Q&A with Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a B Minus
1. Why did you decide to write a book about teenagers?
I wrote this book for all the good, intelligent, devoted, otherwise sensible parents who are terrified by perfectly normal teenage behavior. So many parents believe that in our ultra-competitive, unsettled world there is no longer any room for the errors of adolescence. That there’s no leeway for kids to be dopey, sloppy, sarcastic, lazy, or erratic. These parents are so panicked about the future—especially about college admissions--that they place an intimidating amount of pressure on teens to excel in all areas: academics, sports, and the arts. Driven by the fear that teens will spoil their transcripts if allowed to make their own decisions, parents tightly supervise their homework schedules, protect them from potential errors in decision-making, and keep a close eye on their choice of friends and daily Facebooks posts so they won’t miss any warning signs of trouble. When their teen inevitably does something goofy, they exaggerate the significance of the child’s poor choice. They imagine it’s a sign of a permanent character flaw or of a limited capacity to grow. They think: My son got a B minus! He’ll never get into college! Or Her new best friend is kind of slutty! That must mean that she’s already kind of slutty too! Parents also take their teens’ histrionics very, very personally: She says she hates me! I must be a lousy parent! Parents have become as dramatic and shortsighted as their teens.
I wrote this book to help parents take a step back from the culture of frenzied, fretting parenting. A good alternative parental stance is one of compassionate detachment. Parents should offer guidance and set limits, but they should also allow adolescence to unfold in its naturally awkward, uneven fashion without constant surveillance or intervention. Parents can model their actions on one of the greatest leaders of biblical history: Moses. Like parents of teens, Moses was charged by God with leading a group of whining, exasperating wanderers on a journey from slavery (childhood) to freedom (the promised land of adulthood). Along the way Moses learned lessons in leadership. As he took his people across the hot sand, they made wrong turns and bad choices. They complained and worshipped false idols. Moses became angry with God for giving him such a seemingly impossible job. But eventually Moses learned from experience: If he tried to reason with his flock too much or micromanaged or overprotected them, they actually had a harder time gaining confidence and wisdom. Only after turning to other adults for support and allowing his followers to learn to tolerate hardship did he see his people reach maturity. They were finally ready to survive in a new land without him. I want parents to understand that adolescence has to be like this trip across the desert: dangerous, exciting, and full of promise. This is the normal and necessary time for teenagers to make missteps, to moan and wail, to learn from their errors, and mature at their own pace. That’s how they grow up.
2. How does The Blessing of a B Minus differ from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, besides the fact that it concerns older children?
Three proverbs come to mind. One is Russian: “Little kids little problems, big kids big problems.” One Italian: Little children headache, big children heartache.” The final is Yiddish: “Small children disturb your sleep, big children disturb your life.”
The main difference between raising small children and teenagers is the danger involved, both perceived and real. There’s a difference between teaching your child to ride a two-wheeler and teaching her to drive a car. Between worrying that she will eat too much sugar at a birthday party and fearing that she might take Ecstasy at a rave. Between your disappointment that he wasn’t placed in the top second-grade reading group and worrying that he won’t make it into college.
There are other differences, too. Teens are awash in hormones, while your own hormonal supply is on the wane. These physical transitions leave both teens and their parents prone to grumpiness, irritability, and emotional flare-ups. And while young children are silken and cuddly, teens are large and intimidating. It may feel strange, even scary, to issue a consequence to a rule-breaking teen who stands six inches taller than you. Teens are also deft at using emotional weaponry. They strike your most vulnerable spots with devastating precision. They say things like “Everyone knows your obsession with organic food is just a cover-up for your unsatisfying emotional life, Mom.” They blame you for their failings: “I just know I would have made the team if you had signed me up for private coaching like I asked you to!”
For all these reasons and more, it’s hard to develop confidence as a family leader. Instead, many parents slip into a slavish combination of stage manager, butler, and human ATM for their teens. But that’s not good for anyone. It wears out the parents and creates anxiety in the kids. The Blessing of a B Minus is about how to reclaim compassionate authority, to be both flexible and firm, to shrink what appear to be huge problems down to their appropriate size, and to put your teens’ heartaches in the context of normal adolescent development. It’s also essential to nourish yourself with pleasurable activities, to counter the inevitable chaos created by having teenagers in both your house and in your head.
3. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee talks about raising “self-reliant children” and The Blessing of a B Minus about “resilient teenagers.” What is the significance of that word: “resilience”? Are the goals of raising self-reliant children and resilient teenagers the same?
Fostering self-reliance in children means teaching them how to do things, to develop skills ranging from tying their shoes to washing their hair to filling in the homework worksheet without parental oversight or assistance.
Teens also need to learn lots of ordinary but essential skills. They need to plan and execute their own study schedule (again, without parental oversight), take care of their clothing, take out the trash, and keep on top of their bank balance. If they aren’t taught basic survival skills, they will grow up to be “handicapped royalty”—entitled young adults who believe they are too special or fragile to participate in the tasks of daily living. Handicapped royalty are not popular with roommates, professors, or prospective employers.
However, teens have an additional challenge, which is learning resilience. Although chores teach teens how to do things, developing resilience means learning how to take things, how to handle setbacks and frustration. Teens are subject to rejection by their friends, unfair treatment by teachers, humiliation from coaches, and lots of other hard knocks. Parents may feel the urge to smooth their teens’ path, saying, “Honey, let me just call the coach and tell him to take you off that bench!” While this looks like protective devotion, it’s a much greater gift to children when parents teach the elements of resilience: flexibility, problem-solving ability, tolerance of temporary discomfort, and patience rather than panic in the face of difficulties. It’s critical for teens to practice some of these skills before they go college, when the pain of every unfair situation or setback can be temporarily wiped away with a lively round of beer pong.
4. You mention tzar giddul banim, the necessary pain of raising children. Why is this concept especially apt for parents of teenagers? Do you think adolescence is more painful for the teens or the parents?
Adolescence is hard on teens, but the parents absolutely suffer more. Imagine it’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, with no sign of your teen. You text her. You call her cell. No response. You’re frantic, choked by grim imaginings, wondering whether to call the police… while in fact she is having so much fun at a friend’s party that she’s lost track of time. And then, when she comes home a full two and a half hours late with lots of excuses and tales of extenuating circumstances, you get the job of thinking up a consequence for her lapse of judgment and following it through, while she flops on her bed, texting her friends about her bizarre, backwards, Amish mother or father.
No one suffers more than the parents.
5. In each chapter of the book you take a frustrating or difficult aspect of adolescence and reconceive it as a blessing. Why is it important for parents to shift their perspective in this way?
If your teen does at least one and possibly several, of the following, it’s a good sign he’s progressing normally:
--pursues a bizarre or unpromising hobby instead of developing what you see as his God-given talent
--brings home grades that shock and disappoint you
--lets loose in an angry tirade against your whole awful family
--breaks or loses or crashes something of sentimental or high monetary value
--demands that you provide a steady stream of goods and services
--hurts your feelings by missing an important event because he forgets or oversleeps
--shoplifts (and possibly gets arrested)
--drinks or tries a few drugs
--gets suspended from school for a prank or egregious rudeness
--has sex, possibly with no protection
You don’t want to pretend that teens don’t get into serious trouble. They can. But if you allow yourself to become completely undone by predictable adolescent mistakes and experimentation, you won’t be able to think clearly. By viewing the upsetting aspects of adolescence as normal and necessary, as blessings that represent healthy growth, you develop perspective. And this allows you to react thoughtfully instead of impulsively. For example, you can see that rudeness toward you doesn’t stem from a lack of love. It’s a sign that your teen is performing the necessary work of separation with those she trusts the most—and it’s a chance for you to model and teach tolerance and respect. Or take teenagers’ runaway materialism. Teach them the virtue of moderation, but don’t miss the blessing of living in proximity to creatures with such a lusty capacity for delight, who vibrate with the perfection of the universe when they find the perfectly perfect pair of skinny jeans.
6. What part of raising teenagers did you find most challenging personally?
I had hoped that my professional expertise, and the fact that I’d written a bestselling parenting book, would give me a relatively easy ride through the typical anguish of parenting teens. It didn’t. What was especially demoralizing was the feeling that I’d been here before. Late nights, crying, food issues, tantrums, testing the rules…I wondered: weren’t we supposed to have left these problems behind with preschool? What did I do wrong? When I remembered that adolescence is a second toddlerhood, it was a great relief. That recognition was a lifeline. If we expect teens to behave like mature adults we’re sunk. And they will be too.
7. If you had to choose one piece of advice, one mantra, one rule for parents to take away from The Blessing of a B Minus, what would it be?
They have to do a lot of dumb stuff in order to get smart.
8. What do you think teenagers want their parents to know?
Nothing! They say, “If I tell my mom anything she gets more worried than I am, and if I tell my dad anything he gets mad.” Of course, what they are really saying is that they wish their parents would behave more like adults, that they would listen to their kids’ problems without reacting too emotionally or immediately jumping in to solve the problem. Teens are not able to articulate this desire, but most of them would like their parents to set consistent limits while offering their acceptance of the teen’s unique, still-developing spirit. Surprisingly, research on adolescent attitudes also shows that teens would like to spend more time with their parents--not being nagged or harangued, just being together. Both boys and girls talk about wishing to spend more time with their fathers.