same need to separate from their parents, but manifest it with a different optical tic:  Avoidance.  “Mainly what boys do is try to hide,” says psychologist Wendy Mogel.  Avoiding all eye contact with parents (and other adults) is typical.  One technique they use, she adds, is to spend a lot of time with their eyes glued to a screen “so they don’t have to look at that awful parent.”  Another is pretending to get a text when you’re talking, just so they can divert attention to the phone and away from you.

Tween boys are desperate for privacy.  “Puberty bathes their brains in hormones and there’s just so much going on with them,” Mogel explains.  Think voices—and other things—changing.  “They’re so self-conscious,” she adds.  They don’t have words for the way they’re feeling and often don’t understand what’s going on, says Mogel.

Boys need compassion and respect and, yes, privacy.  Grant them space, don’t take it personally and when you can, find ways to engage them.  Try listening to their music and discussing it or get them talking about technology—they probably know more than you do.  Remember, this is not the epic documentary or their life.  It’s just another phase.

 

 

May 1, 2010

Smart Empathy (Independent School Magazine)

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Smart Empathy
Cultivating a Self-Reliant Parent Body in Times of Crisis

WENDY MOGEL

Winter 2010


imageWalking down Wabash Street in Chicago last fall, I stopped to admire a grand Gothic-Moorish building with the words MEDINA spelled out in terra cotta blocks under a majestic dome. Turning the corner, I saw another sign at the front entrance: BLOOMINGDALE’S HOME. In an article announcing the opening of the store, the property owner stated, “The 140,000-square-foot Medina Temple property had been owned by the Shriners, but was out-of-date for its original purpose as an auditorium and was unused.” The paradox of the repurposing of the building hit me when I went inside. It was lovely, quiet… and empty of customers. Even those who find uplift in retail therapy were staying away.

Times are tough all around.

In my 35 years working in and around independent schools I’ve never heard as many sad stories as of late. I’m not talking about the sad-style stories of parents inappropriately asking schools to make their lives easier in some way. I’m talking about the real heartbreakers.

Take, for example, the family accustomed to paying their two children’s tuition with income from the father’s bonuses alone and then reaching into their pockets to cover the full tuition for a scholarship student. Now, even with mother working full time, the family finds itself short. A handwritten letter from their shy fourth grader is tucked into the packet of financial-aid forms. It begins: “Ten reasons I love [this school] and ten reasons I hope you will let me stay.” But, when the numbers are crunched, this family does not qualify for financial aid.

There’s the reaction of a lower school head upon learning that one of her students, an unusually sweet-natured, able, and hardworking sixth grader from a low-income family, has been waitlisted at every secondary school to which she applied while full-pay classmates of lesser academic credentials receive multiple offers.

There’s the anguish felt by a third grade teacher on hearing this question posed by a parent: “We’re in a bit of a tough spot right now. The medical insurance provided by my wife’s new job won’t cover treatment for the recurrence of her cancer. Marissa’s birthday is coming up in three weeks. I know this isn’t really a school-type problem, but any ideas about how to do a low-cost party that the other kids would still find fun?”

One financial aid officer I interviewed for this article said, “It’s been a very unusual time around here. One third more of our full-pay families are applying for aid than in any time in the past. Usually the tissue box on the desk in my office lasts a whole year. This year, I’ve gone through a few already. Some days I’m so tired that I think about walking away and becoming a surfing instructor.”

Independent schools have always had families facing hardships. But now, so many of the troubles have troubles: illness plus loss of insurance coverage, school placement competition plus limited tuition funds, the normal stresses of raising a family plus financial insecurity. And these mounting worries are creating a new dilemma for schools.

In his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, before the current economic downturn, Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, described how the collapse of American civic, political, and social organizations (Rotary Clubs, the League of Women Voters, bowling leagues, and even the frequency with which people give dinner parties or attend Sunday picnics) has created a sense of disconnection and social isolation, a loss of what he calls “social capital.”

The loss of Shriners and bowling leagues didn’t have a negative impact on independent schools in the flush years of the past two decades. On the contrary, schools graciously — and perhaps eagerly — filled in the social gap. Besides a broad menu of committee opportunities, parents were invited to be involved in community-service projects for families, picnics, parties, career-day lessons, parent education programs, and camping trips. These levels and types of involvement strengthened the community and created great parental loyalty and generosity. Schools flourished as social hubs and a source of identity for families. But now, facing an increasingly competitive, unsettled, anxious world, the school-parent relationship has become increasingly tense — too close and, at the same time, too indulgent, insensitive, and shortsighted for the health of either party. Some of the parental expectations that were fostered and encouraged in times of economic abundance are now depleting the emotional coffers and patience of school leaders and the resources of schools. How far should a school go in helping families with their myriad problems? Where are the lines now?

Empathy is admirable. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink even describes it as one of the six essential qualities necessary for success in the 21st century. But schools need to get smarter about how and when and in what form they provide support for their families.

YOU’RE MY EVERYTHING:  PERILS OF CLOSENESS

People who choose to work in schools are, by nature, eager to help others. But institutions are weakened by trying to be all things to all people. As in marriages in which a partner is expected (or tries to be) a best friend, business consultant, decorator, thrilling playmate, moral barometer, accountant, and shrink, your greatest assets get diluted or overlooked when you aren’t forthright and firm about your talents, interests, and limits. Even those with great intentions, big hearts, and high energy can’t sustain such broad, unrelenting demands. A school’s commitment to parents is to educate the children it admits as best it can. If administrators and staff act as payday loan windows, pastoral counselors, marriage therapists, experts in every special need, and all-around pals, it isn’t possible to do much of anything very well. Schools don’t have the time, the money, or the expertise.

Almost every administrator I talk to tells me about his or her own jitters: diminished endowments or stalled construction projects, a smaller applicant pool or fear of losing students, more open slots in upper grades. When families come asking to be delivered from pain, many school leaders are tempted to spring into action both because they genuinely care and because of a desire to keep their customers happy, but also because other people’s problems are a great distracter. Listening to a suffering parent, educators may think, “Wow, this is interesting,” or, “Wow, my problems aren’t so bad,” or, “Wow, it sure would feel good to fix this little corner of the world.” But, of course, doing so won’t help the school with the issues that are pressing hardest on the schoolhouse door.

In our troubled times, schools can remain compassionate and vibrant communities, only if they resist pity, overindulgence, or overidentification with families — even those who are favored or aggressively miserable. This means having a clear view of responsibility, of who owns which problems. If you spread yourself out too much, you’ll get weary and dispirited, and you won’t be able to serve your core mission well. Besides, too much caring quite often backfires. This is the dark side of empathy.

It’s a paradox, but when you try to help those who can help themselves, at first, they kiss your hand, then they sue you. It’s like teenagers who get into the habit of punting their problems over to parents and then blame those same parents when they get a C-minus or a jail sentence. In independent schools, overly kind habits of the heart can lead to feelings of betrayal, an erosion of parental self-reliance, and a weakening of the community. Like the therapist who thinks he or she can fix a patient’s problems, the school that believes its mission includes providing a balm for every distress for every family will quickly find itself feeding its own distress.

It’s an admittedly tricky line to walk. Parents will ask and ask. But you should not feel obliged, say, to have a full on-campus memorial service under a tree on a cloudless day for anyone in the community who knows anyone who has died. Nor are you obligated to accommodate every single learning style of every child in the school just because you don’t test the children entering your early childhood program. Parents may be suffering at increasing rates in this down economy, but that doesn’t mean you must fill in the financial gaps for families living above their means until they get back on their feet.

Eking out resources in attempts to solve or soothe this category of parental discomfort inevitably creates frustration, disappointment, and layers new troubles onto old.

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t accommodate families and parents in a compassionate, generous, and personalized fashion. My usual formula is this: Schools should cater to parents less than parents think is appropriate and more than teachers do. But with more families with urgent and broader needs in the school population — more than the usual five percenters — it’s easy to get swamped, confused about priorities, and to start sticking fingers in the dike or applying band-aid after band-aid, rather than stopping to reflect, to adjust your vision, make thoughtful choices, and then, where appropriate, tweak your systems.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:  CONDUCT SOME REALITY THERAPY

When parents ask: Can’t you get my daughter to join a club? Play on a team? Have more friends? Talk my son into applying early decision to Penn? Tell my daughter that her mother and I are separating? Retool the math curriculum? Grade on a curve? Call my sister to offer your condolences over the death of her father-in-law? Stock up on red washcloths so if any of the kids in pre-K get a booboo, they won’t get scared by the blood? Listen to me dump my misery about how my bipolar, pill-addicted, unemployed ex-husband is poisoning my relationship with my son? Base your financial-aid formula on income divided by debts and expenses instead of expenses divided by assets? Instead of saying, “I’ll see what I can do!” you can think about the power, potential, and majesty of reality.

Marcus Hurlbut, head of Saint Margaret’s Episcopal School (California), described his school’s adjustment to the economic downturn as “a crisis we couldn’t afford to miss.” He explained that it served as a reality check and brought the school down to earth after an era of yearly add-ons and donations so sky-high that both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times reported on the gifts as news items. “Now we’re giving financial aid to 60 kids from existing families who were formerly full-pay customers. In general, we’re more efficient because we have to be. We’re taking seriously the advice of several trustees who have long said, if we add a program, we need to consider sunsetting another. We’ve cut down on transportation costs, and are making better use of existing resources, all without any reduction in program or staff.”

When I queried him about Smartboards — those pin-up girls of the prospective parents’ tour — he replied. “Exactly. This is a great piece of equipment but the kids used to ask: ‘Why are they here?’ Now we’ve figured out how best to use them.”

Hurlbut notes other ways that basic shifts in perspective have both improved the efficiency of the school and led to a stronger community. “We don’t just assume people can just write the tuition check,” he says. “At back-to-school night, I let the parents know how much the faculty and staff appreciate the sacrifice parents are making to have their children here. Everyone is taking his or her obligations more seriously than ever.”

This crisis-as-opportunity model can strengthen families as well. When schools resist applying palliatives, or making special allowances, or proceeding as though tough times are temporary, families have a better chance of making necessary adjustments. For example, some families applying for aid for the first time are reassessing priorities. Studying their monthly budget is illuminating. In many cases, what had been seen as essentials get redefined as luxuries. Living above their means in order to keep up with classmates or protect their children from reality no longer seems prudent. Non-working parents are getting jobs, grandparents are chipping in, families are cutting out skating lessons and extended or distant vacations. The children’s education is treated as a serious investment worthy of serious sacrifice.

But other families are slower to face either their need for help or their need for self-discipline. For these families, a different brand of empathy is in order. Effective empathy is not secretive and scattershot, but systematic and transparent.

Set the stage.
Say to the faculty: This year, we’re going to have families with illnesses of loved ones, changed financial circumstances, and marriages falling apart. When appropriate, direct the parents to any school resources of which they may be unaware, or refer them to your division head, a dean, or counselor — but always remember that your job is to be an empathic and respectful teacher of children, not a therapist or problem-solver for parents.

Correct false assumptions.
At back-to-school night or grade-level meetings, relieve misplaced parental anxiety about the economy by reporting any reassuring trends that you’ve observed in your community or have learned about from colleagues.

Mothers who find themselves needing to go back to work are often convinced that any problem their child develops is due to their absence around the house. You can explain that this is rarely true. In some cases, it may even have a positive effect. Those working moms who tended towards excessive hovering find that going to work is both a helpful antidote to over-devotion and provides an opportunity for the children to develop more self-reliance and resourcefulness.

At college counseling meetings, you can warn parents not to encourage their child to apply to a school the parents don’t intend to allow the child to attend because of out-of-reach tuition or travel costs. “But he’ll feel good if he gets in” is a good-intentioned but misguided rationale. Besides, in some cases, it really means that the parents will feel good if their child gets in.

The amount of after-tax income needed to pay tuition for two children for 13 years adds up to enough money to cause any middle-class family to quake. You can remind parents that you are aware of the great cost of an independent school education, and that any family may find itself needing help at some point along the way. Then, in a discreet and encouraging snail-mail letter home — not in an announcement hidden deep in your website — invite existing families to apply for financial aid.

Be a role model of holding onto standards and expectations even in crisis.
Saying, “No excuses accepted in this class!” after a grandparent dies or a family faces other kinds of distress is a display of institutional heartlessness. But it is appropriate to say, “Yes, of course, we’ll give Jack a few days or a week grace period, but after that, homework is due on schedule.” Rather than acting as though students are fragile and easily traumatized, schools can acknowledge grief while also respectfully normalizing natural changes in life circumstances, even painful ones, as opportunities for developing resilience.

Holding your ground on requests for accommodation to unnecessarily nervous demands (which are often displacements from personal worries) also helps to steady a community. School leaders can say, for instance, “Just because there’s been a school shooting in another state doesn’t mean our students are in any sort of danger. We are committed to maintaining an open campus in our own safe neighborhood, and have made a firm decision not to hire a security guard to stand at every access point of our school.”

Keep volunteers attuned to humble realities.
Most schools need a third to half more financial aid than they did a few years ago. This means that the parent association can be tasked with raising money for scholarships for existing families, rather than for the more delightful embellishments of years past like the Hawaii trip for the senior class or expensive equipment that the school can do without.

Remember that, in hard times, small acts of thoughtfulness put money in the bank of good will and morale.
Consider providing school supplies and pre-paying for tickets to the annual fund-raiser and sports banquet for families on full financial aid.

Make podcasts of parent education events so those who can’t attend for any reason or don’t wish to hire a babysitter will have access to the information provided to the attendees.

Out of consideration to families weighing college scholarship or merit money over U.S. News rankings, consider taking down banners and posters of “prestige collection” schools in the college counselor’s office — or keep them up while also highlighting the colleges that offer the best aid packages.

Teach a man or woman to fish.
School personnel may not have all the answers to adult problems, but schools can offer resources to help parents with their pressing issues. At the Center for Early Education (California), librarian Lucy Rafael has created 65 different bibliographies on a broad range of topics, including: adoption issues, cancer, children and trauma, death and dying, divorce, the vocabulary of emotions, fear, stress, working parents, stepfamilies, and resilience. This is a real “take home” because the Center’s parents can find every one of the titles in the school’s 5,000-book “parent library” collection.

Be respectful if you need to part ways.
Many corporations offer highly developed outplacement services as part of the process of terminating an employee. Schools are not obligated to provide the full service of an outside school placement specialist, but in an era of more fluid traffic in and out of schools, remaining ignorant or naïve about alternatives is no longer a respectful or appropriate position. The support of an in-house resource person with knowledge of charter, magnet, and public options lends dignity and partnership to the transition.

Consider that giving more upfront may mean less knocking at the back door.
Over the past five years, Lakeside School (Washington) has developed a remarkably robust Family Support Program. The original mission was simple: the school wished to fulfill its commitment to diversity by both attracting and retaining families new to independent schools. It wanted prospective families to feel confident about choosing this potentially intimidating educational option and existing families to have the resources to succeed once they joined the community. Jamie Asaka, Family Support Program coordinator, explains that this perspective required a paradigm shift from family involvement to active family support. “We first evaluated the school culture and the systems currently in place in many different categories: transportation to and from practices and games and the cost of equipment for athletes, the need for interpreters at every school event, access to technology for families and students and support for families in any kind of crisis.”

Using the example of technology, she described how, a few months into the school year, teachers discovered a puzzling pattern of missing student assignments. Some sleuthing revealed that, even though all students in grades seven to twelve were provided with laptops, once they arrived home, some were lacking a key but overlooked resource: Internet access. Out of embarrassment, these students never went to the teacher and said, “I can’t get online at home.” Instead, they scrambled to cover up this gap. They went to the library or hoped to find unlocked wifi in the neighborhood. Many just gave up and, with no explanation, simply didn’t hand in their work on time.

“Now we survey all families at the beginning of the year and ask: Do you have Internet access? What kind? Is e-mail a good way to communicate with you? If they don’t have access to the web or e-mail, we help them get it. If they don’t want it for any reason, we send them hardcopies of all communications.”

The Family Support Program has clearly strengthened the Lakeside community, Asaka says. “When all families are freely offered a whole set of specific resources for community participation, they feel encouraged and supported. Then they not only use the resources, but get involved and help others.”

Walking the mourner’s path together.
In the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the commonality of various experiences of loss was publicly acknowledged. A special separate path was set aside not only for those mourning the death of a close relative, but for those who faced other losses as well. In her wise and moving book, Mourning and Mitzvah, Rabbi Anne Brener writes, “It was understood that economic reverses, personal illness, relocation, and the illness of someone close required attention similar to that given to mourners. As it says in the Talmud: ‘Who are they who circle to the left? A mourner, an excommunicant, one who has someone sick at home, and one concerned about a lost object.’” As the example of Lakeside School so vividly illustrates, at one time or another, all parents lose something precious to them and rightfully take their place on the mourner’s path.

A message board on a private page of your school’s website can serve as a vehicle for the exchange of goods and services. A school’s “mitzvah” or loving hands committee — where volunteers bring meals, drive carpools, and plan birthday parties for families in crisis — is a sparkling example of social capital embedded in the core of the community rather than parked in the office of the head of school.

A national financial downturn with no predictable endpoint brings its own special grief and fear. When schools focus their energies on being the best educators possible rather than being all things to all people, families have an opportunity to mature and to learn to take care of themselves and each other. Finding opportunity in this crisis both strengthens the community and grows healthy social capital in a time when it’s so desperately needed.

January 1, 2010

Camp Blessings (Canada Camps for Parents)


Camp Blessings


January 2010

There are many benefits to a camp experience, but for well-known psychologist, Wendy Mogel, some of the top ones for parents to remember are mud, dirty fingernails and bugs.  Canada Camps for Parents sits down with the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee to get her thoughts on why parents should send their kids to camp.


CHALLENGES OF TODAY’S PARENTS
The default challenges of loving, devoting, intelligent parents are over protection, over scheduling, over indulgence and expecting kids to perform at a higher level in every area except for respect for adults.  Today’s kids that are bubble wrapped don’t develop immune systems because they are too protected.

HAVE CHALLENGES CHANGED
When I was a child, children could go play outside on a summer night without adults knowing where they were until dark.  When I was in school, the kindergarten curriculum included making an ashtray and learning a couple of songs and how to clean up after a snack.  Today, schools are preparing kids for standardized tests.  The academic pressure is very different and the 24-hour news cycle and the love of terrifying parents has made parents phobic about giving their kids much freedom in nature.  Parents have an image in their mind of a pedophile or child abductor spending most of their time trying to figure out how to target their child—the odds of that happening are extremely miniscule.  They are also fearful of giving them privacy.  Parents are so brainwashed that they think private means danger.  Instead, private means time to daydream, fart around and accomplish nothing, to rest or for spiritual growth.

CHILD DEVELOPMENT & CAMP
The biggest symptoms psychologists and school administrators complain about in today’s kids are anxiety, entitlement and general high maintenance.  Camp is the opposite of that.  At camp, you are just a bunk member.

ROLE MODELING
The most important thing for parents to remember is role modeling.  If the school has a sign saying no left turns out of the parking lot and the parent makes a left turn, a six year old recognizes that.  Very small acts have a big impact on little people.  The amount of cheating done in high schools and universities is greater today than 15 years ago.  These kids, every minute of every day, believe their whole future is on the line.  This is what we have created—an unethical atmosphere by our own actions as parents and putting our kids in situations where the bible would call it a “stumbling block before the blind.”

This is how you create, especially in boys, demoralization about school, and rowdy, acting out behavior.  They are so frustrated at being asked to do work they are not ready to do.  This is not how you create life-long, enthusiastic learners.

EXPERIENCE WITH CAMP MOVEMENT
I went to camp for 16 years.  I went to a day camp and was a camper, Counselor-in-Training, staff member and senior staff member.  I grew up in New York City and it was tradition to send kids to camp for eight weeks.  I loved camp.  It was so different than being at home.  We would just sit around the pond and gather frogs.  Camp has so many good things for kids:  mosquitoes, mean kids in your bunk, times when you feel too hot or too cold and a lake which is really cold.

CAMP EXPECTATIONS
What I want parents to expect is that at the beginning of the summer, their child might petition to go home.  Camp is antidote to everything I mentioned in the beginning:  over protection to over indulgence to too much focus on academics.  Not to mention lack of respect for adults.  At camp, because counselors are not the kids’ mommy and daddy, they won’t coddle them like they are used to being coddled.

PSYCHOLOGICAL MATURITY
Parents have to understand that social and emotional development and self-reliance and self-regulation—examples of psychological maturity—are what predicts adult success much more than learning specific skills that will look good on your transcript.  I’m sorry to see camps getting more structured, more technically focused and less the final outpost for childhood.  I want kids to play with all five senses in three dimensions, instead of on a computer screen or in a structured class during or after school.

GETTING OVER THE FEAR
I like camp folk to talk to parents about what their fears are and why these fears are misplaced.  I like to call this “preventative mental health” for camp parents.

THE BENEFITS OF CAMP
Bugs, dirt, extremes of temperature, dirty fingernails, being with kids [that are different] from your home town, church, school or synagogue, learning all sorts of things to do, sitting in a field when you are feeling down, having your own resources to take care of the natural fluctuations in moods that kids have, hiding from the prying eyes of nervous, devoted parents, and doing sneaky things and not getting caught.  I think the best avenue to spiritual elevation in life is singing in nature, and at at camp you can do this.

January 1, 2010

Under Pressure? (Middlebury Magazine)

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WINTER 2009


Under Pressure?

by Catherine O’Neill Grace ’72, Photography by Max S. Gerber

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A psychologist and author turns to the Talmud to help children and parents, alike.


These days, no one’s too surprised to hear about parents who write a high school daughter’s college entrance essay, or even call a young adult son’s prospective boss to discuss the terms of a job offer. That’s parenting, 21st-century style. But as Wendy Mogel ’73—author of the perennial bestseller, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children—was gathering material for her forthcoming book, The Blessing of a B Minus, she heard a tale that pushed the limits even further. It was about parents who got a divorce but didn’t tell their kids, worrying that it might upset them. The explanation for Dad’s absence? He was on an extended business trip.

Such stories distress, but no longer surprise, Mogel. The clinical psychologist and author has spent much of the last decade traveling around the country talking to worried parents from all walks of life. Her primary objective is to help parents understand how important it is to let their children make—and learn from—their mistakes and to understand that shielding them from life’s lessons can be counterproductive.

Mogel lives in Hollywood and is married to the successful producer, screenwriter, and novelist Michael Tolkin ’74. She has found that parental anguish is particularly intense in the perfection-obsessed private schools and palatial homes of Los Angeles. These are the kind of parents she saw in her clinical practice and the kind she feared she was becoming when her children were little.

“I was a regular old clinical psychologist—and then I had little children and I found Judaism,” Mogel says, of the faith that changed her view of parenting. With a friend, she began attending services and found herself moved, and supported as a parent, by what she found there. Suspending her practice, she spent a year studying Judaism full time; her young family began celebrating the Sabbath at home. (Today, she and Tolkin belong to Temple Israel of Hollywood and have supported the Jewish community at Middlebury College for many years.)

“When I began studying Judaism, one of the first things that struck me was how directly it spoke to the issue of parental pressure,” Mogel writes in Skinned Knee. “According to Jewish thought, parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are. A Hasidic teaching says, ‘If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t tell him to be a doctor.’”

Skinned Knee, which grew out of the lectures Mogel developed for a Jewish parenting class, started out small. “They printed 5,000 copies of what they thought was a nice Jewish parenting book,” Mogel says. In spite of a rave review in Publishers Weekly, news of the book traveled mainly through word of mouth, from parent to parent, teacher to teacher, school to school. “Some independent schools give a copy to every new parent, others to every teacher. I’ve heard of acting classes using it, and it’s used in seminaries. So sales do remain brisk!”

Ten years after that first modest press run, there are some 300,000 copies of Skinned Knee in print, and the book has gone back on press 28 times. “The surprising thing is that it became an important book in the non-Jewish community, especially in the world of independent schools,” she says. “People overcame their prejudices about a parenting book that used religious thought as its foundation. They were willing to embrace traditional Jewish thought, and see it as universal, as something that is old and true—and that’s how I felt when I stumbled upon the Talmud.”

In Skinned Knee, Mogel writes that modern parents tend to be like “cruise ship directors who must get [our children] to their destination—adulthood—smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave.” That overprotective approach means parents deprive children of essential experience: “Those bumps are part of God’s plan.”

Mogel’s bestseller counsels parents to let their children take risks and make their own mistakes. It also turns to traditional Jewish teaching to explore a series of “blessings” that enrich family life and create stability—including honoring parents, valuing work, embracing tradition, and experiencing gratitude.

Jewish tradition was not part of Mogel’s childhood in Manhattan. “I was not from a religious family at all,” she says. “Michael had a bar mitzvah and was confirmed, but neither of us had anything to do with religion until our first daughter, Susanna, was three.”

As interest in Skinned Knee grew, Mogel was asked to speak all over the country, at schools, synagogues, and gatherings of professional organizations. “I was surprised and very gratified—and I found out that my true calling was not being a therapist or even being a writer, but being a public speaker,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing to do. I am a circuit preacher.”

Mogel’s dance card for speaking engagements is sure to be even fuller when The Blessing of a B Minus is published in September. “The working subtitle is something like ‘raising resilient teenagers in a nervous world,’” she says. “I started this book five years ago, and my kids are now 18 and 22.” Older daughter Susanna is a Haverford graduate and teaches nursery school; younger daughter Emma, who enjoys playing bluegrass music and songwriting, is at the University of Chicago.

Stories about the girls abound in Skinned Knee, but for B Minus Mogel has drawn instead on the stories that administrators, teachers, and parents have told her as she travels the country. She is well aware of parents’ anxiety—indeed their terror—about their children’s futures.

“This was a much, much harder book to write because it’s a harder topic,” says Mogel. She sees teenagers today as both pressured and pampered—a poisonous recipe for raising confident, independent human beings. “We’re constantly taking their emotional temperatures. The reflex is to overprotect, overindulge, and overschedule.”

But being protected from reality makes kids much less able to cope with it. School administrators and teachers find that girls these days are anxious, boys emotionally shut down. “They call them ‘teacups’ and ‘crispies’ because they’re so fragile, dependent on their parents and burned out from APs and worries about burnishing their transcripts,” says Mogel. “But I want kids to be able to range free a bit and to be around knives, matches, divorce, cancer, death. I want teenagers to have to make choices about alcohol, drugs, and sex.”

Parents have to make tough choices, too—including ethical ones. “When someone calls from school and asks, ‘Is this late slip forged?’ you have to say yes, even if it gets your child in trouble,” Mogel says.

There are qualities in this generation of teenagers that give Mogel hope. “They’re so passionate. There is exuberant, tender, relaxed, collegial mutual support between the genders. They are worldly, and they’re not as prejudiced as we were. And when they’re not too stressed, their entitlement shows itself as energetic idealism and can lead to creative solutions to social problems.”

Mogel says that she again drew on Talmudic wisdom for the new book, but in a less prescriptive way. Rather, the religious framework of the book gives parents something to lean on themselves—the potential for pleasure in watching the circus of adolescence, a sense of the sturdiness of reality, and the power of human resilience. Says Mogel, “Jewish teachings are really about having faith in the future.”

December 21, 2009

A Summer Reading List for Parents (New York Times Magazine)

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Motherlode:  Adventures in Parenting

June 1, 2009, 11:32 AM


A Summer Reading List for Parents

By Lisa Belkin

imageMy essay about the end of overparenting in the magazine this weekend gave me a chance to look back in time over the parade of advice given to new parents. It also got me thinking about my own sources of advice, places I have turned over the years with questions.

Top of the list are my own parents (I heard you, Mom, even if I didn’t always listen) and my pediatrician.

For middle of the night health panics (the first sounds of croup still pop up in my nightmares once in a while) I was lucky enough to be married to a doctor, but also often found myself on drgreene.com for guidance.

And while I read dozens of advice books over the years, a few rose to the level of indispensable:

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, By Wendy Mogel. You don’t have to be religious, you don’t even have to be Jewish to appreciate Mogel’s philosophy that allowing children to fall down and pick themselves up (with kisses as needed) is the way to raise resilient, self-confident kids.

Becoming the Parent You Want To Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years, By Laura Davis and Janis Keyser. Not a how-to book, so much as a how-to-think-things-through-and-arrive-at-the-right-solution-for you book.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and Siblings Without Rivalry, both by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Both books walk you through true-to-life scenarios, with small suggestions that “magically” make huge differences when you find yourself having the same kinds of conversations in real life. For a few months a while back, my husband and I each had a dog-eared copy of “Siblings” next to our bed, and I often quickly skimmed a few pages before I raced off to break up yet another squabble.

Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager, By Anthony E. Wolf. The title alone shows Wolf understands life with teenagers. And like Faber, he gives practical tips for situations that really happen.

Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn’t Fit In - When to Worry and When Not to Worry by Perri Klass and Eileen Costello. Nearly every child is “quirky” in some way at some time. Klass and Costello, both pediatricians, are good at sorting out what will pass and what needs a closer look.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, By Anne Lamott I often give this book as a shower gift along with another book of Lamott’s, which is technically about writing but has the best advice I have ever read about raising children. That second one, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life takes its title from a moment in Lamott’s own her childhood when her brother was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by piles of books trying to write a science report about birds. He was overwhelmed and panicking – there was just too much to take in at once. Father sat down next to him and said, “son, just take it bird by bird.”

Bird by bird – one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. Somewhere along the way you look back at where you began and realize you’ve become a parent, with a philosophy all your own.

Where do you turn for parenting advice? What sources would you pass along to parents who are trying to find their way?

June 1, 2009

Kicking the Tutoring Habit (Independent School Magazine)

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Summer 2008

THE TUTORING PHENOMENON

 

Kicking the Tutoring Habit

By Wendy Mogel

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In the early 1930s, when my father was in elementary school in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, all students were given a singing test at the beginning of the school year. Each student was then placed in one of three groups: sopranos, altos, and listeners. The duties of the listeners? Learn the words to all the songs, attend all performances, and mouth silently.

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, the kindergarten curriculum had modest goals: teach the students to get along with their neighbors, to line up quietly for recess, and to learn the pledge. For a special craft project, we made ashtrays out of clay for our parents.

As today’s middle schoolers frequently remind their parents, “Times have so changed.” Try that singing test now and you would find parents picketing outside of school with signs reading: “Perfect pitch is relative”; “Solo parts discriminate”; “This school damages self-esteem.” And while the ashtrays might shock, the bigger complaint would be about a kindergarten curriculum lacking in both rigor and daily phonics homework thereby placing the children at a disadvantage for the verbal portions of the SAT right at the start.

Expectations of equal treatment of every student and of early, sustained, measurable, high-academic performance in every area drive both administrative decisions and parents’ behavior. We wish to see our students as filled with unlimited promise, but, as was always true, some children can sing and others can’t, some are ready to read in kindergarten and some aren’t, and some will never be good in specific subjects — for example, (dare I say it?) in math.

While we can provide encouragement and challenging learning opportunities, the possibility of students reaching their potential is up to them. But, more and more, parents are trying to fill in the blanks of talent — or predilection or drive — to insert whatever seems to be missing, to get the kids up to speed (or even faster) by hiring private tutors to help. This good-intentioned impulse has a cost, one that is becoming increasingly apparent in independent school communities.

 

The Habit of Tutoring for Enrichment

Tutoring for enrichment and learning enhancement (in contrast to needed, necessary, and school-supported tutoring) is seductive because it appears on the face of it such a wholesome and positive activity. It’s easy to justify. Parents can choose from the following menu. It’s a good idea to get my child some after-school tutoring since…

... she doesn’t like to spend time by herself and can’t be allowed outdoors without adult supervision, and I don’t want her to have a computer or video or television or any other sort of screen in front of her face all afternoon.

... she got a B minus in math and if she falls behind she’ll never catch up, and it’s so hard to get into the best secondary schools and colleges these days.

... when we had her tested we discovered that she had a “learning difference.” Clearly, this means she will always need extra help.

... I’m quite sure most of the other students are getting tutored, so she won’t be on a level playing field without extra help.

The educational philosophy of “if some is good, more is better” is compelling. Parents imagine tutoring is the norm for even the most able students, that if they don’t give their children an advantage, they will, in fact, be at a disadvantage. But more is not always best for our children — not for their acquisition of skills or for their pleasure in learning.

The Formula for Creating Lazy Learners

Yesterday, as I sat in session with yet another mother with a young child suffering from chronic constipation, I realized that it may be time to replace the old psychoanalytic view of the cause of this problem — the child is filled with repressed anger — with a new one: dependency-on-adults disorder. When loving, devoted, good-intentioned adults “overfunction” by assisting children with tasks they are capable of doing themselves, day and night, the children don’t develop the habit of paying attention to cues, for example the physical sensations that trigger the brain that it’s time to go to the toilet. The child’s thought process might be: Why bother? Going to the bathroom is too much trouble. I’ll just wait for someone else to take care of it.

Excuse the vividness of the metaphor here, but tutoring can cause learning constipation. If you know that your own private grown-up will show up at your house at exactly 4:30 PM; you don’t need to ask questions in class; you don’t have to listen too carefully to the directions for doing the homework; you don’t have to build up the confidence to raise your hand and say, “Ms. Cross, I don’t understand. Can you please explain that again?” You can wait and ask your tutor.

Other hidden costs of a steady diet of tutoring for enrichment include:

Loss of intrinsic motivation. (I’m doing this work for them, not for myself.)

Loss of gratification and pride (the kind that comes from figuring out how to meet learning and creative challenges on your own).

Lowered self-confidence. (I must be pretty defective if my parents have to hire a high-priced specialist to come to our house.)

Development of the sense that academic achievement is urgent, of terribly great importance to the family. (It must be very important for me to get a good grade if my parents have to hire a high-priced specialist to come to our house.)

Loss of adult-free time, which translates into the loss of the opportunity for children to develop the habits of play and creativity and the capacity to form their own relationship to time and the world around them.

Loss of time to do chores and participate as good family citizens who bring pride to their parents for more than their grades.

Unwittingly teaching children that problems can be solved quickly and neatly by spending money.

Psychologists have different ways of describing the dampening of intrinsic motivation and stick-to-it-iveness:

“Learned helplessness”
(No matter what I do, it won’t make much difference.)

“Cognitive dissonance”
(If my parents are paying me to work, my diligence is due to their investment, not to my own desire.)

“Shifting to an external locus of control”
(Success is not due to my effort or ability but to external factors.)

The Problem of the Heavily Staffed Child

A mother in one of my parenting classes described her role as a cross between a sherpa, a butler, a concierge, a talent agent, and the secret police. Many parents use “Web capture” technology to trace their children’s browsing and surfing history, to study their Facebook sites, and to read transcripts of their instant messages. Some of the children have housekeepers to pick up their clothes. Most travel to school in a carpool. And when we add yet another adult to the children’s retinue of handlers — the tutor—we risk increasing the children’s sense of dependency and helplessness and decreasing their privacy and personal time.

Tutoring is analogous to hand-feeding a maturing bird: it will be well fed, but dangerously dependent. With over-handled kids, the trouble usually comes when they get to college and suddenly have to forage for food (knowledge) on their own. They’ll be better prepared if they’ve developed the necessary skills (delay of frustration, tolerance of boredom, persistence, patience, control over feelings of anxiety, and ability to set priorities) before they go out into the world.

Unnecessary tutoring also leads to a loss of learning about the natural consequence of insufficient test preparation or hastily done assignments. This is similar to the problem of grade inflation. In both cases—the heavily tutored child and the child who attends a school where most grades are As and Bs — the student doesn’t have the opportunity to find out where he stands. As a result, he loses the automatic feedback mechanism of grades in relation to effort.

And then there’s the question of ethics and tutoring. Students from wealthier families can afford more tutoring than other students. If we pull back the curtain on this shadow economy, we see an increase in inequality. If school were the Olympics, the tutored participants might be eliminated for cheating.

The problem of “stealth tutoring,” in addition to the effects noted above, is that it can warp a child’s sense of what is ethical. What message do we send to children when we hire a tutor and tell the children to keep it a secret from the school? If the honor code of your school requires a student to write: “I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance with this assignment,” where does the tutor fit in? Is she an extension of the child’s “I” because she is hired by the parents?

In short, tutoring for enrichment causes practical, moral, and psychological problems. It can lead kids to feel like handicapped royalty instead of vigorous and engaged learners who are in the habit of advocating for themselves.

I don’t mean to suggest that children should never get support in school or at home. Certainly those with substantial learning difficulty in a particular subject (but not every subject) will benefit from appropriate help. And, at some point, all children need others to turn to for tips, to get them on the right track, or to simply listen as they work out problems for themselves. And I don’t mean to be critical of all tutors. I know that there are many worthy tutors who have the courage to coach rather than to cater. But if we can break the reflex of enlisting the help of a professional outsider at the first whiff of difficulty, many benefits await.

How can we, in schools, raise parental consciousness about the dangers of unneeded tutoring in a fashion that builds the parent-school partnership? The first step is to view parents’ behavior with empathy.

The Fear Factor

A school divided the fourth graders into math groups based on their skill. Indignant parents immediately called the head of the lower school: My child is not in the top group!... My child is, surprising as I find this to be, in the low group!... Had you simply let us know before you gave the placement test, we would have had him tutored!

It’s easy to mock this reaction, to see it as a lack of faith in the school, in its able teachers and wise administrators, and a lack of sophistication about what kids need in order to reach their potential in math, but it’s more useful to look at this reaction from the parents’ perspective.

Parental jitteriness about their children’s school achievement is fueled by a pervasive sense of unease about the future, a sense of scarce resources. We are aging (we have only 20 good years left!) The planet is melting (there are only 15 good years left!) The competition is daunting (there are only 10 good colleges!) What if my child is downwardly mobile (there are only five good jobs left!)?

When parents are overly fearful they reduce their thinking to simple but false dichotomies. There are only two positions for my child: ahead or behind. There are so many things I can’t do anything about, but there is one thing I can! My child’s grade in biology!

The first step is to raise parents’ awareness of these displaced and condensed fears.

The next step is to increase familiarity with alternatives to professional tutoring.

At School: It Takes a Village

Super radical old-fashioned idea: Encourage parents to encourage their child to see the teacher or turn to a friend for help. Asking a busy teacher for extra help is not as easy as relying on the tutor your mom hired, the one who comes to your house right after your milk and cookies (or red peppers, pita chips, and hummus), but it is a great habit to develop, one of huge advantage when the students are in college, perhaps even of more value than the higher grade on the quiz or paper yielded by the tutoring.

A friend can also help. In a wonderful November 1988 New York Times article on peer tutoring, the education writer Edward B. Fiske explains that much of the best learning comes from teaching yourself or teaching others. He points to the work of Diane Hedin, of the University of Minnesota, whose survey of the literature on peer tutoring found compelling evidence of the effectiveness for both tutor and tutee. The study showed “dramatic changes in self-confidence and self-image as well as higher motivation to learn and achieve.”

One effective treatment for fear of flying is to be seated next to a person more fearful. The biggest gains come to student tutors who are having academic difficulty themselves. Fiske points to a Harvard Graduate School of Education survey of the literature that found that “Some students have stopped studying because they don’t want to read ‘baby’ books or work on elementary math problems, but they can learn little from materials written at their grade level. Tutoring gives them an excuse to review the basics. It also forces them to think about how they learn and to break tasks into manageable bites.”

Consider having your fifth graders, especially the ones who are struggling, tutor the third graders¡­ or the fourth graders tutor the first graders. Be prepared with an explanation if parents say, “I’m not paying to have my child work!” or “That’s not what I’m spending my thousands of tuition dollars for.”

Yes, the school day is already crammed with activities and that we don’t want students missing time on the play yard or relaxed lunchtime socializing, but consider seeking a pocket of time, perhaps for just a few students, to slot in peer tutoring. Be creative. At the Park Tudor School (Indiana), students receive community service hours for helping others with academic work.

At Home: We Are Family

In most families, there are often untapped resources and knowledge to draw on. You can encourage parents to consider sibling tutors. They don’t have to travel to get to the house! Parents can barter with them for their services. If everyone can stay cool and not get touchy about the perceived delicate condition of the tutees self-esteem, it doesn’t matter who’s older or younger. What does matter is who understands the order of operations or Spanish verb tenses well enough to explain, or who is patient, or can make it fun. If bartering doesn’t appeal, parents can always pay.

Even though I’m a psychologist who is always trying to get over-involved parents out of the room, to get them to mind their business and let their child learn to solve his or her own problems, you might suggest that parents try pitching in by saying to them: I know you’re busy… and the math is hard and weird… and it’s been a really long time since you tackled meiosis versus mitosis… and your child says he doesn’t want your help but… if you can stay calm and, as they say in yoga class, take a few deep, cleansing breaths, you can try your hand at offering your child some coaching and support — and save so much money you can all go on a little vacation to celebrate.

A topic of my doctoral research was the effect of the medical school socialization process on male and female students’ attitudes towards patients. We found that during their training years, female students started out spending more time with their patients, listened more attentively, and expressed more personal warmth than the men did. By the end of their residencies, the differences and the extra time disappeared. Grab those new parents before they drink the Koolaid, get acculturated into the hypercompetitive cult, and lose their sense and perspective. Catch them early. Raise consciousness. Adam Rohdie, head of Greenwich Country Day (Connecticut) suggests encouraging parents to help their children without getting over-involved or over-controlling by conducting “how to help with homework” workshops for new parents. A teacher or resource specialist can put a problem on the board along with the wrong answer and ask the parents: “If your child comes to you asking for help with this problem, what would you do?” Effective strategies for supporting autonomous learning can be modeled and taught.

Parents can provide homework support, not through direct help, but by simply providing companionship. We have such an odd, heroic, individualistic culture. Tiny infant, we seem to say, find a way to fall asleep in your big, dark room, all by yourself, instead of in the long hut, in a hammock with your mommy and aunties and the whole tribe. And when you come home from school, do that work in your room all by yourself, no collaboration, no peeking out the door! No company!

Many independent school students live far apart from each other, isolated like princesses in towers. The evening hours can get long and lonely. When the children were smaller, the parents read them a story before bed. Now that the children are bigger with big homework responsibility, parents might sit beside them and read their own book, just to make a cozier scene. This isn’t coddling, it’s human contact. We are social animals.

You can also encourage parents to help protect their children from all the alluring, but anti-productive electronic distractions. Like a crow attracted to shiny objects, the children get sucked into the machines: YouTube or texting or Guitar Hero. When we require them to cut down on multi-tasking, efficiency increases.

The No-Tutor Solution

Another option is to let students pay the price for poor choices. Consider saying to parents: Don’t hire a tutor; let your child get a low grade. Give him or her an opportunity to learn about cause and effect. Make privileges contingent on bringing the grade up. Help him or her take ownership of his or her learning.

We should also fight expectations of perfection. No matter how high the tuition at your school, every child can’t have the most popular teacher. You can’t teach to every learning style, can’t provide for every aspect of the students’ academic, moral, and character education, can’t guarantee that every day or every week or even every year will be a great one for every student. And this is not a bad thing because it’s just like real life.

Just as your school isn’t perfect, the students will still fall somewhere in the middle of the normal curve, at least in some subjects. But parents’ quest for children’s achievement has become so engrained in children’s value system that when one mother responded to her fifth grader’s “C” in science with, “Well, you can’t be good in everything,” her son just stared at her, speechless. When we act as though the kids no longer have strengths, only weaknesses that can and must be remediated, we communicate unrealistic expectations of perfection. Tell parents to respond to some lower-than-hoped-for grades without panic. Encourage them to demonstrate that they value many varied attributes of their children, including non-academic traits like manners and kindness.

Tell parents not to put a stumbling block before the blind by sending their child to the most academically competitive school they can wedge the child into. When over-placed kids need near daily tutors, we are stealing their childhoods.

Pat Bassett, NAIS president, writes that good schools are countercultural. In a culture that values easy solutions and showy results over ethics and substance, tutoring for enhancement is a natural but highly costly choice. Opening up a dialogue with parents on this subject is an important countercultural exercise. So here’s a final suggestion: Start a chapter of TA (Tutoring Anonymous) that will allow parents to band together with others to resist overwhelming urges.

Hiring a tutor is an effort to make schoolwork and homework less onerous, less risky, less troublesome. And, while we don’t want to relegate any students to the sad calling of being “listeners” or to hold back the willing and eager kindergarten reader, we do want to be realistic and respectful and to give the children a chance to find their own rhythm, in their own time, using their own strengths.

ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT NEUBECKER


 

 

 

June 4, 2008

So the Torah is a Parenting Guide? (New York Times Sunday Magazine)

View this article in its original context.

October 1, 2006

SO THE TORAH IS A PARENTING GUIDE?

Enough with the overparenting. Wendy Mogel is a child psychologist who says the key to properly raised kids is Jewish law. And Jews aren’t the only ones listening.

BY EMILY BAZELON

In the third century, the rabbis who put together the Talmud instructed fathers to teach their sons to swim. It’s safe to say that most American Jews aren’t familiar with this directive, whether or not they take their kids to the lake or the pool. But one morning this past summer, a group of mostly non-Jewish parents puzzled over its meaning in a classroom at the Carolina Day School, a nonsectarian private school in Asheville, N.C.

imageThese mothers and fathers were accidental students of Judaism. They had come together because they often felt flattened by achieving the modern ideal of successful children. They were seeking relief in a weeklong course based on the book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children,” by a Los Angeles clinical psychologist named Wendy Mogel.

Genevieve Fortuna, a 58-year-old former preschool teacher who has been teaching classes on raising children for 30 years, wrote the Talmudic quote about swimming in blue marker on the classroom’s white board. The half-dozen or so parents, dressed in summer-casual shorts and sandals, looked up at her from their seats around two child’s-height tables. Fortuna opened her copy of Mogel’s book. “Jewish wisdom holds that our children don’t belong to us,” she read. “They are both a loan and a gift from God, and the gift has strings attached. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children’s job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or feel too comfortable to want to leave.”

“This is the most difficult part for me,” said Marie-Louise Murphy, a mother of three. “My husband is really protective of our girls. Even more so now that they’re older, because it’s such a critical period for them.” Her 14-year-old daughter is eager to baby-sit, Murphy explained, but her husband “is having the hardest time with it.”

imageIncreasingly, not being involved in every aspect of a child’s life and letting children take risks that used to be a matter of course feels like an act of negligence to many parents. To resist the forces of judgment, internal and external, the parents in Asheville were in search of what every countercultural movement needs — a manifesto. Wendy Mogel’s book may seem an unlikely one, with its reliance not only on the Bible but also on the Talmud and other intricate rabbinic texts. Published in 2001 with a print run of 5,000 and little publicity, it went largely unreviewed, and bookstores often shelved it with their bar-mitzvah fare. Yet five years later, “Blessing” has sold about 120,000 copies at a pace of more than 20,000 a year. It’s the kind of book that has influence beyond its sales figures. Principals press it into the hands of mothers, who read it and then buy it in bulk to give away as baby presents. If you have children of a certain age, chances are that someone you know will own a copy or have lent one away.

Strikingly, Mogel’s book is being used as a text for classes and discussion groups that take place not in Jewish settings but in churches or schools like Carolina Day. Mogel, who gives about a speech a month, has been a keynote speaker at the annual meetings of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,300 private schools, and the American Camp Association, an umbrella group for 2,600 summer camps and youth groups. This fall, the National Association of Episcopal Schools will give her top billing. Mogel’s diagnosis of the ills of middle- and upper-class modern American child-rearing — that children too often don’t learn to take care of themselves — resonates with the educators who deal with these families every day. In thinking about this issue, Mogel finds her psychological training useful but insufficient and turns her audience’s attention to the laws and teachings of old Jewish texts.

Wendy Mogel wasn’t to the religious manner born. Her grandfather was the president of his Orthodox synagogue in Brighton Beach, N.Y. But her father fell away from strict observance, and her mother never knew it — “she was as close to a shiksa as he could get,” Mogel says. Mogel was raised to know the difference between cherrystone and littleneck clams, not to follow the Jewish proscription against eating shellfish.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Mogel majored in art history. She spent the summers as a counselor at a camp for emotionally disturbed children, working alongside her husband to be, Michael Tolkin. After marrying, the couple eventually moved to Los Angeles. Tolkin’s father wrote for the TV series “All in the Family.” Tolkin entered the family business; his best-known movie is “The Player,” directed by Robert Altman and based on a novel Tolkin wrote. The sequel, published recently, bears the mark of spousal influence: it creates a world of Hollywood sharks let loose on the process of high-powered private-school admissions.

Mogel has lived in Hollywood for almost 30 years now, and she is of it without being captive to it. At 55, her style is part girlish, part granny. Her hair is unbleached and her skin un-Botoxed; on the night I visited her, she wore a white T-shirt, a pink flowered skirt and low-heeled green sandals. Her voice is commandingly deep and throaty, except when she’s excited and lets out a thrilled squeal. (“Me too!” she squeaked when I confessed my poor sense of direction.) Mogel did her doctorate work at the Wright Institute in Los Angeles — “very alternative, Marxist-Feminist,” she says — and interned at the “totally mainstream” Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Mogel got her license as a clinical psychologist in 1985. She opened a dual practice, doing therapy for children and families and also testing for disorders and disabilities, like dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. For 15 years, the work was fulfilling. The hard part of Mogel’s life lay elsewhere; she and Tolkin struggled for several years to have a child and went through many miscarriages, including the loss of a premature baby born on the way to the hospital. None of this hardship moved Mogel toward religion. When she was 35, Mogel gave birth to a girl, Susanna, and four years later, to a second daughter, Emma.

Mogel continued to practice after her daughters were born, and by 1990, she was seeing a disturbing shift among her clients. Mogel lives in a sumptuous house near Hollywood — the garden features a fountain, a pool and climbing roses — and the kids Mogel was treating came from similarly well-off homes. In the testing part of her practice, Mogel long dreaded telling parents of a diagnosis that could disrupt their high hopes for their children. Now, however, she noticed that many families seemed to want her to find something clinically wrong that could be fixed.

Much of the time, the children didn’t have a pathology that she could name and treat. “But my child is suffering!” parents would say. And Mogel tended to agree. Anxiety pervaded her office. “Everyone — parents and children — seemed off course, unmoored and chronically unhappy,” she writes in “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” The kids weren’t sick. But their family dynamic was. It wasn’t just parents’ outsize ambition for their children that was the problem — after all, for generations, children have faced high expectations. It was what parents with means did to protect their investment. Worried about their children’s future in an increasingly competitive world, parents would expect everything at school — and then compensate for these inflexible demands by expecting almost nothing at home. The words “I have a test” automatically relieved children of any other obligation, Mogel says. Instead of being left to muddle through — and to learn from adversity and their failures — kids were whisked off to tutors and coaches and extra classes. Pressured in one sphere and pampered and overprotected the rest of the time, their lives were too difficult in one way and too easy in every other. As a result, they often didn’t learn to solve problems on their own or gain the strength that comes with independence.

College counselors and deans see these kids so often, Mogel says, that they have come up with terms for them, “teacups” and “krispies”: fragile and burned-out undergraduates who crumble once they’re away from home. Other psychologists have joined her in charting this territory. Madeline Levine, whose clinical psychology practice is in Marin County, Calif., recommends Mogel’s book to her clients and recently published her own book on the topic, “The Price of Privilege.” She, too, saw many unhappy teenagers who said they felt bored, passive and empty. “Indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, my young patients appeared to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop an inside,” she writes in her book. “They lack the secure, reliable, welcoming internal structure that we call the ‘self.”’

Mogel knew that to help her child clients, she needed to help their parents. But she felt as if her psychological training was failing her. She had been taught to refrain from making judgments, yet she felt increasingly judgmental. She went back into therapy herself. It didn’t help. Instead, like the parents trooping into her office, she felt increasingly drained. At home, she wanted to make everything just right for her own daughters. She tore ragged pieces of lettuce off the corners of their sandwiches and woke in the night to fret over their school art projects: did the teacher who sent home a note asking for the cardboard tube from a paper towel roll expect her to make a pile of paper towels to get at the cylinder inside?

Then one night in 1990 on a lark, Mogel accepted a friend’s invitation to go to a service for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. She thought of the excursion as cultural anthropology: she’d had a good time with her daughter Susanna at an international mask and dance festival; “now we could see how these people, the Jews of West Los Angeles, celebrated their ancient holy day,” she writes in “Skinned Knee.” But Mogel listened to the prayers and found herself crying.

She went back a second time. Then she decided to go alone to a Friday-night service at a Reform synagogue near her house. By listening to a tape, she started learning the Hebrew prayers and their melodies. She and her husband began celebrating the Jewish Sabbath — first by stumbling through the candle-lighting and going out for Thai food (shrimp included) and gradually adding the full liturgy and a traditional meal. “It was always the same, which was what I loved about it,” Susanna, now 19, remembers. Mogel baked challah. Tolkin made poached salmon. Every family member and guest said their “gratefuls,” naming the events of the week they felt thankful for.

The family never took the full leap into Orthodox Judaism, with its restrictions on food and travel on Shabbat and relatively fixed gender roles. But they sent their daughters to schools at Reform synagogues for a good part of elementary school and tried out different L.A. synagogues — from Reform to modern Orthodox to the exploratory Mountaintop Minyan. The rituals were soothing, but Mogel was most moved by Jewish learning. As she began to read the Torah and the Talmud, the massive compendium of rabbinic teachings on Jewish law and commentary on the Bible, she felt she was on the trail of the sort of wisdom she’d been missing.

In 1992, Mogel decided to take a break from her practice for a year and study the old Jewish texts full time. Her office partner was taken aback. So were her parents. But she proceeded even though Jewish study didn’t come easily to her — she took basic Judaism and introductory Hebrew three times. Her studies helped to repair her frayed ends. “This is going to sound too pious, but I started thinking about my children in terms of a higher mission,” she told me when I met her at her home in June. “I didn’t need to be the mom who cut the ends off lettuce leaves. That is idol worship, and it’s exactly what Judaism says you shouldn’t do.” She spent more time with Susanna and Emma and less time worrying about them. She stopped waking up to fret and plan in the middle of the night.

Mogel missed the regular contact with her clients and their troubles. But when she reopened her practice, she focused on teaching child-rearing classes and working with families rather than just doing traditional psychotherapy with children. And she started using Jewish teachings. “It wasn’t that the Jewish texts had a brand new idea that psychology had never come up with,” Mogel says. “But they came at it from a different angle.” Like the concept of the yetser hara, the bad impulse within us that is a source of passion and an impetus to creativity, and the yetser tov, the good and proper impulse. “They’re very different from the id and the ego and the superego. Psychology textbooks don’t typically say that your child’s worst trait is also the seed of his best traits.”

In her book, which evolved out of a group for parents that she ran for three years out of her office, Mogel relates a Talmudic legend about men from a great synagogue who wanted to kill the wild yetser hara. They captured it and locked it up for three days. But during that time, not a single new egg hatched anywhere in the land. The men understood that the yetser hara was the source of procreation — without it, there could be no creative life force. So they let it go. The yetser hara is tov me’od, the rabbinic authors concluded — very good.

Most Orthodox Jewish child-rearing books that Mogel read prescribed devout Judaism as the single path to raising moral children. Mogel wanted to use Jewish teachings to “show you how to raise good people, not just good little Jews,” as Genevieve Fortuna put it to her students. To the psychologist, the yetser hara is a way to think about the root of longing and a reminder that passionate desire isn’t all bad. “Without it, there would be no marriage, no children conceived, no homes built, no businesses,” Mogel writes. So children shouldn’t be blamed for their desires. But that doesn’t mean they should be placated either, a phenomenon Mogel heard about frequently from parents. The wildness of the yetser hara can’t be stamped out, and shouldn’t be. But it doesn’t get to run the show.

There is also the good impulse of the yetser tov to be cultivated, which means teaching a child to hold herself in check. “As her parent I accept my dual responsibilities: one is to respect her zeal, her yetser hara, and the other is to help her develop a strong yetser tov,” Mogel writes. “So I will say a calm and emphatic no to the Beanie Babies and the moon bounce, but I will not criticize her for desiring them, for that is her right.” Fortuna read that passage to her parents, and they talked about how to expect generosity from children — like giving away old toys — without blaming them for resisting.

Within Judaism, applying concepts in a time and a place removed from their original context is a respected method. “There is a longstanding tradition of interpreting Talmudic texts not only literally but as symbols for larger constructs or life lessons,” says Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a professor of Jewish history and thought at Yeshiva University. “The connection she’s making is homiletic. It’s what rabbis do when they give sermons.”

Another way that Mogel uses the Jewish texts in her thinking about child-rearing is to embrace the importance of action as opposed to pure faith — what she calls “deed over creed.” In Jewish law, there are hundreds of mitzvahs, or sacred deeds, that Jews have been traditionally encouraged to do, ranging from not taking revenge to saying grace after meals. They are to be performed whether or not one feels moved to. “The hope is that you will have kavanah, or deliberate intent, when you do these mitzvahs,” explains Elazar Muskin, rabbi of the Orthodox Los Angeles congregation Young Israel of Century City. “But at the end of the day, the rabbis say that if a person does the act, then there was some kind of intent. And over time, we hope the kavanah will follow.”

Mogel points out that cognitive behavioral therapy shares the same premise: Changed behavior can lead to changed feelings. (Christianity also teaches believers to perform good works but emphasizes the transformative power of faith in Jesus Christ as a means to salvation.) Based on this principle, Mogel urges parents to press children to contribute at home even if they whine and resist. And she discourages long rational-minded explanations about why a child can’t have something she covets. “Don’t bother talking to the yetser hara,” she instructs; instead, be clear about what your kids are entitled to and stick to it. From rules, kids learn their roles in the household, and from chores they learn practical skills — when they go off to college they will know how to do their laundry. And if your children know that their behavior at home matters, they have an opportunity to feel good about themselves that’s not tied to academic success.

In her work, Mogel often sees children and teenagers who are petulant and awkward — young people who refuse to extend the simple courtesy of a greeting, or who feel too uncomfortable to respond to adults’ well-meaning questions. As a template for reasonable expectations, she looks to the Talmud’s instructions on social obligations. The rabbis came up with detailed guidelines for derekh erets, a phrase that means “way of the land” and basically describes an ancient version of etiquette. It includes the mitzvah hakhnasat orkheem, or hospitality. People receiving guests at their homes should greet them at the door and escort them inside; be cheerful during the visit; offer food and drink; ask the guests about themselves; and escort them to the door when they leave. Mogel urges that teaching children accordingly counters a “culture of narcissism,” as she puts it, in which children are encouraged to express their feelings even when the result is a show of bad manners. “The Talmud says the mitzvah of hospitality is as important as Torah study and a way to honor God. That’s because all of this trains us in the habit of thinking about other people’s feelings,” Mogel says. “The rabbis understood how we learn compassion.”

At St. Matthew’s Episcopal church in the Connecticut town of Wilton, Rev. Janet Waggoner, the assistant rector, read “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” with her Thursday-morning Bible study group last fall. She sandwiched Mogel’s book between the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. Waggoner added some New Testament passages about the themes that Mogel discusses but points out that Episcopalians often look outside the denomination for texts. It’s part of the church’s relatively liberal orientation.

Wilton is an affluent town with a high-performance school system that starts the push toward college as early as first grade. In other words, it’s a breeding ground for hyper parents, some of whom, like the parents in Asheville, long to resist. A frequent complaint is the time crunch, Waggoner says — the unending procession of school and work and scheduled events and activities.

Mogel’s answer to this is the Jewish Sabbath, which makes the day holy by prohibiting work, broadly defined. The Wilton Episcopalians weren’t about to stop driving or answering the phone on Saturday (or Sunday). “We don’t have the same structure for the Sabbath,” Waggoner says. But in the course of reading “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” Waggoner realized that St. Matthew’s was obstructing a goal that Christians share for the Sabbath: spending time together as a family. The church youth-group meetings had always taken place during the Sunday dinner hour.

Waggoner changed the meeting time to afternoon. It seemed obvious in retrospect — so obvious that Waggoner was rueful that she had to be reminded of a Biblical commandment to come up with a simple scheduling change. But the congregation didn’t see it that way. “People said, ‘Thank you, thank you,”’ she said. “It turned out that was the one night of the week when the whole family could sit down for dinner together.”

Mogel says that she originally wanted to call her book “The Blessing of a Broken Leg” in honor of the bone she broke falling off a horse at camp while riding bareback one summer. Her agent talked her out of the harsher title, but her point is that kids need more than tightly controlled doses of risk. That’s what the Talmud is trying to teach by requiring parents to teach their children to swim, Mogel argues. The passage has been interpreted as an instruction to pass on the tools of survival. Rabbi Schacter agrees that the larger lesson is that children need to learn to fend for themselves. But that’s not an easy or comfortable process. It involves some flailing and swallowing water.

For the professionals who work with children — principals, teachers, camp directors, school psychologists — that lesson is worth the price of Mogel’s paperback. “If you ask parents, Do you want your children to learn new things, they all say, ‘Of course,”’ says Peg Smith, C.E.O. of the American Camp Association. “Well, we can’t teach new things without exposing kids to discomfort. We are desperate for parents to understand that.” When Mogel broke her leg at camp, she learned after a lot of frustration how to get around on crutches and thought about what it would be like to be handicapped. “That was my best summer in 16 years of camp,” she says. These days, it’s the rare camp that would let a child ride bareback — a good thing, probably, but also, as Mogel sees it, a loss.

Mogel says that “sometimes I think I wrote the book to remind myself of all the things that I don’t want to do that I’m still doing” in raising her children. Now that her daughters are teenagers, that means trusting them to venture into the world on their own, despite the risks involved. Emma baby-sits regularly and spent part of the summer in England. Susanna took off in June to trek through Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and came home and got a job at a jewelry store.

It’s been harder for Mogel and her husband to curb expectations of traditional achievement. They sent their older daughter, Susanna, to a public junior high with a program for gifted students. She went on to a highly competitive private Los Angeles high school and is in her sophomore year at Haverford College. Mogel isn’t sure that Susanna’s high school was the best choice for her daughter. Neither is Susanna. “I might have done better at a more progressive school,” she says. “It was a little — I might have been happier.” Emma, perhaps, is reaping the benefits of coming second. During eighth grade, she asked her parents if she could leave her high-powered private school the following year. “This was a difficult decision for Michael and me,” Mogel says, acknowledging how hard it is for parents to give up the premium academically competitive opportunity for their children. But they decided to respect their daughter’s wishes and switched her to a more relaxed school. “I often see parents eager to send their child to the most selective school that will have them. And then I see children who might’ve flourished wither instead.” To help parents keep perspective, Mogel advises them — in her practice and at lectures — to adhere to her 20-minute rule: spend no more than 20 minutes a day “thinking about your child’s education or worrying about your child, period.” It’s a concrete goal, and she finds that it helps some parents control their excesses.

Mogel’s attitude toward school is an aspect of her approach that is particularly hard for some parents. If you don’t push kids, parents often retort, they sit like lumps and then are sorry later. “I teach math,” says Linda Lawson, a college professor who attended the Asheville class and has a 7-year-old son. “I see a lot of kids who don’t mature until two or three years into college. If they haven’t taken the courses they need to do what they want to do, they’re stuck. Parents push kids so they’ll have opportunities.” Mogel counters that the point is to refrain from pushing a child to excel in an area that’s not her strength. “Your child is not your masterpiece,” she writes.

It’s worth noting, though, that for this view she didn’t find much direct support in mainstream Jewish texts. (In the end, the Talmud is bigger on promoting Torah study than swimming lessons.) So Mogel turned to Hasidic Judaism, a movement dating to the 18th century, which rebelled against the idea that only the Torah scholar could be an upstanding Jew. There is a Hasidic saying that Mogel quotes, “If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t ask him to be a doctor.” By definition, most children cannot be at the top of the class; value their talents in whatever realm you find them. “When we ignore a child’s intrinsic strengths in an effort to push him toward our notion of extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God’s plan,” Mogel writes.

Mogel also tries to calm the education frenzy by stressing the family as a sphere of influence, arguing that the example parents set at home matters more than stellar schools. But that is ultimately misleading, argues Judith Rich Harris, author of “The Nurture Assumption,” a compilation of evidence showing that children take cues from peers far more than parents. Perhaps the most important thing parents can do, Harris concludes, is to send their children to school “with smart, hard-working kids” who will make them want to be smart and hard-working. Harris agrees with Mogel that organized religion is one of the most effective means of instilling an identity that resists the majority culture. But she says that is because religious children mold each other. “Mogel’s children behaved like good little Jewish girls even when they were outside the home because they went to school with other children who came from similar homes,” Harris wrote in an e-mail message. “Had her children not learned these things at home, their behavior outside the home would have been the same, because they would have picked up the culture from their classmates at school.”

Mogel recognizes the importance of Harris’s contribution. But she’s still convinced that parental influence is profound. Her second book, “The Blessing of a B Minus,” which Scribner will publish in 2008, is about everyday ethics for parents of teenagers. One of Mogel’s favorite lessons comes from the car-pool drop-off lane at school: When you cheat in line, you signal that you don’t care about rules or other people. “And believe me, your kids are watching,” she says.

“The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” highlights the value of religious observance, in addition to Jewish wisdom, in raising young children. In her second book, Mogel concedes that outside of insular communities, religious rituals and synagogue (or church or mosque) attendance may not work as well as a structure for family life during adolescence. “It’s too difficult,” she says of forcing observance on recalcitrant older children. “You get a kind of anguished compliance that can break the bond between parent and adolescent. On this one, you trust them.” It is one way to step back and let teenagers find their own path.

Mogel’s family no longer attends synagogue regularly. But they still frequently have Shabbat dinner. On a midsummer Friday, I arrived at her house, and Emma opened the door, blue braces lighting up her smile. Her father was away making an episode of a series for ABC, and her sister was off on her East Asian travels. But a small group of family and friends soon arrived. The men put on kipas, and everyone took a turn lighting a candle, passing a long match from one person to the next. Then Mogel called together the four girls and women in the room. They bent their heads, and she blessed them in Hebrew with the traditional prayer for daughters: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. May God bless you and watch over you. May God shine his face like a light upon you.”

The dinner menu featured halibut and lamb sausages instead of the family’s traditional poached salmon. Mogel served up an almond cake she baked that afternoon, breaking off a rose blossom from a nearby vase to set in its center. The teenagers sat at one end of the table and the adults at the other. When Emma started describing a pair of pleather pants to her friends, Mogel broke in. “Pleather?” she asked. It was an irresistible moment for adolescent eye-rolling. But Emma said easily: “Yeah, Mom, plastic and leather. Like the ones in ‘The School of Rock.’ Susanna bought them for like $2.” She added for reassurance, “We just wear them around the house.”

After dinner, Mogel prevailed on her brother-in-law to drive Emma to a party in Beverly Hills. That gave her a couple of hours to drink tea, call her husband and breathe in the peace of an empty house. But on this evening, Emma needed an assist — a ride home. There is a time to let teenagers swim on their own. And there is a time to recognize that they’re not ready. It’s a balancing act, and that night it tipped in favor of making sure Emma got home safely. Mogel waited for her daughter to call. At 1 a.m., she got her summons, headed into the cricket-filled night and drove to Beverly Hills.

For the full article please download the pdf.

October 9, 2006

Mom Resist The Urge...to Kill Your Teenager (The Jewish Journal)

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May 11, 2006


Mom: Resist the Urge…
...to kill your teenager—there’s a better way.

By Wendy Mogel

image
When stuck with a rebellious child, gluttonous and thieving, the Torah has a tidy solution: Kill him. Or her.

For those of you excited by this opportunity to practice a new mitzvah, be mindful that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) adds, “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be.”

In other words, the rabbis couldn’t find a single, relevant example of a parent acting on this advice. They also concluded that, in the future, they never expected or wanted to see this sort of reaction by parents either.

In this way, the tradition both recognizes the impulse to do violence, and then brings us to our senses and to our obligations.

Still, it’s tempting sometimes, isn’t it?

I used to teach classes to parents of children in elementary school. The moms would arrive at my office like butterflies, wearing bright colors and alighting gracefully in their chairs. They talked a lot and shared stories of their week. We laughed and had fun.

When I started teaching classes for parents of preteens and teenagers, it felt as though the lighting had changed in the room. The moms wore darker clothes and darker expressions. Their mouths were tense little lines. They raised their hands to speak and didn’t speak much.

They were beaten up and humiliated, like an NBA team defeated by a high school squad—a sure sign of a mom at her wit’s end because of a sharp-tongued daughter.

“What happened to my sweet child? Someone took her in the night! This new child, the changeling, doesn’t like me and isn’t too likable herself. In fact, she acts like a bitch. She reminds me of the girls I didn’t like in middle school. Why is she so uncooperative, so rude, so dismissive?”

Sheepishly, they reported the insults hurled by their daughters.

“Mom, the reason you’re so strict is because you have a lot of personal problems. And everyone we know knows this about you. And they talk about it all the time.”

“The reason you won’t let me go to the mall with my friends is that you weren’t very popular when you were in middle school and you want me to be an outcast, too.”

Why would they talk like this?

Aside from dangling then withdrawing the carrot of a more permanent solution, the Talmud tells us: “Every parent has an obligation to teach his or her child how to swim.”

Our children don’t belong to us. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. This means that after all that SAT prep, when they finally do get into college, we want them to stay there without phoning twice a day because they are not crazy about their roommate or because they can’t get the course they want. And we don’t want them coming home after one semester with a stomachache, or because the food is better at home or the bed in the dorm isn’t Tempur-Pedic.

I talk to parents about normal child development. When children are small, they beg you to come into their room and stay there as long as possible, especially at night. When they are teenagers, they get angry if you even look in their room, or enter without permission, especially at night. When they were small, they embarrassed you by screaming in the supermarket; now you embarrass them by singing, ever, or being too friendly, to anyone. They act this way because they are making space to grow away from you, to form their own identity.

As they should.

Don’t look to teenage girls to remind you of your worthiness, dignity or charm: Both their hormones and their spirit tell them that this is the time to begin to separate from parents.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “straits,” or “narrow places.” For mothers of girls, the preteen and early teen years are your Mitzrayim. Eventually, when they turn 16 or 17, you’ll get to the Promised Land: Your old friend will be waiting, but now she’ll be a fine young woman. She’ll be nice to you again and you’ll be proud of her and she’ll be proud of you.

But until then, what to do? In my classes, I say to the parents over and over in every way I can think of: Don’t take eye-rolling as an insult. Think of it this way: At least they are listening. Don’t take any of this personally. Although they may be taller than you are and are certainly more quick-witted, they aren’t doing this to hurt you. What they are doing is not only normal, but necessary.

What about the Fifth Commandment, you ask, honoring parents? When children are young, Jewish law states that we must teach them to be respectful and kind, thoughtful and compassionate.

When you’ve got teenagers, honoring mother and father means doing it yourself. Honor yourself. Treat yourself with dignity. Even if your teenager makes you feel like dirt. Don’t join the attack. The rabbis tell us that we will be called to task in the world to come for every legitimate pleasure available to us of which we did not partake. Admire, nurture and delight yourself. Don’t look to the eye roller to do it.

How to celebrate Mother’s Day in Egypt?

For part of the answer, it’s appropriate to look to your partners in parenting.

Dads and significant others, you are on call today. Say to this beleaguered mom: “You look beautiful.”

Calling this normal-looking person beautiful helps counteract the propaganda of a culture that tells your daughters they need to look perfect.

Then tell her again, in private, and be specific. She works round-the-clock and she’s tired and cranky and hard on herself. Mother’s Day is the right time to remind her in detail how amazing you think she is.

And Moms, you should talk to other moms. Remember Mommy and Me? When you got to check in with fellow travelers about the proper color and consistency of baby poop, and how to manage sleep deprivation and no sex. Remember how you calmed each other down and laughed and commiserated? There aren’t many support groups for mothers of teenagers so mothers are alone, scared and ashamed—and unaware that it is just as bad next door. This Mother’s Day, find a private spot and call a friend who has a teenage daughter. Kvetch, laugh, remind each other that everything with children is just a stage. Take the long view. And have a pleasant Mother’s Day.

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best-selling parenting book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001). She is currently writing a book for parents of adolescents, “The Blessing of a B Minus.”

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May 11, 2006

A Closer Look (Camping Magazine)

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CAMPING MAGAZINE

January, 2006


A   Closer  Look
Different Perspectives
on The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,
by Wendy Mogel

Compiled by Bob Ditter

“I don’t care about this character development stuff — I just want my child to be happy!” I was listening to a couple of venerable camp directors last fall who were relating to me the gist of many conversations they had had with camper parents during the previous summer, and this is just one such conversation she shared. “I had called the parent of one of our middle school female campers to tell her that her daughter was having a little trouble adjusting to life in the cabin,” said one director. “I was hoping to get some ideas from the mother about an approach to take with the camper and enlist her support in encouraging her daughter. What I got instead was an immediate threat — that if I wasn’t able to get the other girls to be nice to her daughter, she was going to come right up to camp and talk to the entire group! Of course, I wouldn’t allow that, but parents are so concerned with their children’s comfort, they don’t seem to be thinking straight! It’s as if they want to put their child in a bubble so they never experience a hurt, set back, or discomfort.”

Sound familiar? If you are like many camp professionals, you probably have several stories of your own about well meaning, but over-anxious parents trying to micromanage and manipulate their child’s environment in an effort to give them a “competitive edge” and protect them from any physical, social, or emotional discomfort. It reminds me of one story told to me by a camp director in the Northeast this summer about a homesick camper.

“I had called the father to enlist his help with his thirteen-year-old son,” the director told me. “The boy had come to me to say, ‘I’m really homesick, but I love it here and I want to stay. But I’m worried when I see my parents on visiting day, I’ll get upset. I don’t want to cave into it and go home!’ I thought this kid was being genuinely courageous,” the director continued. “How wise of him to come to ask for help in getting through what he was afraid would be a tough weekend for him. When I called the father for help in reassuring and supporting his son, he told me flat out, ‘If my son says he’s homesick, I’m taking him home!’ How could the father not see how destructive that would be? What kind of message is he sending his son?”

Indeed, I hear many camp professionals musing about the state of parenting these days. What, they ask, is driving the apparent need of parents to control every aspect of their children’s lives? How is it that so many children have become special beyond belief, entitled to special considerations and exemptions at the behest of anxious, demanding parents?

These are just some of the questions Dr. Wendy Mogel addresses in her popular book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “The current trend in parenting,” she writes, “is to shield children from emotional or physical discomfort. I can’t blame parents for reacting with horror to nightly news reports about our violent, dangerous society, but many of them overprotect their sons and daughters. They don’t give them a chance to learn how to maneuver on their own outside of home or school (pp.32-33).” Dr. Mogel could easily have added, ” . . . or let them go to camp where they can learn how to cope on their own in a safe environment focused on strengthening their sense of self and independence!”

I was given a copy of Dr. Mogel’s book in June 2004 by a camp director who had read it and given it to all her colleagues. Like most of my camp director friends, I am so focused on helping people get ready for camp in June that I have precious little time for reading! The first time I was able to sit down with it was in the calm of the following September. I picked it up and devoured it! After the first two chapters, I began to think Dr. Mogel had been listening in on conversations I had been having that summer with directors and camper parents! By the time I was halfway through the book, I knew I had to meet this astute woman and convince her to share her insights and practical wisdom with camp professionals throughout the country.

Indeed, this February Dr. Mogel will be leading a general keynote address at the ACA National Conference in Chicago where she will share many of the insights of her book. In an effort to offer camp professionals a glimpse of what they can expect to hear, I have asked two other camp professionals to join me in sharing their thoughts about this timely and valuable volume, as well as a parent.

The first is veteran camp director June Gray, from Camp Wawenock in Raymond, Maine, who has used the book as the basis for training her staff for the past three years. The second is Robert Selverstone, Ph.D., child psychologist and an experienced consultant to children’s summer camps from Westport, Connecticut. Selverstone is also the son of a camp director and grew up at camp. The parent interviewed is Diana Tigner, a mother of two children, both campers, from Irvine, California, who has also been a camp nurse.

 

June W. Gray, Owner/Director, Camp Wawenock

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee was recommended to us by a camp parent who supports our efforts at building a stronger partnership with parents. Once I read the book, I immediately saw how many of Dr. Mogel’s insights could be used as the basis for training staff. For example, her comments that “every child is unique” and “don’t treat all children the same way or you will not reach them” seem especially relevant for staff getting ready to work with our very individual campers! The notion of approaching each child individually has been a key focus for our staff.

There are two other important concepts from Dr. Mogel’s book that I have emphasized in our staff training. They are “parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are” and “a child’s intrinsic strengths are the key to developing children who have a true sense of who they are.” Again, these ideas became the basis for us to encourage our counselors to get to know each of their campers as individuals in terms of their interests, strengths, talents, relationships, and style of learning.

At Wawenock, staff training is an ongoing practice that occurs throughout the summer. Dr. Mogel’s ideas opened up many possibilities for discussion and role playing with staff in this process, as follows:

Expect differences — understanding a child’s temperament is important.
Respect — “If children are to develop genuine respect, they need to know what respect looks like in action.” Children need to be treated with respect, and they need to be expected to treat others with respect.
A child’s job is to find his or her own path in life instead of parents (or counselors) “fretting and fixing.” Let children make mistakes and learn from them. (Thus the title of her book, the blessing of allowing children to take their falls and learn from them.)
Children confuse “what they want with what they need.” Teach children to accept “no” and appreciate what they have. Gratitude is an important value for children to learn from adults.
Chores are a foundation for development of a child’s character. They are basics. They promote a sense of pride and responsibility, allowing children to be contributing members of a family or community, like camp!
Teaching children to eat in a healthy way with good judgment about the food they choose fits with the family-style meals we have at Wawenock.
What is acceptable and unacceptable in behavior and helping children look at or rethink their interpretation of events.
Looking at how slowing down the hurried life restores connections to one another. Another facet of this slowing down is allowing children the chance to get “bored.” It is not the job of adults to entertain children!
Children need to see beauty and goodness in nature and people and express gratitude for what they have and what they experience.
The values in Dr. Mogel’s thesis coincide well with the values here at Wawenock. Happy, engaged campers and positive comments from their parents are proof that her ideas have merit.

 

Robert Selverstone, Ph.D.

Not just one, but two directors at camps where I conduct staff development workshops went out of their way to recommend this insightful book to me. I was so impressed that, even before completing my reading of it, I purchased a dozen copies for parents in my therapy practice. In a similar vein, I encourage you to gift yourself and to recommend this book to your staff and to your camp parents.

“It is not your responsibility to complete the work [of perfecting the world] but you are not free to desist from it either.”

“A father is obligated to teach his son how to swim.”

It is not surprising that Dr. Mogel highlights these “mission statements” of “responsibility” and “obligation.” This is a most accessible book — both for parents and for camp people, who work in loco parentis. As more and more camps return to what is fundamental about camp — fostering personal and interpersonal development — we are challenged to prepare children to find their own path in life, to become sufficiently strong and self-reliant in order to leave us and fend for themselves, and to help to “repair” the world. While most of Mogel’s examples address parental issues, directors and staff will find innumerable applications to the camp situation; from cabin and dining hall cleanup to seeking ways to help children invent new games. This small gem of a book is a most welcome resource to help develop campers into independent, self-reliant, respectful, and responsible adults.

In her lucid and inviting style, this insightful psychologist chronicles why she abandoned her crisis intervention work in psychotherapy with children, teens, and their families and refocused her efforts toward the primary prevention of social and emotional problems. In so doing, she turns a spotlight on both contemporary culture, and on the wisdom of the teaching of her own religious perspective — Judaism.

However, while Mogel details her metamorphosis from secular Jew to a more religiously observant one — and often uses traditional Jewish texts as a touchstone — her own wisdom on raising emotionally healthy children transcends parochialism and has a great deal to offer to camp directors and leaders, camp counselors, and, very importantly, camp parents. I am reminded of a decades-old ad which showed Asians, African-Americans, Eskimos, etc. savoring their bread. The ad copy was: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levi’s Jewish Rye Bread.” You certainly don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the contribution of Mogel’s book to what should be in every camp’s library, along with my other all-time favorites: the relatively new John Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, and Stephen Glenn’s Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World; and two of the old standbys, Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training, and Haim Ginnott’s Between Parent and Child.

 

Diana Tigner, Parent and Former Camp Nurse

An important responsibility of parents is to impress on their children all that it takes to make camp happen. I think there should be an overall awareness of how hard everyone is working — the grounds crew; the kitchen staff; and everyone else — to make sure they have a good time. I want my children to be grateful. I tell my children, “When you’re there, make sure you thank your counselor!”

I also think children need to think about what their part in this effort is. For example, I have said to my kids, “If there is a child that needs a friend, try to be that friend.” I once heard from my son’s counselor that, while out on a hike, he went back and helped out another kid who wasn’t into hiking who needed help with his backpack. I was so proud of him!

Let’s face it — children do not naturally think this way. They need help thinking this way. This is what we as parents need to help them with. Dr. Mogel’s book is right down my alley!

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.

Originally published in the 2006 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

January 1, 2006

The Dark Side of Parental Devotion: How Camp Can Let the Sun Shine (Camping Magazine)

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January 1, 2006


The Dark Side
of Parental Devotion:

How Camp Let the Sun Shine

BY WENDY MOGEL


A friend of mine is a college placement counselor in an academically competitive high school. She is always amazed by how quickly her phone calls to parents get returned. She feels like she has a red phone at the White House. When one dad returned her call she heard an odd noise in the background.

“What’s that noise?” she asked.

The Dad: “Oh, it’s nothing. I can talk. I’m just doing a colonoscopy.”

The counselor: “I don’t feel comfortable continuing the conversation. I’ll call you back later.”

While this example, with its unusual life or death flavor, is extreme, it is typical of tales I hear every day about the bizarre behavior of devoted, intelligent, loving parents.

A parent brings a bouquet of roses to a child playing the part of a bush in the winter pageant. A father buys his son a drum set as a reward for eating carrots. A kindergartener not of Asian heritage takes Japanese lessons five days a week after school. His father explains, “I want to make sure my son has an edge in the Pacific Rim economy.” A parent responds to a teacher telling him that his son has been throwing rocks with an indignant, “I don’t understand. Why do you have any rocks on the play yard?”

Our children are highly protected. George Carlin, in his comedy CD, We Are All Diseased, complains about Americans’ preoccupation with child safety. He asks, “What ever happened to natural selection? If a child swallows seven marbles, maybe we don’t want him to reproduce.”

“Good Suffering”

I travel around the country lecturing to parents and no matter what my specific topic, I always make sure to talk about “good suffering.” I tell parents that it is good for kids to be bored, unhappy, disappointed and confused, to feel deprived, to tolerate longing, and to be cold, wet, or hungry for more than one and a half seconds before they graduate from high school. It is good for them to have a crabby, unenlightened, uninspiring fifth grade teacher. Why? Because they are absolutely for sure going to have a crabby, unenlightened, uninspiring boss when they have a job one day and are likely to have a crabby, unenlightened, uninspiring spouse . . . at least the first one. And here it comes, parents are headed toward being defendants in the largest class action suit in history — our children will be suing us for stealing their childhood. I get on a roll. I tell them that it’s good for girls to have a shallow, bossy, slutty best friend. That all of this is preparation for life. And that these normal rough patches provide an opportunity for parents to let go, even a little. I remind them that Freud defined the goal of psychoanalysis as “the conversion of neurotic misery to ordinary unhappiness.”

Camp — Escape from Devotion

As camp professionals, I know you have your own pet tales. The parent who smuggles candy to her children in a tampon box neatly placed in a care package . . . the one who demands a refund when the trail ride is cut short due to rain . . . the one who wants you to put screens on all the windows because their child once had a bad reaction to one mosquito bite. Take, for example, the parent Bob Ditter described in his column “In the Trenches” in this magazine. After spotting her daughter in the background of a camp photo gallery on the Web, she contacts the camp director worried that the child is surely lonely and friendless because, “Just look, you’ll see. In the August 15 photo number 23 B she is walking behind some other campers and not side by side with the throng.” Parents whose endless worrying and whinging (a British term for the combination of whining and complaining) make you wish, some days, that you had taken your father’s advice and gone into accounting.

The list of amusing war stories is endless, and it’s easy to scapegoat the most anxious and overprotective parents — but I list them to illustrate the amazing potential of camp to be an antidote to some of the perils of modern life. If parents just swim with the tide (here it’s easy to come down on the side of those salmon swimming upstream), they will overprotect, overindulge, and over schedule their children. They will allow their children to opt out of even the simplest chores when their children use the four magic words “I have a test.” And they will look at their children with such a hyper-focused magnifier that perfectly capable kids look like handicapped royalty. And these kids come to believe that the earth does not revolve around the sun but around them.

Thorns and Roses

I went to camp for sixteen years. The whole happy slog: day camp, sleep-away camp, CIT, junior counselor, counselor, head counselor.

At Belgian Village Camp in Cummington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, we had vespers in an elegant clearing in the forest called “the green cathedral.” My friends and I sat by the pond for hours (hours!) catching tree frogs and daydreaming. Backstage smelled of clown white and musty taffeta. While riding bareback (Bareback? Someone call risk management!) a bee stung my horse. I was thrown to the ground and broke my leg but stayed out the summer and learned to fish.

A fourth grade teacher told me that she can predict which children will be homesick on the annual four-day nature retreat. “The ones who can locate their flashlight, sweatshirt, and warm socks in their duffle bag are not homesick. The ones who can’t find their stuff are.” She explained that this first group of children have either packed their gear themselves or with a parent’s help. The second group, the homesick, has been packed for.

Kids, at camp you will get all kinds of valuable gifts: you will get homesick, other campers will be mean to you, the food won’t be great, you’ll be cold and hot and hungry, and you will get injured! At least a splinter. At least I hope all of this will happen to you because otherwise you are deprived. Of life. Of its thorns and its roses.

Choosing between the Good and the Good

When I was in kindergarten we didn’t do a lick of academic work. We learned how to get along, how to sing a few songs, and we made ashtrays for our parents out of clay. Ashtrays!

We know what kindergarten has become. It’s boot camp for the second grade standardized tests. It’s serious. And we’ve seen this shift in camps as well. Camps have gotten academic and comfortable and fancy. We’ve got great marketing tools and visuals: high speed zip lines, water trampolines, knee boarding, air conditioning, Wharton faculty teaching leadership skills, film and video production workshops, programs to build casitas for the underprivileged while learning Spanish in Guatemala.

But the basic camp principle works: get kids out of the classroom, away from their parents and out of the spotlight, and they will grow. When parents remark about how tall and tan and strong their children look upon returning from camp they are also seeing new maturity and ease.

What Goes Around Comes Around — Teacups and Crispies

College deans have a name for some of the incoming students: “teacups” and “crispies.” Teacups are so fragile that they are easily broken by the knocks of college life. Crispies are so burned out that they are too brittle to enjoy anything. An increasing number are actually returning home after first semester, unable to cope. So much for that admittance to Brown or Stanford or Princeton. A report from Harvard described some of the incoming students as “dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp.”

“The incoming students have been so scheduled, so sleep deprived and pressured, that they come to college too finely tuned,” complained one dean of students. “They’re like thoroughbreds. If they ‘throw a shoe,’ they can’t recover.” The counselors see a rise in digestive and eating disorders, headaches, generalized anxiety disorder, substance abuse, social and school phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorders (these are the students who can’t let go of details, are perfectionistic, and overwork for school assignments). Perhaps most alarming, there has been an increase in self-injury — a desperate and poignant cry for relief. Our mental health services can barely keep up with the demand.”

Last week I flew to visit my daughter in college and sat next to the mother of a happy college senior on the plane. She told me about the kids she knew who went off to college and couldn’t make it. They were beautifully prepared academically, but they couldn’t take being away from home. “Did your daughter go to camp?” she asked me. “Because from what I’ve seen,” she said, “the ones who have been to camp do best.”

Don’t Live Up to Your Potential — Leave Some for Later

Daniel Goleman, fellow psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, discovered in his studies of highly successful adults that few world leaders or those who have made great contributions to science or art got straight A’s in school. Instead, they have other qualities in common. They have high levels of emotional intelligence defined by Goleman as empathy, optimism, good teamwork, a sense of humor, as well as the ability to bounce back from failure. Good camps, with their emphasis on fellowship, independence and age-appropriate challenges make a unique contribution to the development of the whole child — disappointments, obstacles, and skinned knees — no extra charge.

And if kids go to camp there’s another advantage — parents get to take a break from their work — their colonoscopies, parenting, or accounting — and have a little playtime themselves.

Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., is a nationally known clinical psychologist, parent educator, and school consultant. She is the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, a best-selling parenting book now in its twelfth printing.  An experienced and popular public speaker, she lectures to parents, educators, and clergy across the country.  She is the co-founder of the Los Angeles Association of Independent School Counselors and serves on numerous boards including the Center for Early Education and the Atlanta-based Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education, a century old inter-faith organization serving private schools.

 

January 1, 2006

The Oy Oy Oy Show (Independent School Magazine)


The Oy Oy Oy Show
How Anxiety Harms Student
Academic Performance

BY WENDY MOGEL

FALL 2005


Every morning on Air America radio, you can hear The Oy Oy Oy Show. Host Katherine Lanpher reads a short news item to co-host Al Franken. He responds in the voice of an old Jewish man.

Lampher: “Halliburton Subsidiary Lands $5 Billion Iraq Contract.”
Franken: “Oy!”

“Rising temperatures force Swiss ski resort to use fleece blankets on slopes to keep them from melting.”
“Oy! Oy!”

“Jolie, Pitt, taking home Ethiopian orphan.”
“Oy, oy, oy!”

They discuss the news items for a moment and that’s it. The Oy Oy Oy Show. It lasts only two minutes, but effectively provides a daily dose of oy.

I’m a member of the Los Angeles Association of Independent School Counselors. Often our meetings have an Oy Oy Oy Show flavor. So much stress these children are under. The girls are starving themselves! Oy! And cutting themselves! Oy oy! They take so many AP’s. They never sleep. Oy oy oy! And the parents — so demanding! Nothing is ever good enough: not the teachers, not the GPA, not the lunch menu! Oy!

When I hear this kind of talk — and am able to resist joining in — my inner cheerleader wants to counter with the good. To say, “You counselors just love psychopathology. Face it, you’d be out of business without problems. The students are fine.”

In many ways, independent schools are psychologically healthier and more enlightened environments for children than they have ever been. Many students flourish. In large, under-funded public schools, students complain that no one sees them, no one knows them, no one will notice if they are gone. In independent schools we write inspired, detailed descriptions of the students in report card narratives. We have nooks and crannies for kids, places for the conventional stars as well as the potters, fencers, and mathletes. We no longer just teach sports, we teach fitness for life: yoga, Pilates, the habits of wellness. Our sex and drug-education programs are increasingly sophisticated and developmental. Many of our teachers take the Schools Attuned training and attend to learning differences. Every mission statement says it: We are interested in the “whole child.” We foster individuality, creativity, leadership.

There are some amazing things happening in independent schools. I recently had a conversation about “mirroring,” the psychological concept of having a child’s unique strengths reflected back by adults in a way that promotes
growth, with Patty Lancaster, the school counselor at the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles. At Archer, a student decided that she wanted to start a peer mediation program. The school provided faculty support and funds for a peer mediation club that was so popular and successful it turned into a peer mediation skills class, which in turn became a two-year program that is now a permanent part of the curriculum. Current tenth graders mediate almost all the middle school conflicts. (Lancaster said, tongue in cheek, “Thank God I don’t have to do that anymore!”) The older students also host brown-bag lunches with parents, where the students educate the parents about the transience of middle school social agony and reassure them that they need not step in to fix everything for their daughters.

This scenario, the seed of a student idea and student energy sprouting into a garden, is not a bit unusual. So why are the counselors shaking their heads and muttering? In truth, it’s not because they love psychopathology. It’s because, amid all the positive developments, some serious problems have arisen, and the counselors feel helpless to address them.

The Anxious Generation

To investigate the counselors’ concerns, I questioned some colleagues about mental health problems in independent schools. My sources included two long-term school heads, two neuropsychologists who have been testing
kids in independent schools for 20 years, an upper-school nurse, a college dean of students, and a college president. I asked, “What changes do you see in students over the past ten years? Are certain kinds of problems more
prevalent?” I was startled by the consistency of their answers: Every single person mentioned an increase in student anxiety and symptoms of stress. Oy.

One of the neuropsychologists told me, “I’ve been seeing a clear pattern of high verbal skill with lower performance skills… [specifically on] tests where the child works against the clock and tests where children have to integrate novel information. These kids are strong verbally but they have a sluggish cognitive tempo. Many also have difficulty with ‘output’ and with the demands of social situations. They have trouble picking up social cues, so the outside world is taxing to them. They want to stay at home where it is safe and secure.”

Performance tests are affected by anxiety. Anxiety inhibits the learning process. It interferes with memory, attention, retrieval systems, processing, and motor speed. In addition to low scores on these tests, the neuropsychologist was struck by what the children had to say about the testing experience, especially the younger ones who have not yet learned to inhibit their own negative running commentary.

“I saw two kids for psychological testing today,” she said. “Both of them had a difficult time persevering and obviously lacked confidence. They
said, ‘I’ll never get this. I’ll never finish. This is too hard. I give up!’”

In the past children rarely spoke this way about such testing, even though we used most of the same tests. Children used to enjoy the attention and the experience. It felt like a game. They wanted to come back. They asked their mom, “Does she baby-sit?”

The other psychologist I interviewed for this article concurred: “I see much more free floating anxiety. It’s because we assign kids the wrong tasks at the wrong times. For example, the middle school years are the period of development when the neurons of the frontal lobes become better myelinated (covered with fatty insulation to speed neural transmission). This is the ideal time to train kids to work independently, to develop ‘executive functions’ such as organization, time management, and test preparation skills. When we load up the middle school curriculum with taxing content — the introductory version of 11th-grade AP American History, for example — we overtax the students and deprive them of the opportunity to master the important developmental task of academic self-reliance.” The consequence of all this? Outside educational therapists are hired to teach organizational skills to students buckling under the burden of a developmentally inappropriate workload and parents tend to get involved in nagging, test preparation, and coaching their own children.

The idea of starting kids early with academics sounds good, but it’s rife with problems. We often end up with anxious overachievers who feel little pride in their work or bright but demoralized underachievers. Vivian Gussin Paly, author of many books on early childhood education, has warned us for years about the ramifications of age-inappropriate schooling for young children, arguing that play, and lots of it, is essential to healthy development in the early years. Well, she’s right. And her concerns are now manifesting themselves in older students, too.

Recalling the “early advantage” studies of two-year-olds who were taught to read and do math, the psychologist echoed Paley’s concerns. “In kindergarten these children did read earlier and were better in math than their peers but the longitudinal data show that by age eight any advantage of accelerated exposure had washed out and only one difference remained,” she said. “The kids exposed to the early interventions were more anxious about their performance than those left to rot on the vine. When we ask students to grow up before they are ready we just makes them anxious and delay their growing up!”

A college dean of students reported, “The incoming students have been so scheduled, so sleep deprived and pressured, that they come to college too finely tuned. They’re like thoroughbreds. If they ‘throw a shoe,’ they can’t recover. Our mental health services can barely keep up with the demand.”

My interviews also yielded survey data from a diverse group of schools. Again there was surprising consistency. Most upper schoolers sleep no more than six-and-a-half hours a night. Some have no lunch break during the entire school day. Many have less than a half an hour to themselves on a typical weekday. Seventeen out of 60 eleventh graders in one school are in therapy, either outside of school or with the school counselor. Ninety-four
visits to the school health office for stress-related issues were logged during a 14-day period. Of all visits to the health office, 30 percent were categorized as stress-related.

Besides the intellectual cost — the cognitive slowing, self-doubt, and loss of pleasure in challenge — what are other symptoms of stress? The counselors see a rise in digestive and eating disorders, headaches, generalized anxiety
disorder, substance abuse, social and school phobias, and obsessivecompulsive disorders (these are the students who can’t let go of details, are perfectionistic, and overwork for school assignments). Perhaps most alarming, there has been an increase in self-injury — a desperate and poignant cry for relief. These symptoms are not those of students who aren’t seen, aren’t known. They are the are the result of too close a watch, symptoms of privilege, sky-high expectations, and an ever-narrower definition of success.

Are We Headed for the China Syndrome?

One possible outcome of all the pressure on our children may be glimpsed in a new phenomenon that is affecting children in China (see related article on page XX). If you enter the word jiaolu on Google China, you’ll get nearly a million hits. Jiaolu means anxiety. Mark Magnier, writing in the

Los Angeles Times

, reports that a recent survey by the newspaper

China Youth Daily

found that 66 percent of Chinese young people consider themselves under heavy pressure to perform in school and succeed in the marketplace at a very high level. He writes: “Youngsters have little time for anything but class and homework and as jiaolu builds, teen suicide rates rise. ‘Dear Parents, I can hardly express my gratitude for bringing me up,’ read a note left by Tian Tian, a 12-year-old girl in the northern Province of Shanxi. ‘But I feel under such pressure. There is too much homework for me. I have no choice but to die.’”

The cause of all this suffering? Magnier explains that the movement from Communism to a market economy is providing stunning opportunities for Chinese youth. They sense that they’re living in unique era where fortunes can be made if they are willing to move quickly, take risks, and compete with their peers. In addition, parental expectations and ambitions are channeled to the young. “This is because parents, sometimes referred to as the ‘tragic generation,’ had their most promising decade stolen when the cultural revolution threw society into chaos, shuttering schools and destroying careers,” Magnier writes.

I’m struck by the parallel between the situations of Chinese and American youth. Both societies use a narrow definition of success: in China, you (and your parents) are what you earn; in the striving classes in America, you are where you go to college. In both countries a sense of national and global instability leads to an apocalyptic urgency about making it. The young people feel that it’s now or never. Or maybe it was yesterday and I missed it.

A Remedy: Stop, Look, and Think

We face a paradox. Our accelerated curriculum, heavy homework load, and crowded line-up of extracurriculars are actually sabotaging our children. Our goal of ever higher academic performance is actually depressing students’ cognitive functioning, academic vitality, and sense of well-being and self-reliance.

These are the serious problems facing independent schools. What can we do? We can take a moment to appreciate the solid core of good as well as our progress in understanding children and their intellectual, emotional, and
physical needs. Yiddish eloquently expresses our failings and fears — Oy! — but Hebrew points toward the ways in which humans can emulate the divine. Tikkun olam means to heal or repair the world, one person at a time. Of
healing, Hippocrates never actually said, “First do no harm.” But he did say, “Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things — to help, or at least to do no harm.” In order to heal our children we must first recognize their ailments, study the roots and causes, and plan for a different future.

To begin, we can look at school-day scheduling. Are our programs developmentally appropriate? How many core classes will we permit students to take in a semester? How many AP’s? Do the students have sufficient breaks during the day to take a breath? To snack and dine? To socialize and plan? To catch up on missed work?

We can consider how our children spend their after-school hours. Are we realistic about how much time it takes to do homework and sports and other extracurriculars and SAT prep and tutors?
And for transportation to and from these activities? Do our children have any truly free time at all to interact with life on their own terms? Are they getting enough to for sleep?

Finally, we can confront the touchy issue of politics. Do we put the concerns of faculty, coaches, and department chairs over the needs of the students? Do educators and administrators resist relaxing the workload because they fear parental complaint or value their own or the school’s reputation over the children’s well-being? Are our sibling acceptance policies appropriate for the rigor of the curriculum? Do we use college placement as a marketing and recruitment tool? How do these decisions affect the students?

Until recently, parents and educators have not been able to foretell the future, as Hippocrates advised. We didn’t know where the high expectations, extreme academic pressure, and panic mentality would land our children. Now we do. And while it may not be possible to create a perfect campus where all the students glow with selfconfidence and fully realized potential, it’s a worthy goal, and we’re not too far off. The way to help our children may be found by heeding another proverb: “Physician, heal thyself.” The students have done their part — they’ve studied and improved themselves to the breaking point. Now it’s up to us adults who guide them to change our expectations. We should save our oys, our exclamations of distress, for, say, the acts of self-serving politicians or corporate spokespersons who, straight-faced, proclaim that the scientific evidence of global warming is not yet evident. When it comes to responding to our children’s education, wouldn’t we all be much better off if we could exclaim, Ahhh?

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, and author of the best-selling parenting book The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. A special thanks to Mimi Baer, Dr. Leah Ellenberg, Ron Liebowitz, Patty Lancaster, Dr. Kristina Pappas, Fran Scoble, and Tim Spears for their thoughtful contributions to this article.

September 22, 2005

Drawing the Line on Spending (Wall Street Journal)

August 15, 2005


KIDS & MONEY

_________________

Drawing the Line on Spending

by Jolie Solomon

EVERY PARENT KNOW THE DRILL.

  First comes, “I want that”—quickly followed by, “But everybody else has one.”

Parents also know that granting every request will, in old-fashioned terms, “spoil” a child.  It can create kids who consider a constant stream of purchases to be their birthright, who can’t relish the pleasures they do have, and who have little understanding of choice or grattitude.

But in an age of especially conspicuous consumption—by both kids and adults—it’s hard to draw the line, or even know where the line should be.

“We say ‘yes’ because we’re tired, because we’re not with them, because we feel guilty, we’re single, we’re divorced, they do so much schoolwork, we want to have fun,” says Los Angeles based psychologist Wendy Mogel.  Billions of dollars in marketing to kids, she adds, creates a “mighty foe” for parents, sending the message that “to lift our spirits, we have to spend.”

It’s easy to make spending choices when an item is clearly out of the family’s financial grasp (your teenager wants his own car) or out of bounds for a given age (your 5-year-old wants the “Mean Girls” DVD).  But that leaves a big gray zone.  As with any other child-rearing dilemma, it helps to think things through, plan ahead, and coordinate with other adults.  Here are a few steps to help parents set limits, deliver the news—and survive the onslaught:

ASSERT YOUR AUTHORITY.  Parents have to be willing to say to their kids—and to themselves—“this is my decision.”  Lori Gruetter reminds herself of that on almost every trip to the video store or supermarket with Cassie, age 8, and Mark, 3.  “You [have] to be the parent, not the girlfriend,” says Ms. Gruetter, of Toledo, Ohio, who sells advertising time of a radio network.

GIVE KIDS OPPORTUNITIES TO MAKE CHOICES.  At the aquarium, you decide whether to go to the gift shop.  But then you can tell your 4-year-old, “You can spend $5,” and help her do the math.  Older kids can help budget clothing purchases for the school year or plan the family vacation.  Give them hands-on tools to help make them focus:  for an 8-year-old, a fresh new ledger notebook where she can record her allowance; for teenagers, Quicken financial-planning software.

Rebecca Riley, of Orinda, Calif., who worked as a private banker until this spring, says she saw many children of wealthy families who didn’t understand the “nuts and bolts” of how money works.  Her own daughter, Maddie, 13, is discovering how to stay in the black with her weekly fund for school lunches.  She’s taken to filling a water bottle at home each morning so she has money left over at the end of the week.

THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT “NO.”  “It’s good for kids to suffer, to feel sad, to experience longing, even deprivation,” says Ms. Mogel.  Be compassionate, not dismissive, of their pain.  But wait out the storm.

When Amy and Anmond Budish’s son Daniel learned to drive, they gave him their old but reliable station wagon.  He let it sit in their driveway in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Beachwood for months, arguing for something snazzier.  But when they refused to budge, he finally gave in and started driving it.

WHEN YOU SAY “YES,” MEAN IT.  Whether it’s a box of the latest breakfast cereal or Spring Break in the Caribbean, says Ms. Mogel, don’t send signals that say, “‘You can have it, but I wish I hadn’t given it to you.’  Don’t make kids feel guilty about pleasure.”

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.  Don’t take refuge in lines like “we can’t afford it.”  That’s usually not honest, and it builds distrust.  Ms. Riley’s daughter, Maddie, knows that her parents could afford to get her a $300 iPod.  “But I am so not going to buy that,” her mother told her recently.  Ms. Riley says she talks regularly to her kids about “values” and family choices; they spend money on books, bicycling and travel.

HELP CHILDREN DEVELOP A VOCABULARY FOR THEIR OWN SPENDING DECISIONS.  An 8-year-old will be intrigued by the challenge of figuring out whether she “needs” or “wants” that Juicy Couture track suit.

But know when to stop talking.  Kids are experts at pushing buttons (“Why do you work so many hours if we can’t spend the money?”) and delivering reasoned arguments (“This toy will make me more creative!”).  Mrs. Budish has learned to tell her son, “We’ve had our conversation, and you know how I feel.”

BAND TOGETHER.  Just as it’s hard for kids when “all” their friends have something they want, it’s hard for parents when other adults are doing it differently.  Sometimes, you can coordinate strategies.  A trip to the playground will end more happily if you and the other parents agree on whether everyone will go for ice cream.

David Anderegg, a child psychologist and a professor at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt., also is a consultant to independent private schools.  He encourages schools to help parents support each other.  Parents at one school agreed to avoid competitive birthday parties.  (“Sarah’s was on a boat, so mine needs to have a helicopter.”)

CREATE SPENDING FREE ZONES.  Parents are often unconscious of how much they surround kids with talk of spending, whether it’s cost of gasoline or a new kitchen.  Kids need to learn that “they can create, not just buy, an identity,” says Mr. Anderegg.  Encourage kids to “make” and “do” rather than buy, put on a play, rather than go to a movie, have a “make your own pizza” party rather than ordering in; join a band, instead of just downloading music.

BUILD A TRACK RECORD.  If you’ve been consistent about saying “yes” and “no” since your children were small, great.  But, it’s never too late to start.  With older kids, be explicit about the shift in policy:  “We’ve been wishy-washy about this.  Mom and I have decided to set new rules.”  Then be prepared to repeat yourself ad nauseam (“Remember what I said about the new rules?”).

You can even help kids out with a period of consumer detox.  A month at summer camp without Xbox or access to Claires.com can teach kids that there are other ways to make friends and have fun.

August 15, 2005

Thanks, Mommy (Parents Magazine)

Parents Magazine

August, 2005

Thanks, Mommy!

Teach your kids to use the magic words, and follow our tips to foster gratitude from an early age.

By Peg Rosen


It was a typical Tuesday, and I had just returned home after picking up my two sons from school. Saddled with their backpacks, lunch boxes, and jackets, I schlepped into the house as they dashed upstairs to play. Just as I began folding a heap of laundry, my preschooler appeared behind me. “I’m thirsty!” he declared. I robotically headed toward the fridge to pour him a drink. But something stopped me. I simply couldn’t “do” one more thing for two kids who seemed to think the universe revolved around them. “That’s interesting, Noah,” I said. “What would you like me to do about it?” He looked at me as if I had two heads but pieced together an actual request: “Can I have a drink?” I stood there waiting. And waiting. Until he finally got it. “Um, please?”
This incident was the beginning of a big-time turnaround in my family. My children are good kids; they just needed to learn how to express their appreciation. “Gratitude does not come naturally,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “It’s like a muscle that must be built up and strengthened throughout childhood.” Here, a few ideas to help kids understand the meaning of gratitude.

 

Be a role model.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to express gratitude yourself. “We have to be grateful for our blessings and be mindful of what we say and do if that’s what we want for our children,” says Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D., senior fellow with the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Do you politely ask the waitress at the diner (or, for that matter, your spouse) for a napkin and then thank her? Do you make an effort to notice a sunny day or happily acknowledge a traffic-free drive home? On the flip side, it’s easy to get caught up grumbling about your annoying boss, the number of errands you have to do, or the old car you’re driving. Be aware that children absorb this like sponges. Just as important, express appreciation to your kids, not only for pitching in or behaving during dinner but also for some of their more intangible gifts. Tell your 3-year-old what great company he was at the hardware store or how his visit lifted Grandma’s spirits.

Tackle thank-you notes together.

Michèle O’Reilly, owner of the Connecticut School of Etiquette, in Darien, heartily endorses the near-lost art of writing thank-you notes, even for children who are too young to write. “A 4-year-old can tell you what he liked about his present, and you can write the note for him,” she says. Another option: Ask him to draw a picture, and let him sign it.

Help them help others.

Pitching in at a local soup kitchen or delivering holiday presents to a group home are meaningful experiences for kids, but a gracious act doesn’t need to be grandiose to teach the same lesson, says Dr. Mogel. Simply put, charity starts at home. A toddler can be encouraged to speak on the phone each week with a relative who lives alone. If a friend misses out on a big field trip because she’s sick, your child can call or send her a card.

Integrate rituals of gratitude into family life.

Going to church services, sharing Friday-night Shabbat dinner, or saying a prayer before you eat all encourage families to connect and acknowledge how much they have. Weekly walks through a nature reserve can also help kids learn to appreciate the environment.
Indulge them with less.
In the face of peer pressure and the ever-increasing influence of the media, it’s certainly tough to fight the urge to give, give, give.  “Your goal is to respect your child’s desire for stuff without caving in to his demands,” says Dr. Mogel.  When your son begs for the purple slime his best friend has, you might say, “That sounds really cool, but we’re not going to get it.” There’s no need to give complex explanations. Also, rethink your own reasons for showering your kids with gifts. Instead of making a trip to the toy store to reward good behavior, why not head out to a park or spend an hour playing with him?

Teach manners early.

Good manners are the most literal way of showing appreciation and respect for others. And it’s never too early to teach them. “It’s true that younger children can’t comprehend the concept of gratitude because they are self-centered,” explains Dr. Erickson. But it’s important for children to go through the motions and learn the whys later. You can encourage a child as young as 2 to say please and thank you, says Bonnie Rubinstein, director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Shalom Preschool, in Dallas. As kids get older, teach them to greet a playdate or family friends at the door and to see them off when they leave.

Give them chores.

A 1-year-old can help you toss toys into a basket when playtime is over. Two-year-olds can carry a plastic dish from the kitchen table. By 3, children can begin to make their beds with help and put their clothes in the hamper. Lightening your own load is not the only point of asking kids to do chores—in fact, it may be easier to do it all yourself. But you’re teaching your children what it takes to keep a household running. “Only by sharing responsibilities does a child understand what goes into these tasks and learn to appreciate what her parents do,” says Dr. Erickson.

Grateful Reads
These books help cultivate a sense of gratitude in kids.

All the Places to Love, by Patricia MacLachlan (ages 4 to 8). As he grows, baby Eli learns to value the people and places in his life, eventually sharing what he has discovered with his new little sister.
Feeling Thankful, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, Ed.D. (ages 3 to 9). This book inspires kids to think about all they have to be grateful for—from their ability to paint a picture to their favorite possessions.
Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, by Jake Swamp and Erwin Printup Jr. (ages 4 to 8). Based on the ancient Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, this simple book offers thanks for all of the world’s many gifts.

Copyright©: 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Parents magazine.
© Copyright 2008 Meredith Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

August 1, 2005

The path to peaceful parenting (San Diego Jewish Journal)

San Diego Jewish Journal
   
February 5, 2003

The Path to Peaceful Parenting
Trained in the hard rationality of clinical psychology, Dr. Wendy Mogel was amazed to discover the beauty of Judaism. Now she shows how ancient texts can
restore sanity to the chaos of modern parenting

BY MICAH SACHS


Clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel was not raised in a religious home. Her grandfather was president of his shul in Brighton Beach, but he told his son (Wendy’s father) on his deathbed, “This tradition will die with me.” He was nearly right.

Mogel knew very little of Judaism as a child. She was not bat mitzvahed, her family did not belong to a congregation. Her father went to shul once a year for the High Holidays.

So 13 years ago, when Mogel was asked by a friend to join her for a children’s Rosh Hashanah service at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, she thought, “Why not?”

“I really went with the spirit of a cultural anthropologist: I would see how the Jews of Western Los Angeles celebrated their ancient tribal ritual,” she recalls now.

There she didn’t find the imperious-looking rabbis she imagined as a child. The rabbi, Sue Elwell, spoke among the congregants, accompanied by a young man playing guitar. Something moved Mogel to tears.

“I couldn’t figure out why I was crying because I knew it couldn’t be Judaism. I was looking for an explanation, because I am not an easy cry at all,” she says.

So she returned to Leo Baeck Temple with her daughter Susanna for the children’s Yom Kippur service. As 2-year-old Susanna peed on her lap, Mogel was again moved to tears. Having spent much of her adult life devoted to the hard rationality of clinical psychology, she was bewildered. She embarked on one more test: she would go alone, without child, without friend, to a Friday night service at the synagogue nearest her home, Temple Israel of Hollywood.

She was one of the few people there who was not a retiree. The rabbi was again a non-imperious type; he was 29-year-old, bowtie-wearing Rabbi Daniel Swartz, who had joined the rabbinate after leaving a career as a geologist. Mogel was so impressed by the young rabbi that she returned Saturday morning.

This time she did not cry. But she gained something more powerful in the long run - she gained insight. Swartz spoke about Exodus 39, and how its discussion of the holy vestments of high priests showed the power of ritual clothing to elevate the spirit. He asked the congregants at his Reform congregation to return the next week in more formal garb.

Mogel got to thinking. The idea of bigdei kodesh - the need to reinforce authority with signs and symbols - made sense, especially when dealing with children who had taken control of the home from their parents. “So I went back to my practice and talked to parents about being high priests of their home,” she remembers, thinking specifically of a successful professional couple whose children had taken over, leaving their toys in every nook of the house including the couple’s bed. Their two children, unaccustomed to boundaries, were critical and rude to their parents, and the boy had twice bitten other children at preschool. Mogel spoke to them about the need to establish themselves as the absolute authority. “The families came back the next week and said this was really helpful.”

Now she was onto something. The words of ancient Hebrew scribes had proved more effective than the modern texts of highly trained clinical psychologists. She had discovered a simple truth, shared by millions: Judaism still has something to teach us.


THE BOOK
Soon after, Dr. Mogel went from dabbler to devoted student of Judaism. She eventually left her thriving practice and devoted herself to writing about the connections she’d made between ancient Jewish wisdom and modern parenting. The result? The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, an accessible, best-selling guide to parenting that has already gone through 12 printings.

Despite its roots in Jewish tradition, the book has developed a large following in the general public as well. Educators across the country have embraced its straightforward lessons on parenting which, in these bewildering times, seem brand new - even though they’re rooted in texts thousands of year old.

“Here’s a person who has extraordinary common sense, compassion and reverence for family life,” says Richard Hof, assistant head of Saint Andrew’s School, an Episcopal school of 415 kids in northern California. “Her advice, whether you’re Jewish or not, is rock solid.”

Hof was so smitten by the book that he’s invited Mogel to speak several times. He says she is “easily the most popular and well-received speaker we’ve ever had.”

Closer to home, Carol Hamilton, director of the lower school at La Jolla Country Day School, says, “Dr. Mogel gives parents permission to use their instincts to deal with children… Very often, throughout the school year, a teacher has told me, ‘I wish that parent had read Blessing of a Skinned Knee.’”

The book (subtitled “Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children”) is completely based in ancient Jewish teachings, from the Torah to the Talmud, from the Mishna to Maimonides. Much, if not all, of the book runs counter to the conventional wisdom in modern parenting.

Indeed, what led Mogel to write the book was her sense that modern approaches, like therapy, tutoring and sending kids to the best schools, were not helping a certain kind of child - and a certain kind of parent. In her practice Mogel saw family after family come in with children who were both bossy and timid, who had been so protected and catered to at home that they were unable to deal effectively with the outside world. “I started to notice that when I had good news to give parents, when I could tell them there was nothing wrong with their child, when I told them that their child doesn’t need an educational therapist, doesn’t need psychotherapy, doesn’t need medication, doesn’t need tutors, they were disappointed,” she says. “And at the same time I heard from a lot of school administrators that children were being very overprotected, and that parents weren’t letting them suffer in any way, that there could be no pain, no disappointment, no longing, no ‘cold, wet, hungry.’”

It’s a common phenomenon, especially among parents raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Parents, especially financially comfortable ones, protect their children from every possible distress, treat them as utterly unique, schedule their child’s every moment and work especially hard at making sure their children think they’re “fair” parents. All of which, according to Mogel (and Judaism), is dead wrong.

“Everybody is treating their children like idols. They’re worshipping their every special breath, and anything that might lead to some earth-shatteringly good talent on their college applications,” says Mogel.

Dr. Mogel bases her book in the basic Jewish concepts of moderation, celebration and sanctification. Moderation, because it can help parents temper the desire to do everything for their child - and to push their child to gorge himself on homework and extracurriculars. Celebration, because it can restore some of the joy to children’s lives that has been sapped away by hyperkinetic schedules. And sanctification, because the recognition of some things as sacred can restore order to chaotic modern family life.


UNDOING THE DAMAGE 
One crucial mistake modern parents make is to assume that their child is absolutely “special.” Anyone who has been to an elementary school in recent years will know the word well; every student, every art project, every play, every bake sale is, in some way, “special.”

When parents assume that their children have limitless potential, they’re bound to be disappointed. “In their view,” says Mogel in the book, “a diagnosable problem [is] better than a normal, natural limitation. A problem can be fixed, but a true limitation requires adjustment of expectations and acceptance of an imperfect son or daughter…

“Why are parents so anxious to be raising perfect children? The answer is twofold: pride and fear of the future.”

Feeling the pressure of what she calls “pornography” (U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best colleges), many parents push their children, even at a young age, to do multiple sports, play an instrument, learn a second (or third) language… in short, do whatever is necessary to ensure acceptance into the right college. In their preparatory fervor, parents push their children to be generalists, good at everything, while not recognizing the hypocrisy in front of their faces: rarely are adults expected to be generalists.

Another culprit is the move towards standardization in public schools over the last 20 years. By standardizing curriculum and instituting standardized tests for nearly every grade, schools are held accountable for their student’s education; the flip side is that each child is stuck in a “one size fits all” mode. Worse, with test scores available on a regular basis, parents have another means to compare their children.

Mogel asks parents to work against the impulse of high expectations for their children. She wants parents to give their children the time and space to pursue their own, unstructured, seemingly unproductive interests, even if that means they spend all afternoon building forts of leaves in the backyard.

Mogel finds Judaism’s attention to holiness in simple things a “an antidote to specialitis.” The holiest day is not a High Holiday but every Saturday; the holiest food is plain egg bread; the holiest building is not a cathedral but a sukkah - which is little more than a fort of leaves in the backyard.

“In this age of designer children, a lot of people celebrate their child’s achievements as a badge of honor for themselves,” says locally based Rabbi Lenore Bohm, a great admirer of Mogel’s book.

By sanctifying the ordinary, parents and children can find joy in the simple things they don’t typically appreciate. Moreover, they can avert the misery that comes with impossible expectations - for parent and child.

“We should think of our children as packages of seeds that came without a label,” Dr. Mogel often says. “We can’t tell what season they’ll bloom, or what kind of flower we’ll get. Our job is simply to pull the weeds, provide the water and step back and wait.”

Another misguided notion of modern parenting that Dr. Mogel gladly debunks is the principle of fairness. Many parents, especially ones raised in the liberal ‘60s and ‘70s, are fixated on the idea of being fair to their children. They spend hours arguing with their children, explaining why their rules make sense, why one child is getting something a sibling isn’t, why the child has to do chores.

Not only is this a tremendous waste of time and energy, it’s not even socially sound. While we may desire a world that is fair, we know the world is not, so why are we telling our children otherwise? The Torah has a simple answer to any child who would question her parent’s authority: “Honor your father and your mother.”

Mogel points to rabbinic writing on this commandment (fifth out of the top ten, if you’re keeping count) to show that logic has nothing to do with parental authority. The rabbis speak of mishpatim - laws in the Torah that have some logic behind them - and chukim - laws that have no logical rationale, like Kashrut. While one could make a case for the fifth commandment as one of the mishpatim, the rabbis treated it as one of the chukim. That way, there’s no room for argument - children should obey parents because, well, that’s what children should do.

While this reliance on a non-rational divine source of authority makes many non-religious, rationalist parents uneasy, it has tremendous practical value. And Mogel, like Judaism, doesn’t ask that parents buy into the concept of G-d, but only that they follow His guidelines.

“When parents stop getting in the middle of sibling battles and when they stop trying to negotiate everything in their children’s lives, they’ll have a lot more energy to be better parents,” says Mogel. “The child will benefit because there can be family life that isn’t full of nagging, whining and complaining, where everybody is having a good time and enjoying being together and is relaxed.”

“I often say there’s some version of ‘Because I said so,’” she says.

Mogel’s notions about following laws simply because they exist is deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition. Unlike Christian faiths, Judaism does not demand belief. Judaism demands that you follow the laws first - belief can come later. Especially when dealing with children, who often don’t have the maturity to understand the larger purpose of seemingly unfair rules, action must always precede understanding. In this way, the Torah is really the original work of behaviorism.

Mogel has found the effectiveness of this approach in her own life. In the book, she relates how she dealt with her younger daughter Emma, when, at the age of 3 1/2, she refused to brush her teeth. Rather than engage in a lengthy litany of “But why?“‘s, Mogel told her daughter, “Emma you have a job to do. It is your responsibility to go to bed with your teeth brushed. You can brush your teeth yourself or I will be glad to do it for you. This house is a place for people who are doing their jobs. If you are not willing to do your job, you’ll have to go outside in the backyard. Do you understand what I said? I want to make sure. Can you say it back to me please? What are your choices?”

Emma smiled and ran out of the bathroom. So Mogel picked her up and carried her to the backdoor on the cool October night. “Mom,” Emma said, “let’s go back upstairs and I’ll brush my teeth right now.”

Although she protested again in the future, all Mogel needed to do was remind her daughter of the backyard.

Which points to another of Mogel’s points, common among experts in the parenting field: the need for follow-through on discipline. If parents are serious about discipline, many of the irritants of modern family life - constant nagging, incessant argumentation, regular whining - can be reduced.

The third chronic impulse of modern parenting that Mogel resists is the urge to overprotect. Indeed, the title of the book reflects Mogel’s belief in not overreacting to distress. Bless the skinned knee, but don’t fuss over it.

“Her book teaches perspective,” saId Harriet Wolpoff, director of education at Congregation Beth Am. “In my work, I sometimes see parents who are dealing with really significant issues in life, and they come in with a smile… and then there are some people who get worked up over a skinned knee.”

Mogel’s writing on overprotectiveness is some of the least Jewishly-rooted advice in her book. When speaking of the need to expose children to minor pains, the cold and C-minuses, she simply says “those bumps are part of G-d’s plan.” But Mogel’s discussion of the need to give children the time and space to sometimes fail is often cited as the most powerful lesson of her book.

“The single best message for our parents body is that it is indeed healthy for your child to suffer frustration and have some thwarted desires,” says Hof. “It’s these experiences that help turn a child into a successful adult.” Elementary school is a terrific laboratory for a child to experience small failures, because the consequences are so minimal. In religious terms, a child who understands the world is riddled with obstacles will be more willing to be like Abraham or Moses, and take the road less traveled.

Which brings us to the final question about Mogel’s work. How important is Judaism to being a good parent in the mold of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee? Mogel devotes one of 10 chapters to the importance of “introducing your child to spirituality.”

“I certainly think that people can follow the principles in my book without becoming observant, and I get fan mail all the time from people who aren’t Jewish,” says Mogel. “I certainly recommend it, but I don’t think it’s essential.”

This fact points to the most enduring strength of the book, both as a guide to parenting and as an introduction to Judaism. Unlike traditional Orthodox books on parenting - which share many of the same lessons - The Blessing of the Skinned Knee does not demand a religious life. This is the key to its universality, and its broad acceptance and success.

“It uses religion as background but certainly that didn’t get in the way of receiving its lessons,” says Hamilton. “It’s just good solid common sense.”


LIFE AS A GURU
One of the pitfalls of writing a great book on parenting is that you’re expected to be a great parent. Which is why Mogel is hesitant to share many details of her family’s life. “I don’t want to set myself up like a guru and say I have it all figured out,” she says. “Life is difficult for everyone, and I’m no different from that.” Indeed, her husband, respected screenwriter and director Michael Tolkin (Changing Lanes, The Rapture), did not want to speak about their personal life for that very reason.

Mogel says there’s added pressure on her children (“In the popular mind there’s the idea that shrink’s kids are crazy,” she says), which, like any parent, she tries to shield them from. But, she acknowledges, “I don’t know what the long-term impact [of the book’s success] will be.”

For now, whether she likes it or not, she is seen as a parenting guru throughout the country, as her packed wall calendar attests. She is completely booked with speaking engagements (most in California, but one a month out-of-state) through October. After that, she is unsure of her next step. After leaving professional practice to write her book in 1999, she may return to practice, which she misses. Or she may write another book, which she finds intimidating. Or she may do a TV show, which she finds exciting.

Jewishly, her family is not the ultra-observant clan the book makes you expect. While the family went to a Modern Orthodox synagogue for awhile, they are now members of a Reform congregation. They celebrate the Sabbath every Friday night, but they don’t keep full kosher. “We got very, very observant, now we’re less observant,” she says, defining her practice as “post-denominational.”

Dr. Mogel makes no claim to being the perfect parent or a guru, which is just fine. The possibility of perfection in anyone is one of the great myths of modern parenting, a myth that Mogel firmly rejects. Rather, she is just a smart Jewish woman relying on the collective smarts of thousands of years of Jewish learning. Radical, isn’t it?

February 3, 2005

Mommy (and Me) (New York Times)

View this article in its original context.

The New York Times

January 30, 2005

Mommy (and Me) image

A generation of new parents are telling tales from the crib in blogs that revel in self-absorption.

By DAVID HOCHMAN


As stomach bugs go, the one that hit the Allen family of Redmond, Wash., this month certainly got a lot of play. Barely an hour after Jaxon, 5, showed his first miserable symptoms, his mother was posting her satirical account of Pukefest 2005 on her Internet blog, Catawampus. By bedtime, after the virus had clobbered Neve, 7; Veda, 3; and Luka, 18 months, Dad was logging on to type his own send-up of the insanity in his blog, the Zero Boss. And Grandma Bunny weighed in a few days later with a 1,000-word treatise called “The Flu From Hell” on her site, Bunny Beth’s Bargains.

The world’s most thankless occupation, parenthood, has never inspired so much copy. For the generation that begat reality television it seems that there is not a tale from the crib (no matter how mundane or scatological) that is unworthy of narration. Approximately 8,500 people are writing Web logs about their children, said David L. Sifry, the chief executive of Technorati, a San Francisco company that tracks Web logs. That’s more than twice as many baby blogs as last year.

While it is impossible to know if the reader of Good Housekeeping circa 1955 would have been recording her children’s squabbles on www.myperfectchild.com, had the Internet arrived half a century earlier, it is hard to imagine her going head to head with Ben MacNeil, who has chronicled his year-and-a-half-old daughter’s every nap, bottle feeding and diaper change (3,379, at last check) on the Trixie Update (trixieupdate.com).

Today’s parents - older, more established and socialized to voicing their emotions - may be uniquely equipped to document their children’s’ lives, but what they seem most likely to complain and marvel about is their own. The baby blog in many cases is an online shrine to parental self-absorption.

“People who get married, especially people in their 30’s, and then have kids, are used to being the center of attention,” said Jennifer Weiner, whose candid, motherhood-theme Web log, Snarkspot (jenniferweiner.blogspot.com), led to her novel, Little Earthquakes, a tale of four new mothers. The blogs, she said, are “a primal scream that says, ‘Hey, I may have a kid, but I’m still here, too.’ “

Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Center for Culture, Brain and Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of Parenting From the Inside Out, said that what is being expressed in these Web sites “is the deep, evolutionarily acquired desire to rise above invisibility, something parents experience all the time.” He explained, “You want to be seen not just by the baby whose diaper you’re changing, but by the world.”

With a new blog popping up every 4.7 seconds, according to Technorati, it is no surprise that there would be parent blogs, along with those for dating, politics and office life. But what makes them interesting is the way that blogging about parenthood seems to have become part of parenthood itself.

Heather B. Armstrong of Salt Lake City credits her blog, Dooce.com, with saving her sanity, if not her life. When it began in February 2001, Dooce was a collection of anecdotes about Ms. Armstrong’s single life in Los Angeles, with provocative entries like “The Proper Way to Hate a Job” and “Dear Cranky Old Bitch Who Cut in Front of Me at Canter’s Deli.” After someone sent an unsigned, untraceable e-mail message about Ms. Armstrong’s blog to her company’s board in 2002, she was promptly dismissed, and “Dooced” entered Urbandictionary.com as a term for “Losing your job for something you wrote in your online blog, journal, Web site, etc.”

A year later Ms. Armstrong married, moved back to Utah, gave birth to a daughter, Leta, and was soon after hospitalized for severe postpartum depression. Her moving, confessional entries from that time generated thousands of e-mail messages and, she said, helped speed her recovery.

Now about 40,000 people log on to read about Ms. Armstrong’s efforts to break her daughter’s binky habit and of her concern about swearing in front of Leta. Like most parent bloggers, Ms. Armstrong steals time at the computer when the child is napping, after the baby sitter arrives and late at night. She said she blogs at least 15 hours a week. “Dooce probably saved my life,” she said. “The writing and voice I had let me hold onto part of the original and old Heather, something that being a mother and the depression couldn’t take away.”

It is a theme that recurs. Parents have never waited longer nor thought more consciously about having children, yet time and again the bloggers voice surprise and sometimes resentment about the unglamorous reality of bringing up baby.

“Honestly I had a lot of illusions about motherhood,” said Eden Marriott Kennedy, who was 37 when she had her first child and now writes about him at Fussy.org. “You get settled in your ways. Until it’s here, you really don’t know how dehumanizing and ugly parenting can be sometimes. The blog’s a place where all that stuff can go.”

Exposing the dark underbelly of parenthood is not exactly new. Books like Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year and Andrea J. Buchanan’s Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It have made it clear that raising children is not all sunshine and sippy cups. What is remarkable is that being a parent has inspired so much text and that so many people seem eager to read it.

“If there’s a parenting issue out there, somebody’s blogging about it,” said Julia M. Moos, a managing editor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the editor of Dot Moms (roughdraft.typepad.com/dotmoms), an online collective for mothers that blog. Her Web site has links to more than 500 mom blogs and about 100 dad blogs.

Mr. MacNeil, of the Trixie Update, said he doesn’t understand why more than 1,000 people a day visit his Web site (“I was even recognized at the mall once,” he said), but his own motives are clear. “Parents have been parenting for hundreds of thousands of years, but this is the first time I’ve ever done it,” he said. “In its simplest form, the blog lets me chart the void.”

And this being an age in which publicizing the private has never been more rewarded, a fair number of parents are hoping their blogs will attract the attention of book publishers. Mr. Allen said he hopes the Zero Boss (www.thezeroboss.com) will help him sell a manuscript he has written about being a father, which is perhaps not too far-fetched.

Early next year HarperCollins is planning to publish The World According to Mimi Smartypants (already available in Britain), a compilation of posts by the popular blogger who writes at smartypants.diaryland.com. “If you only went by what the magazines and parenting books said or what your relatives told you, you’d think you were a neurotic freak who was doing everything wrong,” Ms. Smartypants said. (She declined to reveal her real name.) “Blogging makes parents more relaxed.”

But the question is, at who’s expense? How will the bloggee feel, say, 16 years from now, when her prom date Googles her entire existence?

“Fundamentally children resent being placed at the heart of their parents’ expression, and yet I still do it,” said Ayelet Waldman, whose blog, Bad Mother (bad-mother.blogspot.com), describes life at home with her four young children and her husband, Michael Chabon, the novelist. Ms. Waldman, a novelist herself, has blogged about her baby Abie’s recessive chin and gimpy hip and the thrill of the children’s going back to school after winter break.

“A blog like this is narcissism in its most obscene flowering,” she said. “But it’s necessary. As a parent your days are consumed by other people’s needs. This is payback for driving back and forth to gymnastics all week long.”

At some point, however, parents may find themselves at a crossroads. Molly Jong-Fast, who has been a frequent subject for her mother, Erica Jong, said, “There comes that inevitable moment when parents who write about their children need to choose between their writing and their children’s privacy and honor.” Ms. Jong based a children’s book on her daughter as well as a pilot for a Fox sitcom. “There’s no compassionate way to do both, so either the parent or the child will end up feeling resentful.”

Incidentally, Ms. Waldman’s mother, Ricki Waldman, 64, a hospital administrator in Paterson, N.J., said she does not quite understand all this blogging business. “I think parents today know so much about all the things that might conceivably go wrong that they overreact and can’t stop talking about them,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing either, but look, our kids survived.”

The anxiety and uncertainty so commonly expressed in the baby blogs definitely make for good reading. (“He likes cars and tutus with equal passion,” Melissa Summers writes of her 2-year-old, Max, on Suburbanbliss.net. “I think he might be gay.”) But it also shines a spotlight on a generation of parents ever more in need of validation, an insecurity that doesn’t necessarily serve the cause.

What the blogs show is that “parents today are focused on taking their children’s emotional, social and academic temperature every four or five seconds,” said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “It deprives us of having a long view of development. Kids do fine. The paradox is that the way to have them not do fine is to worry about them too much.”

Maybe that is so. But perhaps all the online venting and hand-wringing is actually helping the bloggers become better parents and better human beings. Perhaps what these diaries provide is “a way of establishing an alternate identity that makes parenting more palatable,” said Meredith W. Michaels, a philosophy professor at Smith College and the co-author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. “You’re turning your life into a story that helps answer the question, ‘Why on earth am I doing this?’ “

As Alice Brady, who writes the popular baby blog “Finslippy” (finslippy.typepad.com) out of her Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, apartment, put it, “I’d be a lot angrier if I didn’t do this.”

And of course the more parents blog, the less likely they are to get the attention and validation they seem to crave. “If every parent in the world has a blog, then maybe it really will be about the child rather than the parent,” Ms. Waldman said. “Because at that point the child is the only one who’s going to read it.”


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January 30, 2005

Removing The Training Wheels (Atlanta Jewish Times)

The Atlanta Jewish Times

January 28, 2005

Removing

the Training Wheels

How to use Jewish teachings to raise self-reliant children

By Linda Bachmann


If there’s one thing parents know for sure, it’s that our children don’t come with instruction manuals.  When we get beyond the feeding, diaper changing and sleeping challenges of infanthood, we’re mostly on our own.  Enter Wendy Mogel, clinical pryschologist and author of the popular parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee:  Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin Books, 302 pages, $14).  Her straightforward advice to parents:  “Stop rescuing your children.  Let them make mistakes while they are young—children need to learn from failure.  Their school is not a cruise ship.”

Mogel is bringing her message to Atlanta Feb. 2, with a talk scheduled at Greenfield Hebrew Academy.  A capacity crowd of 700 is expected to attend.  Sponsors, including Atlanta’s Jewish Family and Career Services, the Marcus Jewish Community Center, Davis Academy, Epstein School, GHA, Weber School, Yeshiva Atlanta, and Dor Tamid, Temple Emanu-El, Etz Chaim, The Temple and Kehillat Chaim preschools, have come together to make the program free to the community.

While Mogel’s book is not quite a child-rearing instruction manual, it does offer parenting strategies—all with a Jewish twist.  She writes of three cornerstone principle of Jewish living:  moderation, celebration, and sanctification, all of which add an important perspective when dealing with life’s issues.  In essence, Mogel provides a blueprint for parents wondering how to raise optimistic, compassionate, and resourceful children who are not spoiled by the plenitude surrounding them.  Chapters range from the blessing of acceptance (of less than perfect children) to the blessing of time, what Mogel calls “the holy currency in the Jewish religion.”

In an interview with the Jewish Times, Mogel said she believes that today’s child rearing environment reflects both the legacy of the 1960’s—that we should offer our children tremendous freedom to “flower at their own pace and express every feeling that they have”—and of the 1980’s—which was known for its “manic ambition to succeed.”  Mogel says today’s parenting approach needs to be tempered by our awareness of the costs of too much permissiveness, too much pressure, and too much overindulgence.  “It’s about [parents] modeling behavior and respect, too,” Mogel says.  “Judaism is a religion of deed and not creed.”  She would like to see more schools working in partnership with parents to develop reules about topics ranging from car pool etiquette to cell phone usage when a child is in the car.

So what does the future hold if today’s parents don’t adjust their approach and allow their children to experience—and learn to handle—the bumps along the road to growing up?  Mogel jokes that she’s worried that our children are going to “file the largest class action lawsuit in history.  We’ve stolen their childhood.”  “It’s my scare tactic; it’s what will happen if parents don’t cut out the over-indulgence, over-protection, over-scheduling, and overly high expectations for uniformly perfect academic, social, and athletic performance,” she says.

This new phenomenon—what the Wall Street Journal called a “coddling crisis”—is being noticed on college campuses around the country.  “It’s evident in the frantic efforts of parents who write their children’s college application essays and then provide long-distance homework hand-holding after the kids hit campus,” wrote reporter Jeffrey Zaslow.  If this trend continues, society will end up with “teacups and crispies,” terms Mogel uses to describe how college professors and deans now refer to students who—after years of pressure to be at the top of their game academically and socially—“are fragile and burned out and have lost their intrinsic pleasure in learning.”

In addition, Mogel warns, the era of cell phone and e-mail communications just may be “over-connecting” parents and children.  “We’re over-communicating.  It’s so easy to drop into cyberspace every time you have a moment of time or are feeling a little anxious abut something.  Our kids are so tempted to turn to their parents to solve every single problem—when they don’t like their roommate or didn’t get into the class they wanted.”  She says parents themselves are also “impoverished” because of years spent focusing on their children.  That’s why, Mogel advises, parents need interests outside their kids so they will know how to deal with an empty nest.

 

Parent Discussion Groups

Parent groups throughout Atlanta are meeting to discuss their challenges and to learn from Mogel’s approach.  For example, after several parents in The Temple’s religious school and early learning center asked for a forum to discuss the book, Rabbi Judith Beiner, the shul’s coordinator of adult education, created a Sunday morning parent discussion group.  More than 60 parents with children of all ages participated in the first meeting. 

“The main question in people’s minds seems to be how much do we enforce rules and direct our children and how much do we allow them to break the rules and make mistakes.  We all struggle with that,” said Elaine Levine, the parent of a college freshman, high school sophomore, and fifth-grader, who is participating the discussion group.  “We are all guilty of trying to give our children the absolute best life, but sometimes that’s not the best way to teach our children.  It’s an intellectual challenge,” Levine said.

Across town, a three-session Blessings of a Skinned Knee course is scheduled for Feb. 22, March 1, and 8 at the Brill Institute of Jewish Learning at the JCC’s Zaban Park campus.  Gail Albert, preschool director at Temple Beth Tikvah, will lead that discussion.

Nondenominational Popularity

Mogel’s book, already in its 12th printing with more than 100,000 copies sold, is popular among parents of all faiths.  In fact, she is scheduled to speak on Feb. 3 at the Westminster School, an appearance sponsored by a number of other private schools including the Atlanta Girls School, Atlanta Speech School, Lovett, Pace Academy, and Trinity. 

“I feel very honored to present these Jewish ideas and teaching to non-Jewish audiences,” says Mogel.  “Other religious groups see Jewish teachings as part of their own heritage—although [it’s] a part that they’re not so familiar with.  The secular community is looking for a spiritual anchor in such a nervous, busy, materialistic world.  They welcome these ideas—Shabbat, the idea of enforced rest, the value of the evil inclination—that we’re not trying to legislate our children’s thoughts, but their behavior.”  She says those concepts give parents—of any religion—perspective on what they’re tackling with their kids.  They can start aiming for appropriate behavior rather than not wanting their children to be mad at them or disappointed or angry.

Mogel says another book is on the horizon.  “It was originally to be called The Blessing of a B-, and now I’ve changed it to The Blessing of a B and it might end up The Blessing of a B+.  Kids are literally upset about a B+.”

Mogel notes the results of a survey she conducted of upper school students in Los Angeles when she asked them to name their greatest fear.  The outcome wasn’t terrorism, a family member dying or even being ostracized by their friends, but rather the fear of disappointing their parents.  “Grades seem to be the barometer or the emblem of a family’s success.  Parenting doesn’t have a salary or a title or a job evaluation.  All you get is college placement.  It’s a wildly distorted way to evaluate a family or a child.”

Mogel knows that her advice to parents is “like a salmon swimming against the tide” and that it’s “really hard to step away” from the rat race.  She recommends taking a long view of child development and to appreciate all of your children’s talents—“even the talent of being a wonderful friend.”  “You don’t want you children to live up to their potential by the time they are 8.  Let them save a little potential for adulthood.  We’ve go to stop pressuring our kids.”

January 28, 2005

Mogel's Myths (Atlanta Jewish Times)

Atlanta Jewish Times

January 28, 2005

Mogel’s Myths
Twelve Misconceptions
About Raising Self-Reliant Kids


1. These days all children are either learning disabled, gifted or both.


2. If they just try hard enough and are taught well, any child has what it takes to become a neurosurgeon or a high tech CEO.


3. In our competitive world, it’s important to give each child an edge by scheduling enrichment activities, lessons and tutors. It’s less important to let them waste time farting around or daydreaming or to burden them with ordinary household chores.


4. In order to survive in the coming millennium, every child needs to be a robust generalist who is good at everything. Learning is a not a process that lasts a lifetime but a product that must be manufactured by the end of middle school.


5. It is respectful and appropriate to continue all discussions with children until they understand the rationale for what we want them to do…or not to do.


6. A bright, articulate child can distinguish between what he wants and what he needs.


7. Praise builds self-esteem. Every child needs to feel very special.


8. Children need less sleep than they used to.


9. If we raise them right, our children’s level of sexual interest should be about the same as ours was when we were their age.


10. It is not good for children to feel bored, unhappy, disappointed, sad, frustrated or left out.


11. These days, it’s just too dangerous to give children privacy in the house or freedom on the streets.


12. My children should come before my marriage, before my hobbies, before… everything.

 

January 28, 2005

The Digital Lives of Your Kids: What Parents Need to Know (The Jewish Journal)

View this article in its original context.

June 2, 2005

By Wendy Mogel

image Chapter 1:
A Real, Live IM Chat

Have you noticed more and more lately that your child is engrossed in a constant, beeping dialogue with her computer? Does she brag about a buddy list with hundreds of names, most of which you’ve never heard before? Does she protectively minimize or shield the screen any time you walk by or quickly type in POS (parent over shoulder)? If you’re wondering what all the secrecy is about, come join me in an instant message—I mean, IM—conversation with my 14-year-old daughter, Emma.

drmogel: Sup, Em? [Translation: What’s up, Emma?]

iluvjohnnyD: NO!!! uh, mom, u DON’T put capital letters for names or places…that’s just so…loser-ish. u can do all-caps to make a point, but otherwise, just don’t.

Note her tone of superiority and impatience. Although this tone is not unfamiliar, it is not her characteristic style of communication with me. It is, I will soon learn, the emboldened attitude of instant message interactions.

iluvjohnnyD: try again

drmogel: sup em?

iluvjohnnyD: nmu?

drmogel: nmu?

I know that nmu [“nothing much, you?”] follows ‘sup’ as Exodus follows Genesis.

iluvjohnnyD: NO!!!! why would u ask me how i was when u just said “sup”? that’s repetitive. u want to just say “nm”

I thought cyberspace was as unrestricted as the Wild West, but there are, apparently, many conventions—strict ones at that—that govern communication here.

drmogel: hey em what should parents know about their kids im life?

iluvjohnnyD: it’s IM, mom. it’s the best way to keep in touch with ppl [people] and it’s a better babysitter than the TV.

drmogel: what about kids saying mean things about other kids?

IluvjohnnyD: u have to accept that when u are online people are talking about u behind ur back but we don’t mainly use the internet to dis people.

drmogel: Judaism teaches us about the dangers of gossip. remember the story of the pillow and the feathers, isn’t IM’ing a gigantic duvet?

iluvjohnnyD: idk [I don’t know]. what are u talking about?? all that money towards religious school and i’m still lost.

drmogel: LASHON HARA! The evil tongue. It’s the story of a boy who loved to gossip. The rabbi asked him to bring his pillow to the top of the mountain, cut it open and let the feathers fly in the wind. Then the rabbi said, “Now gather all the feathers and put them back in the pillow. When the boy cried out, “But I won’t be able to find them!” the rabbi said, “It’s the same with gossip. You can never take back your words.”

iluvjohnnyD: whatever. mom, teenagers are supposed to gossip. it’s our job!

drmogel: tell the readers about making connections with friends you meet at a bar mitzvah. that seems cool.

iluvjohnnyD: hahaha u have no right to say *that seems cool* ur 53. and about the bar mitzvahs? I LOVE being able to instantly [hence the title ‘INSTANT message’] IM someone who lives far away. For example at ben’s bar mitzvah in Indianapolis I met some kids and five minutes after I got home I was asking them if it was still snowing there. It’s nice to be able to have such an easy connection to someone less accessible than a next-door neighbor.

drmogel: talk to parents worried about cyberpredators.

iluvjohnnyD: all right, Parents Worried About Cyberpredators…PWAC! here’s what happens…ur innocent little 11 year old sarah wants a boyfriend (gasp) and so she starts talking to some hairy 47-year-old she met in the SoccerFanz chat room or whatever…but he says his name is ryan and he is blonde and cute and has a six pack ... pulls her in, right? just WARN HER not to do this. and NEVER to make plans to meet people. it’s just stupid.

drmogel: what about the buddy list names popping up when you are supposed to be doing homework?

iluvjohnnyD: hehe…. um ... then u stop doing ur homework for a minute…. idk some kids can control it. some get too involved.

drmogel: doesn’t it interrupt your concentration?

iluvjohnnyD: yes. too bad. g2g [got to go].


Chapter 2: Why You Should Not Worry

Talking to strangers, being rude to friends and family, wasting acres of time, eschewing capitalization and proper punctuation. Why let your child do this?

Because these kids spend long hours in school and in adult-supervised after- school activities. Because they work hard, possibly harder than any kids in history. Because they are generally polite to adults and are required to follow a lot of rules all day long, every day. And because the new SAT requires a tightly written five-paragraph essay: intro, three deft points and a snappy wrap-up.

Our children’s lives are not like ours were. They’re not free to hang out at the corner drugstore or on the stoop or in a vacant lot. They have little privacy or downtime. They are scrutinized, measured and cloistered. But teenagers need to communicate and connect and express themselves freely. They need privacy and risk. They even need to make a few cheap mistakes before they go off to college. The Internet and instant messages provide rich opportunities for them to do all these things.

If you’re curious about the content of these messages and Web sites, go to LiveJournal.com, a Web log (blog) so popular that it currently has more than 2.5 million active users and gets 23,000 postings an hour. It is mostly popular with teenage girls, and yes, it features plenty of sad, provocative communities (been_abused, 2sexy4u). But if you leave your prejudices at the door you can find a world unique, unifying and thrilling in its diversity.

Try it. Be a cultural anthropologist. Type the word Jewish in the “interest” box on the LiveJournal home page and you will get a list of 195 communities. Most are lively and challenging; some are wacky. For example:

Japs and We Love It!

Chk4Life (Camp Hess Kramer alums)

JewishVegans

GroovyZionistJews

GainsvilleJews

emoJews

In our paranoid, fragmented world we all need community. In our wildly competitive, nervous world we need to express ourselves. Online communities are one way to belong. And IMing is an opportunity for warm, casual connection with friends from camp, a boy you met at a dance or even your parent in the next room.


Chapter 3: Why You Should Worry

Still want to worry some? Here’s what you should worry about.

1. Distraction. Note how Emma equivocated above when I asked her about IMing during homework. (IluvjohnnyD: hehe….um… then you stop doing your homework for a minute…) The primary danger to young teens online is not cyberpredators, although lonely, socially isolated kids are at risk. The greatest hazard is that your child won’t finish her homework in a timely fashion.

Although our children may be masters of multitasking, the steady blip, blip, blip (hey em, sup?) of instant messages from pinacolada15 or mybootay or any of the other friends and acquaintances on their buddy lists may be far more alluring than completing a book report. These interruptions can create pseudo-attention deficit disorder even in children not predisposed to it. So consider you own child’s disposition and decide how much he or she can handle. Some kids can work with music and phone calls and the intrusion of instant messages, and others can’t. You provide the parameters.

2. Catching a virus. When they download music, they get viruses. Even if they tell you they know for sure the source is safe, it isn’t. If the family computers are plagued by viruses, a likely culprit is Kazaa (or another free music file-sharing service). You may need to institute appropriate consequences.

3. Overexposure to inappropriate images.
These sexual, violent or hateful images can never be erased from the hard drive of your child’s mind. The adolescent prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which means that their judgment is not yet as discriminating as yours. Even if they can convincingly argue that they’re mature enough to monitor themselves or to handle anything they see, don’t believe them.

Cyberfreedom is a privilege, not an entitlement. You would not let your kids drive without a license, so even though I’m advocating online freedom and even some risk, it needs to be titrated in doses appropriate to your child’s demonstrated level of maturity and good judgment in other areas. Does he meet his homework and test preparation obligations independently, without your prompting him? Is she responsible about her about health, hygiene and chores? What do his teachers say about him? Are your children respectful to adults and compassionate toward their peers?

Listen to your gut. How would your 13-year-old react to a pornographic image or to footage of an Islamic terrorist beheading a hostage? Everything is accessible on the Web. So until your children are ready to roam freely, use a filter even if they tell you that no one else’s parents do and that they absolutely cannot do their homework without unfettered access to the Internet.

4. Cyberaddiction. There is no question that cruising the Internet and chatting endlessly to one’s buddies can become addictive to some kids. Without adult intervention, some (not all) children may neglect other activities that are generally considered to be useful to the well-rounded human being—for example, reading for pleasure, playing outdoors and visiting with friends in person. If your child spends two hours a day at the computer on non-homework-related pursuits, that may be too much. If he has a computer in his room you’ll have to make regular check-ins to assess this.


Chapter 4: Educate Thyself

Everyone loves to scare parents about the dangers of the Internet. It’s juicy newspaper copy. But as with so many aspects of parenting, there is no clear-cut way to navigate the hazards. If we say yes to everything, we risk putting our children in harm’s way. If we say no, we risk depriving them.

The real danger of the Internet lies not in what’s available out there, but in being uninformed. Educate yourself, so when your child says she’s ready for access, you can allow it—while still maintaining some oversight. And don’t forget to ask her to show you her favorite sites. I am a great fan of homestarrunner.com, introduced to me by my daughters. You may learn things about her and our planet that will entertain you, educate and impress you. In the words of the late Lubovitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Do not fear the Internet, it will knit the world together.”

January 3, 2005

Simplicity (Jewish Woman Magazine)

View this article in its original context.

Jewish Woman Magazine

October 9, 2004

Simplicity
Choosing to live with less
can make room for what’s really important.

By Rahel Musleah

When Betsy Platkin Teutsch counted the shoes in her closet four years ago, she could hardly believe she had 30 pairs—the precise number, she’d read, that the average American woman owned. She challenged herself not to exceed it. Now she buys new shoes only out of need—and then gives away an old pair.

Teutsch, a 51-year-old Philadelphia-based Judaica artist, hardly rates as an Imelda Marcos. But limiting her shoe quota was one small step toward simplifying her life, “consuming less to have more time, more money and an environmental dividend.”

Though never a shopaholic, Teutsch has canceled her catalogs and disciplined herself not to frequent the flea markets, craft fairs and outlets that spark her acquisitive impulse. She often makes tzedakah donations instead of buying bar/bat mitzvah gifts; provides a few hours of free baby care for new parents in her community; composts; separates different grades of recyclable plastic; walks with a friend; bikes to do errands; and doesn’t drive unless she has to.

“Living beneath your means so you have more discretionary time and income is not a popular American behavior,” says Teutsch, who got interested in simplifying through managing and streamlining her freelance career. Letting go of things, she says, has increased her generosity, sense of wealth and well-being.

Steven Leder, rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, discovered—the hard way—that possessions were worth less than he’d thought: When a real estate deal for a new house fell through, his family of four had to move into a two-bedroom apartment.

“We were forced to take inventory of all the things we owned and evaluate their value and importance to us. We found we only needed about 10 percent of what we had,” Leder writes in his new book, More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul (Bonus Books). “Could it be that 90 percent of what we spend our time and energy amassing is unnecessary?” We should be grateful, he concludes, for the “simple good fortune that pours like rich cream upon most of us each day.”

Like Teutsch and Leder, people across the United States are trying to slow down; to work more meaningfully; to make family, relationships and community a priority; to reduce wasteful consumption; to add time for contemplation; to bring more balance to their lives. The simplicity movement counts millions among its “invisible constituency.” Its umbrella organization, the Simplicity Forum, advocates “simple, just and sustainable ways of life,” works toward changing American policy and culture, and encourages downsizing our disproportionate usage of the world’s resources.

Often, however, there’s nothing simple about simplicity, nor a single formula that unites its adherents. It can be as mundane as cleaning out a closet, as obvious as working only half time, or as dramatic as living off the land. However people interpret it, “simplicity is not a deprivation movement,” says Rebecca Gould, a Simplicity Forum board member and an assistant professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It’s not about ‘no’s. It’s a great ‘yes’—yes to time with family, yes to spiritual time. It’s about what you want to clear away so you can make room to do what’s really important. It’s about aligning your life with your values.”

Many studies now show that beyond the comfortable basics of food, shelter and health care, increased affluence has no bearing on happiness. Jewish tradition has long taught that money does not buy happiness, as expressed in the classic aphorism by Ben Zoma: “Who is rich? The one content with his/her portion.” In Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), Rabbi Hillel declared, “The more possessions, the more worry.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath remains a classic text on the sacredness of time and space. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws limited excess in dress, food and festivities to “decrease competitive ostentation.” The modern-day kibbutz movement was founded on simple living and anti-materialism.

Teutsch and Moti Rieber, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), have linked these and other Jewish values to simplicity, identifying seven principles of Jewish simplicity: humility; gratitude; avoiding waste/preserving nature; not wasting time; justice/tikkun olam; community; rest and renewal. If we contract ourselves to take up less space, they teach, we can walk humbly with God. If we realize what we have is a gift, not an entitlement, we can train ourselves to be satisfied with what we have. If we don’t shop as much, think of the time we can save—and with more time, we can do good for others.

The structures of American Jewish society often counteract these goals, says Teutsch; synagogue membership, day school, camp, youth groups, bar/bat mitzvahs and trips to Israel require a high standard of living. Environmental concerns have permeated mainstream Judaism, but frugality is often regarded as tacky, a throwback to a Depression mentality. Shopping has become a quintessential pastime, a mix of entertainment and self-indulgence, an antidote to isolation, even a way of nurturing, if you’re shopping for someone else, Teutsch says. “Shopping can give the illusion of companionship, intimacy and a sense of community.” Money, notes Leder, is often used to “fill a void in life that can never be satisfied.”

While simplicity advocates have created once-a-year events—such as International Buy Nothing Day (the day after Thanksgiving) and Take Back Your Time Day (October 24: nine weeks before the year’s end to highlight the fact that Europeans work 350 hours, or nine weeks, less than Americans)—Judaism has a built-in mechanism for savoring time and limiting overwork: Shabbat.

“An important element of sacred, decent, life-giving work is to pause from that work,” says Arthur Waskow, a Jewish renewal leader and founding director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. Five years ago, he initiated a project called Free Time/Free People, which brings together interfaith and secular leaders to regain time for family, community and spiritual renewal.

“I make Shabbos even though I’m trying to save the world,” Waskow says, chuckling. “I take the time to breathe and say, ‘For 25 hours the world is perfect.’” Daily blessings (over food, for instance) offer similar pauses, he adds: “mini-Shabbatot that allow momentary consciousness and restfulness.”

One married couple, Rabbis Miriam Hyman and Michael Fessler, have acted on their concern about overwork. Instead of accepting two full-time jobs, they are sharing one rabbinic position at B’nai Tikvah in Sewall, N.J. “We are trying to plan a different kind of life,” says Hyman, by choosing to live on one salary, buying less and eliminating commuting to have more time for each other and their two children, ages three and one.

For the couple, Shabbat is not only a halachic stricture but a form of voluntary simplicity. “It’s about being commanded by the universe to just ‘be’ instead of always acting on the universe,” says Hyman, 38, who was ordained by the RCC in June. “It’s a choice to enhance the quality of our lives.”

“If God can rest, why do we think we can’t or shouldn’t?” asks Simplicity’s Gould, who comes from a “multireligious family tree with Jewish branches” and is drawn to the simplicity messages inherent in Judaism. She cautions against viewing Shabbat as drudgery or restraint, calling it a freeing, life-enriching concept. “The modern American message is that you are what you buy, you are what you own. Shabbat is about who you are, your relationship with God, with other people and the natural world.”

Gould’s interest in simplicity stemmed partly from her academic study of the homesteading, or back-to-the-land, movement in the United States, a rigorous form of simplicity. Of the estimated million people who have embraced rural life, many have Jewish names but are not living explicitly Jewish lives, she says: Everyday activities like gardening, canning and living close to nature have become spiritual practices.

Maggie Davis, 61, a writer who lives in Blue Hill, Maine, with her husband, Arnold Greenberg, built her own cabin in the woods powered by solar electricity and grows much of their food. In addition to writing and spending time with her family, she devotes several hours each day to Neighborcare, a project she founded six years ago through which neighbors offer free health-related services to other neighbors who are ill, dying, physically challenged or heartsick.

“I believe that even small actions have great repercussions,” she says. “When I pet a dog, I’m petting all dogs that are not petted; when I’m with someone who’s dying, I’m sitting with all people who have no one. The challenge of a simple life is to focus on every moment and choose what’s appropriate.”

When her parents died, Davis kept only two of their possessions—a chair and a table, in which she says their “energy” is concentrated. Giving her own things away, she finds, “lightens everything.” “When you slow down enough to look deeply into things, you don’t need as much. You can see the world in someone’s eyes or in a flower. I often ask myself, ‘What do you need, Maggie? Do you need this? Do you need that?’ I need what we all need: meaning in life, sharing love and giving ourselves away when we can manage it.”

According to professional organizer Julie Morgenstern (Organizing from the Inside Out, Henry Holt), holding on to clutter, chaos and “stuff” may serve hidden psychological purposes, like the need for abundance, distraction or perfection. Identifying the cause to find effective solutions can be liberating, she says. Morgenstern also advises clients to say no occasionally. “Just because you can work 24 hours a day doesn’t mean you should,” she writes. “Just because there are…15,000 periodicals and 50,000 books published each year doesn’t mean you are obliged to read even a fraction of them…Let the need drive the purchase, not the other way around.”

Children are brainwashed by marketing messages that promote dissatisfaction with what and how much they have, says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin). “The challenges of simplicity are the same as [those of] being a serious Jew,” she says. “Everything leads away from it. Everything says acquire more stuff, study more, have more things, be more ambitious. Children are entitled to beg for stuff. They don’t know what’s best.” If parents don’t set limits, the expectations of an affluent Jewish life can be destructive to children, says Mogel, the mother of a 17- and a 13-year-old.

In her forthcoming book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Raising Resilient Adolescents in a Nervous World, Mogel attacks the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure. “We worship at the altar of the SATs. If children are brainwashed about consuming items, adults are brainwashed about college placement. If we are only concerned about achievement and moving ahead, we don’t see the simple qualities children have, we only look at them through our own projection.” What looks like loving parental devotion (scheduling karate, flute lessons and more) can be a modern-day version of Mitzrayim—the slavery of Egypt, she declares.

Simplifying life in material ways can provoke resentfulness and disappointment among children, Teutsch admits. But with time, her children, now 16 and 21, have begun to take small steps of their own, collecting and recycling toner cartridges at school and avoiding disposables at college. Teutsch adds that her own career conflicts with simplicity. “You could say creating art is different from creating stuff, but it’s a stretch.”

To those interested in simplicity, she advises reading a few basic texts. “Then I would start self-observation. Note how you make your consumer decisions, how you shop, how much you shop and why you shop. I would experiment. Let go of things and see if you miss them.” Teutsch says she has never missed anything she’s given away.

“It’s important to be positive. If you wrest extra time for yourself, do something that will make you feel very good. It doesn’t have to be a facial—it can be something like caring for a friend’s newborn, going to a lecture, talking a walk, making a new friend, cleaning off a shelf of junk that’s been bothering you. It’s a very gradual process.” She advocates checking websites such as www.freecycle.org, through which people give away and get stuff free in their own towns, or developing a similar sharing system through your own organization’s email list.

Gould warns against buying books and products to “get” simplicity, which, ironically, is now itself being marketed. “That’s the wrong road,” she says. “Instead, ask: Who am I? What are my values? To what extent is my life in line with my values? If not, what steps can I take to align them? What community can I be a part of to make it happen?” Creating a discussion group to explore these difficult questions can ease the process, she notes.

Stories, like things, can also be recycled and reused. Leder retells a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who in turn borrowed it from Shel Silverstein. A circle had a large triangular wedge cut out of it. “It wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. Because it was incomplete, it could only roll slowly as it rolled through the world. And as it rolled slowly, it admired the flowers along the way. It chatted with butterflies. It was warmed by the sunshine.”

When the circle finally found the perfect piece to make it whole, it was overjoyed. But now it rolled so fast, it had no time to savor the world. “The lesson,” Kushner concludes, “is that in some sense we are more whole when we are incomplete.”

Rahel Musleah is a journalist, author, singer, speaker and storyteller who lives in Great Neck, N.Y. Visit her at www.rahelsjewishindia.com. Read about her new book, Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Seder (Kar-Ben), in Quick Takes.

October 9, 2004

For Mature Audiences Only (Independent School Magazine)

View this article in its original context.

September 22, 2004

FOR MATURE
AUDIENCES ONLY

Helping Teenagers Develop Into Happy Adults

 

Somewhere in America last June, two 12th-grade boys hosted a post-prom “after party” in a rented nightclub. The boys charged $40 admission and hired a DJ, strippers, and bouncers; most students had fake IDs that easily fooled the bartender. When girls got too drunk to stand, bouncers dragged them to a makeshift infirmary. The rumor was that many students got stoned, and there was sex in the limousines on the way home. The hosts netted about $15,000, and the students who attended the party apparently reported that they had a good time.


Somewhere else in America, there was an eighth-grade party. Mom or Dad took pictures and sent the film off to the lab. One of the shots came back with a surprise: in the background, two partygoers could be seen having oral sex near the shrubbery. What upset the parents most was that the students weren’t even trying to hide. At the same school, just weeks later, a few upper-school students made a pornographic video starring themselves. It was an accident, they claimed — two kids just fooling around, and someone had a camera. Accident or not, they showed the tape in the locker room. What followed was, of course, a big scandal.

Incidents such as these leave most adults blinking in disbelief. What degree of bad parenting could have resulted in such Caligula-style excess?

When word got out about the after party, school officials offered to meet with parents to discuss the general community discontent about the event. The discussion instantly turned prickly, as parents and administrators argued about who should take responsibility for the bacchanal. Some parents blamed the parents of the boys who hosted the party. Other parents blamed the administration and argued that the school should discontinue proms, then there would be no after parties, limousines, or fake IDs. Others blamed the parents who allowed their children to go. The school psychologist blamed the media. When Madonna and Britney Spears kiss at the MTV Music Awards, he said, how can we expect our students to behave with decorum and modesty?

I was struck by how quickly everyone found a reason, a scapegoat, a solution. I also wondered what these parents expect their progeny to do at a party. Listen to a chamber group accompany the gymnastics team going through its routines? Talk about the best hope for a Democratic ticket? I do not condone the party, but I think it’s important to put it in perspective of the lives these students lead. These students attend an academically competitive school where a great deal is expected of them. Like their counterparts in other competitive schools, they may work harder at their studies than any teenagers in history. Most days, they are unusually and perhaps unnaturally serious, organized, and mature. And they have very little downtime during the week or even on weekends. Given this, it should not seem surprising that they would seek relief in extreme forms of recreation. Their lives are intense and on edge. They work hard and, at this party, they played very, very hard. Too hard for real fun. Too hard for safety.

To a certain extent, all the forces named by the parents are culpable: the culture, school, Madonna and Britney, weak-willed parents. But pointing fingers or throwing up our hands in despair is the easy way out. More difficult is understanding why so few parents or school administrators are willing to recognize extremes and say no to them — be they extreme parties, study habits, academic pressure, or expectations of our children. I have a few ideas about this, and a few suggestions about how parents and schools can begin to turn things around.


What Parents Can Do

Many parents are reluctant to discipline their high-achieving children. They are willing to ignore lack of modesty, lack of dignity, and the presence of danger lest they destroy the equilibrium that is resulting in those high grades. But just because the children are getting top scores on every calculus test and taking three AP classes, it doesn’t mean they know the difference between what they want and what they need. Children need parents who are firm, respectful, and able to set limits, even if setting limits makes them uncool and unpopular; even if it upsets the equilibrium.

Daughters need the burden of our culture’s extreme sexuality lifted from their shoulders by parents who are willing to say, “No, you can’t wear that outfit out of the house.” Teenage boys need parents who will help them gain some control over their hormones by keeping them away from situations of high temptation, such as an after-prom party in a rented bar, even if “every single one” of their friends is going (they aren’t). Our children can’t always say “no” to themselves; it breaks every rule of adolescence and would probably fry their synapses. They must rely on the adults around them to teach them about self-respect and how to recognize dangerous environments.

It’s tempting to think we can solve the problem of our children’s precocious and terribly casual sex by offering cold and clinical sex education classes in school. We try to fight extreme sexual behavior with extreme scare tactics: One careless drunken act at a party and you’ll die from AIDS! Dead, dead, dead! And at home, if our children ask us about our own histories, we tell them, “Times have changed. Sex wasn’t as dangerous back then, and I never did anything anyway. There are other ways to have fun.” Or as a recent New Yorker cartoon dad said to his cartoon daughter, “Sure, I fooled around with drugs when I was your age, but that was to protest the war.”

Our children need to learn about sex, respect, and love from their parents, but hypocrisy and scare tactics clearly don’t work. Shortly after the porno video was screened in the locker room, I had the privilege of meeting with parents at that school to discuss the scandal. My approach was to enter the conversation through a conceptual back door, to discuss self-respect and respect for others by considering the example we set for our children. Do we treat them with respect? Do we get off our cell phones when we pick them up in the carpool? How about respect for the community — do we follow the carpool rules, even if no one else is? Do parents treat each other with respect? Do children see their parents making time for each other — time that has nothing to do with the kids? Do parents go out on dates together, and not just on their anniversary? Finally, I asked the parents to think about their own sex lives. I didn’t ask anyone to say anything, just to think. The room was silent, but one woman’s hand shot right up. I called on her with some trepidation.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “We are sooo tired. We cart the kids around all afternoon, from practices to SAT prep to orchestra rehearsals. Then we come home and fall asleep catatonic by 9 p.m.” The room was again silent, but, as I scanned the audience, I noticed a few dads gently elbowing the moms. I kept looking and saw a few moms elbowing the dads back a little harder.

The fallout from hyperparenting is not only that we are too tired to have sex, although that is definitely cause for alarm. Worse, however, may be the fact that we have failed to make adult life alluring to our sons and daughters. To many children, adulthood looks like no more than an opportunity to resolve complex scheduling conflicts, get stuck in freeway traffic, periodically unfreeze the computer, and fall asleep catatonic by 9 pm. In a recent high school survey, one student wrote, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be like my mom and dad. They seem so sad and scared and stressed.” Why should our children believe us about sex, or anything else having to do with pleasure, if our lives seem so impoverished?

The one thing all parents can do to counter casual sex is to show our children how self-respecting, civilized, happy grown-ups behave; to prove, by our example, that we have a more rewarding alternative to offer. We can begin by following the carpool rules even if it means being late to the orthodontist. We can take our eyes off our children’s future long enough to notice our spouse or partner, complimenting each other in front of the children. This will do more to increase your son’s or daughter’s sense of self-worth than if you hop up and down about how well he or she did on a French mid-term. Then go to your bedroom, shut the door, and light some candles.


What Schools Can Do

Steven Frank, a sixth-grade teacher, told me that he won’t be surprised if we soon face the largest class-action suit in history. He fears that our children will sue us for stealing their childhoods and their future. Our expectations of them are so high, the academic and extracurricular demands so extreme, that while they may be accepted to the Ivy League or other highly selective colleges, far too many will stumble once they arrive. Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, writes that some of the incoming freshmen resemble “dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp.”

College deans have names for these students: “teacups” and “crispies.” Teacups are so fragile that they are easily broken by the knocks of college life. Crispies are so burned out that they are too brittle to enjoy anything. An increasing number are actually returning home after first semester, unable to cope. And there is evidence that no student, no matter how outstanding, feels up to the task of getting accepted at the “right” university. When reporters crowded around 16-year-old Olympic ice skater Sara Hughes and asked what she planned to do after winning her gold medal, she replied, “I just want to keep up with my schoolwork and get in the high 1500s on my SATs.” Apparently, she wasn’t convinced that her extracurricular activities would be sufficient to get her into college.

The stress that incoming college freshmen are feeling was once reserved for adults who had been toiling in the workplace for many years. There is a connection between this level of effort, anxiety, and burnout, and the adult-style diversions high-school students require in order to escape the strain of their workloads. Many college students report that college is easier than high school. By pushing adult-level responsibilities on our teenagers and acting as if their entire future is riding on every test grade, parents are turning their teens into prematurely angst-ridden 35-year-olds. High schools and middle schools are their willing partners, and must share in finding ways to curb the achievement frenzy.

Some colleges are taking the first steps in this effort by making concrete changes and recommendations. They are accepting, without prejudice, students from schools that have eliminated AP classes. They are also recommending that students take a year off between high school and college and offering to hold their place for them. They look favorably on students who have done ordinary summer jobs like working at a Baskin Robbins or as a counselor at a Girl Scout camp rather than going to Oxbridge to study international law in French. They are also weighing teacher recommendations on par with SAT scores and GPAs.

Independent schools have long provided students with individual attention, stellar academics, and, of late, an ever richer menu of offerings. But we can’t keep expanding, or we will all burst. By actively educating parents about the effects of extreme academic pressure, we can help them and ourselves. If a school decides to scale back by setting maximum homework standards (no more than 40 minutes, per subject per class meeting, would be a radical reduction at many schools), or by limiting the number and duration of practices per week, or the number of AP classes a student is allowed to take, the school will need to provide parents with a context for the changes. Introduce the parents to the concept of teacups and crispies. Scare them a little. Offer parents a longer view of children’s development: some find their academic rhythm in middle school, some not until junior year of college — you can’t tell when your flower will bloom. Early in each school year — at back-to-school night or grade-level parent meetings — administrators and teachers can talk to parents about the classroom consequences of inadequate sleep and insufficient downtime, and about how excessive pressure causes even the brightest students to lose their confidence and joy in learning.

Schools can also take the lead in educating parents about the importance of dress codes, honor codes, parental discipline, and supervision of off-campus social events. What’s needed is partnership. The Parents’ Association of the Francis Parker School in San Diego has created a document called The Parker Cares Understanding. It reads: “I take the responsibility to ensure that all social events in my home for school-age students will be chaperoned and free from alcohol and drugs.” Parents have the option of signing or not. The school then distributes a list of the signatories to the parent body so that parents can send their child to a party with confidence that it will be actively chaperoned and supervised. Many schools are writing “Parent-School Covenants” to put parents and schools on the same page (find some fine examples here on the NAIS website).

Schools can also establish grade-level meetings with parents to talk about the most common social issues for students, normal child development, and the impact of our over-stimulating, hyper-competitive, consumer culture on family life. This is an opportunity to address parental anxieties — about the increase in homework load, social exclusion, etc. — so the school and parents can work in partnership.

Will lower academic stress and stricter rules guarantee a return to spin-the-bottle instead of front-lawn sex? I believe that if our teenage children are treated as youngsters instead of workhorses, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they won’t be quite as driven to extreme partying. Naturally, teenagers will always test limits whenever they can, but if they understand that the adults around them value them as individuals, not just academic machines, it can profoundly affect their behavior. If parents can convince their children that they care more about their character than their test scores, teenagers might think twice before choosing to get falling-down drunk in front of their classmates. If some of our children are clueless about self-worth and self-respect, it may be because the adults in their lives haven’t made it clear that these traits really matter. It’s not too late for schools and parents to change the trend.


Empathy, Optimism, Humor

An Alfred P. Sloan Foundation study of adolescent satisfaction revealed that adolescent happiness varies inversely with parental income. Children in the lowest socioeconomic strata generally report the highest level of happiness, upper middle class children the least. Why? The fast pace of life and expectations for extreme grades and school placements puts a burden on privileged children. The pressure to surpass their parents’ already high level of achievement is daunting. How can parents resist the virus of competition and escalating expectations? Consider the following:

  • You don’t want your child to live up to his or her potential by the time she is eight. Let her save some for adulthood.
  • Be alert to a new form of childhood misbehavior: over-studying. Practice unmotivating your child by disciplining him or her about bedtime and downtime. And watch out for double standards; practice what you preach
  • Unless it’s clear your child has a rare and deep passion for something, discourage him or her from trying to do “great things”: playing club soccer, taking lots of APs, playing the cello in the orchestra, serving on student council, writing for the newspaper.
  • Be a salmon swimming against the tide. Band together with other parents who share your values.
  • It’s not just about getting into college, but about getting out. If your child has been overprotected and overpressured in high school, he or she runs the risk of not making it through.
  • Remember, education is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Daniel Goleman, writing about adult success, tells us that most CEOs, world leaders, and people who have made major contributions to the arts, science, and culture did not have straight A’s. I often ask my audiences if they got straight A’s; very few did, yet most are highly successful in their work. Too many children today feel like failures if they don’t get A’s. If not tippy top grades, what qualities do high achieving people have in common? They have emotional intelligence. Goleman’s research shows that the qualities that predict adult success are not academic, they are, instead, emotional: empathy, optimism, flexibility, the ability to work as a member of a team, a positive reaction to setbacks, and a good sense of humor. So instead of asking your daughter how she did on her math test, think about the most amusing thing that happened in your day and tell her about it when she comes home from school. You might be surprised how much this helps the both of you.

— Wendy Mogel


Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, and author of the best-selling parenting book, The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. She lectures nationally about managing parent expectations of independent schools.

September 22, 2004

The Present Parent (Reform Judaism)

FOCUS: Hineini / Being Present for Each Other

July 3, 2004


THE PRESENT PARENT
A conversation with Dr. Wendy Mogel about what parents can do to truly be there for their children.


Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and educator, is author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin, 2001). She lives with her husband and two daughters in Los Angeles, where they belong to Temple Israel of Hollywood. She was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.


What would you say our children want most from their parents today?

A major complaint of adolescents is that nobody listens to them—and they may be right. The habit of listening, and of expecting to be listened to, needs to start early. If we are always distracted, always multitasking, our children will perceive us as half listening, and they’ll stop trying to talk to us.

Abraham, Jacob, and Moses answered God’s call by responding “Hineini”—“Here I am!” If we demonstrate our willingness to slow down and talk to our children when they are young, we are investing in their future willingness to trust that we will be available to talk when they are older, when both their problems and their reluctance to talk about them are likely to be greater.

What most often stands in the way of parents giving children what they crave?

In communities of abundance, parents often try to fill their children’s lives with “stuff”: toys, tutors, and therapists. This happens, in part, because parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, so when their articulate, persuasive children lobby for goods and services, they give in. But ask any adult about his or her fondest early childhood memories, and you’ll always hear the same thing: time spent with family, especially in nature or having an adventure, the smell and taste of favorite foods, the personality and warmth of a beloved relative.

Another troubling pattern is parental fetishizing of their children’s achievements. Alarmed by what they perceive to be a wildly uncertain future, many parents try to armor their children with a thick layer of skills and pressure them to compete and excel. In this hothouse environment, children receive plenty of attention, but it is mostly oriented toward success, rather than connection.

It seems that such parents are more involved in the details of their children’s lives than ever before. Isn’t hands-on parenting good for children?

It’s actually backfiring. College deans have nicknames for incoming students; they call them “teacups” and “crispies.” The “teacups” have been so managed, overprotected, and supported by their parental handlers that they lack the basic life skills needed to survive away from home. The “crispies” are so exhausted from grade grubbing and worrying about what is going to be on the test that they’re burned out. They find no pleasure in learning. One parent said to me, “Our children are going to file the largest class-action suit in history against us. They are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods.”

How does the parent-child relationship create “crispies”?

When parents behave like “transcript pimps,” the children feel that they are valued solely for their achievements. Some children will respond by becoming passive-aggressive rebels, resisting their parents by refusing to do their homework, or by stretching twenty minutes of homework into a three-and-a-half-hour ordeal. Others suffer a loss of self-esteem, feeling they just cannot meet their parents’ unreasonably high expectations. In this country, and especially in the Jewish community, we expect each generation to surpass the last. This means that our children feel pressure to outdo the most successful generation in history. That’s a daunting and unnecessary task. When I asked a group of students at a girls’ private high school, “What would you like your parents to know about you?” they said, “Please tell our parents we’re working as hard as we can, and we’re not as smart as they think we are.”

Parents, too, are under great pressure to excel, at home and at work—and by the day’s end they collapse in exhaustion. What are the implications of this way of life on family stability?

Marriages are crumbling all around us, in part, I believe, because parents aren’t tending to their own spiritual lives. I say to parents, rather than make a career of micromanaging your children’s lives, learn to play the oboe for yourself. Read for pleasure for yourself, get involved in Jewish study for yourself. Parents have to balance their own needs with those of their children. The sage Hillel taught us to find that balance: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What can parents do on a daily basis to truly be present for their children?

For one thing, when a child comes home from school, parents can create an environment in which their child will want to converse. Doing so takes discipline; it means changing habits and turning away from the seductions of the moment—such as reading The New York Times, or analyzing stocks online, or finishing the vacuuming—and, instead, really conversing with our children. I’ve found that it’s good to begin by talking about what happened during your day, relating an experience that really interested you or was surprising, bewildering, mysterious, provocative, funny, or wild. If you tell your tale and then simply wait quietly, chances are good that your children will tell you about their day.

It’s a better strategy than just asking, “So how was your day?”

Yes, because children read between the lines. To them, questions like “How was your day?” “Who did you sit with at lunch?” “How did the math test go?” “How much homework do you have tonight?” are viewed as information-gathering tools used to monitor how efficiently they used their time to meet their parents’ expectations. That’s why the question “How was your day?” generally meets with a dismissive response like “okay,” “not bad,” or some other conversation stopper.

It’s also important for moms and dads to keep in mind that there’s not much time left when their children will prefer their company to anyone else’s. If you’ve got a spare moment, sit down beside your child. She may ask, “Mom, why are you sitting here?” You might reply: “I just missed being near you.” Or, instead of one final run through the spelling list, you might say: “No more homework tonight,” and offer her a back rub before bed. And, as a general principle, recognize a distinctive trait, interest, or ability of each of your children by telling her or him how much you cherish it.

What lessons can Judaism teach us about being present for our children?

Being present in the moment is perhaps more difficult for us today than at any other time in history. Ironically, we use a myriad of so-called “time-saving” technological gadgets such as laptops and cell phones, but they do nothing to help us sanctify time because they, themselves, demand so much of our attention. Moreover, as Jews we have a tendency to ruminate about our collective past and fret about the future, which adds to our difficulty in living in the moment. We therefore have to make a conscious effort to focus on the present.

Fortunately, Judaism offers an antidote. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, our tradition teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements, but in our small everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world. We can take what is valuable from it without being consumed and thereby achieve a more balanced life through three core principles of Jewish living—moderation, celebration, and sanctification.

The principle of moderation teaches us to do two seemingly incompatible things at once: to passionately embrace the material world that God has created—“And God saw that it was good”—while exercising self-discipline. For example, Judaism does not value either asceticism or gluttony. By stopping to say a blessing before we eat, we automatically slow down and approach our meal with greater awareness. Moderation leads to the second principle, celebration. We are obliged to embrace God’s gifts moderately but enthusiastically, and the celebration can take hundreds of forms, from the year-round Jewish cycle of celebrating major and minor holidays to saying blessings over food, rainbows, new clothes, a narrow escape, or doing something for the very first time. Sanctification, the third principle, is the process of acknowledging the holiness in everyday actions and events, especially in our homes. One traditional Jewish expression for the word home is the same as the word for a house of worship: mikdash me’at or “little holy place.” Our dining table is an altar, and, surrounded by family, has the potential to be the holiest spot on the planet.

Beyond these three principles, the Torah introduced a radical blueprint for rest, reflection, and renewal: it’s called Shabbat. Let me give a personal example. Everyone in our family knows that, however busy we are during the week, an uninterrupted time together on Friday nights lies ahead. We don’t answer the phone. We don’t hurry on to the next activity. My husband Michael and I whisper the “blessing over children” softly in our daughters’ ears, a prayer with the beautiful sentiment, “May the divine light shine upon you and bring you peace.” During dinner we go around the table and share our good news, each person explaining to the rest what we are grateful for that week. When the children were in elementary school, we used Torah study guides that came to our home weekly to discuss hypothetical ethical dilemmas such as, “Do you think it’s right to give mice the flu to test vaccines?” “Should a temple accept money for a new building that was given by a man who runs a company that uses child labor in other countries?” Now that they’re teenagers, we talk about issues they encounter in their lives, such as the question of gay marriage or whether it is right for parents to give their high-school-age children license to dress provocatively and go to unsupervised parties with drinking and drugs, as long as their grades and SAT scores are high.

In addition, Judaism commands us to perform hiddur mitzvot, to beautify the commandments, to go the extra mile. By preparing special foods and setting the table with special care for Shabbat dinner, the mystics say we get a taste of the world to come. At my home, everybody gets involved in the Shabbat dinner preparations. Michael does the cooking. I cut flowers from the garden, and the children arrange them and set the table with the ritual objects: kiddush cup, candles, and challah. We don’t have exciting desserts during the week, but for Shabbat dinner I take down an etched glass cake stand with a pedestal and put on a paper doily. It’s my younger daughter Emma’s job to arrange the bakery cookies or rugalah or fruit tart on it. Shabbat dinner is a big production that I would never consider doing on a daily basis. But it caps our week, slows us down, and draws us together in a powerful way.

Yet, as important as Shabbat is to the stability of our family life, the principles behind it are not meant to be relegated to a single day. The idea that each moment must be used wisely, that each has the potential for holiness, should extend to the other six days of the week as well.

If you were to sum up everything you’ve learned about the Jewish philosophy of parenting, what would it be?

I would sum it up in the question that rabbis like to ask school children: what’s the most important moment in Jewish history? Hint: it’s not the parting of the sea or the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The most important moment in Jewish history is right now.

July 3, 2004

Life's Warning Label (New York Times)

View this article in its original context.

The New York Times

Sunday, June 6, 2004
Late Edition

Life’s Warning Label:  Caution! Contents Hazardous!

By MAREK FUCHS

HERE’S an enchanting thought: Our children will soon be floating into the carefree summer days of their youth. The sun will be shining high in the sky as the birds blithely chirp and we festoon the little innocents with so many helmets and pads that they will seem better poised for battle than bicycling. Armor in place, the darlings will then be rebriefed on the dangers of strangers and, upon their return, inspected for everything from Lyme ticks to West Nile mosquito larvae.

Read a book or watch a movie about the suburbs, and you will invariably see people like us flitting across the screen and page, blithely unaware that our world is not perfect. For decades, we’ve witnessed fictionalized versions of ourselves living out life lulled into the notion that any place with a patch of lawn and a scooter in the driveway comes complete with a guarantee of shininess and safety.

But the trendy hacks writing so repetitively about subdivisions must not visit often. If they did, they would see that we’re actually living in a state of persistent alarm. Maybe it’s watching all those happy suburban lives unspool and splutter on film, but many of us carry on as if unutterable dangers, from molesters to the long-term effects on nonorganic produce, lurk in every cul de sac.

It could be that fiction has little to do with it. Maybe there are other reasons that staying on heightened alert for cruelties down to the last scratched elbow has become the intellectual fad of the day.

Earlier generations had Freud and Dr. Spock. We have tear-free SPF 300 sun lotion, triple protection.

Even though it’s mostly ignored, the garden of fear that has become modern suburban life offers rich material for anyone wanting to write about it.

One wouldn’t even have to reach for the low-lying fruit, like the duct tape kept in the cupboard as insurance against Indian Point’s impending explosion.

In Pelham and elsewhere, some homeowners put ‘‘safe house’’ posters in their front windows. They are there to let any child who is being attacked know that he or she is welcome to seek refuge in the postered home.

Call it suburbia’s coalition of the willing.

Maybe it’s because I was nearsighted as a child and have visions of being chased for miles as I squint fruitlessly for a home that will have me, but such efforts must make kids feel more leery, not less.

No matter where most of us grew up, chances are good that if a kidnapper was breathing down our neck, we’d probably have felt welcome to make an unannounced stop at a neighbor’s house—even without a ‘‘safe house’’ poster.

Fortunately, kidnapping is not much of a reality in suburbs like Pelham. The occasional playground accident, though, is.

When a girl in Hastings-on-Hudson fell off the monkey bars and broke her arm, there were discussions on whether the wood chips had been laid on thickly enough to cushion her fall and whether the monkey bars, a childhood staple, should be removed. In many parks around the area, the seesaws are already gone.

Though these changes to some extent reflect our membership in the liability culture, there is also something larger going on. From protecting against a scratched elbow to knowing ahead of time just which house Johnnie and Jane can duck inside of, we seem to be having trouble with randomness—any sort of randomness.

For answers, I turned to Dr. Wendy Mogel, who lived to tell about the crime of letting her 9-year-old daughter (gasp!) walk to town alone. Dr. Mogel, a psychologist, wrote a book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.

She has been an outspoken opponent of what she calls the ‘‘hovercraft’’ parent, the one who espouses the hyperprotective attitudes of communities like ours because any stand against them smells like neglect.

Overcompensation by working parents is a factor in hovercrafting, Dr. Mogel said. But she pointed out that in a nonreligious age, people search in peculiar reaches of the secular world for the answers they crave. The certainty of What Was and What Will Be used to come from a Bible; now people now turn to nanny cams.

Many parents today, she also noted, are children of the 1960’s and 70’s, and overpermissiveness may have left them with ‘‘free-floating anxieties.’’ Those reared to let it be are in their turn letting nothing be.

College deans, Dr. Mogel said, have recently adopted a nickname for a growing subset of incoming freshmen: teacups.

‘‘They have been protected by their handler-parents for so long that they have become teacups. The parents are very intelligent, devoted and loving, but they were ruled by their fears and they created fragile children.’‘

How do these teacups tend to fare in the world at large?

Dr. Mogel said: ‘‘In three months, they are back home in a wheelbarrow.’‘

URL: http://www.nytimes.com

June 6, 2004

A "Skinned Knee" is Good for Kids... (San Diego Union Tribune)

The San Diego Union - Tribune .  San Diego, Calif.  pg. E.1
Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Jan 31, 2004

Jan 31, 2004

A `Skinned Knee’ is good for kids
—and their parents

By Jane Clifford


As I write this, I’m thinking about my daughter Lauren’s score on the PSAT test. I don’t know what it is yet, but I hope this precursor to the SAT went well. It will tell us a little about how she might fare when it comes to getting into college in a couple of years.

Ah, the competition. How we parents get caught up in it. I remember two years ago, being more anxious than my son about which schools he would get into.

Ah, the pressure we feel.

And pass to them.

It’s funny that I talked to Wendy Mogel while all these thoughts were swirling through my head.

Mogel is a child psychologist with a passion to help kids overcome small and large life problems, and help parents find the joy in the job.

A decade ago, after Mogel had been at this work for 15 years, she began to notice a peculiar pattern in some parents who brought their children to her office, sure that something serious was wrong with their mental health.

She would tell these parents that their children’s problems were within normal limits, “meaning they fell within the broad range of expectable attitudes, moods and behaviors for that particular age,” she writes in “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” a book whose subtitle is “Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.”

Her “good news” wasn’t well-received.

“But what about the unexplained stomaches and headaches and sadness and anxiety?” parents would ask.

“Instead of feeling relief, they were disappointed,” Mogel writes. “If nothing was wrong, if there was no diagnosis, no disorder, then there was nothing that could be fixed.”

No, Mogel discovered, it wasn’t going to be that easy. For them or for her. And she counted herself among many a modern mother whose day is crammed with too much, whose evenings are spent doing everything except what she wanted—to read or snuggle with her husband—and whose mornings are filled with making the best breakfast, the most appetizing school lunches.

What Mogel finally figured out was that these kids—even her kids—would be OK, if it weren’t for their well-meaning and loving parents. Parents who pushed too hard, who tried to mold their kids into people they aren’t, who were either reluctant or afraid to set limits, make rules, demand respect, who believed that music lessons and traveling sports teams and tutoring would bring out the very best in their children.

“We treat our children’s lives like we’re cruise-ship directors who must get them to their destination of adulthood smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave,” she writes. And we fall victim to “Lake Wobegon parenting,” a reference to Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where “all the children are above average.”

For Mogel, enlightenment came through stumbling across her Jewish roots. A trip to temple with a friend on a Jewish holiday touched a place in her that had been untapped.

As she studied her faith, she saw where she was out of sync, and she worked at getting back to what she sees as the basics.

“The hidden secret in the community of abundance in which I live is its anguish,” she writes. “Unsure how to find grace and security in the complex world we’ve inherited, we try to fill up the spaces in our children’s lives with stuff . . .

“Through the study and practice of Judaism, I learned that parents I counseled had fallen into a trap created by their own good intentions. Determined to give their children everything they need to become `winners’ in this highly competitive culture, they missed out on God’s most sacred gift to us: the power and holiness of the present moment and of each child’s individuality.”

Though the book stresses the teachings of Judaism, the concepts in it speak to parents of all faiths. They are simple rules for living that don’t require any kind of church affiliation. Things I know in my heart but don’t always hear. That’s why Mogel’s words are like my conscience, whispering to me.

She combines the spiritual with contemporary psychological insights to focus on what she calls nine blessings that address core issues for parents: respect for adults; chores; keeping expectations in line with your child’s temperament; mealtime battles; coping with frustration; avoiding overscheduling; fighting overindulgence; developing self-control; and encouraging independence.

It’s uncomfortable to face the reality that we, who only want the very best for our children, may have contributed to their stress, their demanding nature, their belligerence, their materialism. Mogel helps us all understand that by nurturing our “too precious” children like hothouse flowers, we rob them of the lessons learned from the pain of a skinned knee.

Our job is to do what is necessary so these children will be able to live happy, productive lives. Our job is to stop living their lives for them, reliving our lives through them.

In the end, Ryan got into college, and I got out of the “so, where did he apply/was he accepted” frenzy. But I admit to feeling that all over again as Lauren begins the dance. So my challenge is to be mindful of that as she opens the PSAT envelope, to remember that they are her scores, not mine.

In the end, if we can help our kids learn to face hardship without falling apart, set realistic goals and demands for themselves, excel at what they love to do (rather than what we wished they loved) find their spiritual core, our children would be blessed. And so would we.

Author to speak

Wendy Mogel, child psychologist and author, will talk in depth about parenting issues Thursday, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, 3630 Afton Road. Tickets are $9 and can be bought online at www.hebrewday.org or by calling the school at (858) 279-3300. Space is limited, and reservations are required to attend the program, which will include time for questions, book-signing and refreshments.

Reach her by mail at The San Diego Union Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA 92112-0191; or e-mail jane.clifford@uniontrib.com. And join in her live discussions of family issues Sunday mornings at 8 on AM 600’s “KOGO for Kids Family Hour.”

Credit: Jane Clifford is Family editor.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
People:  Mogel, Wendy
Article types:  ANNOUNCEMENT; INTERVIEW;
Column Name:  FAMILY | Jane Clifford
Section:  LIFESTYLE
Text Word Count   1055

January 31, 2004

For Kids, Lessons in the School of Life (Washington Post)

THE WASHINGTON POST

November 4, 2003

For Kids,
Lessons in The School Of Life
There’s More to Maturing Than Getting Good Grades

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg

Tami Parker, 19, earned good grades and served as captain of the varsity swim team at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring. But as a freshman last year at James Madison University, she paid full price for a prescription medication when it should have been a $5 co-payment. When Tami came home to Brookeville for the summer, her mother discovered that her daughter could use some cooking instruction to move her beyond her repertoire of pizza, macaroni and brownies, and that she needs to be reminded to wash lettuce before putting it in salad.

Tami’s mom, Mary Parker, who teaches parenting classes, realizes that she did not adequately instill life skills in her four daughters before they graduated from high school.

She is not alone. Across the country, many parents are not teaching teens enough of the life skills they need to become self-reliant in college and beyond, experts say. What types of skills? Those ranging from fairly basic—doing laundry, scheduling a doctor appointment, changing a light bulb or balancing a checkbook—to ones that are more encompassing, such as respecting oneself and others, problem-solving and cooperation.

“When children were raised on farms, they learned many life skills by working alongside their parents. Today, kids are not learning them,” says Jane Nelsen, author of “Positive Discipline for Teenagers” (2000, Prima Publishing).

The consequences of neglecting to focus on these skills during the teen years can be more serious than paying too much for prescriptions or eating unwashed lettuce. Kids may end up wildly undisciplined at a university, plagued with an eating or self-injury problem, depressed, or back home after a semester because they are unable to cope with the pressures of living on their own. Serious financial problems can also result, including large credit card debt.

Mary Parker partially blames herself for her daughters’ deficiencies in life skills. As a working mom (she retired from a full-time consulting job a year ago), she says, she “felt that when I got home I owed it to my family to do dishes and laundry and wasn’t comfortable spending our time together nagging them to do chores.”

But several observers say the problem is a cultural one, caused by several factors. Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001), points to fierce academic pressure as one cause. In many homes, “using four magic words, namely ‘I have a test,’ gets kids ages 8 to 18 excused from family citizenship,” she says.

The predominance of families that are smaller today than in the past leads parents to need less help with household duties, Mogel says. “I counsel parents to pretend they have six children, because then parents couldn’t handle all the responsibilities and would have to divide them among the children,” she says.

A Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist, Mogel points to the current condition of the world in which “parents feel guilty that it’s so polluted and filled with war, so they want to be nice to their kids” by not requiring chores. In some communities, teens are handicapped by affluence: They have “too many material things, overscheduled lives, and too high expectations for perfect achievement in academics and extracurricular activities,” she says. The job of building ordinary life skills is squeezed out.

Nathan Dungan, author of “Prodigal Sons & Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child’s ATM” (2003, Wiley), faults consumer-product companies, advertising agencies and the media for negatively influencing young people’s money habits. “Virtually every message coming toward them is to spend,” he says. From a very young age, kids receive messages to convince them that their wants are needs, and high schools offer little or no countervailing financial curriculum to teach kids that they must limit their spending, says Dungan, a Minneapolis-based financial adviser.

Many teens head to college “with an insatiable appetite to consume,” but without knowing how credit cards and interest rates work, Dungan says. The situation appears to be worsening: Average scores for high school seniors on a 2002 financial literacy test conducted by the Jumpstart Coalition were 50.2 percent, down from 57.3 percent in 1997.

Pikesville, Md., mom Nancy Medin wants her two daughters to develop good life skills before college. They know how to write a check and enter it into the checkbook, and when the girls research colleges, they factor in tuition and room and board costs. Elana, 17, has a part-time job as a restaurant hostess and is learning to budget her salary.

Medin, a part-time accountant, says she used to routinely make her daughters’ lunches and straighten their rooms. But when her older daughter got her learner’s permit three months shy of her 16th birthday, “it hit me that she’d be gone in a few years and I wanted her to learn skills that she takes for granted because we do them for her.”

Experts say there are several ways to inculcate children and teens with life skills. Parker advises parents to purchase a “life calendar” for teens to keep track of non-academic commitments such as dentist appointments, soccer practices and part-time jobs.

Author Nelsen, who speaks professionally on parenting topics, recommends holding weekly family meetings, in which kids are involved in planning the agenda, discussing meal ideas, receiving chore assignments and allowance, and finding solutions to family problems. “Any successful corporation knows it needs to have staff meetings regularly,” she says.

At other times, such as when teens arrive home after curfew or when they act disrespectfully toward adults, Nelsen says parents should ask “curiosity questions,” rather than boss them around. “We tell, tell, tell, when what we really need to do is ask what happened, what caused it to happen, what ideas do you have to solve this problem,” she says.

Dungan advises parents to “walk the walk” and review their own financial habits to see if they reflect the values they wish to impart to their children. He suggests talking frequently to teens about money, taking them along when applying for a house or car loan, and helping them make a distinction between their needs and their wants. “Never underestimate the power of conversation, a teachable moment or a financial experience on kids,” he says.

Dungan recommends instructing teens on how to budget money, perhaps in conjunction with income they receive from a part-time job; on how to choose and use a credit card, by signing them up for one while in high school; and on the importance of saving and sharing, rather than just spending it. “When you teach a young person to share, you’re instilling a sense of gratitude and awareness of need in the community, the country and the world—it helps ground them,” he says.

Mogel believes teens should experience various uncomfortable emotions and conditions in order to be able to fend for themselves later on. “Before going off to college, I want kids to be sad, frustrated, bored, cold, wet and hungry or they’ll come right back,” she says.

Parker’s 26-year-old daughter Jenny experienced a letdown at age 13 when her longtime high-level swim team disbanded. Parker’s instinct was to soften the blow by conducting an extensive search for a highly challenging team. Instead, she signed Jenny up for a lower-level team, and over time Jenny gained the requisite leadership and swimming experience to land her a spot on Boston University’s varsity team. “She experienced disappointment and got past it, which helped her in the long run,” says Parker.

 

November 4, 2003

The Kids are All Right (Baltimore Messenger)

The Baltimore Messenger

10/22/03

Story BY LISA DE NIKE

Los Angeles clinical psychologist and educator Wendy Mogel has a message for parents “Don’t try so hard to protect your children. If they are going to grow up to be independent, self-reliant people, they need to learn to take care of themselves.”

That’s just one of the central themes of Mogel’s book, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, which is now in its 12th printing and a hit with parents and educators across the county.

Mogel brings her message to Baltimore next week, as guest speaker for The Bryn Mawr School’s annual Cornelia Donner Lecture Oct. 28 at 7 p.m.

Cosponsored by Bryn Mawr and the Parents Council of Greater Baltimore, the talk will be held at Bryn Mawr’s Centennial Hall, 109 W. Melrose Ave.

“Every day since my book was printed more than three years ago, I have gotten an invitation to come speak at a school or synagogue or other group,” Mogel said in a telephone interview last week.

“I’m heartened that so many people want to talk about what I brought up in my book, which is how in this world of competition and materialism, we can raise optimistic, compassionate and resourceful children who are not spoiled,” she said. “I think the book hit a nerve because parents and teachers are hungry for this kind of information and discussion.”

Mogel discovered her Jewish faith as an adult and bases her book on Jewish teachings. But she believes the book resonates with parents and teachers everywhere, regardless of their faiths.

“I have taken my talk to private schools, both religious and secular, some Jewish and some not,” Mogel said. “For example, I have spoken to 1,200 Episcopal school administrators about the same things. Though Judaism is the foundation I based the book’s principles on, I think they are pretty universal. As parents, how can we raise great people who can stand on their own two feet and make a contribution?”

The first step in successful parenting, Mogel said, is recognizing and truly accepting your children for who they are.

“I found as a clinical psychologist that parents wanted their children to either be gifted or learning disabled,” she said. “They couldn’t seem to tolerate the idea that their child might be ordinary or normal. There is so much emphasis on being special and perfect in our society. And it puts so much pressure on our children.”

Parents also seem to expect their children to excel in every area.

“I think this impulse comes from several things, and one is a genuine desire to make sure a child succeeds in what we view as a harsh and competitive world,” Mogel said. “We try to inoculate our (children) against failure by giving (them) all kinds of lessons and expecting perfect grades in school.”

But she said parents also need to be wary of what some psychologists call “achievement by proxy syndrome.”

“Some parents use their children’s achievements to reflect glory on themselves or to fulfill a dream the parent had but never achieved,” she said. ‘`This is not fair to the child or healthy. I try to remind parents that childhood is the only time people are expected to be great at so many things and skills.”

Mogel also thinks children would be better off if parents stopped being so protective.

``Children learn about the world by being out in it and doing things and finding their way. That’s common sense,” Mogel said. “But many parents today are so afraid of what’s out there, on the streets or in the media or even at school, that they micro-manage every aspect of their children’s lives.”

Mogel tells parents that if they really want to protect their children, they will help their children manage risks on their own.

“Not only is so much close attention bound to make children nervous and anxious, but it also produces children who are self-centered and often incompetent,” Mogel said.

“People in today’s culture often confuse self-esteem with being self-centered, and that’s a dangerous thing,” she said. “No one aims to make their child self-centered, but that is often what happens. Parents need to realize there are perils to their children being so privileged.”

October 22, 2003

Skinned Knee is Life Lesson (Owings Mills Times)

Owing Mills Times
Mogel: ‘Skinned knee’ is life lesson
10/22/03
BY LiSA DE NIKE

Los Angeles clinical psychologist and educator Wendy Mogel has a message for parents:

Don’t try so hard to protect your children. If they are going to grow up to be independent, self-reliant people, they need to learn to take care of themselves.

That’s just one of the central themes of Mogel’s book “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee; Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children,” now in its 12th printing and a hit with parents and educators across the county.

“Every day since my book was printed more than three years ago, I have gotten an invitation to come speak at a school or synagogue or other group,” said Mogel in a telephone interview last week.

“I’m heartened that so many people want to talk about what I brought up in my book, which is how in this world of competition and materialism, we can raise optimistic, compassionate and resourceful children who are not spoiled.

“I think the book hit a nerve because parents and teachers are hungry for this kind of information and discussion.”

Mogel brings this message to Baltimore next week, when she will be the keynote speaker at the first annual Jewish School Fair, set for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 27 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills.

Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore, the event showcases the options for Jewish education in Baltimore.

``Parents are making important choices about their children’s development, and they need to consider the importance of a good Jewish education,” said David Hurwitz, Jewish School Fair co-chair. “We want people to learn about the wide range of options and opportunities that exist here in the Greater Baltimore area and the individualized consideration each family can receive.”

Though Mogel discovered her rich Jewish faith as an adult and bases her book on Jewish teachings, she believes the book resonates with parents and teachers everywhere, regardless of faith.

``I have taken my talk to private schools, both religious and secular, some Jewish and some not,” Mogel said. ``For example, I have spoken to 1,200 Episcopal school administrators about the same things. Though Judaism is the foundation I based the book’s principles on, I think they are pretty universal.”

The first step in successful parenting, Mogel said, is recognizing and truly accepting your children for whoever they are.

``I found, as a clinical psychologist, that parents wanted their children to either be ‘gifted’ or `learning disabled,’ ” she said. “They couldn’t seem to tolerate the idea that their child might be ordinary or normal. There is so much emphasis on being special and perfect in our society. And it puts so much pressure on our children.”

Not only that, but today’s parents also seem to expect their children to excel in every area.

“I think this impulse comes from several things, and one is a genuine desire to make sure a child succeeds in what we view as a harsh and competitive world,” Mogel said. “We try to inoculate our child against failure by giving him or her all kinds of lessons and expecting perfect grades in school.”

But parents also need to be wary of what some psychologists call “achievement by proxy syndrome,” Mogel said.

``Some parents use their children’s achievements to reflect glory on themselves or to fulfill a dream the parent had but never achieved, she said. ‘`This is not fair to the child or healthy. I try to remind parents that childhood is the only time people are expected to be great at so many things and skills.”

Mogel also believes our children would be better off and healthier if parents, fearful both of the dangers of contemporary society and of their children experiencing pain, stopped being so protective.

``Children learn about the world by being out in it and doing things and finding their way. That’s common sense,” Mogel said. “But many parents today are so afraid of what’s out there _ on the streets or in the media or even at school _ that they micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives.

Mogel tells parents that if they really want to protect their children, they will help them manage risks on their own.

``Not only is so much close attention bound to make children nervous and anxious, but it also produces children who are self-centered and often incompetent,” Mogel said.

``People in today’s culture often confuse self-esteem with being self-centered, and that’s a dangerous thing,” she said. “No one aims to make their child self-centered, but that is often what happens. Parents need to realize there are perils to their children being so privileged.”

For details on the fair, call Leora Pushett at 410-578-6963.

E-mail Lisa De Nike at Ldenike@patuxent.com.

‘Children learn about the world by being out in it and doing things and finding their way.’

Wendy Mogel, author and clinical psychologist

October 22, 2003

A Child’s Murder, a Mother’s Strength (The Jewish Journal)

View this article in its original context.

September 18, 2003

A Child’s Murder, a Mother’s Strength


By Wendy Mogel

The Blessing of a Broken Heart, by Sherri Mandell (Toby Press, 2003).

When a crime takes place in my neighborhood, I play a mental trick. Of course that (naive) person was mugged. She was walking alone after dark. Naturally that (careless) family was burglarized — they left their garage door unlocked. Why was that (foolish) person robbed in broad daylight? Because they live south of Third Street instead of north of it like me and my savvy neighbors. If the crime gets close, I just stretch. That robbery was on my block, true, but, please note, it was on the odd numbered side of the street.

Sociologists call this the “just world” phenomenon. We attribute meaning and logic to disturbing events so that we can get out of bed in the morning believing that the world is stable and predictable, that if we live according to the rules nothing bad will happen to us or our loved ones, that victims of misfortune deserve what happens to them.

When I started reading The Blessing of a Broken Heart, Sherri Mandell’s book about the murder of her 13-year-old son, I had plenty of grist for distancing myself from the horror of her loss. On the day he was killed, her son, Koby, and a friend skipped school (there you go) to go hiking in a scenic gorge near their home in a West Bank (need I say more?) settlement. There, they were brutally bludgeoned to death in a cave by Palestinians from a nearby village. The cave was located in an area in which travelers are required to have an armed army escort (case closed). That no one had ever been harmed in the gorge did not enter my computation.

By the time I finished this beautiful book, all of my tricks had failed me. Mandell, a journalist, chronicles her experiences during the year after her son’s death with unusual breadth and compassion. She invites us to join her as she observes the different faces of mourning.

In this startlingly moving passage she talks to her daughter:

The night of the funeral, I go to Eliana, 10 years old, to comfort her. We are in her room, on her bed. Her hair is dark and tussled; her eyes look at me with infinite kindness. She rubs my back, asks if she can bring me tea. I tell her: “I’m the mother and I’m here to take care of you.”

She says, “No, I’m your mother.”

I say, “No, I am still your mother and this is very hard now, but we will get through it, we will go on, and I will still be your mother.”

“No,” she says,” I’ll be your mother.”

“No, I am your mother, and I know this is hard, but your are my child, and I will take care of you,” I say firmly.

“Okay,” she says, “I’ll be your grandmother.”

And to her 6-year-old son:

Gavi asks me: “Who is Koby’s mommy now?”

I wonder what to answer. It’s true that I am still Koby’s mommy, but I no longer am the one who takes care of him. I answer, “God is his mommy.”

“Oh good,” Gavi answers, “then he can see a falling star whenever he wants.”

Mandell also explores the stages of her own grief. At first she wonders, “I am like the canary in the coal mine. I have been sent out to the land of the dead to see, can one live there?” She is surprised that the Jewish period for mourning a child is only 30 days. Then she comes to understand that when you lose a child, you grieve for the rest of your life.

“You don’t need the rituals to remind you to grieve,” she writes. “You will think of your child forever.”

Later she sees how agonizing it is to modify the reflexes and habits of love. “Six months after your death,” she writes Koby, “my body has phantom legs that walk to your bed to wake you for synagogue. My body lags in recognizing your absence. It is still moving towards you, like a flower to the light. The phantom legs walk to the door to welcome your home form school, bring you chips and salsa when your return.”

Slowly, Mandell learns how better to communicate with God. “God speaks to me. I know that. But sometimes his voice is silent. Other times he mumbles. I have to keep learning, so that I can recognize his language. I have to keep my heart open….”

She understands that without an intimate knowledge of death we are not fully alive.

“The thought of life without death scares me now,” she writes. “Grieving is also the place of God, the sacred place that connects heaven and earth. It is up to us as grievers to discover and dwell in that space. The sage says, ‘Each moment is a miracle and an agony. A miracle that the world exists in all its glory. An agony that this world is one of suffering and pain.”

I watch the news of unending conflict in Israel, and much as I wish it to be otherwise, the suffering of its families too often remains on the odd numbered side of my street. “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” gives the struggle a precious face and, at the same time, illustrates the power of Jewish faith, ritual and community to heal.

 

September 18, 2003

ADD, ADHD - Life in the Fast Lane (The Jewish Journal)

View this article in its original context.

June 20, 2003

ADD, ADHD - Life in the Fast Lane

By Wendy Mogel

School is out and Ashley is breathless, begging to go to Disneyland. “Leora has ADD so she gets a special pass that allows her to skip all the lines,” she says. “And she can bring her friends and they can skip all the lines, too!”

A call to the Happiest Place on Earth confirms it. Those with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) can use the “disabled fast lane” with a Special Assistance Pass — no medical documentation required and five friends can join in. Knott’s Berry Farm has a similar policy, but proof is needed and only three friends may come along.

How did we get here? And how did we get to bring so many friends with us?

Two forces in our culture are at odds here — the desire to respectfully accommodate differences, and the ease with which we claim victimhood for ourselves and for our children.

A close reading of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act reveals the secret: All are entitled to enjoy the full range of goods, services, privileges and advantages offered in public accommodations (parks and museums). No discrimination is allowed against individuals or “those they have a relationship or association with” (Ashley plus five).

The definition of disability includes those with non-visible disabilities, including psychiatric conditions such as attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADHD).

Visit a disabilities advocacy Web site and read the postings of people describing both the physical pain and humiliation caused by visits to non-accommodating amusement parks. It’s clear that laws protecting their rights are enlightened and compassionate. As a clinical psychologist, I know that ADD is real, that many children suffer from neurologically based problems of concentration and hyperactivity. I’ve also had a fair number of adults in my practice who suffered from lifelong undiagnosed and untreated learning and attention impairments that deeply affected their self-esteem and adult achievement.

But I also know that ADD is becoming the disability of choice for parents who want to smooth the path and help their children take advantage of every loophole, ethical or not. The advanced diagnostic techniques developed by psychology are being perverted.

For older children there are even more alluring opportunities to take advantage of than a day at Disneyland. Starting this September, untimed SATs will no longer be flagged. In the past, when disabled test-takers were given extra time, a notation was included in the transcript. No longer; this practice discriminates. In order to protect the rights of students with disabilities like ADD or anxiety disorders, the College Board, which owns the SAT, will no longer indicate in its official records that a student has been given extra time.

And where are the highest numbers of requests for untimed SATs coming from? Not surprisingly, they are coming from the wealthiest progressive private high schools and the wealthiest communities. They are coming from public schools where extra time is available without penalty to any child with the right diagnosis. They are coming from parents looking for a competitive edge.

What’s going to happen when these students get to Princeton and need special services? Are they just going to show up at the offices of the disability support staff and whisper, “Surprise!”?

What are we — loving, ambitious, good-intentioned parents — unwittingly teaching our children? We are teaching them to believe in their own helplessness. Remember when we used to say, “Josh has ADD”? Now we say, “Josh is ADD.” What happened to the rest of him? He’s disappeared.

If you have a child with symptoms of ADD you can help her without inadvertently undermining her self-confidence and sense of personal and community responsibility. Start by reading anything by Edward M. Hallowell, author of the classic, Driven To Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood (Touchstone, 1995) or by the brilliant developmental pediatrician, Mel Levine, author of The Myth of Laziness (Simon & Schuster, 2002). If you’re getting a learning-disabled child ready for a bar or bat mitzvah, make sure your synagogue has a copy of Al Pi Darco’s According To Their Ways, a special-needs educational resource manual published by the Reform movement’s UAHC Press.

If you are considering medication:

Don’t rely on your own intuition and the prescription pad of your “glad to be of help” pediatrician. Get a formal evaluation by a psychologist specializing in testing children, and have the medication supervised by a child psychiatrist.

  • Meet with your child’s teacher at the start of the school year so you can work together, coordinating expectations at home and at school.
  • Don’t let the blind lead the blind: Since many children with ADD have a parent with a similar condition, put the more organized and focused parent in charge of homework supervision, planning and other “executive skills.”

I can’t imagine many people are exploiting the disabled fast lane at Disneyland, but the use of untimed SATs is on the rise. And if we take advantage of laws intended to repair the world, we are teaching our children corruption.

June 20, 2003

“Myths About Independent School Teachers” (Independent School Magazine)

1 An enlightened teacher appreciates the nuances of each family’s definition of political, religious, and spiritual correctness and monitors her every remark, facial expression, and hand gesture accordingly.

2 An effective teacher knows how to stop second-grade boys from making smutty jokes and fourth-grade girls from gossiping and excluding other girls from their birthday parties.

3 A sensitive teacher never allows any child to feel humiliated for being in the slow math group; in fact, she adroitly organizes reality so that no child ever even suspects that he’s in the slow math group.

4 A compassionate teacher understands that busy, pressured children are entitled to everyday small kindnesses in the form of messengered lunches, faxed homework, and parental edits of writing assignments.

5 A hard-working teacher appreciates that part of the benefits of paying tuition is her telephone availability to parents 24/7.

6 A psychologically attuned teacher, through his sensitive ministrations, can maintain every child’s ability to concentrate, participate in class, and socialize with friends despite a natural disaster, divorce, or death in the child’s family.

7 A protective teacher makes sure that no student ever feels cold, wet, bored, hungry, or left out for more than 15 or 20 seconds.

8 A skillful teacher understands that every independent-school student, if only taught properly, has the potential to excel in all areas.

9 A fair-minded teacher understands that in today’s world a grade of B+ means that a student is doing poorly and needs a new teaching strategy, a tutor, or both.

10 A cutting-edge teacher keeps up with the latest research on brain and cognitive development and can tailor these findings to the specific learning needs of each child.

11 Ditto for learning styles, learning differences, and ADHD classroom management strategies.

12 A sympathetic teacher accepts today’s families’ busy schedules and doesn’t really mind if homework isn’t turned in on time…or at all.

13 A mature teacher knows that faculty cliques and tensions don’t affect students as long as there is a show of politeness and collegiality.

14 A sensible teacher realizes that parents with graduate degrees in anything know as much about elementary education, curriculum, and child development as do teachers and school administrators.

15 An inspired classroom teacher creates an environment so welcoming and magical that every child loves to come to school every day.

16 The up-to-date classroom teacher knows how important it is to develop an integrated curriculum. She seamlessly incorporates art, music, laboratory science, and creative dramatics into every and all academic subjects.

17 A reasonable teacher understands that when parents pay many, many thousands of dollars in tuition, their child’s school experience should resemble travel on a cruise ship and that administrators and faculty are responsible for meeting all the child’s needs and getting her to her destination — education and graduation — with no waves.

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles and author of the best-selling parenting book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. She lectures nationally about managing parents’ expectations of independent schools.

April 8, 2003

Myths About Independent School Teachers (Independent School Magazine)

View this article in its original context.

Spring 2003

MYTHS ABOUT INDEPENDENT SCHOOL TEACHERS

By Wendy Mogel

1.  AN ENLIGHTENED TEACHER appreciates the nuances of each family’s definition of political, religious, and spiritual correctness and monitors her every remark, facial expression, and hand gesture accordingly.

2.  AN EFFECTIVE TEACHER knows how to stop second-grade boys from making smutty jokes and fourth-grade girls from gossiping and excluding other girls from their birthday parties.

3.  A SENSITIVE TEACHER never allows any child to feel humiliated for being in the slow math group; in fact, she adroitly organizes reality so that no child ever even suspects that he’s in the slow math group.

4.  A COMPASSIONATE TEACHER understands that busy, pressured children are entitled to everyday small kindnesses in the form of messengered lunches, faxed homework, and parental edits of writing assignments.

5.  A HARD-WORKING TEACHER appreciates that part of the benefits of paying tuition is her telephone availability to parents 24/7.

6.  A PSYCHOLOGICALLY ATTUNED TEACHER, through his sensitive ministrations, can maintain every child’s ability to concentrate, participate in class, and socialize with friends despite a natural disaster, divorce, or death in the child’s family.

7.  A PROTECTIVE TEACHER makes sure that no student ever feels cold, wet, bored, hungry, or left out for more than 15 or 20 seconds.

8.  A SKILLFUL TEACHER understands that every independent-school student, if only taught properly, has the potential to excel in all areas.

9.  A FAIR-MINDED TEACHER understands that in today’s world a grade of B+ means that a student is doing poorly and needs a new teaching strategy, a tutor, or both.

10.  A CUTTING-EDGE TEACHER keeps up with the latest research on brain and cognitive development and can tailor these findings to the specific learning needs of each child.

11,  DITTO FOR LEARNING STYLES, learning differences, and ADHD classroom management strategies.

12.  A SYMPATHETIC TEACHER accepts today’s families’ busy schedules and doesn’t really mind if homework isn’t turned in on time…or at all.

13.  A MATURE TEACHER knows that faculty cliques and tensions don’t affect students as long as there is a show of politeness and collegiality.

14.  A SENSIBLE TEACHER realizes that parents with graduate degrees in anything know as much about elementary education, curriculum, and child development as do teachers and school administrators.

15.  AN INSPIRED CLASSROOM TEACHER creates an environment so welcoming and magical that every child loves to come to school every day.

16.  THE UP-TO-DATE CLASSROOM TEACHER knows how important it is to develop an integrated curriculum. She seamlessly incorporates art, music, laboratory science, and creative dramatics into every and all academic subjects.

17.  A REASONABLE TEACHER understands that when parents pay many, many thousands of dollars in tuition, their child’s school experience should resemble travel on a cruise ship and that administrators and faculty are responsible for meeting all the child’s needs and getting her to her destination — education and graduation — with no waves.

March 1, 2003

Is There Love After Marriage? (The Jewish Journal)

View this article in its original context.


February 14, 2003

Is There Love

After Marriage?

By Wendy Mogel

Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven announces: “The daughter of this person is destined for [so-and-so].”—Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 2a


We want company. We don’t want to be alone. This is the beginning of everything. God made a companion for Adam.

If you look at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times online, there’s a hotlink to personals. Pick the most obscure zip code in Vermont, or the center of Manhattan, and see how many people are looking for someone, anyone, and how simple, how modest are the ambitions for love. Walking, talking, sharing movies, sharing breakfast, reading the paper, going for a hike—and for these simple daily activities, men and women put their faces in view of strangers and those who might know them. They do it because in their own circle, or just in the accidental crossings of the day, no one dares come out of the fog to say, “It’s you that I want. You for all the reasons you want me.”

The rule of the screwball comedies is that the boy and girl meet, have an early affection which familiarity destroys, each then sees the other at his or her worst and then, knowing the truth about themselves and the other—and with the victory of awareness—they consecrate a new vow. In the screwball comedy of Genesis, it is only after eating from the tree that Adam and Eve can be a real couple, have a real marriage.

Marriages, like movies, have a structure. In my psychotherapy practice, I have heard many scripts that went like this:


Act One:  You’ve Found Your Beshert

SHE: (Liltingly) You like hard pears too?! That’s amazing!

HE: You want me to pick you up at the airport at 3 a.m.? How fun!

SHE: Sex for the third time tonight? Absolutely!

HE: I love the way she speaks so slowly!

SHE: I just love the way he clears his throat all the time!

HE: I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life without snorkeling!

TOGETHER: I can’t believe we might never have found each other!

Act One is both cosmic and chemical. Like your own baby, your beloved is uniquely alluring, beautiful, charming, pure of soul. This is not rational. The phrase is “falling in love” for a reason. Your reaction is like a drug, a chemical action to ensure continuation of the species and the tribe. You believe that you’ve known this person all your life because, in a sense, you have. The idealized loved one embodies the best of what you’ve had—in a parent, a beloved tanta or a sixth-grade English teacher who cherished you, who gloried in your specialness—and all you ever longed and wished for from a critical, cold or clueless parent. Your partner is on a pedestal, and you are in a giving mode. Your similarities are magnified, you delight in your differences.



Act Two:  The Drug Wears Off

Or, as the psychologists say, “Recognition of differences sets in.”

SHE: You voted for that evil man? You stopped at McDonald’s on the way home before dinner? You ate a cheeseburger there? That throat clearing is getting a little annoying. You call your parents every day? Those are your friends? Those are your parents?

HE: Could you say that a little faster? You’ve never read “Doonsbury?” You never call your parents? Taxi drivers are meant to do 10 p.m. airport pick-ups, not boyfriends. If humans were meant to swim underwater, God would have designed them with little plastic breathing tubes already attached.

All right, so it’s not as perfect as it seemed at first, but there’s hope. Together, you can create a new little perfect person, someone to love without reservation. Someone who likes any kind of pears you feed him.


Act Three:  We Are Parents

SHE: (Scornful, impatient) You let her go to the park in her party shoes? You want to have sex when we could be getting some sleep? You got all those groceries and you forgot the one thing I sent you for? And this is 2 percent milk, not 1 percent milk. What do you mean she said she didn’t need a jacket so you let her go without one? She is 4 years old and you are 40.

HE: You keep saying you want me to be involved in raising Nicole and Sam, but you criticize every decision I make. Just forget it.

Like Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” you’ve awakened to see that Bottom is an ass.


Act Four:  You Write the Ending

Yes, 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. But 50 percent don’t. What do we know about those that make it through? Living in reality is hard, but living in fantasy is worse. The movies really trip us up. Our culture oozes seductive popular myths about marriages. If you want a shot at not being part of the half that doesn’t make it, beware—be very aware—of falling for these myths:


1.  We should always think alike, enjoy the same things and be happy together. Romance should last forever. Intimacy is warm and fuzzy.

2.  If you really loved me, you would know what I think without me having to say it. If I take a risk and tell you what I want and feel, I’m entitled to get what I want from you.

3.  You should know what I like sexually without me telling you. You should never fantasize about anyone else. We should have the same level of sexual desire at the same time.

4.  Our children are more important than our marriage.

5.  You should make up for everything I never had in childhood, rid me of existential doubts and provide all meaning of life.


Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. Rather than grand declarations of love we are encouraged—in fact commanded—to work hard to create shalom bayit (peace in the home). But how?

Moses Maimonides knows that we can only form a union if we first separate from our own parents. In his 12th-century work, “Laws of Marriage,” he writes, “A husband can prevent his wife’s family from entering the house if it bothers him. She can make the same demand on him.”

But beyond that first crucial separation, shalom bayit must come through deeds. We show our love through small, daily acts of respect and enthusiasm. We don’t necessarily do for our spouse what we want our spouse to do for us. Instead, we do what honors our spouse most.

Torah teacher Shira Smiles recommends that you get off the telephone when your spouse enters the house or the room you’re in. If you’re at home when your spouse arrives, go to the front door to greet him or her. Instead of turning on the television, take your spouse for a walk around the block.

Marriage has great potential for boredom, chronic resentment and misery. It also has a greater potential for deep satisfaction, intimate friendship and sexual pleasure than any other adult relationship. Consider your marriage as another child. It, too, needs care. You started out together, and after the children leave you’ll be alone together again.

The movies tell us to believe in love. But the Hebrew word emunah, Smiles teaches us, is not merely “belief” or “blind faith,” but a commitment or faithfulness based on actual knowledge.

The best way to keep marriage from being too hard is not to believe for a second that it’s easy. Take time, act wisely, guard your words, get help before you need it: You write the ending.

February 14, 2003

NAIS lecture - 2003 Annual Conference Speech from Wendy Mogel

View this article in its original context.

All Things to All People?


Managing Parents’ Expectations of Independent Schools

Psychologist Wendy Mogel, like Michael Thompson, is a gifted storyteller and draws many of her lessons from her clinical psychology practice.  Her opening story involved running a child through a battery of psychological tests - at the request of the parents.  When Mogel announced that she had good news about their child - that he needed no pills, and no therapy - the parents seemed disappointed.  They were convinced their child was either learning disabled, gifted - or both.

Some parents are over the top.  One family that had gone through the grueling admissions process put deposits down on four different schools - “just hoping to buy a little time.” And when it comes to teachers, Mogel says, parents seem to see them in black-and-white:  either perfect, or destructive.

Please tell your parents, Mogel urges, that an independent school is not a cruise ship without any waves.  That it’s OK for your kid to have a crabby, uninspired teacher once in a while, because in life they’ll have a boss like that.  Or a mate - at least the first one. And it’s OK for children to be bored, to be cold, or to be hungry for one-and-a-half seconds.

What, she asks, fuels this anxiety on the part of our parents?  First and foremost - we live in a world of fear.  Independent schools are a safe place.  In fact, independent schools serve as a kind of Walmart - where parents seek to fill all their spiritual and emotional needs. When was the last time you saw a trace of childhood in an elementary science fair?  Parents, of course, are rushing to construct elaborate projects for their children, and Mogel says that her new theory about this is that parents are hobby-deprived.

One school assignment involved the making of stringed instruments.  No shoe boxes and rubber bands here - several parents hand-carved elaborate violins for their children.  Nowadays parents do everything - they fax in their children’s work, they send in their lunches.  One set of parents sent a child a bouquet of roses after a theatrical production - in which their child played a bush.

Parents, Mogel maintains, are both over-involved, but also loving.  Yet through their over-involvement, they are unwittingly damaging their children.  This is manifested when the children go off to college, and counselors can tell immediately which students are self-sufficient, and which ones can’t survive without their parents.  Similarly, at a third grade retreat - Mogel could predict who would be homesick - those whose parents had packed for them - vs. those who had packed for themselves.

Parents create “perfect resume gods,” but what the kids really need is to be able to make their own cheap mistakes.  They must be able to stand alone and take it.  Mogel recommends that parents take a good look at dog training books, which may well serve as a model for how to treat your children.  All the characters are there, including the alpha dog.  Above all, parents must listen compassionately to their children.

Plenty of myths abound in the minds of school parents, hoping for an idyllic experience for their children.  One is: “Any and all troubled classmates will disappear.”  As for school heads, the good ones have an air of slightly detached amusement vis-à-vis the over-involved parents and they also have a good assistant head to hear all the whining (or wingeing as the British say).

Because our world is anxious, confusing, and fast-paced, we need to take time, and form some detachment.  Just like in an airplane, when you are advised to put on your own oxygen mask first, before you put one on your child.  Mogel advises that if parents, teachers, and administrators don’t have their own lives outside the school—then the level of anxiety rises and the children are affected.  She also quotes rabbis who say that if nobody storms out of the temple after a high holiday sermon, then they have failed.

“We need to be able to say ‘no’ to parents,” says Mogel.  Even if parents are experienced, and have had several children - they are still beginners when it comes to school.  Our culture, of course, reinforces the go-go mentality - as illustrated by an ad for a gym in L.A.:  “You can rest when you’re dead.”  Children are so overscheduled that they simply need sleep, not ADD pills.

Teachers and parents need to talk more together.  Homework needs to be confined to a shorter period of time - children have learned to stretch that time out.  Mogel recommends that we convince parents that children need simple basics - like sleep, nutrition, and plain old down time.  Children are walking around like dazed survivors from a bewildering survival camp.  The boys are filled with secret anxiety; the girls think they need to be perfect and produce high grades.

Sad to say, anxious - if caring—parents are bad role models for their children.  When one boy was asked what he wanted to be when he grows up he said, “I know what I don’t want to be.  I don’t want to be like my parents - they seem so sad, scared, and stressed.”

One final story involved an upper school boy who had his own car and one day threw his keys onto the roof of the administration building - where they got stuck.  He went to the dean and demanded that he call the maintenance people to retrieve them.  The dean said sure, in the spring, when everything thaws.  Outraged, the student called his father and the father called the dean.

The father had two words for the dean:  “Thank you.”

February 5, 2003

Is There Love After Marriage? (Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles)

Data still to come.

February 1, 2003

Overcoming Fear of the Ordinary (Independent School Magazine)

View this article in it’s orginal context.


October 15, 2002

Overcoming
Fear
of the
Ordinary

BY WENDY MOGEL


MY FRIEND, Jan, who runs a fine local lower school, told of taking a mother on a prospective parents’ tour of the campus. The mom said that her daughter Sloane had a strong interest in science. “At another school I visited, the kindergarten teachers put streamers in the trees to demonstrate the properties of wind to the students,” she reported. “I’m hoping you would do that here too. I wouldn’t want Sloaner to miss out.” Jan hesitated and thought for a moment. “We have leaves on our trees,” she responded. “They do kind of the same thing. Can’t guarantee you we’ll be using streamers.” Of course, Sloane’s mother did not choose Jan’s school for her MIT bound four year-old.

I thought about this mother’s decision, Why not seek the very best science curriculum right from the start? Why not give our children an edge? Shortly after, I read a third grade newsletter from another independent school. I noted that the word special was used five times on two pages. The Thanksgiving Sing was special. So was the Spellathon. The Emerging Artists exhibition was special. Even the unassuming Pie Drive was, for reasons not clearly revealed by the newsletter coverage, special indeed. And, finally, this year’s third grade class was in itself a very, very special group.

I wondered, Is it possible? So much specialness concentrated in one place? Was this really an extraordinary school with uncommonly dazzling children, committed teachers, generous and energetic families? In fact, this school is an admirable and solid place. The children are intelligent, sensitive and well-behaved, the teachers care, the parents give of their time and money. But it is not a terribly unusual school, and I questioned the benefit of believing otherwise.

As today’s parents look at our rapidly changing, complex, competitive world, many react protectively. They put their faith in superior schooling and uncommon levels of achievement hoping that that this kind of preparation will elevate their children above the fray and armor them against an uncertain future. But there’s a price to pay for so much striving and fanfare and even for so much excellence.

The head of a local school complained to me about his frustration with parents’ high expectations: 

Too many parents want everything fixed by the time their child is eight. They want academic perfection, a child as capable as any other child in the Western hemisphere.  Children develop in fits and starts, but nobody has time for that anymore. No late bloomers, no slow starters, nothing unusual accepted! If a child doesn’t get straight A’s, his parents start fretting that he’s got a learning disability or a motivation problem. Parents seem to think that children only come in two flavors: learning disabled and gifted. Not every child has unlimited potential in all areas. This doesn’t mean most kids won’t be able to go to college and to compete successfully in the adult world. Almost all of them will.  Parents just need to relax a little and be patient.

Teachers have their own reaction to the problem of exceptional expectations. Remember Lake Woebegone, the fictional town created by Garrison Keillor, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average?” That sunny, statistics-defying state of mind is familiar turf for lower school teachers. They describe hearing the same song every year when it’s time for parent conferences. One weary lower school head told me:

Parents are so nervous. If their child is doing well in everything it’s like a badge for them that everything is OK. If their child is, God forbid, average, they panic. That’s why so many teachers have started giving “Lake Woebegone” report cards, report cards that are a cross between a work of romantic fiction and a legal document. Teachers are afraid that if they give anything less than an A, parents will blame their child’s poor achievement on the teacher’s lack of skill rather than on the child’s natural limitations. This is a shame, because real problems get glossed over or missed until fourth grade, when there’s no more hiding it and the child’s weaker areas show up on standardized tests.

And children themselves get bruised from the quest for the best. Listen to eleventh-grade Isabel, a top student at a top boarding school. She told me that she had been having a hard time with her schoolwork and her friends lately. Her teachers seemed to favor other students. The last two boys she hoped would become boyfriends hadn’t been interested in her. She felt confused and hurt:

I know why this is so hard for me. My mom and dad always, always made me feel like I was the best: the most beautiful, the smartest, the most charming. And, mostly, I’ve done pretty well in everything. But now I’m now finding out that I’m not that unusual. Maybe I’m good enough, but I don’t know anymore.

Isabel is unusually insightful and clear about the sources of her problems. Other children, also suffering from specialitis, express their problems with painful symptoms.  Some children who complain of headaches, stomachaches and chronic learning and sleep problems may actually be suffering from a disorder of parental expectations.

Donald Winnicott, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, in his book Babies and Mothers writes about “good enough mothering” and the “ordinary devoted mother.” He explains that “inherited potential will be realized” when “the environmental provision is adequate.” Adequate, not exceptional. We can only do your part. We can’t control the outcome.  In our competitive world, it’s often easy to forget this and to blame ourselves, our child’s teacher, or other outside influences if our child’s school suddenly doesn’t seem like the best or our child is not achieving at an extraordinary level or doesn’t seem terrifically happy.

In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but a little crabby or uninspired) teachers, good enough (although insect- infested and humid) summer camps, and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends. The Spellathon can be a success without being very, very special. Isabel can feel appreciated without hosannas. Consider that “good enough” can often be best for children, because when life is a bit mundane they won’t end up with expectations of themselves and those around them that can’t be met on this worldly plane.

A Hassidic teaching speaks to the blessing of the ordinary. The rabbis advise that each of us should keep two pieces of paper in our pockets at all times. On one we write “ I am nothing but dust and ashes,” on the other, “The world was created for me.” I once heard another beautiful spiritual teaching but was unable to uncover the source. I will pass it along to you. “Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label. Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds.  You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom.”

When we accept that the “right environment” for children is both very special and very ordinary, we’ll give the children the soil they need to flourish.  Even without streamers in the trees.

October 15, 2002

Sex Ed for Parents (The Jewish Journal)

Read this article on the Jewish Journal‘s website.

April 18, 2002


Sex Ed

for Parents        

When it comes to your kids, practice what you preach.

BY WENDY MOGEL


Somewhere in America, a few high school students made a porno video, they said by accident, starring themselves. Whatever it was, a couple of kids were fooling around, and someone else had a camera. They showed the tape in the locker room and what followed was, of course, a big scandal. Somewhere else in America, there was an eighth grade party, Mom or Dad took pictures, and when they came back from the lab, in the background of one of the shots, you could see two partygoers having oral sex near the shrubbery. What upset the parents most was that the students weren’t even trying to hide.

Let’s blame someone. Okay, it’s our commercial culture, the one that pays our bills. No, too close, it’s MTV (unless you work for it) or lascivious billboards or the movies. Let us stand for the declaration of our faith, “Our children are bombarded with overstimulating images, we are powerless to save them from casual, numb, sex.” We try to solve the problem by offering absurdly cold and clinical sex education classes in school using scare tactics and statistics: just one careless drunken act at a party and “YOU”LL DIE FROM AIDS! DEAD, DEAD, DEAD!”  At home, when our children ask us about our own histories we stand tall and tell the truth: “Times have changed… the pot wasn’t as strong then… sex wasn’t as dangerous… and I never did anything anyway. There are other ways of having fun.” And then we direct our trophy children to the approved list of acceptable leisure activities; for example, we make them play difficult, bleating musical instruments. In my part of town it’s difficult to rent anything with a double reed because parents push bassoons and oboes on their middle schoolers since offering yourself as first chair oboe is the ticket to Cornell. Ooh, but catch your kid spending her allotted time on the frivolous—a crush, going to the Santa Monica Pier when she said she was staying at her friend’s, getting into the mildest trouble instead of conjugating French—we see all of this as a personal betrayal.

In a discussion about the fallout from the video scandal, I asked the parents about their own sex lives. One mother said, “Sex life?  Are you kidding? We’re too tired. We cart the scholar-princes around all afternoon—from practices, to SAT prep, to band rehearsals. Then we come home and fall asleep catatonic by 9 PM.”

We are creating our own ascetism and abstinence through exhaustion and anxiety. And this goes against Jewish law, which has the wisdom to know that to have pleasure you have to learn and practice pleasure, and if we don’t teach this to our children, how will they learn?

Here we find Kahana, in the Talmud, hiding under the bed of Rav, his teacher, because he wanted to learn the right way to make love. Rav and Mrs. Rav went to bed and as the 2000 Year Old Man said about the couple who discovered sex “during the night, they were thrilled and delighted.” Except that they were watched. Kahana was so shocked by what he saw that he poked his head out and scolded Rav, “You appear to me to be like a hungry man who has never had sex before. You act with such frivolity in your lust.” Rav looked down at him and said, “Kahana, get out of here!”  Kahana didn’t apologize, “This too is Torah, and I must study!” We don’t know what the rebbetzin said.

I’m not suggesting you leave the bedroom door open, but the air of pleasure has its own energy in a house. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides describes the mitzvah of “onah”, a husband must not deny his wife pleasure, in the first year of marriage it’s his responsibility to learn what she likes. The wife has her own obligations to provide pleasure to her husband. She is forbidden to “delay immersing in the mikveh in order to afflict her husband.”

As Rabbi Avraham Friedman writes in his beautiful and profound book, Marital Intimacy: A Traditional Jewish Approach, a full sex life is so important that a husband cannot change careers without his wife’s consent because the change might hurt them in bed. So a camel driver (a convenient but low paying job), can’t become a donkey driver (higher status, better money, but more out-of-town trips) without approval. The higher income is no justification if it damages the couple. “A woman prefers one measure of prosperity, as long as it is accompanied by intimate lightheartedness, to nine measures of material wealth and abstinence,” we read in the Talmud.

In the fallout from our hyperparenting we have failed to make adult life alluring. To many children adulthood looks like no more than an opportunity to resolve complex scheduling conflicts, lose seven days a year standing entirely still in freeway traffic, periodically unfreeze the computer and fall asleep catatonic by 9 PM. In a high school survey, one student recently wrote, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be like my mom and dad. They seem so sad and scared and stressed.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Wisdom, tells a story about a rabbi who informed his congregation that he was planning a trip to Switzerland. ‘Why Switzerland?’ they asked him. What reason could you have for traveling so far?’ The rabbi replied, ‘I don’t want to meet my maker and have Him say to me, ‘What? You never saw My Alps?’”

So for the sake of your children and their future, set an example. If you want them to play a double reed, play the damn oboe yourself. You need music. And then take your partner and go to your bedroom. Shut the door, and light some candles. Perform a mitzvah. Just remember to turn off the video camera.

 

April 18, 2002

Sex for Parents (Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles)

Somewhere in America, a few high school students made a porno video, they said by accident, starring themselves. Whatever it was, a couple of kids were fooling around, and someone else had a camera. They showed the tape in the locker room and what followed was, of course, a big scandal. Somewhere else in America, there was an eighth grade party, Mom or Dad took pictures, and when they came back from the lab, in the background of one of the shots, you could see two partygoers having oral sex near the shrubbery. What upset the parents most was that the students weren’t even trying to hide.

Let’s blame someone. Okay, it’s our commercial culture, the one that pays our bills. No, too close, it’s MTV (unless you work for it) or lascivious billboards or the movies. Let us stand for the declaration of our faith, “Our children are bombarded with overstimulating images, we are powerless to save them from casual, numb, sex.” We try to solve the problem by offering absurdly cold and clinical sex education classes in school using scare tactics and statistics: just one careless drunken act at a party and “YOU”LL DIE FROM AIDS! DEAD, DEAD, DEAD!”  At home, when our children ask us about our own histories we stand tall and tell the truth: “Times have changed… the pot wasn’t as strong then… sex wasn’t as dangerous… and I never did anything anyway. There are other ways of having fun.” And then we direct our trophy children to the approved list of acceptable leisure activities; for example, we make them play difficult, bleating musical instruments. In my part of town it’s difficult to rent anything with a double reed because parents push bassoons and oboes on their middle schoolers since offering yourself as first chair oboe is the ticket to Cornell. Ooh, but catch your kid spending her allotted time on the frivolous—a crush, going to the Santa Monica Pier when she said she was staying at her friend’s, getting into the mildest trouble instead of conjugating French—we see all of this as a personal betrayal.

In a discussion about the fallout from the video scandal, I asked the parents about their own sex lives. One mother said, “Sex life?  Are you kidding? We’re too tired. We cart the scholar-princes around all afternoon—from practices, to SAT prep, to band rehearsals. Then we come home and fall asleep catatonic by 9 PM.”

We are creating our own ascetism and abstinence through exhaustion and anxiety. And this goes against Jewish law, which has the wisdom to know that to have pleasure you have to learn and practice pleasure, and if we don’t teach this to our children, how will they learn?

Here we find Kahana, in the Talmud, hiding under the bed of Rav, his teacher, because he wanted to learn the right way to make love. Rav and Mrs. Rav went to bed and as the 2000 Year Old Man said about the couple who discovered sex “during the night, they were thrilled and delighted.” Except that they were watched. Kahana was so shocked by what he saw that he poked his head out and scolded Rav, “You appear to me to be like a hungry man who has never had sex before. You act with such frivolity in your lust.” Rav looked down at him and said, “Kahana, get out of here!”  Kahana didn’t apologize, “This too is Torah, and I must study!” We don’t know what the rebbetzin said.

I’m not suggesting you leave the bedroom door open, but the air of pleasure has its own energy in a house. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides describes the mitzvah of “onah”, a husband must not deny his wife pleasure, in the first year of marriage it’s his responsibility to learn what she likes. The wife has her own obligations to provide pleasure to her husband. She is forbidden to “delay immersing in the mikveh in order to afflict her husband.”

As Rabbi Avraham Friedman writes in his beautiful and profound book, Marital Intimacy: A Traditional Jewish Approach, a full sex life is so important that a husband cannot change careers without his wife’s consent because the change might hurt them in bed. So a camel driver (a convenient but low paying job), can’t become a donkey driver (higher status, better money, but more out-of-town trips) without approval. The higher income is no justification if it damages the couple. “A woman prefers one measure of prosperity, as long as it is accompanied by intimate lightheartedness, to nine measures of material wealth and abstinence,” we read in the Talmud.

In the fallout from our hyperparenting we have failed to make adult life alluring. To many children adulthood looks like no more than an opportunity to resolve complex scheduling conflicts, lose seven days a year standing entirely still in freeway traffic, periodically unfreeze the computer and fall asleep catatonic by 9 PM. In a high school survey, one student recently wrote, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be like my mom and dad. They seem so sad and scared and stressed.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Wisdom, tells a story about a rabbi who informed his congregation that he was planning a trip to Switzerland. ‘Why Switzerland?’ they asked him. What reason could you have for traveling so far?’ The rabbi replied, ‘I don’t want to meet my maker and have Him say to me, ‘What? You never saw My Alps?’”
So for the sake of your children and their future, set an example. If you want them to play a double reed, play the damn oboe yourself. You need music. And then take your partner and go to your bedroom. Shut the door, and light some candles. Perform a mitzvah. Just remember to turn off the video camera.

This article appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on April 5, 2002.

April 5, 2002

Slaves to Higher Learning (The Jewish Journal)

View this article in its orginal context.

March 22, 2002

Slaves
to Higher Learning

By Wendy Mogel


Here’s a thought for Passover.  We are Pharaohs to our children. We have made them our slaves. Their mud bricks are the books that fill 30-pound backpacks. Their mortar is four hours of homework. The straw we deny is sleep. Ask child therapists across the country about the headaches and self-starvation, and the girls who make shallow cuts in their wrists to “let the pressure out, to feel on the outside the pain I feel on the inside”. Ask the school counselors about how teenagers use drugs and sex to try to escape.  Ask the pediatricians and chiropractors about what those 30-pound loads have done to the children’s posture. Ask the college admissions office about their nicknames for incoming students: “crispies,”  the eighteen year-olds too fried from high school to function at college, and “teacups,” freshmen too fragile to manage on their own without their parents, tutors, and housekeepers.

Olympian Sara Hughes knows the score. Asked about her plans after winning the gold medal she said, “I just want to keep up with my school work and get in the high 1500’s on my SATs.” The best figure skater in the world worries that if you want to get into the Ivy League these days, having only one sport may not be enough. College placement advisors complain that parents think there are only ten good schools in the country and that if their child doesn’t get into one of them, the whole family has failed. This is mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt that also means a narrow place.

Don’t look outside to find the Pharaoh. It’s easy to blame the schools and colleges but some of our terror is inflated myth. We read pornography—U.S. News and World Repor’st ranking of top colleges and universities—and we panic that our child “won’t get in” even as we look into the crib.

Some leaders are taking the first steps towards freedom. As I travel around the country speaking at schools, I see them beginning to acknowledge their hand in the oppression. They are recognizing that having a fifth grade math curriculum in third grade creates math phobias. They are cutting back on homework. They are giving students time away from academics and sports – time for group reflection and for service to others.

Colleges are starting to change their policies. Some are accepting, without prejudice, students from schools that have eliminated AP classes. They are holding places for accepted students who choose to take a year off after high school. Admissions officers are weighing teacher recommendations on par with SAT scores and GPAs.  If a student looks spectacular on paper, but isn’t enthusiastic and generous of spirit, the schools don’t want him around.

The Talmud teaches that every parent has an obligation to teach his child how to swim. As parents, our most important job is to prepare our children for life, not just for class. I’m not denying the competition. For many of us, if we applied now to the colleges we went to we wouldn’t get in.  No matter how fervently we wish it, the children are no smarter or stronger than we were, but they are smart enough to get into a good enough school and have a good enough life.
If the Taliban reflect the Arab world’s panic over the advent of Western modernity and marketplace culture, the sacrifice of our own children on the altar of the SATs is of a piece with the same fundamentalist anxiety; the fantasy that a life with no room for play or rest will save us from chaos. We have lowered the plague of darkness into our lives, and the darkness is so complete that no one can move. It is time to let them go.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on March 22, 2002.

March 22, 2002

Talking to Children about Terrorism (The Jewish Journal)

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The Jewish Journal

September 20, 2001


Talking to Children about Terrorism

By Wendy Mogel


We are all going crazy. That Tuesday I woke up my 10-year-old by telling her, “Terrorists flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., this morning,” carried her downstairs half-asleep and sat her in front of the television just in time to watch the north tower fall. Before bedtime I did a little show-and-tell presenting her with an old photo I had downloaded from the Web: Osama bin Laden from the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list complete with height, weight and a $5 million reward. Why did I do this? I don’t know.

No one can handle this ordeal with grace and faultless parenting but there are some guidelines to follow. I offer an excerpt from a letter sent home to parents by Reveta Bowers, head of the Center for Early Education, a local elementary school:

1. Keep your routines as normal as possible.

2.  This is not a time for your children to have unlimited access to phone, radio, television or computers.

3.  Don’t be surprised if you begin to notice behaviors that are different. Your child’s normal patterns of eating, sleeping and play may be interrupted.

4.  Your children will want reassurance from you that you will keep them safe and that they don’t have to worry. You must be able to be calm and contained in your own anxiety as you offer those reassurances.

5.  Especially with young children, answer their questions and have any family conversations early in the evening and not just before bedtime. This is not the kind of talk to have just before you turn off the lights.

6. As you speak with older or extended family members and relatives, be careful about what you say and what your children overhear.

7.  “Bad people do bad things, and this was a bad thing but most people are good” is a message that young children can understand.

8. Remind children, especially those whose parents fly a great deal, that accidents like this cause everyone to be more careful and cautious in the future.

9. Don’t speculate with them about what will happen next.

10.  Many will hear frightening words, “war,” “aggression,” “terrorist,” etc. They will mimic what they have heard and quote what they hear you say. Be careful.

To this list I’ll add a few items of my own:

Take Children’s Questions Seriously

Yes, we psychologists will tell you that some of their questions are really a cover for anxiety. We’ll tell you that, rather than answering the questions directly, your children will profit more if you can unearth or pinpoint their underlying fears. But sometimes a cigar is a cigar. Or worthy curiosity about science or theology. So if your child asks why the World Trade Center towers fell when the planes crashed into them, find out. OK, I’ll tell you this one. According to Hyman Brown, the engineer who oversaw the construction, it was the 24,000 gallons of burning aviation fuel that turned the steel into a soft noodle, not the impact of the crash. The towers melted. If they ask about search-and-rescue techniques, military operations or life after death, or if all Arabs hate Jews, more often than not respond by saying, “That’s a good question.”

If you don’t know the facts, get the encyclopedia or browse the Web together. Judaism teaches that we should all be lifelong learners. Excavate the facts or the philosophy the children are seeking.


Teach Them a Patriotic Song

That Wednesday afternoon, I sat talking with three bright 10-year-old girls in our den, girls who are each receiving an education as good as anyone on the planet. One goes to a local public school, one to a Jewish day school, one to an Episcopal school. In the middle of our conversation, one of the girls spontaneously said, “This seems like a good time to sing a song about our country.” We all agreed, but it quickly became clear that not one knew all the words of a single patriotic song, not even the national anthem. Of the three, the child who goes to the most Dodger games did best but they all stunk. Our children’s magnificently enriched school curriculums fall down here. The children learn HTML and Spanish and advanced drawing techniques, but most of them don’t learn songs or anthems that proclaim their love of their country.

Like prayer, patriotic songs are packets of spiritual power and shared emotion at the ready. If we only teach the children fancy stuff, we deprive them of some ordinary but essential tools for living fully. Do the prep work of teaching and, if necessary, learning the lyrics yourself — and the words to prayers if you haven’t memorized a handful — so the children will have these spiritual tools when they need them.

Yes, I’m nervous about war fever, but children are not ready for a critique of global capitalism and its piece in this catastrophe. Find a patriotic song you can live with. If you choke on “banner yet waves” what about “amber waves of grain”? Don’t leave “God Bless America” for foxhole conversions to citizenship and pride.


Hold Your Tongue When Watching Television

I’m troubled by the negative running commentary I hear coming out of the mouths of intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful parents while watching television. When children hear adults dishonor our leaders and our government we are inviting them to become cynical themselves. These beliefs breed fear and alienation, just the opposite of the attitudes we wish for our adolescents. In addition, if children learn to see the world as a place where others are constantly judged behind their backs, they may become inhibited, fearing that their own actions and words are not safe from ridicule.

If the president isn’t showing up to talk to the nation as quickly as you deem appropriate, or if the speech he makes doesn’t seem particularly profound or moving, hold your tongue. Making negative statements without taking action demoralizes children and crushes their need to have something to believe in. It’s up to us to bolster our children’s enthusiasm and optimism, not undermine it.

Our country is a democracy, but it isn’t one long episode of “Survivor.” We aren’t entitled to weigh in with our sophisticated opinions every few seconds. If you need to talk, follow Torah teachings about avoiding lashon hara (evil tongue). Learn to measure the words you use in front of the children. Tell them the beautiful and moving tales that emerge from the rubble daily. Tell them about the courage of the rescue workers, Mayor Giuliani’s grace, interfaith worship services, the melting away of partisanship among politicians. Mine the rubble for tales of the good.


Don’t Forget That Teenagers Are Also Frightened

Even the most self-sufficient, unapproachable teenager needs comfort as much as the rest of us. One mother told me that her 16-year-old son, normally disdainful of verbal or physical contact with his parents, has been doing his homework in their bedroom since Sept. 11. Knock first and then visit your teenager’s lair. Tell him about your day, what you’ve been reading in the paper, your thoughts. Then just wait. He might tell you about his.


Be of Service

Whether or not there have been deaths in your own family, the words of the late Lubovitcher rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, hold. He said, “There is no way to replace a departed loved one, for each person is a complete world. But there is a way to begin to fill the void. When we do good deeds on behalf of the departed, we continue the work of their soul. By performing acts in the memory of the loved one we truly build a living memorial. Death then is a form of energy because it can be used as a tool for leading a more meaningful life.”

This week at least, it’s easy to wave flags, to love our neighbors and to hold our tongues. The challenge is to carry the parenting lessons we’re learning into the weeks and months ahead.

September 20, 2001

On the Doorposts of Your House and On Your Mouse (The Jewish Journal)

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September 14, 2001

On the Doorposts
of Your House

and
On Your Mouse

By Wendy Mogel



The beginning of the new school year radically increases the frequency of beeps, clicks, buzzes, rings and stutter dials in my home. My stack of unreturned phone calls is beginning to teeter. Reflecting on these mixed blessings, I am reminded of an incident from way back in the pre-history of July. I was in a dressing room at the mall when my cell phone rang. The caller was a staff member at my daughter’s camp. She sounded a little breathless.

“Notanemergency.” I recognized the standard school and camp greeting. “Emma is fine but USA Today is doing an article about camp in tomorrow’s edition and they want to use a picture of her. We’ll need your permission… right now.” I had to think fast. In my underwear.

For two seconds I wondered how USA Today got this picture of Emma. Then I realized it was easy. Emma’s camp, as well as 600 others throughout the country, subscribes to a service that posts and sells pictures of the campers on the web (updated daily and accessible to parents only). They also invite parents to send daily e-mail to the campers and to “click here” to send a care package of little gifts. Young Emma could now be launched from her tent by a lake in the Sierras to a million readers in one click of a mouse. I appreciated the allure of having an all access pass to Emma’s life but I was not prepared for everyone else to have one too.

Our electronically assisted lives are undeniably bountiful. I cherish my ability to e-mail my brother-in-law in Indianapolis, to access a bibliography on pastoral counseling, to peruse the websites of far-flung vacation spots. The late Lubovitcher rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said, “Do not fear technology, it will knit the world together.” Some of this connectedness benefits family life directly. In our sprawling city, I appreciate my cell phone link to the babysitter, to older children home alone and teenagers on the town. But does my child benefit from a daily e-mail or a care package when she’s only gone for two weeks? If I don’t send her one but all the other parents do, will she feel neglected? How much access is too much?

A few weeks earlier I had the pleasure of lecturing at the Whizin Institute for Family Education at the University of Judaism. Shellie Dickstein, Jewish family educator extraordinaire, was in town from New York facilitating a session for early childhood specialists. She provided the participants with an article by psychologist David Elkind, best known as the author of The Hurried Child. Elkind writes about the shift from the protected and protective nuclear family to today’s “permeable” family. He explains that boundaries between home and the outside world, between public and private, between family and work have become more open and flexible. The internet, cell phones, and faxes fling the doors of our homes open wide. Dickstein suggested, only half-joking, that parents consider putting a mezuzah on their computers. “These are our doorposts, our portals. This is where influences for evil or good stream into our lives.”

All this connectedness is of value to our families only if we can tame it and teach our children to do the same. The e-portals that make our lives permeable are powerful tools, but we still have to do the thinking. Too much accessibility is like leaving the doors and windows open all the time. They can’t shut themselves; we have to do it. When we allow ourselves to become addicted to a nightly e-fix of camp photos; when we send our kids daily e-mail and care packages, we have become too connected. We may insulate them a bit from homesickness and satisfy our urge to make sure they’re happy, but it comes at a price. For children, camp is supposed to be a place where appearances don’t matter, where the outside world can’t touch you, and where parents can’t protect or pry. Parents whose children go away to camp ought to be able to get a real break from them, as well as some practice in letting go. 24-hour e-access diminishes the experience on both sides.

I gave USA Today permission to print Emma’s photo “if you don’t use her name and she’s not in a bathing suit.” I then checked their website every day searching for my sporting, windswept cover girl. Three weeks later they ran the article without the photo. Part of me was disappointed, another part relieved. For the time being, this window into Emma’s life was still reserved for my eyes only. As the New Year approaches we have the opportunity to take time to reflect on just how permeable we want our lives to be. I’m considering a mezuzah for my mouse—and maybe one for my cell phone, too.



This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles as “Mezuzah Mouse” on September 14, 2001.

September 14, 2001

How to Choose a School (The Jewish Journal)


How to Choose a School

By Wendy Mogel

August 24, 2001

As fall approaches, many of us are forced to turn our thoughts to selecting a private school for our children. Quite frequently, this process causes even normally stable parents to suffer symptoms of mental confusion, dizziness and difficulty making rational decisions. A school administrator recently told me that one set of applicant parents put down nonrefundable deposits of $3,000 on four different schools. When their strategy was exposed, the parents simply said, “We wanted a little extra time to make up our minds.”

Even after parents have visited the school, listened to word-of-mouth and researched test scores, many are still unsure about which school to choose. Realizing the importance of this decision, and the hand-wringing it prompts, I have decided to divulge my secret four-step formula for choosing a school. This formula was discovered after years of speaking at schools, consulting with them and choosing them for my own children.

Step One: Ignore the Mission Statement.

They all say the same thing. “We strive for academic excellence, but we also treasure the uniqueness of each child. We give them not just roots, but also wings. We raise children not just to be good at things, but also to be good people.”

There’s just not enough variation in the message to be of much use. And they never give the real scoop: “Great arts program, but lots of drugs in the upper grades. Good athletics, but slightly anti-Semitic admissions policy. Great Judaic curriculum, but half the parents don’t give a hoot.”

Instead of poring over the catalog and trying to read between the lines, I recommend moving on to Step Two.

Step Two: Look at the Bigger Kids.

On the prospective parents’ tour you’ll be invited to peek in at the grade your child is currently in and the one he or she will be entering the following year. Try to make a detour to the upper grades. At one school where I speak each year, I invariably mistake the sixth-graders for fifth-graders, they look so wholesome and untrammeled. At another school, I always see the seniors giving the faculty just the right kind of hard time — a sign that they are more interested in animated debate than grubbing for grades. So if your child is applying to kindergarten, try to get a look at the fifth-or sixth-graders; if you’re touring a high school ask to see some senior classes. Their level of vitality or cool and their general spirit reveals important information about what you can expect your child to become.

Step Three: Go See a Play.

The school may only allow you a moment or two in the classrooms on your tour, but everyone is welcome to attend school plays. And a play is more than a performance — it’s a community gathering. What kinds of cars are in the parking lot? Do the parents compete for seats, or reserve them in a stingy fashion? Do they leave after their child has performed? Is every eye in the room looking through the lens of a video camera? Do parents bring big bouquets of flowers for children with tiny parts? How are the parents dressed? Can you see your child in the homes of people who look that polished? That rumpled? How polite are they when it’s time to line up to drive out of the parking lot?

The play itself offers useful information, too. The school’s values and philosophy show up here with far more clarity than in the mission statement. Is the school so politically correct that no big or showy parts are allowed, resulting in Soviet-style blandness and conformity? Conversely, is the school so unenlightened that the show seems sexist or racist?

Step Four: Accept a Compromise.

After you’ve done all the research and followed the three steps above, let your child weigh in. Ask how he or she feels about the different schools. Selecting a school is not a decision that can or should be made by a child. However, he or she is the one who will have to walk those halls each day and, unlike an adult, will not be able to give two-weeks’ notice if it starts feeling too small or too big, too mushy or too competitive.

The Hardest Part: Trusting your intuition.

Realize that no school is good enough for your child and $12,000 in deposits and prolonged indecision won’t help you find one that is. The school you choose is guaranteed to disappoint you because the closer you get, the more clearly you will see its flaws. But your child will get a good enough education, maybe even a great one. And contrary to conventional wisdom, your school choice does not predict every other single thing that will happen in your child’s life.

It’s your cooking that will do that.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles as “Choose the Right Day School” on August 24, 2001.

August 24, 2001

Hands Off My Volcano (Jewish Journal)

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June 29, 2001

Hands Off
My Volcano

by Wendy Mogel


One evening not too long ago, I strolled through the science fair at a local middle school. The work of the students was not much in evidence, but the fingerprints of their parents were everywhere. No matter how often they are warned by teachers to let their children do the science projects, many parents just can’t let go. They’ve got to jump into the game, using the creaky excuse, “It’s for the sake of my child. Winning a prize here could mean a lot on that college application a few years down the line.”

There seems to be no limit to the parental interference — or subterfuge. I’ve been on a national speaking tour this year and have unearthed some alarming stories, even at wonderful schools. Some of the smartest, most devoted parents are using bizarre, often unethical, nearly illegal maneuvers in the name of protecting their child’s academic standing. A middle-school teacher told me he received an e-mail from a student demanding a point-by-point explanation of her grade on an English exam. Problem is, this was the student’s English teacher. He knew the girl’s writing style and vocabulary. He also knew her gentle nature. The teacher quickly figured out that the e-mail was not written by his student. That’s right, it was written by her dad.

Driven by anxiety that their children will not measure up, parents bend the rules and force their children to do the same. Some have confessed to me that they enroll their children in unnecessary tutoring or test-prep classes and urge them to keep it secret from the school.

Along with lessons in deviousness, children are learning from their parents that actions have consequences. That is, their teachers’ actions do. Frustrated teachers tell me that today’s parents have a very low tolerance for average grades. If a student receives a “C,” not on a report card but on a single test, it’s not uncommon for the parent to phone the teacher and issue a reprimand.

Even “C” students get the message: You are not responsible for your grade, your teacher is. If you don’t like it, it can be fixed — not by working harder, but by complaining.

Why are normally reasonable and ethical parents resorting to such extreme maneuvers? Stock wisdom says that nothing fundamental ever really changes, but our world is fundamentally different from the world we grew up in. The startling and rapid changes we see in the economy, in family life, in religious institutions, technology and education leave us breathless and excited, disoriented and anxious. As sensitive, protective parents, we want to armor our children with a thick layer of skills to prepare them for this uncertain future. We have convinced ourselves that they must excel at every level. If that means tilting the playing field, so be it. We’re ready. But what about our children?

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the great, uncompromising Chassidic leader, once said, “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they will not themselves study Torah, but will simply instruct their children to do so.”

No parent wishes to leave a child with a legacy of lessons in lying and cheating. Quite the opposite. We care so much about teaching our children ethics and respect that we send them to religious school to study Jewish rules about being a good person. But our children learn far more from our actions than they do from any character-education curriculum. By teaching them to exaggerate, break rules, disrespect adults and be devious, we won’t end up with children armored for the future but with children armored only for a solitary climb to the top of the college-admissions pile. Once they are adults, the bad habits they learn from us are more likely to hurt them than to give them an edge.

When I look at all those science projects so clearly lacking the clumsy, painstaking touch of a young hand, I can almost see Mom or Dad toiling away, their child at their side, begging for a turn with the glue gun. But today’s determined (and fun-deprived) parents are not giving an inch. A papier-mâché volcano! Messy poster paints! Baking soda! Vinegar! Here’s an excuse to play and ensure a good grade for my child. The joy of creation, the satisfaction of doing all that hard work, maybe even the thrill of winning a ribbon — what parent can resist? For the sake of their children, more of them should.

 

July 29, 2001