A dose of Soul: Book on child-rearing is sometimes trite, mostly wise

In spite of its title, Slovie Jungreis-Wolff’s “Raising a Child With Soul”

doesn’t describe the moral character–building visions of James Brown or Aretha Franklin. Rather, it is Jungreis-Wolff’s distillation of her lifetime love of Torah and family into a guidebook for today’s parents.

“We worry that [our children] receive proper nutrition, cultural experiences, and an excellent education,” Jungreis-Wolff writes. “What is most painful to me is the fact that rarely have I heard parents discussing their plan to develop their child’s soul.”

Into that apparent void, Jungreis-Wolff leaps with all the fervor one might expect from the daughter of the late Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, an Orthodox rabbi who had a tremendous following in New York, and renowned rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, author and Holocaust survivor.

“Raising a Child With Soul” is a valuable, though flawed, addition to one’s parenting bookshelf. One must get beyond Jungreis-Wolff’s mediocre writing, penchant for generalizing and near-sainted glorification of her family to accept her book as a useful reminder of what really matters in life, as we try to raise children who care about themselves and the world around them.

Jungreis-Wolff divides her book into nine topic chapters that address how time-tested Jewish wisdom can shape our children’s characters. It is probably not important to quibble with her merging of biblical narrative and midrash when she asserts that Jacob and his sons recited the Sh’ma, which she does again when she invokes the story of Purim.

“Raising a Child With Soul” succeeds as a current summary of Torah or ethical wisdom for parents to draw upon as we navigate the often-stormy waters of child-rearing.

“Take a moment each day and appreciate your blessings,” counsels Jungreis-Wolff, who has been an educator for several years. “Learn to value your world. Delight in your family. Savor the universe around you. Let’s teach our children to appreciate what they have instead of focusing on what they are missing.”

Jungreis-Wolff attacks the usual villains — materialism, parental ambivalence, misplaced priorities, indulgence — and proposes, in sermon-like fashion, solutions to the moral decay she sees across the American landscape.

Most significantly, Jungreis-Wolff believes that we raise happier children who have stronger self-esteem and self-respect when they are taught the importance of tikkun olam.

“The key to true happiness is discovering a sense of mission and purpose,” she writes. “Fulfillment is achieved with the nourishment of one’s soul.”

Jungreis-Wolff’s blueprint includes the do’s and don’ts of discipline. She cautions parents to avoid confrontations by not speaking when tired or angry. She advises parents to treat children with dignity and never to humiliate them.

“Choose your battles,” she writes. “Recognize your child’s successes, not just his failures. Don’t carry grudges. Don’t exaggerate misbehavior. Don’t lose your sense of humor.”

She even provides concrete examples of correct and incorrect phrasing by parents in the heat of disciplining children. For example, Jungreis-Wolff counsels that one must be specific rather general — instead of shouting, “Clean your room,” opt for “Put away your Legos in the box. Then, please put your laundry in the hamper.”

After trashing parental misbehavior and offering myriad ways to parent better through Torah wisdom, Jungreis-Wolff tells parents they can straighten out their priorities.

“Please don’t feel dejected,” she implores. “Know that is never too late to build a bridge and reconnect with your child.”

Jungreis-Wolff’s religious upbringing, as well as her family’s experiences during the Holocaust, informs her particular vision for raising a child with soul. She emphasizes seeing our children as blessings and gifts from God and recognizing the simple and powerful act of gratitude.

Jungreis-Wolff reminds us that children will not benefit from more stuff — video games, movies, vacations, iPods, cell phones — but that they blossom when we give them time and direction to make the world better.

Her wisdom and platitudes have been stated more eloquently elsewhere, but I found her messages, especially about gratitude, resonating with me throughout the days I was reading her book. “Raising a Child With Soul” is an easily accessible guide for parents to refresh themselves or become educated in guiding our children along the right path.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.