Photo: Jill Levenhagen

Read this article on The San Diego Union Tribune website.


January, 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 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 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
Column Name:  FAMILY | Jane Clifford
Text Word Count   1055

January 31, 2004