January 26, 2011
Retract your mom claws
Wendy Mogel sets new rules for reasonableness
Amy “Tiger Mother” Chua might want to cover her ears right now because clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel has a message for parents that would likely send Chua into one of those shrieking fits she reserves for her daughters’ subpar piano practices, or a verboten A-minus.
Your teen may not be a genius-entrepreneur-athlete-altruist-artist.
He will probably experiment with drugs, drinking and sex. The small stuff — like rudeness, irresponsibility and utter obliviousness to the effort and money you put into his well-being — will test you daily.
And — take a deep breath, upper-middle-class Jewish parents — your teen might not get into Harvard. Or even UCLA.
But that’s OK.
In her latest book, “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers” (Scribner, 2010), Mogel offers a counter-cultural, sometimes counter-instinctual approach to parenting that stands in stark contrast to the unbending so-called “Chinese” approach in Chua’s much-discussed new memoir/guidebook, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press). And if Chua has hit a nerve with parents who are as obsessed with their children’s academic success, Mogel offers both common sense and Jewish values as a counter-guide. Inadvertently timed to come out within weeks of one another, the reassuring tone of Mogel’s very sane book may be a life-saver to parents on the Chua-style edge.
Chua is a Yale law professor married to a Jewish Yale law professor; she describes with pride how she didn’t allow her daughters, now 18 and 15, to have playdates or go on sleepovers, watch television or play video games, or bring home anything less than in A in any class other than gym or drama. The girls had to practice hours a day to master both violin and piano, even on vacation. Any hint at deviation from Chua’s standards merited insults, punishment and harsher demands.
But well before an excerpt from Chua’s book appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal, sending parents — and journalists and talk-show hosts — into a frenzy, Mogel, whose first book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Scribner), came out 10 years ago, had been challenging parents to step outside the transcript-perfecting circus and acknowledge that there are dozens of paths to dozens of kinds of success — and those paths depend on knowing and understanding your child. She asks parents to set standards and then back off, to give kids space to err and stumble, and to allow them get up again — by themselves.
“Raising teens is the hardest thing parents have to do — it makes pregnancy and childbirth look like a picnic in the park,” said Mogel, who treats teens and children in her Larchmont Boulevard private practice. “Our instincts are to overprotect them, to overindulge them, to over-schedule them and to fight their battles for them. But that deprives them of the most critical learning they need to do.”
Mogel will be discussing her approach to raising teens at a forum sponsored by The Jewish Journal/TRIBE Media Corp. and the American Jewish University on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 2 p.m.
Indeed, in many ways, Chua and Mogel start from the same premise. Both believe Western parents over-coddle their children, demanding little of them but wanting everything for them. Both wonder at teens’ lack of respect for elders, and both fear for children whose half-baked efforts are breathlessly praised.
But the similarities end there. Chua’s response is to place impossibly high standards and demands on her children — she rejected her 4-year-old daughter’s homemade birthday card as a feeble effort. Chua picked up her children during recess so they could spend the time on more lessons, rather than waste it playing. She called them “garbage” to their faces when they under-performed.
Mogel also advises parents to place demands on teens — not just academically, but in the home and in society — and counsels parents to set standards and model values. But she views the process of raising offspring as much messier and nuanced than Chua’s black-and-white version, requiring a more moderate and compassionate approach modeled on the Jewish ideal of finding a path between two extremes.
It’s also a harder approach for parents to undertake. Mogel doesn’t lay out a neat list of dos and don’ts, nor does she offer blanket prescriptions, as Chua does. She instead offers information and ideas and asks parents to customize their skills and tactics as they learn about their own motivations and their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Her approach of moderation and resisting the urge to always fix everything requires work from parents. And not all parents will be up to the task.
Especially because teens can be so hard to understand.