Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel

This is a Jewish take on parenting from a former psychologist who became disenchanted with her profession and sought wisdom in the tradition of her ancestors. I found myself nodding along in agreement to many of her ideas, which try to synthesize Jewish concepts with "common sense" parenting. Less charitably, this book can also be seen as a conservative reaction to modern parenting trends. Either way, a better than average parenting book. Thanks to LL for the recommendation.

Some things I liked:

  • A paradox: parents aren't happy when there is nothing psychologically wrong with her child. If that's the case, then there's nothing to fix and the problem doesn't just go away through some clear intervention.
  • A parable: keep one sheet of paper in each the left and right pockets of your jacket. The left note should say "I am a speck of dust", and the right should say "the world was created for me". Mogel refers to this classic parable from Rabbi Simcha Boonim. This spirit of keeping multiple lenses as well as being able to entertain opposite extremes is such an important skill for parents and a key part of how I want to be in the world.
  • An insight into the first commandment "I am the Lord your God". This isn't a commandment in itself, as it doesn't really entail any action. Despite this, it serves as a preamble to the rest of the ten commandments, adding appropriate gravitas. Similarly, reminding children "I am your father" (but not like Darth Vader) may tautological, but is actually effective.
  • Deed over creed is a great terse summary of the Jewish approach to na'aseh v'nishma (see Jewish tradition of doing first and understanding later - na'aseh v'nishma)
  • Yetzer Hara. Humans have a congenital inclination to do evil, but there can be a positive role to the evil inclination. What is the worst behavior of your child? The attributes that cause it might also lead to their greatest strength. If this "evil inclination" is something that has potential for positivity, perhaps it is a misnomer for chaos? This evokes the D&D concept of chaotic good which separates the simple axis of good and evil into the more complex 2x2. I also wrote a previous note along similar lines (see Embracing deviance as a value).
  • Mishegas — a great Yiddish term for non-clinical craziness.

What I wanted to debate with the author:

  • Mogel claims that children are asked to be generalists in a way that is unreasonable and never again relevant for adult life. My take on this is highly inspired by books like Range - Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein, which suggest that generalism in adults is underrated. In "Range", Epstein suggests that children should try a wide variety of activities to increase match quality.
  • Mogel observes that many find the word "God" to be awkward to say, and that we ought to get over it. For me, "God" is a weird word to say mainly because it's so closely associated with trite concepts related to Jesus and a simple conception of God as a sort of bearded superman in the sky. Abstract Jewish terms like HaShem (literally "The Name") is a good workaround I think, although HaShem in particular connotes a deep religiosity which I do not possess. Does anyone call it "The Lord"? Sounds formal and creepy but kinda cool. Maybe I should try calling it "The Name"?

Most importantly, a parenting book should have parenting advice! I left "Skinned Knee" with many promising parenting ideas to incorporate into our life, but I'll spare you those details.