nonfiction

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children- Wendy Mogel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always trying to find resources to help me raise my daughter more effectively. Her personality is so very different from my son’s that I’m left scrambling 99% of the time, because I have very few tools in my box to deal with whatever she’s thrown at me. I’d heard of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel, PhD (Penguin Books, 2001) before; she actually came through this area last year and I didn’t make it to see her (boy, am I kicking myself about that now!). But when this book showed up as one of the reading suggestions for my Intro to Judaism class, I knew it was time to see what wisdom it had to offer me.

Part Reform Judaism primer, part parenting how-to, Wendy Mogel gets at the heart of what kids need (and a little of what they want, and how the two work together). Today’s fast-paced world is tough on kids: they receive too much stuff (I don’t know a single parent who isn’t drowning in mass-produced kid stuff and constantly weeding things out), have too much input from all directions (school, family, friends, television, social media, music in the car and in stores), deal with ridiculous, age-inappropriate expectations, and get short-changed out of time with their stressed-out parents. The message they get is that in order to stand out from all of this is to behave in ways that get them the most attention, even if it’s negative attention. But Judaism has ways to teach families to slow down, unplug from the hustle and bustle around us, connect with each other, and celebrate the small, quiet moments when each opportunity presents itself.

Mogel writes about parental respect and how it’s okay and even necessary to demand it (this was HUGE for me. Like, HUGE), and how kids want to be part of the family and want to help out (and if they don’t, it’s still necessary for them to help without complaining). She discusses how to work with a kid’s nature and how to make the behavior that drives you the craziest work in your kid’s favor. She gives suggestions on how to get your kids to speak more respectfully and how to gently but firmly let them know they’ve been rude. It’s not necessarily to change a kid’s attitude toward something, she claims; change their actions first and after repetition, their attitude will follow. In Judaism, action counts more than attitude, and this applies to her parenting theories in so many different and fascinatingly effective ways.

Y’all.

You guys.

I’ve implemented quite a few things Ms. Mogel discussed in this book, with plans for more, and you would not BELIEVE the changes I’ve seen. (I’m kind of choking up as I type this.) I HAVE A NEW KID. For the past eight days, my child’s room has been clean (without me having to do it!!!) and all the toys she’s dragged to the living room have been picked up and put away, with minimal complaints, before bedtime. There’s been no backtalk, no sassing, no eye-rolling (!!!). She hasn’t argued with me about wearing shorts to school when it’s snowing. She puts her dishes in the dishwasher after asking if it’s clean or dirty, she asks to help do other chores and does some without being asked (not always effective; we had to have a conversation yesterday about why it’s not necessarily the best idea to line up the boots and other assorted winter footwear in the path between the kitchen counter and the refrigerator, but I thanked her for her enthusiasm and willingness to help and showed her a better place to line up the boots where no one would trip over them). And biggest of all?

We’ve. Had. No. Tantrums.

Like.

NONE.

This has never happened before. EVER.

I suggested that we implement a system where, each day, she earns part of an allowance (and it’s *not* a huge one) by keeping her room picked up, but her behavior is also tied to that allowance. Throwing fits, being unkind or disrespectful, not doing what’s expected of her, all that cancels out her allowance for the day. She has a calendar where she’s able to mark the day if she’s done everything she needs to. And every day, she’s so excited to mark off that she’s completed all her chores and behaved in a way that earns her something.

She’s still the same kid who gets a little too screechy indoors, the one who (of course) needs to pee the second I step into the shower and then spends my entire shower sitting on the toilet singing songs from Frozen, the kid who is slow to calm down when she’s excited and having a good time. But boy, does she snap right back into place when she gets her one warning (which is all she gets, and then the allowance is cancelled for the day), and she’s now constantly looking for ways to help out around the house.

It’s pretty wild.

I don’t know if it’s solely this book, or if she’s at the right place developmentally to finally begin responding to these kinds of measures, or maybe a combination of all that and something else, but this book has worked for us like nothing else has ever worked before. Ms. Mogel’s warning about parents who martyr themselves for their children’s sake serve no one, especially not their children, really spoke to me, and this past week, despite its business, has been the calmest, most productive, most well-behaved week of my daughter’s life, and I am deeply, deeply grateful for everything this book has taught me.

While there’s a chapter on implementing religious practice in your family’s life, you don’t need to be religious (or Jewish) to read and benefit from this book. You do need to be creative and able to apply Ms. Mogel’s lessons and ideals in a way that best fits your family. For example, you may not celebrate Shabbat weekly with a huge dinner, prayers, and songs, but maybe you can implement a weekly (or nightly, if your schedule allows for it) dinner and create your own rituals that carry weight and meaning for your family, that shape your life and give your kids something to look forward to and something they may carry on in their own families one day.

Even though I wish I’d read this earlier, I think this book came into my life at exactly the right time. I’ve got pages and pages of notes I’ll refer back to as necessary, and I’m looking forward to read Ms. Mogel’s The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resiliant Teenagers when the time calls for it. I’m so grateful to Ms. Mogel for sharing her wisdom; it’s really changed things for our family, and I can’t speak highly enough about this book.

Visit Wendy Mogel’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood- Katie Pickworth

Anxiety and motherhood? Hey, it’s the place where I live!

I can’t say I know anything about life without anxiety; it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While antidepressants helped me deal with depression, they never quite turned off my constant stream of worst-case-scenario-for-absolutely-every-single-moment that my brain offers up on a daily basis. It’s just become something I’ve learned to live with, or, probably more accurately, live alongside, so when Katie Pickworth offered me a copy of her book, Going Doolally: An honest tale of anxiety and motherhood (independently published, 2019), I accepted, because boy, could I ever relate.

Katie Pickworth’s anxiety started early on in life, affecting both her physical health as a child along with her schooling. As an adult, she found that working in television production on shows like Hell’s Kitchen, EastEnders, and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here made excellent use of her creative thinking and problem-solving skills, but she still struggled mightily in groups of friends and social situations. And motherhood wasn’t any easier; pre-eclampsia forced her into hospital for an early delivery, and postpartum eclampsia saw that she returned there soon afterwards. She filled the days of her son’s first year with classes and playgroups, making the anxiety-related decision to join a playgroup several towns over as insurance in the event she needed to never see anyone from that group ever again. (I can’t believe I never thought of that!) And then, it was time for baby #2.

Ms. Pickworth writes about her anxiety, motherhood, and all the chaos that accompanies both, with brutal honesty and an incredible amount of self-awareness. Quite a few quotes had me laughing and/or nodding vigorously, including these two:

I didn’t know the sperm stays alive for up to five days. Five days? How is that even possible, or not the most disgusting thing you’ve ever heard?

If this is your first child, just think about [the period of time before you give birth] being very precious, because once the baby comes, the things you used to do without question become the lowest priority, and sometimes that really sucks.

Going Doolally is not without issues: I felt as though it could have been better organized; the writing wanders at times, lacking a strong sense of direction and focus; it ends with a series of Facebook updates from her sons’ first years, which felt out of place and not applicable to what the rest of the book was trying to achieve . But where this memoir shines is Ms. Pickworth’s candor about her struggles, and the authenticity of her voice. So many of the things she said, I could relate to, having dealt with similar situations myself. She writes,

There are some with the opinion that when you have young children, the washing up and such chores can wait. The trouble is, when you’re like me, that’s utter bollocks.

SAME. I’m the farthest thing from a neat freak, but I can’t think straight in a room strewn with toys, or relax when I KNOW there are dishes in the sink and people have left items all over the counters. I will work myself into pain (because I also suffer from chronic pain) in order to complete these chores, because otherwise, my anxiety skyrockets.

Ms. Pickworth may not have all the answers, but she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to living with anxiety, and, at 112 pages, this book would make a quick but informative read for any anxiety-sufferer thinking about becoming a parent OR the spouse or partner of someone with anxiety. Trying to explain what we’re feeling and how deeply we struggle isn’t always easy, but Going Doolally does a fantastic job portraying what parenting looks like when you’re eyebrow-deep in your own brain trying to convince you to worry about and fear every. last. thing.

I know it’s important to never give up. I also know it’s important to pick your anxiety battles.

Excellent advice, advice that I definitely need to incorporate into my life.

Huge thanks to Katie Pickworth for providing me a copy of your book to read and review!