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Is ‘Jewish’ Parenting Lax?


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale Professor Amy Chua – “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” – has inflamed passions across the country. The blogosphere is ablaze while The New York Times, Newsweek, Time and hundreds of other news outlets have run articles and often angry opinion pieces debating the wisdom of Chua’s authoritarian – some argue abusive – parenting tactics.

Excerpted from her new book, Battle Hymn to the Tiger Mother, the article argues that Western parents are far too indulgent of their children’s desires. Chua’s own children were not allowed to watch TV, play computer games, get anything other than an A in school, be anything other than the number-one student in every subject (except gym and drama), or play any instrument other than piano or violin – which they had to play whether they wanted to or not.

Chua ackowledges, “The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable – even legally actionable – to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty – lose some weight.’ By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of ‘health’ and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.”

According to Chua, “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

Interestingly, amid all the debate regarding Chua’s parenting model, some have argued that people should look to the Jewish community for a paradigm of successful parenting that churns out successful and happy adults. How would one describe this model? Liberal and permissive, they claim.

“Do we [Jews] ascribe to more lax, permissive parenting that’s wrapped in Jewish-mom guilt?” asks Wendy Sachs on the Huffington Post in reaction to Chua’s article. “Without a doubt,” she answers, boasting that Jewish kids routinely talk back to their elders.

On another blog, George Mason law professor David Bernstein argues that “Jewish parents are known for their permissive parenting [a]nd Jewish kids seem to do alright.”

And in an article titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are not Superior,” entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky argues that Jewish parents “spoil” their children and if they “get a bad grade [their parents] go and fight it out with the teacher.”

I frankly was quite surprised to learn that people consider Jewish parenting to be lax and permissive. Certainly traditional Jewish teachings would not give one this impression. Proverbs, for instance, famously declares, “Spare the rod, hate the child” (13:24) and “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (22:15). Indeed, the sentiment expressed in these verses is so embedded in Judaism that Jewish law does not treat a father or teacher who accidentally kills his child or pupil while disciplining him as a murderer.

Nor do biblical heroes exhibit much in the way of permissive parenting. Sarah advices Abraham to banish his son Ishmael and God agrees with her. Jacob curses two of his children on his deathbed – hardly the act of a fawning parent. King David may be an exception, but not a laudatory one. Indeed, the book of I Kingsimplicitly blames David for Adonijah’s attempt to seize the throne. Why was he at fault? Because “[David] never distressed [his son Adonijah] by asking him, ‘Why have you have done such and such?’” In other words, he spoiled him.

Writing about parenting, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that if one wants one’s child to “subordinate his likes and dislikes to a higher authority” – the basis of all of Judaism – then one must start training him at an early age. Hence, Rav Hirsch exhorts parents:

Train your child, from the very first year of his life, to obey any reasonable order you may give him.

Gradually and firmly break him, as early as possible, of the habit of staging outbursts of impatience or temper tantrums in order to obtain something you have denied him because it would not be proper or good for him.

To this end, train yourself to endure his outbursts of impatience or his temper tantrums so that you should not, out of a selfish desire for some peace and quiet, grant him a wish that you would otherwise deny him out of your unselfish love for him. Your child must learn to do whatever you tell him to do and, above all, he must never – even once would be too often – be allowed to think that if he torments and annoys you sufficiently, he can get you to permit what you original forbade him.

An ode to permissive parenting? Hardly.

Of course, nowadays many Jewish parents – secular, and even religious – do not always follow traditional Jewish teachings on parenting. But this move toward a more liberal parenting style is relatively recent, and the results of this shift remain to be seen.

Certainly the parents of most of the Jewish success stories we are familiar with were not “lax and permissive.” Indeed, the notion of permissiveness as a virtue hardly existed until a few decades ago. The stereotypical classical “Jewish mother” of yesteryear – while of course doting – was a no-nonsense presence in the house.

Fathers were even sterner. Some – like the hero of the popular book All for the Boss and Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik’s father – did not even kiss their children. My own great-grandfather was so strict that he once hit his grown son – who himself was already a father – for making an inappropriate remark at the table. His son’s reaction? He kissed my great-grandfather’s hand and said, “I’m sorry.”

Therefore, to call “Jewish” parenting “lax and permissive” is simply inaccurate. The Jewish parenting style preserved in classical Jewish sources and folklore may or may not be synonymous with Chua’s model of Asian parenting – but lax it is not.

Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and a Ph.D. student at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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