The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

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9780142196007: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

Every parent hopes their child will be self-reliant, optimistic, and well mannered, a challenge in our current culture. Clinical psychologist and Jewish educator Wendy Mogel distills the ancient teachings of the Torah, the Talmud, important Jewish thinkers, and contemporary psychological insights into nine blessings that address key parenting issues such as:

* determining realistic expectations for each child
* respect for adults
* chores
* mealtime battles
* coping with frustration
* developing independence and self-control
* resisting over-scheduling and over-indulgence
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee guides us toward effective, enlightened parenting in an increasingly speedy, material, and competitive age.

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About the Author:

Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, lectures widely to parents, teachers, rabbinical students, and mental health professionals on meeting the challenges of modern family life. She is a member of the board of directors of the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 2: The Blessing of Acceptance:

Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child

I recently read a third-grade school newsletter that used the word special five times on two pages. The Thanksgiving Sing was special. So was the Spellathon. The Emerging Artists exhibition was special. Even the unassuming Pie Drive was, for reasons not clearly revealed by the newsletter coverage, special indeed. And, finally, this year's third-grade class was in itself a very, very special group.

I wondered, Is it possible? So much specialness concentrated in one place? A cosmic coincidence? Or was this really an extraordinary school with unusually dazzling children, committed teachers, generous and energetic families? In fact, this school is a fine and good one. The children are intelligent and well behaved, the teachers care, the parents give of their time and money. But it is not a terribly unusual school, and I questioned the benefit of believing otherwise.

The third-grade newsletter was not unique. At nearly every campus I visit, the staff, the posters on the walls, and the overall atmosphere emphasize that this is not merely a place of learning, it's a breeding ground for enlightened, compassionate champions. The schools are not to blame for their hubris. Parents, with their grand expectations for their children, have sparked the outbreak of specialness.

My friend Paula, who runs a terrific elementary school, told of taking a mother on a prospective parents' tour of the campus. The mom said that her daughter Sloane had a strong interest in science. "At another school I visited, the kindergarten teachers put streamers in the trees to demonstrate the properties of wind to the students," she reported. "I'm hoping you would do that here too. I wouldn't want Sloaner to miss out."

"We have leaves on our trees," Paula responded. "They do the same thing. Can't guarantee we'll be using streamers." Sloane's mother sent her daughter to the school with the streamers.

The principal of another school complained to me about his frustration with parents' expectations:

Too many parents want everything fixed by the time their child is eight. They want academic perfection, a child as capable as any other child in the Western hemisphere. Children develop in fits and starts, but nobody has time for that anymore. No late bloomers, no slow starters, nothing unusual accepted! If a child doesn't get straight A's, his parents start fretting that he's got a learning disability or a motivation problem. The normal curve has disappeared. Parents seem to think that children only come in two flavors: learning disabled and gifted. Not every child has unlimited potential in all areas. This doesn't mean most kids won't be able to go to college and to compete successfully in the adult world. Almost all of them will. Parents just need to relax a little and be patient.

What's going on here? Why does the newsletter shout hosannas? Why is Sloane's mother so anxious for her daughter to experience a miniature physics lab in kindergarten? Why can't parents let their eight-year-olds develop at a natural, raggedy pace?

When I began studying Judaism, one of the first things that struck me was how directly it spoke to the issue of parental pressure. 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." Judaism holds that every child is made in the divine image. When we ignore a child's intrinsic strengths in an effort to push him toward our notion of extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God's plan.

If the pressure to be special gets too intense, children end up in the therapist's office suffering from sleep and eating disorders, chronic stomachaches, hair-pulling, depression, and other ailments. They are casualties of their parents' drive for perfection. It was children such as these who spurred me to look outside standard therapeutic practices for ways to help. In Judaism I found an approach that respects children's uniqueness while accepting them in all their ordinary glory.

MISSION: PERFECTION

In Chapter 1 I described my surprise and confusion when, after conducting tests and telling parents that their child was "within normal limits," the parents were frequently disappointed. In their view, a diagnosable problem was 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. Parents feel hope if their restless child is actually hyperactive, their dreamy child has ADD, their poor math student has a learning disorder, their shy child has a social phobia, their wrongdoing son has "intermittent explosive disorder." If there is a diagnosis, specialists and tutors can be hired, drugs given, treatment plans made, and parents can maintain an illusion that the imperfection can be overcome. Their faith in their child's unlimited potential is restored.

Why are parents so anxious to be raising perfect children? The answer is twofold: pride and fear of the future.

My Child, My Masterpiece

Janet asked for advice from me and the other members of our parenting class about how to "talk sense" to her older son.

Do you know about the Johns Hopkins Talent Search? They offer sixth graders the chance to take the SAT. If a student scores in the same range as the average twelfth grader on either verbal or math he qualifies for a special summer academic program on a college campus. I know that Dylan would qualify in math but he says he doesn't want to sit for the test. This is crazy because the school wouldn't even know his score and if he makes it and enters the talent search program it would look great on his transcript.

Laypeople call it bragging; psychologists describe it as "achievement by proxy syndrome." Some parents use their children's achievements for their own sense of security, personal glory, or the fulfillment of unfulfilled dreams. Even parents who don't use their children as a hedge against existential fears or a badge of their own worth can find it hard not to succumb to the fever of competition.

It wasn't always this way. In the past, parents produced children for their work value (hands to labor on the farm). Today many parents see their children's achievement as an important family "product." This attitude leads to an upside-down, child-centered perspective where we cater to children's whims yet pressure them to achieve at all costs -- academically, socially, and athletically. But this pressure can backfire.

Children who feel that they are expected to surpass their parents' already high level of achievement or to demonstrate skills that are beyond their capabilities will suffer. Some children are one-trick ponies, and trying to get them to master a broad variety of skills is futile and destructive. Keep at it, and they'll even forget their one trick. Other children begin to feel as if they are working only for their parents' satisfaction, and they openly rebel. Some respond to the pressure by losing their intrinsic enjoyment of mastering skills, and still others use psychosomatic symptoms to get out of the running. By exaggerating their defects, these children hope to avoid failure and to have their progress measured by more individual, realistic standards.

Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly "yours." In Hebrew there is no verb for possession; the expression we translate as "to have," yesh li, actually means "it is there for me" or "there is for me." Although nothing belongs to us, God has made everything available on loan and has invited us to borrow it to further the purpose of holiness. This includes our children. They are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what it is.

Conquering the Future with Brave Little Generalists

If children were required to excel only in certain areas, they might be better able to cope with their parents' expectations. Psychologist Michael Thompson says that we make unfairly "generic" demands on our adolescents: "It is the only period in your life when you're expected to do all things well. Adults don't hold themselves to those standards. We don't interview the pediatrician about whether he can throw a basketball, or quiz our accountant on biology before we let her do our taxes. In elementary and high school we celebrate the generalist, but in the real world there is no room for the generalist except on Jeopardy!"

The age at which we expect children to become very good at everything is getting lower. Part of the reason for this is parents' fears of an uncertain future, one that is hurtling at us more quickly than ever before. The computer bought today can be replaced by a cheaper, lighter, snappier-looking one with a faster modem by the time we get it out of the box. Parents worry that in this hyperpaced world, only the child who excels at everything will survive. If young Maya can't design her own Web site, stay at the very top of her class, run a marathon, and speak confidently before large groups, she'll be left in the dust.

Our attempts to prepare our children for the future are limited by our own imaginations of what the future will be like. We're apprehensive, but our children are not. The high-tech, rapidly changing world that seems so mind-bending to us is normal to them. "Preparing" our children for this new world by turning them into supercompetitive generalists is useless because we can't second-guess the skills they will need twenty years from now. The only things that are certain to be valuable are character traits such as honesty, tenacity, flexibility, optimism, and compassion -- the same traits that have served people well for centuries.

Fear of the Ordinary: Lake Wobegon Parenting

Remember Lake Wobegon, the fictional town created by Ga...

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