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The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Raising Self-Reliant Children

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The beloved bestseller that offers a practical, inspiring new roadmap for raising self-reliant, ethical, and compassionate children.

In the trenches of a typical day, every parent encounters a child afflicted with ingratitude and entitlement. In a world where material abundance abounds, parents want so badly to raise self-disciplined, appreciative, and resourceful children who are not spoiled by the plentitude around them. But how to accomplish this feat? The answer has eluded the best-intentioned mothers and fathers who overprotect, overindulge, and overschedule their children's lives.

Dr. Mogel helps parents learn how to turn their children's worst traits into their greatest attributes. Starting with stories of everyday parenting problems and examining them through the lens of the Torah, the Talmud, and important Jewish teachings, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows parents how to teach children to honor their parents and to respect others, escape the danger of overvaluing children's need for self-expression so that their kids don't become "little attorneys," accept that their children are both ordinary and unique, and treasure the power and holiness of the present moment.

It is Mogel's singular achievement that she makes these teachings relevant for any era and any household of any faith. A unique parenting book, designed for use both in the home and in parenting classes, with an on-line teaching guide to help facilitate its use, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee is both inspiring and effective in the day-to-day challenge of raising self-reliant children.

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About the Author:

Wendy Mogel, PhD, is a practicing clinical psychologist, international public speaker, and the author of Voice Lessons for Parents, the New York Times bestseller The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and The Blessing of a B Minus. She lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her website at WendyMogel.com.

 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 2: The Blessing of Acceptance:

Discovering Your Unique and Ordinary Child

I recently read a third-grade school newsletter that used the word special five times on two pages. The Thanksgiving Sing was special. So was the Spellathon. The Emerging Artists exhibition was special. Even the unassuming Pie Drive was, for reasons not clearly revealed by the newsletter coverage, special indeed. And, finally, this year's third-grade class was in itself a very, very special group.

I wondered, Is it possible? So much specialness concentrated in one place? A cosmic coincidence? Or was this really an extraordinary school with unusually dazzling children, committed teachers, generous and energetic families? In fact, this school is a fine and good one. The children are intelligent and well behaved, the teachers care, the parents give of their time and money. But it is not a terribly unusual school, and I questioned the benefit of believing otherwise.

The third-grade newsletter was not unique. At nearly every campus I visit, the staff, the posters on the walls, and the overall atmosphere emphasize that this is not merely a place of learning, it's a breeding ground for enlightened, compassionate champions. The schools are not to blame for their hubris. Parents, with their grand expectations for their children, have sparked the outbreak of specialness.

My friend Paula, who runs a terrific elementary school, told of taking a mother on a prospective parents' tour of the campus. The mom said that her daughter Sloane had a strong interest in science. "At another school I visited, the kindergarten teachers put streamers in the trees to demonstrate the properties of wind to the students," she reported. "I'm hoping you would do that here too. I wouldn't want Sloaner to miss out."

"We have leaves on our trees," Paula responded. "They do the same thing. Can't guarantee we'll be using streamers." Sloane's mother sent her daughter to the school with the streamers.

The principal of another school complained to me about his frustration with parents' expectations:

Too many parents want everything fixed by the time their child is eight. They want academic perfection, a child as capable as any other child in the Western hemisphere. Children develop in fits and starts, but nobody has time for that anymore. No late bloomers, no slow starters, nothing unusual accepted! If a child doesn't get straight A's, his parents start fretting that he's got a learning disability or a motivation problem. The normal curve has disappeared. Parents seem to think that children only come in two flavors: learning disabled and gifted. Not every child has unlimited potential in all areas. This doesn't mean most kids won't be able to go to college and to compete successfully in the adult world. Almost all of them will. Parents just need to relax a little and be patient.

What's going on here? Why does the newsletter shout hosannas? Why is Sloane's mother so anxious for her daughter to experience a miniature physics lab in kindergarten? Why can't parents let their eight-year-olds develop at a natural, raggedy pace?

When I began studying Judaism, one of the first things that struck me was how directly it spoke to the issue of parental pressure. According to Jewish thought, parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are. A Hasidic teaching says, "If your child has a talent to be a baker, don't tell him to be a doctor." Judaism holds that every child is made in the divine image. When we ignore a child's intrinsic strengths in an effort to push him toward our notion of extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God's plan.

If the pressure to be special gets too intense, children end up in the therapist's office suffering from sleep and eating disorders, chronic stomachaches, hair-pulling, depression, and other ailments. They are casualties of their parents' drive for perfection. It was children such as these who spurred me to look outside standard therapeutic practices for ways to help. In Judaism I found an approach that respects children's uniqueness while accepting them in all their ordinary glory.

MISSION: PERFECTION

In Chapter 1 I described my surprise and confusion when, after conducting tests and telling parents that their child was "within normal limits," the parents were frequently disappointed. In their view, a diagnosable problem was better than a normal, natural limitation. A problem can be fixed, but a true limitation requires adjustment of expectations and acceptance of an imperfect son or daughter. Parents feel hope if their restless child is actually hyperactive, their dreamy child has ADD, their poor math student has a learning disorder, their shy child has a social phobia, their wrongdoing son has "intermittent explosive disorder." If there is a diagnosis, specialists and tutors can be hired, drugs given, treatment plans made, and parents can maintain an illusion that the imperfection can be overcome. Their faith in their child's unlimited potential is restored.

Why are parents so anxious to be raising perfect children? The answer is twofold: pride and fear of the future.

My Child, My Masterpiece

Janet asked for advice from me and the other members of our parenting class about how to "talk sense" to her older son.

Do you know about the Johns Hopkins Talent Search? They offer sixth graders the chance to take the SAT. If a student scores in the same range as the average twelfth grader on either verbal or math he qualifies for a special summer academic program on a college campus. I know that Dylan would qualify in math but he says he doesn't want to sit for the test. This is crazy because the school wouldn't even know his score and if he makes it and enters the talent search program it would look great on his transcript.

Laypeople call it bragging; psychologists describe it as "achievement by proxy syndrome." Some parents use their children's achievements for their own sense of security, personal glory, or the fulfillment of unfulfilled dreams. Even parents who don't use their children as a hedge against existential fears or a badge of their own worth can find it hard not to succumb to the fever of competition.

It wasn't always this way. In the past, parents produced children for their work value (hands to labor on the farm). Today many parents see their children's achievement as an important family "product." This attitude leads to an upside-down, child-centered perspective where we cater to children's whims yet pressure them to achieve at all costs -- academically, socially, and athletically. But this pressure can backfire.

Children who feel that they are expected to surpass their parents' already high level of achievement or to demonstrate skills that are beyond their capabilities will suffer. Some children are one-trick ponies, and trying to get them to master a broad variety of skills is futile and destructive. Keep at it, and they'll even forget their one trick. Other children begin to feel as if they are working only for their parents' satisfaction, and they openly rebel. Some respond to the pressure by losing their intrinsic enjoyment of mastering skills, and still others use psychosomatic symptoms to get out of the running. By exaggerating their defects, these children hope to avoid failure and to have their progress measured by more individual, realistic standards.

Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly "yours." In Hebrew there is no verb for possession; the expression we translate as "to have," yesh li, actually means "it is there for me" or "there is for me." Although nothing belongs to us, God has made everything available on loan and has invited us to borrow it to further the purpose of holiness. This includes our children. They are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what it is.

Conquering the Future with Brave Little Generalists

If children were required to excel only in certain areas, they might be better able to cope with their parents' expectations. Psychologist Michael Thompson says that we make unfairly "generic" demands on our adolescents: "It is the only period in your life when you're expected to do all things well. Adults don't hold themselves to those standards. We don't interview the pediatrician about whether he can throw a basketball, or quiz our accountant on biology before we let her do our taxes. In elementary and high school we celebrate the generalist, but in the real world there is no room for the generalist except on Jeopardy!"

The age at which we expect children to become very good at everything is getting lower. Part of the reason for this is parents' fears of an uncertain future, one that is hurtling at us more quickly than ever before. The computer bought today can be replaced by a cheaper, lighter, snappier-looking one with a faster modem by the time we get it out of the box. Parents worry that in this hyperpaced world, only the child who excels at everything will survive. If young Maya can't design her own Web site, stay at the very top of her class, run a marathon, and speak confidently before large groups, she'll be left in the dust.

Our attempts to prepare our children for the future are limited by our own imaginations of what the future will be like. We're apprehensive, but our children are not. The high-tech, rapidly changing world that seems so mind-bending to us is normal to them. "Preparing" our children for this new world by turning them into supercompetitive generalists is useless because we can't second-guess the skills they will need twenty years from now. The only things that are certain to be valuable are character traits such as honesty, tenacity, flexibility, optimism, and compassion -- the same traits that have served people well for centuries.

Fear of the Ordinary: Lake Wobegon Parenting

Remember Lake Wobegon, the fictional town created by Garrison Keillor, where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average"? That sunny, statistics-defying state of mind is familiar turf for elementary school teachers. They describe hearing the same song every year when it's time for parent conferences. One weary middle school director told me,

Parents are so nervous. If their child is doing well in everything it's like a badge for them that everything is OK. If their child is, God forbid, average, they panic. That's why so many teachers have started giving "Lake Wobegon" report cards. Teachers are afraid that if they give anything less than an A, parents will blame their child's poor achievement on the teacher's lack of skill rather than on the child's limitations. This is a shame, because real problems get glossed over or missed until fourth grade, when there's no more hiding it and the child's weaker areas show up on standardized tests.

Some parents can maintain the specialness myth with their children long past fourth grade. Is this good for the child's self-esteem? Listen to Isabel, a student I interviewed at an elite private school. Isabel will be entering the eleventh grade next year. She told me that she was having a hard time socially. The last two boys she wanted to have as boyfriends hadn't been interested in her. Her teachers seemed to favor other students. She felt confused and hurt:

I know why this is so hard for me. My mom and dad always, always made me feel like I was the best: the most beautiful, the smartest, the most charming. And mostly I've done well in everything. But, now I'm finding out that I'm not that unusual. Maybe I'm good enough, but I don't know anymore.

Like so many parents, Isabel's mother and father were afraid their daughter would think she was ordinary. Whether they were also reluctant to admit to themselves that their child was "merely" average, I don't know. But their Lake Wobegon attitude has not benefited Isabel. They've put her on a pedestal and now she's stuck up there, unable to find out what level she would reach if she had a chance to bob around with everybody else.

Boys and Girls: Equal but Different

There is another aspect of contemporary child-rearing that places still more pressure on our children. Over the past twenty years, teachers and social scientists have downplayed the differences between boys and girls. It's been done as a corrective to a history of inequality, but the result is that we've come to expect boys to behave like girls and girls like boys in circumstances where this is difficult for them. There's no question that all children should be encouraged to pursue whatever field interests them, but a gender-blind approach can sometimes increase the stress on our overstressed kids. Gone are the gender-based safe havens of the past; now both sexes have the opportunity -- the obligation -- to excel in every arena, from academics to sports, from being a good listener to being a leader.

God is the original maker of distinctions: light from darkness, the seventh day of rest from the six days of labor, sacred from profane. While remaining aware of the potential for discrimination, we can also remain respectful of innate distinctions between boys and girls. For example, their interests and developmental stages are often different. Instead of trying to ignore or flatten these differences, we can pay attention to the ways they are revealed in our children's behavior. If you fear that acknowledging any gender differences will lead to unfair treatment, your children may miss out on getting what they need. In order to treat our daughters and sons fairly it is sometimes necessary to treat them differently. Honoring distinctions can lead to equal opportunity.

Inappropriate Expectations of Boys

Laurie's son, Noah, was born when her daughter, Rachel, was four. "I was amazed at the differences from the start," she said. "When Noah was a baby he shouted 'Ball!' whenever he saw the letter O. He insisted that I walk on the trafficky side of the street instead of the lovely tree-lined residential side so he could see the trucks up close. He called out to every one, 'Rrruuum! Rrruuum!'"

Noah concentrated so hard that he could do only one thing at a time. If Laurie wanted him to listen to her, she had to hold his three-year-old face in her hands. She couldn't take him with her on errands because he'd run away. Laurie and her husband, Mark, decided that they would never allow Noah to have toy guns or to watch TV, only educational videos. That didn't stop Noah from shooting at everything -- he'd just cock his finger or make a gun out of his toast or a graham cracker.

What will happen when this truck-loving, hyperfocused, shoot-'em-up guy gets to kindergarten? When he has to sit still at a table for a chunk of the day and practice printing upper- and lowercase letters? When he has to cooperate nicely all day long? When no fart noises or finger guns are permitted? ("Noah, I know you remember how to use your words, right, Noah?")

Here's what his teacher might tell Laurie: "Noah has such a hard time sitting still and following instructions. We're wondering if this might be ADD. Of course, Noah is too young for us to know for sure yet. But you might consider having him tested next year."

Kindergarten used to be a place for making clay handprints, singing songs, and listening to stories, nothing more. The teacher's goal was to help the children learn how to be part of a group and to swim around in a pond bigger than their own home and family. But in many schools today the early elementary grades have become a time fo...

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