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