In his introduction to Mesilas Yesharim, the Ramchal writes about a phenomenon he encountered in his time:
“[The reason that] wise and reflective people do not spend time studying this material [that is found in the sefer] is because these ideas are so well known and obvious, that it does not seem necessary to expend a lot of time investing in their study.”
Most of us instinctively know what good parenting looks like. We do not need another lecture on roles, boundaries and the purposes of parenting our children. And yet…
Why are so many children, including our own, so unmannered and undisciplined? We are not unmannered and undisciplined.
The more we try to make them happy the more demanding and obnoxious they become. We don’t remember acting this way towards our parents.
We know that we should have expectations of our children, and we do. Why do they react angrily when we convey our expectations to them? Why are they so oppositional and defiant? We were not this way as children.
It would seem that there is a gap between what we know and what we do. How shall we bridge this?
Parents are Authority Figures Obvious, isn’t it? However, many of us are very uncomfortable with authority. Democratic societies seek to dilute the notion of absolute authority and we have unconsciously taken this in. We become confused about exercising our parental authority. Some of us feel “mean” when we need to assert our primacy.
Authority is not control or aggression. It is the calm certainty that I am the adult here and you are the child and I know better than you. I will listen to your complaints because they tell me what it is you feel you need, but the final decision about what they mean or how I respond is mine. Furthermore I have the calm expectation that you will speak to me respectfully.
We are the Adults As adults we have a responsibility to be clear as to what the parenting task is meant to accomplish. Our job as parents is to insure that our children have good character, in the words of Dr. Chaim Ginott, that we raise them to be humane and strong. As Torah Jews we are guided in this task by the Torah. To accomplish our task we must first ask ourselves the following questions.
A. What does being a Torah Jew mean to me?
For the father: how will I convey this to my sons? To my daughters?
For the mother: what kind of home atmosphere do I want to have? How do I accomplish this?
These are questions that require a lot of thought.
It is not our job to: 1. Ensure that our child is happy (whatever that means). 2. Placate our children in order to get them off our backs.
Doing these things is antithetical to raising a child of good character. A child’s desires are endless. What he wants and what he needs are two very different things, and it is our job to teach him the difference. Placating children gives them too much power. When we find ourselves placating our children, they are in control of us. It makes them anxious, and they will often respond in an obnoxious way, begging us to set limits and take our authority back.
B. How do we help them grow?
This too takes a lot of thought. Every challenge that our children throw our way is an opportunity to teach them something. This is hard to do because: 1. It demands that we consider each situation from the child’s point of view and ask: What do I want him or her to learn? How shall I convey this? 2. We are not teachers, we are parents, and everything we give, we want to give over with warmth and love. How to do that is not always obvious. It requires patience and thought.