Alpha Mom Book Club: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
I admit that I stayed away The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel because I assumed, from the title, that it was an indictment of helicopter parenting. And as a Black Hawk relatively comfortable with the hovering, I did not particularly want to read how skinning knees, an accident wholly preventable if children wear knee pads at all times and also sit quietly and read, is essential to a happy childhood and therefore life.
I may have judged the book by its cover. Fortunately, I finally read it.
The author is a child psychologist who grew increasingly frustrated with her practice. When parents brought their children in for an evaluation, they were often disappointed to hear what Mogel considered to be “good news”. The good news—that their child is within normal limits was received by the parents with disappointment. If the child was basically fine, then there was nothing to fix- no diagnosis, no prescription, no problem to solve. The realization their child was, perhaps, ordinary, was shattering, partly because the daily life with their children was difficult. There were conflicts about food served at dinner time, increasing demands for material goods, lack of respect towards parents, bedtime battles. The children were uncooperative unless absolutely everything had been aligned for them—“protected from any sort of danger, relieved of pressure to perform or take responsibility, and sufficiently stimulated by having lots of fun things to do” at which point they became pleasant. Too bad life doesn’t work like that.
On a personal level, as Mogel became more immersed in Judaism, she found that its tenets spoke to child-rearing in the modern age. The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee is an exploration of such application. Specifically, Mogel suggests that because Judaism sanctifies “the most mundane aspect of there here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in geand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds.” Although I am Jewish (and even yeshiva educated) I had no idea that the three main principles of Jewish life are moderation, celebration and sanctification. Mogel’s application of those principles to child-rearing is quite effective.
One of the most appealing aspects of Mogel’s book is that it is so smart and well-written that one doesn’t have to be Jewish or have any sort of religious affiliation to subscribe to her methods.
For example, the concept of bigdei kodesh refers to the holy clothing of the high priests, which was meant to elevate them and to give them a status that was distinct and higher than that of everyone else. Translated to parenting, Mogel posits that parents need to elevate their status as being above that of their children, with signs and symbols. This does not come naturally to many modern parents—we (I am definitely including myself in this grouping) see our homes and families as budding democracies, where our children’s thoughts and ideas and preferences are given weight. So much weight sometimes that there is no sense of hierarchy and everything – from mealtime to bedtime to toothbrushing in between becomes a negotiation.
According to Judaism, the purpose of raising ethical children is to “ensure that there will be people here to honor God after we are gone”. Child-rearing, then, is less focused on making the kids feel good and more about making them into good people, part of the larger community. That’s a tall order for those of us focused on rugged individualism.
One of my favorite take-aways from the book was a reminder: “Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly ‘yours’…[Our children] are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what that is.” This is so even though I am not a religious person so I do not talk about serving God within our family. However, the idea that our children do not belong to us, and have a higher purpose than to achieve across the board for achievement’s sake, is very appealing. Because after all, it’s less about bragging rights and collecting awards, and more about being a contributing member of society, whether it be based on a religion or other ways.
Mogel gives parents a break. We do not need to be extraordinary. We do not need to change everything into a “teachable moment.” It’s ok for our kids to be in a bad mood without cross-examining them as to why with the hope of getting to the root of the problem and solving it. It’s ok to let the kids play in the dirt, without turning it into a science lesson. It’s ok to be a person.
The approach to disrespectful children is contextualized. The Fifth Commandment, the one about honoring your parents is there because God knew that it didn’t come naturally to children. Knew that children are not going to respect their parents unless it is commanded. Mogel urges the parents to examine their attitude towards their children (“…your children don’t need two more tall friends…[t]hey have their own friends all of whom are cooler than you”) and towards their own parents. Do we treat them with respect? Or do they get lost in the shuffle of daily life and achievements?
Mogel reminds us that feelings often follow behavior. That is, rather than wait for your child to feel gratitude and express it, she encourages parents to incorporate expressions of gratitude into daily life, so that children will start to feel them. The idea is that parents should work on changing their children’s behavior, not their mood. If your kid is upset, that does not give him license to be rude. Which, as a member of society, is an important lesson to learn early and often.
But sometimes Mogel misses the mark. For example, she encourages “overcoming shyness,” by teaching children to do things such as smile and “tolerate small talk with grace” (something with which I am still struggling). The question remains—is shyness something that children, or anyone for that matter, needs to overcome? Should the pursuit of raising self-reliant children be so strong as to suppress the child’s natural personality? Or is there room for some individualism?
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
- Many parents feel uncomfortable with the “because I said so” response to their children’s “why” pleadings. Part of it is that parents believe that children should have a voice and are uncomfortable with the “because I said so” approach their parents adapted. Now we are learning that less explanation and negotiation is better for both the parent and the child. Is there a way to be respectful towards our children while making it clear that the parent’s rules govern?
- Mogel notes that “the current trend in parenting is to shield children from emotional or physical discomfort.” Do you find this to be true in your experience? Do you think it is harmful? How should parents handle their children’s emotional and/or physical discomfort?
- Do you think Mogel is correct in her perception that many parents believe “a diagnosable problem is better than normal, natural limitation”? Many parents cannot accept that their child is “ordinary” in certain respects. Why is “ordinary” so derogatory? Can we accept the concept of “good enough” for our children? Is the advice “have a little less ambition for yourself and your children…disappoint your kids with …essential mediocrity” sacrilegious?
Please join us in September when we will read and discuss Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson.Published August 18, 2014. Last updated August 18, 2014.