Our previous installment of this class explored the connection between God’s parenting of us, and our own parenting of children. Given this model, we may look to God’s approach for insight into how we might deepen our own activities in this arena. This class will address, in more detail, behavioral issues including, defiance, adolescent struggles and parental judgement. Please let us know your reaction to the material, by sending an email to [email protected]torah.org.
…from God we learn what the crux of parenting is all about. According to the 18th century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, God created humankind for one reason – because God wanted to give. This is the core of parenting. If we were to examine why we want children, it stems from the same Godly trait within us: the desire to give. A person does not feel complete without giving, and the greater our capacity to give, the more expansive we feel. This is a sensation of “ain sof” – of being limitless – truly a divine quality. And so we create for the same reasons God creates, and our children are created in our own image, both physically and spiritually, as we are created in God’s image.
And yet, from birth there is an inherent tension, because while our children are created in our image they are also created as separate beings with free will to grow and do as they will, and to defy us, if this is their will. Free will – the ability to make moral choices – is what distinguishes humankind from the rest of creation. It is a divinely given trait, the greatest of the traits we were given. And yet, as we see from the very first pages of Genesis, this gift is breathtakingly easy to abuse.
Adam and Eve were spectacular creations. They were endowed with the potential to live a life of such elevated spirituality that God’s presence would be as manifest to them as nature is to us. Yet like us, they also were created with free will to choose whatever path in life they desired. This free will became their downfall when they defied God and ate from the one tree in the garden forbidden to them. Instantly their psychological makeup changed. Moments after they defied God the Torah describes the following result: “They heard God’s voice moving about the garden with the wind of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from God among the trees of the garden.” [Genesis, 3:8]. The original harmony that existed between these two adults and their Creator was broken; instead, losing their sense of themselves, they ran to hide, because they feared God’s reaction.
What did God do? Adam and Eve’s moral choice to defy God changed the course of history. For reasons too complex to enumerate here, their choice forced humankind to go through a much harder, longer and more confusing destiny until the goal of history is reached – the reinstatement of a perfect harmony between God and humankind.
Most human parents faced with a correspondingly destructive act of defiance would punish harshly and swiftly first, and only later ask questions as they try to deal with their own anger. God’s reaction, however, is a model for our own parenting. The ultimate Parent with infinite patience, God first “searched” for Adam and Eve, and then discreetly encouraged them to admit their guilt. “Where are you?” God asked them. The One who sees everything was clearly not asking them about their physical whereabouts, but rather, was inviting them to consider their spiritual situation.
After they admitted their guilt, God gave the man and the woman different punishments, individually tailored to correct the flaws within each one, which initially led them to make their mistakes. Then, after pronouncing the punishments, God personally clothed them, to alleviate their shame and help them with the new circumstances they found themselves in. This is the parent par excellence who, in spite of everything, takes care of his or her children. The lessons for parenting are obvious. First, we must refrain from confronting our children with conclusions about their guilt; instead, we should encourage them to tell us themselves. Second, our punishments when at all possible should not be arbitrary, but rather, designed to help the child correct his or her behavior. Finally, we must let them know that despite everything we are still with them.
Something as simple as sitting together over a cup of tea after we’ve punished them, or reading a bedtime story with them, may be all that’s needed. Although this gesture might demand a lot of us as people, as parents it will take us very far. We will reaffirm who we are to the children as well as to ourselves. The message comes through: we won’t abandon them in whatever predicament they may find themselves in, even if we’re angry at them.
The Torah also offers us sharp insight into dealing with adolescents. What is the typical quandary of adolescence? The adolescent struggles for independence and often feels the need to defy the parents. Yet at the same time, the child wants to be good and wants the approval of the parents. When the child chooses to assert his or her independence in a sore area – an area where sensitivities are already running high – tempers on both sides often flare. Take for instance the situation of an adolescent we will call “Joe”, who slowly gets ready for school, while his mother becomes increasingly frustrated. He’s already quite late, and yet he takes his time exploring his room for socks, singing a song, checking to see if there’s a soda in the refrigerator. Finally, Joe’s mother cannot contain herself any longer and says, “Joe, you’re driving me crazy! Go to school already!” Joe responds, “You’re angry at me. You don’t like me!”
This is a classic predicament. The mother’s voice resonates with anger at the child’s behavior, yet the child hears a rejection of himself. The child projects on the parent: “My mother is angry…she doesn’t like me…she thinks I’m bad.” Once the child is convinced of this, it gives him license to act accordingly. “You think I’m bad? Then I’ll be bad.” He slams the refrigerator shut and storms out of the house. The parent has become the enemy, as the child projects his internal struggles outward. Of course, this dynamic catches both the child and the parent by surprise. The parent has no intention of being the enemy and the child at this stage still wants to be good.
By the time he returns from school, Joe’s disagreeable behavior might become outright obnoxious. He might ridicule his younger sister or refuse to sit with the family for supper. Is there a way to handle this progressive deterioration?
God’s reaction to Cain [Genesis 4:3-16] gives us a lead. Cain and his first brother Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve, both brought offerings to God; Abel from the finest of his flocks and Cain from good, but not the choicest, produce of his fields. God refused Cain’s offering and Cain became furious and depressed. “Why are you so furious?” God asks Cain. “Why did your face fall?” God said, remarking on Cain’s dour expression. Notice that God does not admonish Cain for his feelings; God simply hold a mirror to Cain and asks him why he is feeling the way he is.
On the other hand, God does not pander to Cain’s mood by justifying the decision to refuse his offering. God simply sets out a prescription for the future: “If you improve, don’t you know that you will be able to stand upright again (with dignity)? And if you don’t improve, sin is crouching at the door. It lusts after you, but you can dominate it.” In effect, God is saying to Cain, “At this point the matter is in your hands. If you stop this behavior now and choose to do good, your future is unlimited. If you choose the path of sin, evil will be more than happy to entice you in its ways, but know that right now you have the power of choice.”
This is perfect parenting. Stay cool; don’t get insulted; don’t take the child’s behavior personally and don’t fall into the trap of arguing on the child’s terms. Instead, articulate the choices for the future. Let the child know that he is responsible for his choice and that you think he is good and can continue to be good. And explain clearly that there are natural consequences to his choices.
SHOW DISCIPLINE AND NOT RIGIDITY
Exercising his free will to his detriment, Cain refused God’s request for him to be good, and instead killed his brother Abel in his rage. As a punishment, god decreed that until his death Cain must live with the consequences of his anti-social behavior by being an outcast from society, forced to wander restless and isolated in the world.
When Cain protested that the punishment could make him vulnerable to attacks by others, God understood his anxieties and made an adjustment in the punishment to help Cain. God placed a special mark on Cain that would be a warning to others not to harm him. In amending the punishment, God was sending a message to Cain that, although Cain had proved himself unfit for human company, he would never be alone because God would always be with him. As we said before, this loyalty is perhaps the most indispensable quality in good parenting.
EXPRESSING OUR ALLEGIANCE
In our lives, how can we express this total allegiance to our children? Perhaps the best way is by immersing ourselves in the details of their lives. Recently, someone told me about a very successful elementary school teacher in one of the worst areas of the inner city. What was the secret of her success? She used to come to school with brushes, bows and barrettes, and before she taught each day she would fashion her students’ hair. This involvement on a personal level helped her forge relationships in a way few teachers were able to match.
The Book of Job – one of the most fascinating of the 24 books that comprise Judaism’s sacred literature – offers an additional insight into this theme of parents’ unconditional commitment to be involved in their children’s lives. The theme of the book is unexplained suffering. Job, a righteous man, suffered tremendous misfortunes and challenged God to tell him the reasons why he was made to suffer so.
God offered him an answer and Job was comforted. And yet, most people find God’s answer puzzling, because it does not mention Job at all, but rather, depicts God’s personal involvement with His creatures. God asks Job, “Do you know the time when the mountain goats give birth? Did you count the months as they came to term, to know the moment of their birth?” [Job 39:1,2].
Job is comforted by this because it show a world with not only a Creator, but a Governor, a God who is constantly involved with every aspect of the Creation. Job still has no explanation for his suffering, but he gains one certainty: God is not remote and he – Job – and his pain, is not forgotten. God does not overlook him. Everything was and is part of a divine plan, a plan which, whether we understand it or not, is beneficial to us individually as well as to humankind in general.
When my children say to me, “It’s not fair,” this is precisely what I tell them. “From your perspective you’re right, it doesn’t seem fair. But everybody has different needs, and it is my role as a parent to consider the whole picture. I’m not forgetting you – you’re constantly in my mind and heart, but in the larger picture, your sister needs more attention now.” By accepting this answer, the child expresses a deep trust in us. In a similar vein, when we accept God’s answer to Job, we express a deep trust in God.
JUDGING WITHOUT PRE-JUDGING
Another critical factor in effective parenting is the ability to judge a child where she is, free of our expectations of her, and free of our disappointments stemming from her past failures. A striking example of this can be found in Genesis in God’s response to Ishmael as he lay near death in the desert. Ishmael, the wayward son of Abraham, was the archetype of a problem child. A born rebel, he was difficult as a child and would become criminal as an adult, which God well knew. And yet, when the boy’s life was in danger and he wept in pain, the verse says: “God heard the boy’s voice, there where he was” [21:17]. When Ishmael’s situation was viewed in isolation, he deserved to be saved.
We must judge our children and our children’s friends as they are, in each given situation. Reacting to a situation with cumulative judgement, or with presentiments about the future, sends a message to any child, and even more so to a difficult child, that she can’t win.
WHEN NOTHING ELSE WORKS
Like a child in adolescence, the Jewish nation went through a very rough period of rebellion and resistance to the authority of God for 1000 years, ending at approximately 300 BCE. Prophets were sent to the people and nothing helped. The nation seemed bent on self- destruction.
When the prophet Ezekiel asked what good it was to send him to warn the Jewish people, when both he and God knew they wouldn’t listen, God answered him that even if they won’t listen, they will still know that a prophet has been in their midst. The message for us as parents is clear. Even if children cannot respond in a positive way at the moment, it doesn’t mean guidance should not be given. It is our job to offer them direction, just as God continually sent prophets to the people.
Parenting is not an easy task. It’s an art form. One lesson the Torah teaches us is that our role must be as varied and diverse as God’s multifaceted relationship with humankind. It demands personal development, more so than any job on earth.
I’ve often wondered why it is that on Yom Kippur the person leading services, who petitions God on behalf of the congregation, must have children. Perhaps the answer is precisely our topic here. With our children, our ability to seek truth, to gain humility and to change enters a new dimension.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.