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Raising Self-Reliant Children

October, 2003

Review of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel. New York: Penguin Compass, 2001.

When it comes to parenting, interfaith couples face many of the same challenges that couples who share a religious commitment face. These include instilling good values in their children, teaching them to be resilient and self-reliant, and helping them learn rules and self-control.

All couples will therefore benefit from reading The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, which offers excellent advice in all of these areas and more. Although written from a Jewish perspective (the subtitle is "Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children"), even parents who have not embraced Judaism as the exclusive religion for their children and family will find many useful strategies for dealing with the myriad complex issues parents face.

The author is a clinical psychologist with much experience doing psychotherapy with children and families. But it is the failure of the traditional methods of psychotherapy to deal effectively with many of the problems that families presented, along with the author's serendipitous return to Judaism as a parent of young children, that provides the basis for the author's insights. "In the time-tested lessons of Judaism, I discovered insights and practical tools that spoke directly to both psychological and spiritual problems," she writes.

Mogel shares her journey from one faith (psychotherapy) to another (Judaism) in the first chapter, and then offers her insights in nine chapters, each of which she frames as a "blessing." Among the blessings which Mogel offers readers are:

  • "The Blessing of Acceptance," which focuses on "Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child;"
  • "The Blessing of Longing," which focuses on teaching children gratitude;
  • "The Blessing of Time," which focuses on helping children value the present moment;
  • "The Blessing of Food," which offers families suggestions to bring "Moderation, Celebration, and Sanctification to Your Table."

The book's seemingly paradoxical title is derived from a chapter which deals with the issue of avoiding overprotecting children by allowing them to make mistakes from which they can learn. "I'm not against helping with homework and building skills in sports, but what these parents are trying to do goes far beyond standard support and encouragement," the author laments. "They are trying to inoculate their children against the pain of life." She offers the mystical teaching of tsimtsum--in which God contracted within him/herself, since according to the mystics in the beginning God was everywhere--as a model for parents to slowly relinquish control over their children.

The author's five keys to building strong character include knowing when to nurture a child's ability to act independently, getting children into the habit of solving their own problems, and letting children experience the world, warts and all.

In addition to the many worthwhile insights and advice on parenting, the book also includes an annotated bibliography of books on Judaism, parenting, child development and children's books that teach about self-reliance. The book also includes a step-by-step guide that can be used to facilitate parenting classes or a book-club discussion.

Interfaith couples struggling with the appropriate place for religion in their family and home will especially appreciate Mogel's last chapter, "The Blessing of Faith and Tradition." She examines what she calls "Fear of the G Word" and offers a variety of ideas to become comfortable answering children's questions about God. "You don't need to know the 'right' answers in order to talk to your child about God. You can let her know that you haven't figured it all out yet, but you want to continue the conversation all through your life together."

She also addresses some of the ambivalence that Jewish adults often have toward Judaism, and suggests strategies for dealing with that ambivalence.

Throughout the book, the author uses examples of her own parenting successes and failures as well as challenges and solutions to parenting issues of her clients and her friends. Readers will often find themselves identifying with the stories that reflect common issues of parenting.

All parents and parents-to-be will greatly benefit from the blessings that Mogel offers in her fine book.

Rabbi Bruce Kadden
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