Photography by Max S. Gerber
A psychologist and author turns to the Talmud to help children and parents, alike.
by Catherine O’Neill Grace ’72,
These days, no one’s too surprised to hear about parents who write a high school daughter’s college entrance essay, or even call a young adult son’s prospective boss to discuss the terms of a job offer. That’s parenting, 21st-century style. But as Wendy Mogel ’73—author of the perennial bestseller, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children—was gathering material for her forthcoming book, The Blessing of a B Minus, she heard a tale that pushed the limits even further. It was about parents who got a divorce but didn’t tell their kids, worrying that it might upset them. The explanation for Dad’s absence? He was on an extended business trip.
Such stories distress, but no longer surprise, Mogel. The clinical psychologist and author has spent much of the last decade traveling around the country talking to worried parents from all walks of life. Her primary objective is to help parents understand how important it is to let their children make—and learn from—their mistakes and to understand that shielding them from life’s lessons can be counterproductive.
Mogel lives in Hollywood and is married to the successful producer, screenwriter, and novelist Michael Tolkin ’74. She has found that parental anguish is particularly intense in the perfection-obsessed private schools and palatial homes of Los Angeles. These are the kind of parents she saw in her clinical practice and the kind she feared she was becoming when her children were little.
“I was a regular old clinical psychologist—and then I had little children and I found Judaism,” Mogel says, of the faith that changed her view of parenting. With a friend, she began attending services and found herself moved, and supported as a parent, by what she found there. Suspending her practice, she spent a year studying Judaism full time; her young family began celebrating the Sabbath at home. (Today, she and Tolkin belong to Temple Israel of Hollywood and have supported the Jewish community at Middlebury College for many years.)
“When I began studying Judaism, one of the first things that struck me was how directly it spoke to the issue of parental pressure,” Mogel writes in Skinned Knee. “According to Jewish thought, 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.’”
Skinned Knee, which grew out of the lectures Mogel developed for a Jewish parenting class, started out small. “They printed 5,000 copies of what they thought was a nice Jewish parenting book,” Mogel says. In spite of a rave review in Publishers Weekly, news of the book traveled mainly through word of mouth, from parent to parent, teacher to teacher, school to school. “Some independent schools give a copy to every new parent, others to every teacher. I’ve heard of acting classes using it, and it’s used in seminaries. So sales do remain brisk!”
Ten years after that first modest press run, there are some 300,000 copies of Skinned Knee in print, and the book has gone back on press 28 times. “The surprising thing is that it became an important book in the non-Jewish community, especially in the world of independent schools,” she says. “People overcame their prejudices about a parenting book that used religious thought as its foundation. They were willing to embrace traditional Jewish thought, and see it as universal, as something that is old and true—and that’s how I felt when I stumbled upon the Talmud.”
In Skinned Knee, Mogel writes that modern parents tend to be like “cruise ship directors who must get [our children] to their destination—adulthood—smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave.” That overprotective approach means parents deprive children of essential experience: “Those bumps are part of God’s plan.”
Mogel’s bestseller counsels parents to let their children take risks and make their own mistakes. It also turns to traditional Jewish teaching to explore a series of “blessings” that enrich family life and create stability—including honoring parents, valuing work, embracing tradition, and experiencing gratitude.
Jewish tradition was not part of Mogel’s childhood in Manhattan. “I was not from a religious family at all,” she says. “Michael had a bar mitzvah and was confirmed, but neither of us had anything to do with religion until our first daughter, Susanna, was three.”
As interest in Skinned Knee grew, Mogel was asked to speak all over the country, at schools, synagogues, and gatherings of professional organizations. “I was surprised and very gratified—and I found out that my true calling was not being a therapist or even being a writer, but being a public speaker,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing to do. I am a circuit preacher.”
Mogel’s dance card for speaking engagements is sure to be even fuller when The Blessing of a B Minus is published in September. “The working subtitle is something like ‘raising resilient teenagers in a nervous world,’” she says. “I started this book five years ago, and my kids are now 18 and 22.” Older daughter Susanna is a Haverford graduate and teaches nursery school; younger daughter Emma, who enjoys playing bluegrass music and songwriting, is at the University of Chicago.
Stories about the girls abound in Skinned Knee, but for B Minus Mogel has drawn instead on the stories that administrators, teachers, and parents have told her as she travels the country. She is well aware of parents’ anxiety—indeed their terror—about their children’s futures.
“This was a much, much harder book to write because it’s a harder topic,” says Mogel. She sees teenagers today as both pressured and pampered—a poisonous recipe for raising confident, independent human beings. “We’re constantly taking their emotional temperatures. The reflex is to overprotect, overindulge, and overschedule.”
But being protected from reality makes kids much less able to cope with it. School administrators and teachers find that girls these days are anxious, boys emotionally shut down. “They call them ‘teacups’ and ‘crispies’ because they’re so fragile, dependent on their parents and burned out from APs and worries about burnishing their transcripts,” says Mogel. “But I want kids to be able to range free a bit and to be around knives, matches, divorce, cancer, death. I want teenagers to have to make choices about alcohol, drugs, and sex.”
Parents have to make tough choices, too—including ethical ones. “When someone calls from school and asks, ‘Is this late slip forged?’ you have to say yes, even if it gets your child in trouble,” Mogel says.
There are qualities in this generation of teenagers that give Mogel hope. “They’re so passionate. There is exuberant, tender, relaxed, collegial mutual support between the genders. They are worldly, and they’re not as prejudiced as we were. And when they’re not too stressed, their entitlement shows itself as energetic idealism and can lead to creative solutions to social problems.”
Mogel says that she again drew on Talmudic wisdom for the new book, but in a less prescriptive way. Rather, the religious framework of the book gives parents something to lean on themselves—the potential for pleasure in watching the circus of adolescence, a sense of the sturdiness of reality, and the power of human resilience. Says Mogel, “Jewish teachings are really about having faith in the future.”
December 21, 2009