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.

nonfiction

In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Smart, Strong Women- Jerramy Fine

Years ago, just after I moved to Tennessee (where I no longer live), one of the first things I did after getting at least somewhat settled into our apartment was to get my new state driver’s license (an absolute necessity, since the out-of-state license I had was due to expire in something like two weeks!). Brand-new license in hand, you know my next stop was…the public library, to get a brand-new library card (the librarian asked, “Do you have a driver’s license?” “I just came from the DMV!” I announced, and he laughed. I’m THAT seriously about my library love!), and one of the books I checked out on my maiden trip to that particular library was Jerramy Fine’s Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, a memoir of growing up in love with all things royal. It was an enjoyable read for me, and that was how I recognized Ms. Fine’s name on the cover of In Defense of the Princess: How Plastic Tiaras and Fairytale Dreams Can Inspire Strong, Smart Women (Running Press Adult, 2016). My daughter is deeply enamored by all things princess (she’s something she’s referring to as the Rose Fairy Princess for Halloween this year, and she spent our entire vacation in Branson wearing a plastic tiara, soon replaced by a fancier one from Claire’s as a vacation souvenir). I’m more along the lines of sweatshirts and cozy pants, so I’m always on the lookout for things to help me better understand my daughter and thus be a better parent, so I grabbed this book a few months ago.

Ms. Fine bases this book on the premise that every woman grows up wanting to be a princess, at least for some part of their lives (and some for all of their lives!), and that this isn’t weak or excessively fanciful, but can instead be a jumping point for teaching girls leadership, empathy, kindness, justice, mercy, and all the other qualities that benevolent rulers must emphasize. On that, we’re in complete agreement, and I’ve definitely found myself using her suggestion of asking my daughter if a particular misbehavior is how Anna and Elsa (her current favorites) would act (which usually gets a grumpy face in response, but it’s the kind of grumpy face my daughter gives when she’s admitting I’m right. SO few things work in reaching my kiddo when she’s entrenched in a misbehavior that this is a pretty big win! Speaking of misbehavior, as I type this, my daughter is supposed to be asleep and is instead singing Let It Go in her bedroom next door…).

There’s also a really great section with write-ups on real life princesses, highlighting their education, accomplishments, and aspects of their personalities or backgrounds that made them stand out. I’ve never followed royalty, so this was full of new and interesting information for me.

I didn’t feel the book was well-organized, however, and I agree with the reviews that overall, it would’ve been stronger as an article. There were many times where I felt it wandered or went off track, and while she clarified herself later on in the book, Ms. Fine’s early arguments against what ‘the feminists’ say about princess culture caused me to raise an eyebrow. While Ms. Fine does eventually reveal that she is a feminist, feminism isn’t a monolith and there’s room for disagreement within the movement. In my readings of feminist literature, the issue I understand to be most common with princess culture is not that girls are wanting to be something so closely tied to traditionally feminine ideals (feminism is about the choice to be yourself, whether that’s someone who wears heels and frills, a construction helmet, or anything in between- or even a combination!), but more the relentless marketing towards girls, especially young girls, and the forcing of the message so early on that life won’t be complete without this product in that color. (And no, there’s nothing wrong with pink, but not everything needs to be pink or gender-based. Toy kitchens should just be toy kitchens and not a tool of gender stereotyping when they only come in pink…just like not every toy needs to talk or have eyes. Totally different issue here, but inanimate object toys with eyes freak me out. WHY DOES A TOASTER NEED EYES, YOU GUYS???)

There were times when her arguments weren’t as in-depth or as incisive as they could be, and I often wondered why she had included certain parts, as they seemed to have little to do with the rest of the section. The overall tone of the book trends more towards conversational-to-blog-post and not quite so much serious, scholarly research. And perhaps it’s not meant to be that, but I was expecting something a little harder-hitting than what lay in between the covers.

I did learn, however, that Ms. Fine once ran a Princess Prep summer camp in London, where she taught girls things like royal etiquette, philanthropy, fashion, and equestrian skills. While I can’t find a link to a website, Marie Claire had a short write-up about it, as did Jezebel. I’m sad that this doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, because with her love for all things royal, I’m sure Ms. Fine made this a spectacular experience for those little girls who were lucky enough to attend.

So while I didn’t love the book entirely, I did find parts of it helpful. My daughter is a bit of a tough nut to crack, behavior-wise, so I appreciate anything that gives me a nudge in a direction that can help me better connect with her. It’s funny; just before I discovered the existence of this book, I had, entirely out of the blue, remembered Ms. Fine’s memoir and wondered what she was up to these days. Mystery solved, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing and living out her dream in London. 🙂

Visit Jerramy Fine’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership- Darcy Lockman

Another vacation book! Super relaxing beach read, right?

All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman (Harper, 2019) ended up on my TBR list not too long ago, and as luck would have it, another local library had a copy waiting for me on its New Books shelf the day we were there to play in its children’s department. After DNF’ing two other books I’d brought with me on vacation, I finished this one while stuck in traffic on our way home…and then had to contemplate the horror of either reading the car manual…or not reading at all. Life lost all meaning at that point. (Okay, not really, but it was close.)

Incorporating an enormous amount of data in one book, Darcy Lockman has written a book about Every (Straight) Woman’s Problem: the husband who doesn’t help. Study after study after study shows that men don’t help out around the house. Not with kids, not with food (the purchasing or the preparing), not with cleaning, not with any of the daily minutiae that makes the family work- dentist and doctor appointments, buying new soccer cleats, scheduling the vet appointment, sending birthday cards to Great Aunt Mildred. No matter if you’re a full-time housewife or employed full-time, if you were born with a uterus and live with a partner born with a penis, all these jobs and more are likely yours all the time, and the overwhelming odds are, Ms. Lockman shows, that you’re overwhelmed and angry about it, or as angry as you let yourself get- because at some point, the vast majority of us just become resigned to it, and the cycle continues.

Is there anything to be done about this? Probably not all that much, seems to be the conclusion of this book. While Ms. Lockman does portray one man who seems to understand that men as a whole have got to step up to the plate more, she does point out that, unfortunately, men have felt entitled to women’s labor (both physical and emotional) since the dawn of time, that our doing all of this work benefits them and there’s very little benefit to them doing their part to schedule the vet appointments and researching soccer cleats. And the culture backs them up, penalizing women monetarily at work for becoming mothers, while rewarding fathers with higher pay. Each of her claims is backed up with hard data; odds are that if you’re a woman, you’ll recognize far too much of this in your own life and be feeling all the rage while reading it.

So, yes, I was obviously able to identify with most of this book. My husband does take care of our daughter when he’s at home; he plays with her, gets her food, takes her to the park, supervises her while she’s in the tub so she doesn’t drown or flood the bathroom (the latter is much more likely these days). He puts his dinner dishes in the sink (I rinse them and put them in the dishwasher), he leaves his socks all over the living room floor, I can’t honestly remember him ever cooking a vegetable, and I would bet every cent in our bank account that he has zero idea what our daughter’s doctor’s name is. Dads generally get not only the fun jobs (outside play, cool school projects like baking soda volcanoes, teaching a kid to ride a bike), they get the jobs that are one-and-done or close to it: change the oil in the car and you’re done for another five or six months, maybe more. Dishes? Every day, sometimes three times a day. Cooking? Every night, at least; more often if you’re home with small children all day. Laundry? If you’re not a nudist, it’s never actually done. Women’s work is everyday drudgery; men get to kick back while we’re still scrubbing the crud out of the kitchen sink. Again.

My friend Sharon made the most excellent point about books of this genre, which seem to be popping up more often. Go look at the Goodreads reviews of this book. Check out the Amazon reviews. Look at the names of the people who reviewed the book. Scroll down, keep scrolling. Look for a man’s name. Did you find one? No, you didn’t. Because the only people who are reading this book, and books that discuss this very real problem (according to some studies, unequal division of labor is one of the top three reasons couples divorce), are women. Where are the men? Why aren’t they reading this book? Can we start shelving it in Men’s Self-Help? Most likely not; Ms. Lockman cited one example of a woman who told her husband she was ready to divorce him because of his lack of help with anything, including the kids. He sobbed, he begged…and afterwards, nothing changed, and he still didn’t help. Is it that most men just don’t value their marriages enough to wash the dishes a few nights a week and change their share of diapers? Why do they not feel as invested in their homes as women do? Why do they not feel invested enough in their marriages to lighten their wives’ loads, even when the wives beg for help?

All the Rage raises more questions than it gives answers. It’s still a worthy read, especially if you’re thinking it’s just you. “It’s every one of them,” my mom told me while we were on vacation, discussing a recent night out with her friends where they discussed their husbands’ lack of help around the house. “Every last one of them acts like that.” This book, sadly, backs that claim up, and neither Ms. Lockman nor I see much changing anytime soon without the catalyst of a massive cultural shift.

Visit Darcy Lockman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · parenting · simplifying

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids- Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

Every once in a while, I read a book that makes me reconsider my position on certain things; the very best books are ones that make so strong a case that I implement changes because of them. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross is one of those books.

I learned of this book a few weeks ago from a post on the Frugalwoods blog, about the challenges of parenting small children through the hectic holiday season. I could relate to *so* much of that blog post; my own daughter is 4.5 and has always been on the more intense side of ‘spirited,’ and adding long days with multiple car trips, far too many sugary treats, overstimulating presents that beep and sing and flash, and no nap does not make for an easy-to-parent child. I did a quick search, and as luck would have it, my local library had a copy of the book. I picked it up that night.

When I opened the book as we were sitting in the library, I was wary. This might end up being one of those parenting manuals that bore me ten pages in; I had another book with me in case I decided this book wasn’t for me. But within several pages, I was hooked. The author’s premise is that too much of anything- too many toys, too much stimulation, etc- can cause kids to quickly become overwhelmed, and it shows in their behavior in different ways. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I’m listening.’ And as I read on, I recognized my daughter in Mr. Payne’s many examples, one of which was quite jarring. He tells of a set of siblings whose house overflowed with toys. The boy responded to this overstimulation by getting violent with the toys, throwing and breaking them. The girl reacted by organizing the toys, lining them up, gathering them in piles that made no sense. Neither one seemed to play in appropriate ways with the massive amounts of toys that surrounded them.

And with that, I sat back and went, ‘Ohhhhhhh.’ Because right there? My daughter is that girl. I was constantly finding Hello Kitty and fuzzy Halloween bags full of odd collections of toys: pieces of play food, a sock full of items from her rock collection, Barbie doll clothes, a headband, three crayons, a plastic cow. After reading this particular paragraph, I realized that maybe my daughter wasn’t having all that much fun playing like this. Her favorite thing EVER is toy kitchens. Whenever we go somewhere that has one (several libraries, friends’ houses, set-ups at stores), she makes a beeline for it and doesn’t want to leave, and I realized I hadn’t seen her play with her own in ages.

And with that, I began making plans to pare down the toys in her room, just as Mr. Payne suggested.

Before:

It’s a lot of toys, and you’re not even seeing them all. (This was after a major clean-out and weeding out a bunch of toys, as well!!!)

And after:

I hadn’t even finished tidying up after the overhaul when my daughter exclaimed excitedly, “I LIKE my room like this!” Since we made the change three days ago, she’s used that table for coloring, for Play-Doh, and for a tea party (none of which she had ever done in her room, as the table had been previously covered in Little People toys she never played with). She’s done somersaults in her room, and we pulled out her bowling set and bowled multiple games- my 16 year old son even joined in on this. There hadn’t been enough space for us to do that in there before. She’s been cooking up a storm in her play kitchen and has used a stool to set up a lemonade stand. Her imagination is flourishing with more space and less demand on her attention. I’m in love with everything about this, including the fact that cleaning it takes about two minutes once or twice a day, instead of half an hour four or five times a week.

Mr. Payne also discusses the importance of simplifying a child’s diet, which wasn’t my direct concern, as I cook the vast majority of everything we eat; simplifying screen usage (I’ve cut down on the amount of television my daughter watches- not that I really had to say anything, since she’s been so enthralled with her new room that she asks me to turn the TV off so she can go play. But I would’ve done it anyway!); and simplifying adult talk and stressors around children (I’ve begun playing the local classical music station in the car in order to minimize my daughter’s exposure to the news; she in turn has invented what she calls her ‘invisible piano,’ which she uses to play along with the radio. “Hey, turn that back up, I’m playing!” she complained when I turned it down once).

Simplify everything, he states, and the results will be clear. For us, they couldn’t possibly be clearer. For the past three days (and so far, this morning as well), the only misbehavior we’ve had has come at bedtime, and my husband and I have already discussed pushing bedtime back 15 minutes because her behavior then was obviously due to exhaustion. We’ve had no tantrums from my little Queen of Scream. She listens better, she’s in an overall better mood, I’ve found no bags of random, mismatched toys, and I’m much less cranky because I’m not dealing with poor behavior and giant messes. The only time we’ve had such docile behavior from her, it was because she had a nasty upper respiratory infection and a double ear infection- not exactly something you want to replicate. Mr. Payne’s methods, however, are sustainable, and I’m loving the results we’re getting.

For now, her extra toys live in the basement, and she knows she can visit them and switch them out at any time, trading a toy in her room for a toy down there. Eventually, we’ll donate or sell the ones she’s fully lost interest in (and just as I was typing this, she asked if we could pare down her toy food as well). Less really is more when it comes to children, and if you feel you and your child could benefit from a calmer, more relaxed environment (and really, who couldn’t?!?),  pick up a copy of Simplicity Parenting. This book has made all the difference in the world for us.

Visit the Simplicity Parenting website here.
Follow Kim John Payne on Twitter here.