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Jewish Journal

Just Say No!

A new approach to putting order and respect back into the world of parenting.

by Julie G Fax

March 22, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Too many children are indulged and protected to the point that they won't take no for an answer and can't handle any kind of adversity, says psychologist Wendy Mogel. Parents, she said, need to worry less about their children's self-esteem and more about whether the kids are learning to be good people.

Too many children are indulged and protected to the point that they won't take no for an answer and can't handle any kind of adversity, says psychologist Wendy Mogel. Parents, she said, need to worry less about their children's self-esteem and more about whether the kids are learning to be good people.

Wendy Mogel, author of a bold and refreshing new Jewish parenting book, recently gave a lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center to the volunteer docents, most of them Jewish grandparents.

By the time she finished her presentation on the hazards and remedies of expecting too much from our overindulged, overprotected, over-scheduled children, she could almost see the senior citizens pumping their arms in a victorious "yes!"

"I think many of them feel their children are spoiling their grandchildren, and they're so happy to hear someone justify what they, through experience, believe children need," Mogel said in a recent interview with The Jewish Journal, talking about her new book "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children" (Scribner, $25).

Mogel, who holds a Ph.D. in social-clinical psychology, uses 21st century respect for children's cognitive and emotional development to bolster old-fashioned values such as divinely invested parental authority, household and societal responsibility, and the importance of being respectful and grateful.

Mogel's ideas all stem from Jewish concepts in Scripture and rabbinic literature. In her easy and reassuring writing style, parenting and Judaism seem to grow together organically to nourish both abstract principles and practical suggestions about raising children who are, in the most basic and real way, good people.

Mogel's book represents a welcome swing back of the parenting pendulum, which in the '80s and '90s was all about children's self-esteem and their ability to overachieve, all with the help of super-understanding and super-accommodating parents who had the utmost respect for their child's abilities to express their emotions and thoughts.

If the past few decades were about consensus and democracy in a family and the idea that children know best what they need for their own development, Mogel's approach sets needed limits for parents who harbor the best of intentions but somehow are producing children who are insecure, disrespectful, often depressive and at times working themselves into a midlife crisis by the time they hit 15.

With no hint of arbitrary rigidity and with loving humor, Mogel suggests that children thrive not on the indulgence of their physical and emotional needs but on the knowledge that there is order in their universe, that someone with a firm value system is in charge, that small accomplishments and everyday activities are essential and to be celebrated.

"Through the study and practice of Judaism, I learned that the parents I counseled had fallen into a trap created out of their own good intentions," Mogel writes in chapter one. "Determined to give their children everything they need to become 'winners' in this highly competitive culture, they missed out on God's most sacred gift to us: the power and holiness of the present moment."

Mogel, who is in her mid-40's, is an engaging speaker and an attentive listener, drawing out truths from deep within parents' stories.

"I have parents in my school who will go anywhere for her -- they can't get enough," said Judy Aronson, director of education at Leo Baeck Temple, where Mogel was recently scholar-in-residence. "She gives them great confidence in their ability to be great parents."

Mogel now lectures across the country to groups of all faiths about spiritual parenting.

But most of her work is in the Los Angeles area, since she limits her travels to once a month, so she can be home with her husband, screenwriter and director Michael Tolkin, and their daughters, Susanna, 14, and Emma, 10. Her office and home are both not far from the Larchmont Village Cafe where we met to talk about her book and her mission.

While her family belongs to Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Blvd. and to Temple Israel of Hollywood, where her daughters attend Hebrew school, Mogel herself grew up in New York City with some Jewish culture but no religious observance.

She entered the world of Judaism at a time when she was disillusioned with the world of psychology, feeling that the theories and approaches she had studied were not relevant to the parents, often well-off, who came to her practice seeking a diagnosis and remedy. What Mogel saw were children who were not able to thrive in the intensely democratic and highly demanding -- though still kind and loving -- milieus in which they existed. Often, the children were so protected from anything potentially harmful to their physical and emotional well-being, they had no idea how to handle even the smallest adversity.

"In my practice I often had the feeling that certain issues were not psychological but could be better understood in the context of the culture we are living in, which is so rich and complicated and exciting and frightening," Mogel said. "But just cultural analysis and psychological theory are not enough. You need a spiritual framework as a lens on the world we are raising our children in."

That framework came into focus about eight years ago, when Mogel was invited by a friend to Leo Baeck Temple for Rosh Hashanah. She sat through the service inexplicably crying, as the prayers and the sermon by Rabbi Sue Elwell touched her Jewish core. She attended Yom Kippur services at Leo Baeck and later Friday night services at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

It was there, during a sermon by Rabbi Daniel Swartz, that Mogel picked up an idea about order and authority that, though related to the high priest and not to parenting, she was able to apply successfully to a client family. It would set Mogel on a course that would change her approach to parenting altogether.

"I can't ever imagine going back to not using those ideas," Mogel said.

She soon decided to take a year off from her practice to study Judaism. During that year -- and before and after -- Mogel took three introduction to Judaism classes, studied at the Melton program of continuing education at the University of Judaism and put on a long skirt and covered her head to attend classes at the Sharon Price Institute at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and at the Jewish Learning Exchange.

She also began teaching a Jewish parenting class after a group of mothers approached her following a lecture at Temple Israel.

"I felt like I was a week ahead of them in my learning, which was very motivating for me because I didn't want to let them down," Mogel said.

Those classes are the basis for "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," which is about to begin its second printing in hardcover and will be available in paperback from Penguin in November.

The paperback will have a guide, already available online at www.SimonSays.com, for conducting a discussion group.

Mogel says she drew in part on the parenting theories of Orthodox authors to craft a book that could serve as a bridge to a wider audience. The book should appeal both to parents with little background in Judaism and to Jewishly knowledgeable parents who have simply not made the connection between their Jewish values and how they parent.

As it turns out, it's also become recommended reading for Christian educators and parents, whose schools feature prominently in Mogel's touring schedule.

"One of my favorite Jewish ideas that parents seem to need so badly right now is 'you will do and you will understand,'" Mogel said, paraphrasing the verse in Exodus with which the Israelites accepted the Torah. "We try so hard to get the children to understand our reasons for everything instead of treating some mandates as being divinely commanded," she said.

Parents, she says, are the holy stand-ins, bringing God's work into the universe of their own families.

"Some parents are inhibited about taking on this very dignified mantle of parenting because they have such deep respect for their children. It's really a paradox," she continued. "These little creatures are so thoughtful and bright and such skilled wordsmiths and can argue their case so well, so we just lie down. And that makes them anxious."

Rather, she says, parents should look to the Godly model of first and foremost establishing authority. The first of the Ten Commandments, she points out, is not a command at all, but a statement: "I am the Lord your God."

Once the authority is established, parents can follow through with requiring action.

Mogel's reliance on action makes her lofty and noble theories highly attainable. She harbors no illusions about how difficult it is to mold these young souls. That is why her book offers both anecdotes and courses of action for dealing with, among other issues, eating, homework, gratitude, materialism, chores and behavioral problems.

She encourages parents to stand firm in the face of their children's inevitable complaints.

"We can respect their protest and respect their outrage and frustration and disappointment and complaints of injustice and boredom. They have to believe deeply at least once a month that they've been born into the wrong family and it's a terrible tragedy," she said. "We need to have deep appreciation of their passion and brilliance, and then we continue to stand in the same spot."

Throughout the book, Mogel artfully integrates the Jewish cornerstones of moderation, celebration and sanctification.

And nowhere does moderation play a more important role than in dealing with the highly scheduled, highly demanding lives of young people today.

Mogel is deeply worried about the high expectations schools and families have for children -- prep courses for admission exams not just for the SAT, but for junior high; advanced classes that are inappropriate for children's developmental stages; a multitude of extracurriculars in the arts and in sports; tutors for every class -- all with a worshipful eye toward the Ivy League.

"The world is changing so quickly that things seem very unstable," she explains. "The divorce rate is high, people change jobs very quickly, the technology changes every day. We want to armor our children to be prepared for a very uncertain future," she said.

"But it's backfiring, and everyone is starting to look at the consequences, like stress and depression and self-injurious behavior in girls," where they deliberately cut themselves to feel the blood flow and let some of their pressure out.

Jewish parents need to take their cue from the idea of Shabbat -- take a step back and slow down, she said, as counterintuitive and difficult as that will be for a population that has achieved great success by educating itself and working hard to excel.

"What we do is what Jews have always done. We stand apart -- this is tremendously easy for me to say -- and have some independence in our values so we don't just go with the mainstream in this incredible competition," she said.

It is a message Mogel is carrying with her to lectures on the "Perils of Privilege" at private schools, secular and religious, of all faiths, across Los Angeles and the country.

Her interfaith work is a natural continuation of the message she lays out in her book -- that simplifying life, establishing order in your universe and recognizing the beauty of a moment far surpass the illusion of super-parents producing model children.

Once in a while, Mogel advises in the book, "plan nothing -- disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops. Strive to be a 'good enough' parent, not a great one. It can make everyone in the family relax and paradoxically make life richer."

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