The Present Parent

Interview with Dr. Wendy Mogel

Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and educator, is author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Penguin, 2001). She lives with her husband and two daughters in Los Angeles, where they belong to Temple Israel of Hollywood. She was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

What would you say our children want most from their parents today?

A major complaint of adolescents is that nobody listens to them--and they may be right. The habit of listening, and of expecting to be listened to, needs to start early. If we are always distracted, always multitasking, our children will perceive us as half listening, and they'll stop trying to talk to us.

Abraham, Jacob, and Moses answered God's call by responding "Hineini"--"Here I am!" If we demonstrate our willingness to slow down and talk to our children when they are young, we are investing in their future willingness to trust that we will be available to talk when they are older, when both their problems and their reluctance to talk about them are likely to be greater.

What most often stands in the way of parents giving children what they crave?

In communities of abundance, parents often try to fill their children's lives with "stuff": toys, tutors, and therapists. This happens, in part, because parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids, so when their articulate, persuasive children lobby for goods and services, they give in. But ask any adult about his or her fondest early childhood memories, and you'll always hear the same thing: time spent with family, especially in nature or having an adventure, the smell and taste of favorite foods, the personality and warmth of a beloved relative.

Another troubling pattern is parental fetishizing of their children's achievements. Alarmed by what they perceive to be a wildly uncertain future, many parents try to armor their children with a thick layer of skills and pressure them to compete and excel. In this hothouse environment, children receive plenty of attention, but it is mostly oriented toward success, rather than connection.

It seems that such parents are more involved in the details of their children's lives than ever before. Isn't hands-on parenting good for children?

It's actually backfiring. College deans have nicknames for incoming students; they call them "teacups" and "crispies." The "teacups" have been so managed, overprotected, and supported by their parental handlers that they lack the basic life skills needed to survive away from home. The "crispies" are so exhausted from grade grubbing and worrying about what is going to be on the test that they're burned out. They find no pleasure in learning. One parent said to me, "Our children are going to file the largest class-action suit in history against us. They are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods."

How does the parent-child relationship create "crispies"?

When parents behave like "transcript pimps," the children feel that they are valued solely for their achievements. Some children will respond by becoming passive-aggressive rebels, resisting their parents by refusing to do their homework, or by stretching twenty minutes of homework into a three-and-a-half-hour ordeal. Others suffer a loss of self-esteem, feeling they just cannot meet their parents' unreasonably high expectations. In this country, and especially in the Jewish community, we expect each generation to surpass the last. This means that our children feel pressure to outdo the most successful generation in history. That's a daunting and unnecessary task. When I asked a group of students at a girls' private high school, "What would you like your parents to know about you?" they said, "Please tell our parents we're working as hard as we can, and we're not as smart as they think we are."

Parents, too, are under great pressure to excel, at home and at work--and by the day's end they collapse in exhaustion. What are the implications of this way of life on family stability?

Marriages are crumbling all around us, in part, I believe, because parents aren't tending to their own spiritual lives. I say to parents, rather than make a career of micromanaging your children's lives, learn to play the oboe for yourself. Read for pleasure for yourself, get involved in Jewish study for yourself. Parents have to balance their own needs with those of their children. The sage Hillel taught us to find that balance: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"

What can parents do on a daily basis to truly be present for their children?

For one thing, when a child comes home from school, parents can create an environment in which their child will want to converse. Doing so takes discipline; it means changing habits and turning away from the seductions of the moment--such as reading The New York Times, or analyzing stocks online, or finishing the vacuuming--and, instead, really conversing with our children. I've found that it's good to begin by talking about what happened during your day, relating an experience that really interested you or was surprising, bewildering, mysterious, provocative, funny, or wild. If you tell your tale and then simply wait quietly, chances are good that your children will tell you about their day.

It's a better strategy than just asking, "So how was your day?"

Yes, because children read between the lines. To them, questions like "How was your day?" "Who did you sit with at lunch?" "How did the math test go?" "How much homework do you have tonight?" are viewed as information-gathering tools used to monitor how efficiently they used their time to meet their parents' expectations. That's why the question "How was your day?" generally meets with a dismissive response like "okay," "not bad," or some other conversation stopper.

It's also important for moms and dads to keep in mind that there's not much time left when their children will prefer their company to anyone else's. If you've got a spare moment, sit down beside your child. She may ask, "Mom, why are you sitting here?" You might reply: "I just missed being near you." Or, instead of one final run through the spelling list, you might say: "No more homework tonight," and offer her a back rub before bed. And, as a general principle, recognize a distinctive trait, interest, or ability of each of your children by telling her or him how much you cherish it.

What lessons can Judaism teach us about being present for our children?

Being present in the moment is perhaps more difficult for us today than at any other time in history. Ironically, we use a myriad of so-called "time-saving" technological gadgets such as laptops and cell phones, but they do nothing to help us sanctify time because they, themselves, demand so much of our attention. Moreover, as Jews we have a tendency to ruminate about our collective past and fret about the future, which adds to our difficulty in living in the moment. We therefore have to make a conscious effort to focus on the present.

Fortunately, Judaism offers an antidote. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, our tradition teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements, but in our small everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don't have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world. We can take what is valuable from it without being consumed and thereby achieve a more balanced life through three core principles of Jewish living--moderation, celebration, and sanctification.

The principle of moderation teaches us to do two seemingly incompatible things at once: to passionately embrace the material world that God has created--"And God saw that it was good"--while exercising self-discipline. For example, Judaism does not value either asceticism or gluttony. By stopping to say a blessing before we eat, we automatically slow down and approach our meal with greater awareness. Moderation leads to the second principle, celebration. We are obliged to embrace God's gifts moderately but enthusiastically, and the celebration can take hundreds of forms, from the year-round Jewish cycle of celebrating major and minor holidays to saying blessings over food, rainbows, new clothes, a narrow escape, or doing something for the very first time. Sanctification, the third principle, is the process of acknowledging the holiness in everyday actions and events, especially in our homes. One traditional Jewish expression for the word home is the same as the word for a house of worship: mikdash me'at or "little holy place." Our dining table is an altar, and, surrounded by family, has the potential to be the holiest spot on the planet.

Beyond these three principles, the Torah introduced a radical blueprint for rest, reflection, and renewal: it's called Shabbat. Let me give a personal example. Everyone in our family knows that, however busy we are during the week, an uninterrupted time together on Friday nights lies ahead. We don't answer the phone. We don't hurry on to the next activity. My husband Michael and I whisper the "blessing over children" softly in our daughters' ears, a prayer with the beautiful sentiment, "May the divine light shine upon you and bring you peace." During dinner we go around the table and share our good news, each person explaining to the rest what we are grateful for that week. When the children were in elementary school, we used Torah study guides that came to our home weekly to discuss hypothetical ethical dilemmas such as, "Do you think it's right to give mice the flu to test vaccines?" "Should a temple accept money for a new building that was given by a man who runs a company that uses child labor in other countries?" Now that they're teenagers, we talk about issues they encounter in their lives, such as the question of gay marriage or whether it is right for parents to give their high-school-age children license to dress provocatively and go to unsupervised parties with drinking and drugs, as long as their grades and SAT scores are high.

In addition, Judaism commands us to perform hiddur mitzvot, to beautify the commandments, to go the extra mile. By preparing special foods and setting the table with special care for Shabbat dinner, the mystics say we get a taste of the world to come. At my home, everybody gets involved in the Shabbat dinner preparations. Michael does the cooking. I cut flowers from the garden, and the children arrange them and set the table with the ritual objects: kiddush cup, candles, and challah. We don't have exciting desserts during the week, but for Shabbat dinner I take down an etched glass cake stand with a pedestal and put on a paper doily. It's my younger daughter Emma's job to arrange the bakery cookies or rugalah or fruit tart on it. Shabbat dinner is a big production that I would never consider doing on a daily basis. But it caps our week, slows us down, and draws us together in a powerful way.

Yet, as important as Shabbat is to the stability of our family life, the principles behind it are not meant to be relegated to a single day. The idea that each moment must be used wisely, that each has the potential for holiness, should extend to the other six days of the week as well.

If you were to sum up everything you've learned about the Jewish philosophy of parenting, what would it be?

I would sum it up in the question that rabbis like to ask school children: what's the most important moment in Jewish history? Hint: it's not the parting of the sea or the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The most important moment in Jewish history is right now.