I read plenty of parenting books during my first decade as Mom: books on babies and infants, attachment parenting gifted children, difficult children, children with Asperger’s, children with ADHD, mindfulness and parenting, and even Buddhist parenting. Then I stopped. Whether satiated or jaded, I just stopped as my world steadily broadened beyond parenting young children.
But when a conversation thread on Facebook led me to a post on overparenting by Wendy Mogel, PhD, I decided it was time to read a book on the genre of child that now lives in my home — the teen. My older, nearly seventeen, was late to bloom, or at least that’s my excuse for not giving more academic and practical attention to this stage of life until now. He’s also a pleasant and easy teen, the sort who almost always agrees to help with a chore (although getting to it may take time and reminders) and who rarely eye-rolls or talks back. I’ve actually been relieved when he slips into a rare argumentative mode, defending his reality and rights. It’s reassuring somehow, seeing those stereotypical teen behaviors.
While I’d heard plenty about the teen brain, reading articles online and listening to TED talks and the like, I’d not thought I needed a parenting book to guide me through my older son’s version of the teens. I certainly didn’t think I’d read one called The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. I’m not Jewish (although my mother converted a few years back, giving me at least a bit of backing in some basics). I’m not even Christian. I’m an agnostic Unitarian Universalist who respects the teachings of the world’s religions but doesn’t talk about blessings or children being or gifts from a god. I was dubious, but with a friend’s good review of her first book for parents of younger children, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and a desire to manage my younger son’s teens with a bit more poise (and it will be needed), I ordered it.
I was delighted with both the intelligence of Mogel’s writing and her thoughtful approach to parenting the teen. She maintains that teenagers as being thwarted by and, yes, blessed by their rapidly developing and therefore unwieldy brains. While the preteen years are a time for increasing connections, the teens are when the unused connections are pruned. This consolidation of sorts, when paired with hormonal changes and plenty related physical changes, leads to the weak planning, poor organization, and spotty self-regulation that many teens experience. It’s physiological chaos, and accepting that a certain amount of mistake-making, rule-bending, rudeness, and general drama accompany that chaos is, per Mogel, the first step in finding a way through. She speaks of appreciating these traits, these blessings, in her words, and working from the assumption that there is good in both the short and long-term to these ubiquitous, problematic, and even desirable elements of teenage life.
Mogel doesn’t advocate letting a teen rule the house with rudeness or preferences. She doesn’t suggest being the teen’s best buddy. She advocates some compassionate distance with firm limits and emphasizes that mistakes and near-mistakes are experiences teens must have to gain the skills needed for the next stage of life. Her primary audience is Jewish, middle to upper middle class, intelligent, open-minded, and prone to helicopter-parenting. Don’t worry if not all those descriptors fit. The essential advice — that teens have to struggle and that the struggle can be frightening and frustrating for parents but should not be squelched — works regardless of faith or socioeconomic class. After all, rudeness, poor grades, materialism, poor judgement, and risk-taking are to some degree part of the lives of most teens at least for part of those challenging years.
Mogel addresses those teen issues about which make most parents grumble as blessings, using plenty of Jewish references throughout the book. She manages this without writing a religious book, one that assumes the presence of the divine in day-to-day life. Yes, God is mentioned, but never in the way that makes me, an agnostic, struggle to read on. She avoids platitudes about God’s plan or will and places the job of parenting up to the humans with their boots on the ground — parents. Instead, concepts like shalom bayit (peace in the home), yetzer hara (the animating source of energy that can lead to greed and selfishness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) provide a set of Jewish terms that manage to resonate across beliefs. She weaves these terms throughout her writing, bringing wisdom from one culture to anyone parenting teens.
Mogel’s advice may be a bit more hands-off than some modern parents want to hear. She advocates less panic about college admissions and encourages more focus on the ways teens benefit from learning from their own mistakes. Mistakes made during these teen years, the ones where children are at home, she asserts, can prevent much worse ones when children go away from home. The Blessing of a B Minus emphasizes that teens need to learn from the pickles that they get themselves into — late assignments, lost items, poor grades, and questionable choices about sexual activity and substance use. But unlike other books on teens that advocate straight natural (or at least consistent) consequences for each error, Mogel manages to preserve boundaries between parent and child without sacrificing the connection. She advocates compassion for parents and children and respect for the dignity of both as well. She notes early on that the sort of relationship with our children that many of us have built — attached and cozy — is exactly what can lead to parental shock when teens start to distance themselves from us (often only to pull us back in when things go wrong). She is at her best when helping parents negotiate that distance, allowing that it hurts and yet is necessary and, perhaps most importantly that compassion can sometimes be the best way to manage a situation. After all, as adults, when we lock ourselves out of our car or procrastinate on a tax form or work assignment, we both have to pay the price (a cold walk to a warm gas station to wait or a late night that leaves us groggy the next day) while often counting on others to care and assist (a neighbor rescues us from the gas station or a partner makes a pot of coffee for our long night). We don’t live alone in this world.
In other words, Mogel advocates a type of parenting that respects both parent and child today and in the future. It is compassionate and respectful parenting aimed at creating compassionate and capable children. It’s not for sissies, however, and her advice about managing teen substance use and sexual activity will likely make some parents close the book in fright or anger. Don’t. Stick with her. She’s realistic — many kids will try alcohol before they are of age, and many of them will sexually experiment to some degree before they are thirty and married. Good kids. Kids who generally follow rules and turn in their homework on time. Zero tolerance, while tempting, she says, may drive experimentation underground, which will lead to less teaching moments and fewer opportunities for teens and parents to have calm and productive conversations about the decision making that goes into these situations. She concludes this sticky chapter, titled ‘The Blessing of a Hangover,’ however, reminding us that pleasure is important for adults as well as children. She encourages adults to make adulthood look responsible and appealing by taking time to responsibly experience pleasure ourselves and to protect our private time with our partners because that nourishes us and shows our children that it’s worth surviving the teens to be an adult. If it’s all bill-paying, kid-carting, and endless work, why bother to grow up?
Perhaps it’s just that raising my teen hasn’t been that angst-filled, at least relative to her examples, or perhaps it’s that homeschooling allows some families a chance to escape some of the more harrowing parts of some children’s adolescence (hopefully not displacing it to college), but I came away from the book appreciating my older son’s relatively easy adolescence. Mogel’s raised teen girls of her own, girls in school, and her examples seem girl-biased (although I just may have a boy-lens on when reading). Many of us with boys have more silence and grunting than drama and open angst, and she seems to address the drama and angst more fully than the inscrutable silence of many teen males. This is a small criticism of what is otherwise a fine book on both raising and appreciating teenagers. Perhaps, when my almost-teen is a few years older, I’ll better appreciate more of her examples.
If you’re looking for a way to interpret and respond to your teen’s behaviors with reason and compassion with an eye on the future adult you’d like in the world, The Blessing of B Minus is a fine place to start. I don’t doubt that I’ll be returning to sections over the years as I continue this journey through my sons’ teens, searching for a bit of wisdom to guide me through.