February, 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.

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.

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.”

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