October 8, 2010

Raising Good Kids, With a Good Deal of Restraint

By 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