The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

When we were in L.A. recently, we crashed another couple’s house to be treated to an amazing prime rib dinner (salt-encrusted and all!) with all the fixings.  The dinner was the bait; the company was the treat.  It’s so rare these days to find couples (both partners) who want to devour life along with you.  This couple is one of those couples.  [And might I add that they have an adorable, precocious son who treated Liliana like she was royalty.  So sweet.]

Anyway, the topic got around to raising kids and formulating family rituals that provide a sense of security in our ever-changing, hostile world.  Wendy Mogel’s book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children came up in the conversation, so naturally, I ordered it when I got home.

I’ve always been so impressed with all the Jewish authors I’ve read (both in my research for Eve and in my reading on parenting). They’re so thoughtful and practical.  I mean, they really give some good meat-and-bones type solutions to some real problems.  One example is 10 Conversations You Need to Have With Your Children by Shmuley Boteach, the host of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, which I highlighted a while back. He’s a rabbi, counselor, talk-show host, and the father of eight children.  I learned so much from his book.  Other books tend to be more abstract, more ivory-tower.

“Try to see your child as a seed that came in a packet without a label.  Your job is to provide the right environment and nutrients and to pull the weeds.  You can’t decide what kind of flower you’ll get or in which season it will bloom.”

Ms. Mogel is a clinical psychologist and parent educator.  Over the years, she’s assimilated her thoughts on how to navigate parenthood, how to respond to various types of children—always something I’m interested in.

Recently, we’d been having a few problems with our daughter at her preschool.  She was ignoring the teachers and mistreating other students.  This perplexed us, of course, because the first thing you do as a parent is look at yourself and wonder what you’re doing that she might be reflecting.  We came up empty-handed and chalked it up to a growing phase.  But still, we had to address the problem, which we did quite rapidly.  It took us a couple of weeks, though, to find a suitable punishment (one that she hated enough so that she had to think twice about misbehaving at school).  For her, it was sitting on the couch for long periods of time, with no books, no art, no play things, nothing.

As a parent, though, you continue to reassess what’s really going on, and so when I read through Ms. Mogel’s book, I breathed a sigh of relief at all the practical advice she was handing out. I could do this; I could do that.  Yes, that was a marvelous idea—something so easy to incorporate into our daily lives.  So, I want to share what I found fascinating, and perhaps you’ll find it helpful as well.

One thing we’ve always struggled with is materialism—the need for more, whether it be toys or games or stuffed animals.  Always, there’s this sense that, wow, this is what I need next.  Mogel explained that we all have an impulse for good and an impulse for evil—it’s in each of us—and it’s how we train those impulses that’s important.

The dynamics of desire were carefully studied by the rabbis of the period of the Talmud.  They concluded that everyone is endowed at birth with both a yetzer tov (impulse for good) and a yetzer hara (impulse for evil).  The yetzer hara, an aggressive potentially destructive inclination, is of distinct value.  The Talmud says that the evil impulse is tov meod (very good) because it is made up of some of our most robust traits.  Curiosity, ambition, and passionate desire all derive their energy from the yetzer hara.  Without it, there would be no marriages, no children conceived, no homes built, no businesses.

To make the point, I like to tell parents a story from the Talmud.  The men of the Great Synagogue wanted to get rid of the yetzer hara once and for all.  The yetzer hara warned them not to wipe it out: “If you kill me the world will come to an end!”  Not sure whether or not the yetzer spoke the truth, the men captured it and locked it up for three days.  Alas, they discovered that even this was too great a harness on the evil inclination.  Searching the land for a newly laid egg during the time of the yetzer’s imprisonment, they could find not a one.  So they let the yetzer free and with this action gave the world back its passion and fruitfulness, leaving each one of us the responsibility of controlling and channeling our own yetzer hara.

While the yetzer hara should be treated with extreme watchfulness, it must not be eliminated, because it is necessary for human survival.  It’s our juice, our spark, our zip.  We live fully by balancing two forces: our burning passions and our ability to exercise self-restraint.  The rabbis firmly believed that we should worship God with both our yetzer tov and our yetzer hara.

So, the next question is: Is our child’s “badness” normal?

When parents come to me with worries about their child, the first thing I evaluate is whether or not the problem falls within the parameters of normal misbehavior or unhappiness.  “Normal” covers a very broad spectrum, as I learned many years ago when I was a psychology intern in the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

One of my responsibilities at the hospital was to administer psychological tests to children who were being evaluated upon intake to our clinic.  My first month on the job, I tested a seven-year-old whose mother had brought her in to see if she might be dyslexic.  After reviewing the girl’s Rorschach test results, I ran to my supervisor’s office.  I had discovered a life hanging in the balance during the course of a routine exam.  Her tests were a greenhorn diagnostician’s dream.

“Look!” I said, waving the tests at him.  “She saw squashed bats, blood!  And these drawings!  They look so gloomy.  She drew a haunted house.  She talked to me about death and God.  She says she often feels sad and lonely!  Should we hospitalize her right away?”

My supervisor carefully examined the entire test protocol.  He asked me some questions about my interview with the child and the family.

“She looks just fine to me,” he finally concluded.  “Might have a reading problem down the line, but seven is generally too early to diagnose dyslexia.  You don’t need to do anything right now, but ask her mother to stay in touch with us.  And you, read this book.”

He handed me a copy of Your Seven-Year-Old: Life in a Minor Key by Louise Bates Ames, Carol Chase Haber, and Frances L. Ilg.  That was the day I learned that a normal seven-year-old’s mind, and spirit, is a place of extremes and dark drama, and that a normal seven-year-old’s Rorschach can look a lot like the Rorschach of a clinically depressed, suicidal adult.

Remarkably and happily, there’s a whole series of these books for curious parents and educators.   I’ve just acquired Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful and Your Five-Year-Old: Sunny and Serene, so that I can better know how to respond to Liliana.  The series covers from one year to fourteen years.

And then most children fall within that normal range, where they simply reflect home life and your own nonclinical craziness, called mishegas in Yiddish.

Some of the time, however, children fall well within the normal range.  Then it’s time for parents to examine their own expectations, attitudes, and mishegas.

The Mishegas Factor

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not meant to, but they do.
Then fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.  –Philip Larkin

Is it inevitable, as Philip Larkin implies, that you will damage your child?  Yes, to some degree, it is.  Every generation of parents makes a whole new set of mistakes.  Although we are not responsible for many of our children’s traits, for example those that are inborn or grow out of the influence of school, peers, the media, and cultural values, research confirms that parents do have a significant impact on their children’s character.  Mothers and fathers usually influence their children more than any other environmental factor, so it’s possible that your child’s problems are at least partly a reaction to your own mishegas.

And perhaps the best example for me was the story of Lucy.  Easily applied to Liliana.

If you’ve honestly confessed to your own craziness and have decided whether or not your child’s “badness” is normal, you are ready to work with her yetzer hara.  Deborah, the mother of three girls, gave a parenting class this biographical sketch of her four-year-old, Lucy:

“She’s unbelievably bossy.  We all call her the ballet master.  When she’s with her younger sister and her sister’s friends, she tries to choreograph their every move: “This is a very fancy tea party!  You have to sit with your legs crossed and your hands in your lap!  No loud voices!”  If she sees her older sister watching television, she’ll ask her whether she’s finished her homework.

“Her preschool teacher says that Lucy doesn’t paint but prefers to walk around the room reminding the other children to put on their smocks, not to mix colors, and to shake off their brushes so the paint won’t get too watery.  She is constantly organizing and fixing.  Last week we went to the library.  Did Lucy want me to read to her?  Of course not.  Instead she found a cart with a pile of books waiting to be restacked.  Lucy set right to work, neatly organizing all the books with the spines facing out.”

Clearly, Lucy is no shy and amenable follower.  Her authoritative nature and penchant for organizing can be wonderful assets that will serve her well throughout her life, as long as she learns to temper them with good manners.  In her mother’s tone, however, I sensed a helpless, genteel horror at Lucy’s behavior.  Lucy’s forcefulness was embarrassing to her parents, and the embarrassment was preventing them from seeing the positive aspects of their daughter’s personality.  I proposed that they try to “reframe” their opinions of Lucy.  Reframe is a term used by psychotherapists that means to rethink your interpretation of an event, often turning your existing opinion on its head.

“Don’t view Lucy’s behavior as bossy, view it as demonstrating leadership skills,” I suggested.  “She isn’t nosy, she’s extremely observant.  The fact that she likes to organize the books in the library is a wholly positive trait—imagine how she could apply these skills to keeping her room clean, not to mention the rest of the house.”

Parents tend to want contradictory things from their children—docile, “Gallant”-like manners along with extraordinary feats of intellectual, creative, or physical derring-do.  But the extraordinary talents arise from the yetzer hara, the unruly “Goofus” side of your child’s personality.  It’s essential that you learn to see those intense, often irksome traits as the seeds of your child’s greatness.

Try thinking of:

Your stubborn or whining child as persistent.
Your complaining child as discerning.
Your overeating child as lusty.
Your argumentative child as forthright and outspoken.
Your loud child as exuberant.
Your shy child as cautious and modest.
Your reckless, accident-prone, or rule-breaking child as daring and adventurous.
Your bossy child as commanding and authoritative.
Your picky, nervous, obsessive child as serious and detail-oriented.

Now ask yourself if your child has sufficient opportunity to express her natural tendencies in a constructive way.  This is a two-part challenge for parents: first you must make sure you’re not setting your child up for failure, and once you’ve cleared her path, you must give her tasks that make the best use of her yetzer hara.

So helpful!  I can reframe how I view Liliana, and although I have to teach her proper behavior, I can emphasize what is good about what she’s doing.  Such a constructive way of looking at someone.

One last thing about finding appropriate punishments—such a difficult thing to tailor to each and every child.  Mogel makes the point that a child gets certain non-negotiables, but everything else is up for grabs, meaning it has to be earned.  She explains.

I often hear parents say, “He doesn’t care if I punish him.  If I send him to his room her has a good time.  Nothing has an effect.  He doesn’t care which privileges I take away.”

“Oh, yes he does,” I always answer.  “The secret lies in your definition of the word privilege.  If you redefine most of what your child considers entitlements as privileges to be earned, you’ll have a dazzlingly large universe of effective punishments available to you.”

As I mentioned back in Chapter 5, every child is entitled to certain basics.  Everything else is a privilege to be earned!  Everything! Software, fashionable clothing, sweet treats, TV, bicycles, phone use, staying up late on weekends, play dates, grilled cheese sandwiches prepared on the spot by Mom, trips to the video store…all the things your child believes are his birthright.

The first step in inaugurating this new worldview is a change in your lexicon.  Instead of saying, “If you don’t do X (clean up your room right now!) then you won’t be able to do Y (watch television tonight).”  Change the “If…then” to “When…then,” as in: “When you remember to put your clothes in the hamper for three days in a row, then you’ll be allowed to watch television in the evening after homework.  I will not remind you even once.  If you like, I’ll be glad to help you set up a chart to help you remember.  Now tell me what I said so I’ll know that we both understand the rules the same way.”

When…then.”  That’s the key phrase.  Now go listen to a CD, call a friend, or do some gardening.  Your child is on his own for a while.  When he remembers to cooperate, he’ll earn the privileges he longs for.  It’s a whole new perspective.

Can I just say we’ve started talking and thinking differently around here, even if it is in minor ways?  This book is a refreshing treat.  It kindly and firmly transforms your efforts into productive behavior, and that, my friend, means the book is worth its weight in gold.  Pick it up.  You won’t regret it.

[Post image: Child by aliosa2000 on stock.xchng]


  1. Christa
    Apr 05, 2011

    The Ames and Ilg books are the very best gift, I think, to any parent. The depth of understanding and the wealth of information in those skinny little volumes is just astounding.

    I’m so glad you have found wisdom in all of these books. It helps so much not to feel alone.

    My perspective, as the mother of an almost eighteen year old – and all those old ladies are right, it does fly by – is that your child is their very own person. From day one. We are to be their tour guides and their biggest cheerleaders, and that’s all. To be able to appreciate both their sides is a true gift, and one that brings peace to all involved.

    Thanks for this – will be forwarding this one!

  2. Elissa
    Apr 05, 2011


    Thank you for this. Yes, I’m a sucker for practical parenting tips. Some of the best ones I’ve used over and over again, and they just don’t seem to fail. Someone else did all the hard work of coming up with them, and I’m reaping the benefits.

    Plus, isn’t it just fascinating to be able to “see” (a little) what your child is actually thinking behind those big, brown eyes? I’m speaking of the Ames and Ilg books now…:)

    [Sidenote: I’ve not noticed your blog before. Where have you been all my life? It’s lovely. I can’t wait to catch up!]

  3. Renae C
    Apr 05, 2011

    I like the way this author frames looking at the “darker” side. If you can teach her to own that side of herself and appreciate it and use it, you will have accomplished a great deal. Just think of the things she can do if she doesn’t have to waste her energy unlearning all the stuff we’ve had to unlearn!

    • Elissa
      Apr 06, 2011

      Yes! I thought, too, it would be good to use for those self-loathing things we all think but don’t voice. We can spin those thoughts another way, giving us the power to change them (or change how we think about them). And this is a perfect thing for a girl (especially) to learn early on. It would prevent a lot of self-doubt and self-hatred later on….

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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