It should come as no surprise to any of you that I’m always on the lookout for a good parenting book. Bonus points if it has a Jewish twist, and double bonus if it’s written by Marjorie Ingall. I’ve been following Marjorie’s smart, funny writing on Tablet for years; her piece on the Jews and scatological humor is one of my all-time favorites.
But you’ll get much more than a good poop joke in her new book, “Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children” (Harmony, 2016). Marjorie masterfully weaves Jewish history and values with modern research throughout this book and her signature no-bullshit style had me laughing out loud even as I was nodding along. I had a chance to interview Marjorie recently, and here’s what she had to say about the book:
I was intrigued by your choice to start out with an exploration of how successful Jews have been, as opposed to Jewish values or current research related to parenting (which you do quite effectively later in the book). Can you talk about more about that decision?
My strategy in mentioning how successful the Jews have been is to bring readers into the discussion I want to have: how to raise a mensch. I genuinely believe that this has been the core of our collective success as parents throughout Jewish history: raising children who’ve grown up to reach the highest echelons in all kinds of fields from science to comedy to journalism to literature—far out of proportion to their numbers in the population—precisely because we as parents have stressed creativity, flexible and independent thinking, self-discipline, learning, literacy, humor, and tikkun olam—all the stuff I talk about in the book.
We haven’t been all about winning for winning’s sake; we haven’t been about crushing standardized tests (because valuing that kind of accomplishment is what leads to cheating and shortcuts, and also actually dulls innovation and legit cleverness); we haven’t protected our kids from every slight or feeling of discomfort or consequence.
You write, “We’re entirely worried about having our kids be happy. Stop saying and even thinking ‘the most important thing is that they’re happy.’” I did a little fist pump in the air when I read this, because I totally agree. Can you say more about why you think the happiness shtick is not helpful, and what Jewish parenting encourages us to focus on instead?
Happiness should not be the goal. It should be a byproduct, if that makes sense. Encourage kids to do things that are right, and hard, and thought-provoking, and challenging. The feeling of accomplishment that comes from achieving meaningful goals or overcoming an actual obstacle should be a source of happiness.
If happiness itself is the goal, you end up being that parent who never lets a child experience discomfort or grief or negative consequences. Then there’s no teachable moment, no challenge to rise to. And especially when a kid is a jerk, they should experience consequences, and they should be penalized, and you should not be rushing in to fix things or excuse the kid’s bad behavior. Happiness that comes from getting off the hook is not healthy happiness.
Later in the book you shared one of my favorite Jewish tales—the one about the slip of paper in each pocket. Can you tell the story briefly and explain how it relates to parenting?
The Hasidic teacher Simkha Bunim (1765-1827) once said, “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other according to his needs. In the right pocket should be the words: ‘For my sake the world was created,’ and in the left, ‘I am dust and ashes.’” Whenever we feel depressed and without value, we should look at the first note. When we start to believe that we’re unfailingly fantabulous, we should look at the second.
We all need perspective and balance. As parents, we should strive to raise kids who know that the world does not revolve around them, but who also know that one person can make a meaningful difference in the world. That’s empowering without being arrogance-inducing. It’s tied to everyone’s fave Rabbi Hillel quote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I?”
You devote an entire chapter to the power and importance of storytelling. You even note that it makes us smarter, which isn’t a commonly cited benefit. Can you say more about that?
I think storytelling is a huge part of what has made Jews successful, actually. Literacy separated us from a lot of other people during the Middle Ages. We are the people of the book.
But storytelling is a step beyond literacy—it’s narrative, in a lot of different forms. No pages needed. Stories light up our world and our imaginations, give us context, entertain and enlighten, and bring us together as we listen to one another’s stories. There is nothing like the intimacy you have with your kid when you’re reading to them—which doesn’t just mean looking at a book; it’s the physical act of cuddling, and then talking about the book and drawing parallels to our lives and using the book as a teaching tool about how to be a person in the world. Storytelling can build the muscles of truly listening to someone else, of developing empathy and understanding consequences. But yeah, I cite research about how listening to stories makes us smarter. Buy the book. 🙂
Marjorie’s book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com and other online retailers.