There is something to be said about hearing a story with a yiddishe ta’am (taste). However, when the context changes, and the cultural inflection and accent are omitted, the panache wanes. Such was my recent experience after having heard a well-known tale modified to suit the eclectic assemblage of the audience. For you, my dear readership, though, I offer the original version as I heard it many years ago (for a deeper experience, as you read the text imagine how these characters would sound and look). If the lilt resonates, feel free to nod in agreement or smile with a sense of familiarity. So please indulge me these few paragraphs as I share this known anecdote.
A young balebuste was about to cook dinner. As she was preparing to put a large piece of meat in the pan, she grabbed a sharp knife and cut off a small chunk from the end. Her friend, baffled by this action, questioned the behavior and wondered whether a chumrah (strict religious adherence to Law) was being enacted. Querying her balebuste friend about this curious culinary preparatory step, the balebuste replied in a rather unequivocal, “I don’t really know. I do it because my mother did it, and I never thought of asking why she did it. Why don’t I call her now; I’m sure she’ll give me the answer.”
Without delay, the balebuste called her mother and posed that same question. Thinking she would gain clarity, to her astonishment, her mother’s words were almost identical to that of hers: “I don’t really know. I do it because my mother did it and I never thought of asking her for an explanation. She pauses. You know what, I’ll ask bubbie; I’m sure she’ll have a really good answer for both of us.”
And so the scenario repeated itself as the same question was presented to bubbie. Well guess what, there were no surprises! Bubbie’s response was similar to that of her daughter and granddaughter: “I don’t really know,” she exclaimed. “It’s what I did all these years; I just followed what my mother did in the kitchen. She pauses. Let’s ask my mother, der elter bubbie, zol zein gezunt (great-grandmother, she should live and be well). I’m sure she’ll have an answer for all of us.”
The next day, three generations of women visited the 90-something matriarch of the family. A resident of the local nursing home where she had been residing these past several years, der elter bubbie always had much to say. Being prepared to hear some wise words from this spirited, religious woman of valor, the family members patiently awaited an answer after having presented their question.And although hard of hearing, the elter bubbie who was very much in control of her faculties, responded in a serious tone of certainty and resolve. In her heavy polish-Yiddish accent, she stated: “Yuh, avadeh ich gedenkt gantz git (yes, of course I recall very well)!” She continued explaining that the only pots her family owned were too small in which to cook a large cut of meat. So she cut off the end piece and cooked it in another small pot.
What profound mystery! What a revelation! What a lesson!
Following a family’s culinary-related tradition rarely produces harmful effects. However, sometimes the stakes (excuse the pun!) are a lot higher. In such cases, when one emulates a behavior without evaluating the merits of the action, the consequences can be potentially devastating. I refer to the use of external control by parents as a way for them to achieve cooperation and compliance from their child, especially when their child is a struggling adolescent.
[Parenthetic note: External control refers to controlling behaviors such as criticism, threats, put-downs, yelling, hitting, punishing, bribing and evoking guilt, among other means of manipulation. This topic was the focus of my two-part article, “Bet’ya Can’t Make Me! – The Impact of External Control” (January 9 & 16).]
Some parents believe that using a tough and controlling methodology is the most effective way for them to rear healthy, cooperative children. However, they may not necessarily recognize that, in the process, there may be adverse effects on one or any number of their children. In these instances, parents may be losing a great deal more (in the long run) than they perceive they are gaining – a loving relationship. That being said, the questions I present in this two-part article are, “Why do so many parents use external control and why is it so difficult for them to break away from that approach?”
Other than a rather simplistic and proverbial justification, such as, “that’s how I was raised and I turned out okay!” or “because it worked back then,” let’s explore other possible reasons why many parents tend to use elements of control. We’ll begin with a socio-historical perspective based on observations of Eastern European Jewry (although these factors may also share commonality with other cultural backgrounds).
There existed a variety of beliefs associated with Eastern European authoritarian parenting, beliefs that still seem to be in use today. As the patriarch, the father was considered to be master of the home. This unspoken title embodied within it a role within a power position, an attitude, a mind-set and certain behaviors. These elements seemed to have had a lasting effect on the male children. Time moved on. When these children became parents, they easily slipped into the position and emulated that which was associated with the title. Perhaps that would explain why many parents today believe they are master “over” their children.
And what would the role of master be like without having in place a methodology to maintain the position? This translates into entitlement. Entitlement generates beliefs that children must dutifully meet the demands and expectations of their parents. Entitlement also fosters beliefs that children owe their parents nachas. When I think of children “owing” nachas to their parents, I cannot help but conjure up in my mind an image of an assembly line where the machinery is titled, “nachas-producing children.”
Here are a few more beliefs that may ring a bell, especially if you are of Eastern European descent.
Children have no or minimal rights, and their feelings and opinions do not count. Since they are young and unknowledgeable, they have little or nothing of value to contribute to adult issues affecting the home. (I wonder whether the expression, “Children should be seen and not heard,” has its roots in this belief!)
When a child does not cooperate or meet the parents’ expectations, the child “does not deserve” the love or respect of his/her parents.
It is the parents’ job and/or responsibility to “turn” their child into a responsible person, a mentsch and a shomer Torah u’mitzvos (religiously observant individual).
And in order to accomplish these goals, parents may use any means they perceive is necessary to ensure achieving their desired outcomes.
Such was the accepted norm of Eastern European authoritarian parenting in a generation that seems eons away from today’s world. However, that which may have worked at a different time and place may not necessarily be applicable to a percentage of today’s families.
In Part Two we will continue discussing reasons why many parents tend to use external control.
Debbie Brown is a certified life coach specializing in parent coaching. She is available for private, confidential phone coaching sessions as well as lectures and group workshops. For further information or to express feelings regarding the Parental Perspective topic, Debbie may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to read Debbie’s archived articles, log on to www.jewishpress.com and, in the search box on the home page, type in Debbie Brown.