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The Taming of the Jew

We were having some trouble with the boy again. In an argument with a classmate, he’d thrown a block at the other boy’s forehead. The block connected. According to reliable observers, a geyser of blood erupted. The other kids in … Read More

By / May 6, 2007
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We were having some trouble with the boy again. In an argument with a classmate, he’d thrown a block at the other boy’s forehead. The block connected. According to reliable observers, a geyser of blood erupted. The other kids in the class screamed.

It wasn’t a serious injury, just a messy one. The other kid sported a Band-Aid for a couple of days, and then it was forgotten. But a point had tipped. That afternoon, the preschool director called us in for a conference with Elijah’s teacher. They didn’t know what to do with him, they said. When he got upset, he stood in the middle of the schoolyard screaming. If, for some reason, his shoes got wet, the freak-outs were even worse.

This felt familiar: Elijah had already been kicked out of one preschool for biting. He’d also thrown public temper tantrums, usually resulting in him hitting an unsuspecting stranger. Months would go by without behavior problems, but then they’d re-emerge, more powerful than ever. When he acted up, we made fitful, incomplete attempts to keep him under control. Sometime we’d propose punishments, but not follow through. Other times, we’d punish without warning. Regina would punish and I would rescind. Or vice-versa. This happens to a lot of parents when they’re suddenly faced with a child, as opposed to a baby. When kids learn how to think rationally, they go on the attack. Parents must be ready to counter this with love, but also firm discipline. We weren’t ready enough.

“He’s always been an emotional child,” I said.

This, they said, goes beyond emotion.

They referred us to a child psychologist.

*****

Before she met with our son, the psychologist wanted us observe the boy’s behavior and take notes of any patterns. We mentioned his wet-shoe phobia. Also, sometimes he tried to hit his cousin when they argued over toys. This hardly seemed like a behavioral crisis. There hadn’t been any more serious incidents at school. We’d spent $600.

Even in a place like L.A., where it can seem like therapy is required by city charter, people don’t publicize their psychoanalysis. Therefore, it’s hard to find reliable statistics on what percentage of kids actually ends up in counseling. But in a country where 7.8 percent of children were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as recently as 2003, I’d assume the percentage is pretty high. What if your kid isn’t mentally ill, though? What if you’re just having discipline problems? Sometimes a shrink can help. I’ve seen one myself on and off throughout my life. But therapy can be a crutch. Easier and far less expensive solutions abound.

Wendy Mogel had the same thought. An LA-based child psychologist dealing with educated urban liberals, she’d grown frustrated at her inability to help her patients. These children should have been perfectly adjusted and happy, but weren’t. Parents complained that their children were rude, spoiled, and out of control.

In her search for answers, Mogel found surprising solace in the Fifth Commandment. Children were simply not honoring their father and mother, as she explained in her parenting guide, The Blessings Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings To Raise Self-Reliant Children. The book sold more than 100,000 copies and earning her a flattering profile in The New York Times Magazine. She began filling seminars across the country with Jews and non-Jews alike, all of whom were ready for her eminently practical message.

One afternoon, The Blessings of the Skinned Knee arrived in our mail, sent by my mother. She and my Aunt Estelle, who’d raised eight kids between them, had gone to see one of Mogel’s lectures. I ignored it, since I only tend to read parenting-themed books that involve the narrator getting drunk all the time. Regina, on the other hand, refused to deny the fact that we still had some trouble at home. She tore through it in two nights, proclaiming, when she was done, that she had the answer to most of our problems.

So I took to the couch with a beer and soaked in some wisdom. Mogel writes that parents need to be respected by their children, who should treat them as “honored rulers” in their own homes. Parents should demand this respect because children crave authority figures. ”Your children don’t need two more tall friends,” she writes “They have their own friends, all of whom are cooler than you. What they need are parents.”

I didn’t agree with everything Dr. Mogel was saying. For one thing, I am definitely cooler than any of my son’s friends, and I found the opposite assertion a bit disingenuous coming from someone who’s raising her own children with the man who wrote The Player. There’s no way some random teenager is going to be cooler than that guy. But everything else in the book hit Regina and I like lightning bolts of Jewish common sense. Our son didn’t respect us enough.

It was time to implement a new regime.

*****

We took three of her suggestions particularly to heart. The first involved chores. In Judaism, Mogel writes, “the path to holiness lies in human activity. Judaism values deed over creed and learning by doing.” For a four-year-old, this means a chore chart. Elijah woke up one morning to find that he had responsibilities. There were four: He had to feed the fish twice a day, he had to help Regina feed the dogs, he had to put his shoes on the shoe rack when he came home from school, and he had to clear his place after dinner.

The second involved dinner itself. Judaism teaches that the family table is a sanctified place, so from now on we would eat dinner together.

The third involved discipline. Everything that Elijah treasured—his toys, his sugary treats, his television programs—were now “privileges” that we could take away if he misbehaved. These misbehaviors could involve major offenses, like repeatedly hitting the dogs, or minor ones, like repeatedly ignoring us when we were trying to talk to him. We’d be fair but consistent in implementing our judgment.

Initially, Elijah met us with howls of disbelief. But within a week, he was performing all his chores happily, without complaint. He was sitting in his place at the dinner table, not trying to eat in front of the TV or in our laps. And he was learning that if he got out of line, he’d lose his Spongebob or popsicle privileges.

We had become more authoritarian, but were we more Jewish? Mogel recommends keeping Shabbat, but our interest in Shabbat, and in all religious ritual, is minimal. We send Elijah to a Jewish day school that stages Passover plays, has a weekly Shabbat sing-along, and celebrates Israeli Independence Day, but many of the families at the school—like many of Mogel’s followers—aren’t Jewish. In the New York Times profile, a non-Jewish woman argues that Mogel’s methods are “about raising good people, not just good Jews.” After all, the Fifth Commandment is important in a certain other major religion, too.

But while we hadn’t tapped into any latent religious fervor, we were discovering one reason traditional Jewish methods have lasted for so long—because they work. In fact, we were raising the boy exactly the way my parents raised me. Growing up, it had never been perfect around my house. I didn’t respect my parents all the time and they weren’t always totally fair. But we ate dinner as a family, I did my chores, and I generally accepted the punishments they doled out. Here I sit, without a prison record, and I’m trying to raise my son using the same time-honored Jewish family methods, with slightly greater emphasis on musical taste.

***

One morning, I took Elijah to school. The director approached.

“I don’t know what you’re doing at home,” she said. “But keep doing it. He’s been absolutely wonderful.”

“We’re teaching him to respect us,” I said.

She nodded in total approval.

“Very good,” she said.

Go, Talmud, go!

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