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Retract your mom claws

Wendy Mogel sets new rules for reasonableness

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

January 26, 2011 | 12:10 pm

Wendy Mogel

Wendy Mogel

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.

Here goes:

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.

Teens’ brains are in a scrambled state of development as they work to forge their own identities, oscillating between unexpected maturity and unbelievable impulsivity, Mogel writes, describing the neurological science behind their emotional rollercoasters. Teens, therefore, live in their own self-centered universes of screeching hormones and intense passions for people and possessions; their wiring can make them feel invulnerable and so, so much smarter than their parents.

The parents’ challenge, then, is to appreciate their teen’s quirks for the blessings they embody — passion, growth, idealism, energy — and to help the teen achieve what she is most trying to do: become an adult. Plus, parents have to do all this without getting sucked into a personal battle with their child, and by fighting the urge to constantly swoop in to rescue the teen from herself.

“I call it compassionate detachment — you detach from this individual moment, but you don’t detach from the person,” Mogel said during an interview in her office. “You have to recognize that they can’t be good problem solvers unless they have problems to solve. They have to make dumb mistakes to get smart. You need to be alert, but not alarmed. So there is definitely involvement, but not this anxious hovering.”

As she did in her first book, Mogel again combines psychological analysis, biblical and rabbinical sources, and practical, real-life parenting skills she says she honed while guiding her own two daughters, now happily in their 20s, through bumpy adolescent years.

Allow Teens to Grow From Experience

A parent’s instinct may be to rescue a child from the normal problems of adolescence, but that does the child a disservice, Wendy Mogel writes.

“When we intervene to prevent the pain of tough situations, we create a reflex: Whenever the child feels any sadness, confusion, frustration or disappointment, she believes she cannot survive the feeling,” Mogel writes. “If teenagers don’t have an opportunity to recognize their bad feelings or problems and learn to manage them, they go off to college and seek out quick, reliable methods to make the pain disappear — meaning they substitute denial, alcohol, drugs, sex, dramatic relationships, frantic overwork or daily calls home for actual problem solving.”

So, how do parents step aside?

Wait it out: “Teenagers’ problems can catch fire, flare spectacularly and then fizzle out just as quickly,” Mogel writes.

Be empathetic, not entangled: “Be curious and kind, but not alarmed,” Mogel writes. Give teens an opportunity to vent and unload and then express faith in your teen’s ability to solve the problem herself.

Normalize setbacks: When the situation is settled and feelings are less raw, talk to teens about how you’ve coped with frustrating situations.

Encourage them to seek help: Teach teens to problem-solve directly with other adults, such as a coach or a teacher, instead of intervening on her behalf.

Demonstrate confidence in your teen’s ability: “Before you swing into action, allow your teen to surprise you with his resourcefulness,” Mogel writes.

Distinguish dramas from emergencies: If a situation is one where you would consider calling 911, or if it looks like it could head in that direction, immediately intervene. Otherwise, learn to read your teen’s demeanor to distinguish situations that are truly out of the ordinary.

Mogel’s dead-on anecdotes offer parents a knowing laugh that easily slides into a grimace, and her practical tips provide action-items, guidelines and responses to those moments when it looks like your 16-year-old is about to ruin her life. (Mogel also helps you discern whether that might really be true.) Plus, the book is not just for Jews, despite the Torah-intensive bent: Everyone, from Bible Belt church groups to Catholic schools to Jewish community centers around the world, has invited Mogel to speak, looking to her to help make sense of the alien beings that have transmuted from once-adorable children and taken over their homes.

“I think, in our culture, we are very afraid of teenagers. We’re terribly afraid of them, and we envy them, and we despise them if they don’t fulfill our dreams. And that is very potent, and it’s complicated,” Mogel said.

Mogel asks parents to define their children’s success not by which college accepts them but by how well they handle themselves when they get to that college (or vocational school or art institute, if that is what is right for them), and, more important, what kind of adults they become when they get out.

Mogel debunks the must-go-to-Yale myth. She asks parents to look around them and notice that there is little correlation between successful adults and where those adults went to college, and she offers studies and admission officers’ anecdotes to support her argument.

So, if — and Mogel understands that it’s a big if — parents can get their heads around the idea that there are many paths to success, they also need to consider why they are so focused on high achievement and top universities.

Are they projecting their own unrealized dreams onto their teens? Do they need their teen to reflect the family’s status? Are they using their teen’s success as a mission to keep their own life focused? Is their grief at no longer having a small child clouding their ability to let go and let the child develop as an individual?

Mogel observes that over the years, a trend has developed, where, college administrators say, teens are getting to college as “teacups” — easily cracked by any sign of adversity. Mom and Dad, in their supreme efforts to make sure their teen’s path to college was smooth and padded and foolproof, spent the previous four years battling the high school, orchestrating social situations and clearing the teen’s schedule of any work or chores or real responsibility, so the teen might focus on what the parents thought really mattered — grades and the right extracurriculars.

“The teen is expected to study, study, study, while the parent acts as a cross between a sherpa, concierge and the secret police,” Mogel writes.

The teen never sees the actual consequences of procrastinating, laziness or irresponsibility, because parents always come to the rescue.

In extreme cases, the outcome can be dire. Mogel says that in her practice, she has met with well-meaning parents in privileged families who are baffled by their troubled children’s behavior — which can include self-injury, eating disorders or acting out with sex or drugs.

Mogel’s advice and remedies tend toward common sense and healthy choices — down-to-earth aids to living: outdoor time, unstructured fun, cooking, family Shabbat dinners and taking on actual responsibility.

Chores, she advises, keep teens tied into family life and give them practical knowledge of how to take care of themselves and their stuff. Doing dishes, taking out trash and helping around the house also provide a sense of connection and responsibility toward others. Kids who have no chores become what she calls “handicapped royalty.”

“They suffer from both loneliness (because they believe they are too special to cooperate with others) and anxiety (because they feel they are too fragile to cope with everyday life),” she writes.

The best tool for learning about consequences and real life is actual work — the kind teens get paid for, Mogel said.

“I think paid jobs are so wildly undervalued,” she said. “And the reason a paid job is so great is that if you don’t do it well, you get fired. And if you do it well, you get money. And money is freedom for teenagers, so they don’t have to negotiate with parents over every decision. It’s this fantastic reality curriculum that’s free for parents.”

Not to mention that college admissions officers have told her they would rather get a good reference from a Starbucks manager than hear about another summer volunteer program in Africa that parents paid thousands of dollars for.

Work will also help teens pay for some of their own stuff. Self-centeredness and passionate materialism are part of being a teen, Mogel writes, but that doesn’t mean parents need to drop inordinate amounts on the perfect skinny jeans.

Of course, telling your teen he has to unload the dishwasher, get a job and pay for his own $120 sunglasses can provoke that innately teenage weapon: attitude.

Mogel believes, though, that rudeness to parents represents a teen’s way of separating himself from his parents and asserting his own identity, so to some degree it can, and should, be tolerated. Parents are a safe punching bag to let off steam, say, after a teen has kept it together all day (much like a toddler’s post-preschool meltdown).

She advises parents to customize a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors when it comes to sass, and to retain authority by staying cool and focused on the issue at hand, even when teens push buttons and make personal attacks. Mogel asks parents to remember that the flip side of the rudeness coin is that teens today are infinitely closer to and more comfortable with their parents than in past generations. Today’s teens talk to their parents more, share more cultural experiences — Facebook, music, movies — and sometimes even consider parents as friends.

Still, for unacceptable lip and serious infractions, she advises, don’t be afraid of instating consequences. Stand up to teens’ lawyerly arguments when they need to be punished by, say, taking away the car keys, or telling them they can’t go to a party.

And she cautions against becoming a creepy parent-friend type who comments too much on Facebook or becomes too permissive about alcohol or sex.

Mogel’s take on substances and sex is nuanced, and rules and reactions inevitably will vary from kid to kid and as the teen grows older. But she has a basic premise when it comes to what she describes as the “ethical fieldwork” the teen will inevitably try.

“The later, the better, for everything, and that is what you communicate to your kids. And, for some things, never is even better than later,” she said about sex, alcohol and drugs. “There are biological, emotional and spiritual realities that should lead parents to encourage their children to wait with everything and to help them manage peer pressure. But,” she cautions, and this is where the nuance comes in, “don’t be a naïve dope.”

She urges parents to acknowledge to themselves (not necessarily aloud to their kids) that they did — and survived — similar things when they were young, and that their children will, too. Let that “truthiness” come out in interactions as you proactively discuss (in small, natural doses — no sit-down lectures) values surrounding sex, drugs and alcohol. Respond openly to the media barrage and discuss decisions about particular events — unsupervised parties, relationships, what everyone else is doing.

“Zero tolerance is a blunt instrument, and it makes you into a poor resource for your child,” Mogel said.

It is this nuanced understanding of the humanity of teens that makes Mogel’s approach more challenging, and more realistic, than the hard-core demands of Chua’s Chinese model. In Chua’s world, the parent has all the right answers and absolute authority all the time, no matter who the kid is or what the situation.

Mogel, however, asks parents to do some tough work: to look deeply into themselves, and then look deeply into their children, so that both parents and children can emerge whole from this complicated period.

Because, she assures parents, how your teens look and act now is not how they will look when they emerge as fully formed adults — sometime in their 20s.

“We think they should go from sweet, adoring toddlers who say, ‘Mommy, please lie down here, don’t go, read me another story, I love you so much,’ to sojourner statesmen with nothing in between,” Mogel said.

“But there’s this whole thing in between that is a parent’s best opportunity to learn leadership. But it’s really, really hard.”

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