I parent, therefore I self-flagellate (only verbally, of course.) It can sound like this: “Do pretzels and Peeps count as dinner for the kids? I’m such a pushover.” Yes, if there’s one thing I’m certain about in my parenting it’s that I know how to feel the guilt.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, good for you! For the rest of us, there’s Dr. Wendy Mogel, family therapist/author/domestic peacekeeper. Wendy’s first book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is geared to parents of young children and has been my parenting bible. Her new book, The Blessing of a B Minus, is for parents of teens. I love these books because they are part practical guide and part pep talk, plus they’re laden with real life examples.
Wendy is a family psychologist who found her Judaism as an adult. Her books include Jewish biblical references and her wisdom and concepts are relevant whether your faith is defined by a higher power or the worship of shoes. My Episcopal friend did The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in her bible study, my Rabbi conducted a workshop on it, and my agnostic neighbor has her own copy. Talk about unifying! (Dear Wendy, please write your next book about solving world peace: The Blessing of an Impossible Task?)
I was lucky enough to get some of Wendy’s time while she’s on the road for her book tour…and yeah, I secretly wanted to ask all sorts of questions about my own parenting (I mean really, it’s like meeting Tim Gunn and not asking him what he thinks of my outfit), but, as you’ll see in the q&a below, I restrained myself.
Buy Wendy’s book here and get your study guides for The Blessing of a Skinned Knee here and for The Blessing of a B Minus here – Wendy is a huge proponent of connecting with other adults to support your parenting journey so gather your besties and feel the relief!
One last thing that might come in handy before we get to Wendy’s wisdom below: Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog on The New York Times website does a great job of encapsulating some of Wendy’s major points from The Blessing of a B Minus. You might even want to slip this list to your own parents because it’s never too late to change…or possibly offend them, but nothing ventured nothing gained, right!
I’ve read both The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus and can’t help but notice how some issues in parenting toddlers seem similar to issues in parenting teens. Can you talk about that?
It’s said that adolescence is the second toddlerhood. When a baby is unhappy, she cries; when a teen is unhappy, he sulks. What’s important is not to take it personally and not to confuse a snapshot of the child as who they are ultimately. There’s a difference between a character flaw and a momentary tantrum. You have to look at things like whether the behavior is chronic and what other people who are around your child say. For example, do the teachers say he is always prepared and participatory? Does her friend’s mother say she’s so polite when she is over for dinner? Children are supposed to behave worst around their parents – it’s the place they are most trusting and secure.
Is there an actual difference between parents 30-40 years ago (our parents) and parents today (us)?
Yes. Thirty or 40 years ago parents were less involved. They dropped kids off in kindergarten and picked them up at the end of 12th grade.
Today’s parents are very involved and this can be very good because it creates a nice closeness and an attunement between parent and child. But parents can become too involved. Sometimes this hyper-involvement is an overcompensation for the lack of involvement from their parents when they were children. It can also be a result of displacement – in other words, there are things going on in the world over which we have no control so we try to control our kids. When kids are over-controlled, they fall apart as adults when their “handlers” are not around.
There’s a new book by Dr. Barbara Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore, The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up, which includes the startling finding that college kids today communicate with their parents an average of 14.5 times per week!
Wow – when I was in college I’m not sure I communicated even once in 14.5 days. But that brings up a really strong point in your book: the idea of having faith…that if you let go a little, the kids will still be fine. It reminds me of the Amish and their tradition of Rumspringa, where they let their teenagers go out into the world to experience the freedoms they don’t have in their Amish communities. A staggering 80-90 percent of those teens come back to their communities. Can you talk about faith and trust?
When I do a talk, I rhetorically ask the adult audience how many of them ever lied to their parents about where they were; took drugs or got drunk; drove at night at the age of 17. They all made it through those times and are sitting in the audience now. We have to remember that although really bad things can happen, they are unlikely to happen.
Can you talk about the idea of “guiding” versus “letting go”?
Parents should give freedom based on other measures of their child’s good judgment. For example, if they are responsible with their curfew, do they deserve more leeway when they ask for an extended curfew?
We also want to be aware of extremes like being overprotective or negligent. For instance, we won’t them walk down a dark street, but we will let them surf the internet freely and the internet comes with its own set of dangers.
Do you think teens talk back because we talk and rationalize with them so much as small children?
We’ve written the script for them. All of our talking when they’re small leads them to think that we always need to arrive at consensus. (note: in both books Wendy gives lots of real life examples and sample dialogues; e.g., in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee there is a section on just being able to say “no” succinctly and firmly rather than negotiating through a child’s whining or tantrum.)
Talk about nature vs nurture as it relates to parenting.
Everyone comes with a temperment – that’s part of nature. The problem is that our culture dictates that the “right” temperment for our kids is to be scholarly and gregarious, not too dreamy or shy. These pressures make it harder to appreciate each individual’s gifts.
When it comes to nurture, we parents have to be okay with being the salmon swimming upstream. For example, small children try out bad language (from “stupid” to things worse) because it causes great excitement and reaction. A family I know has a 4 year old who uses bad language and they ignore it now knowing that it will eventually not be interesting to the child if no one reacts. The parents do this despite the stares and judgment from other parents.
As parents, we’re informed by what we were raised with, for better or worse. In your therapy practice, do you tend to see parents perpetuating their own parents’ behavior or overcompensating for their parents’ undesirable traits?
Both, but a lot of times people are reacting to their parents’ expectation and projecting their own needs on their children. For example, if a mother was expected to play the role of the “good girl” when she was a child, she may be very scared of her own child’s behavior if it does not fit the “good girl” expectation. Many issues I see with my clients involve 3-generations.
When you have worries as a parent, it’s really important to remember not to isolate yourself because you feel ashamed or perceive yourself to be a failure. You need to rely on a trusted system of other adults who can support you through parenting. The biblical story that relates so well to this point is the one of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. As they cross the desert, some of the group begins to turn on him and get angry about the situation. Moses’ father-in-law tells him that he cannot lead alone, that he must gather some other adults to help him lead the group and keep the peace.
What was your process like while writing The Blessing of a B Minus?
I rented a writing space in Korea Town (section of Los Angeles) where almost no one spoke English in the building, so I couldn’t stop to chat. I didn’t have access to internet or email. I didn’t wear a watch, though there were church bells I could hear so I knew more or less what time it was. In addition, I used an iPhone app with a meditation timer which I would set for 32 minutes and all I could do during that 32 minutes was write.
Does your own upbringing inform your work?
My father was a great storyteller. He was a founding publisher of National Lampoon magazine (the groundbreaking humor magazine) so there was humor around me. My mother took me to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (in New York) on weekends and I’m sure this helped the public speaking I do today.
My favorite food/snack is: Indian Pudding (native to New England, it’s described on Wisegeek as “a dessert made of cornmeal boiled with scalded milk, sweetened with molasses, and cooked slowly until thickened, then baked until set. It is most typically served warm with hard sauce, ice cream or whipped cream, heavy cream, or cider sauce.”)
Don’t ask me to: Write another book right now
I would put into a time capsule my: My collection of dice and children’s drawings
My favorite place is: Doing therapy in my office, as well as the Doll Factory (a roller derby rink in Los Angeles where Wendy’s daughter skates on a team)
When I have a creative block I: Theoretically, look at art; practically, I eat jelly beans.
My favorite mantra is: “Deserving before desiring”