January, 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