The Talmud in the eighth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin entitled “Ben Sorer U’moreh,” describes a predicament in which a child is totally out of control. The parents bring him to the court of law and proclaim that he is a “rebellious child” – in essence, on the wrong path – and must be dealt with now before things become worse. The Talmud relates that after proper investigation, if the Sanhedrin finds that this child is truly a “bad seed,” he must be put to death. The reasoning: “Better that he should die now than grow up to be a menace to society.”
Interestingly, the Talmud expresses that among the requirements for a child to be deemed a “ben sorer u’moreh” are that neither of the parents can be deaf, blind, mute, or lame. Finally the Talmud concludes that there was never actually a case of a “ben sorer u’moreh.” On this, the Talmud asks, “Then why is this mentioned in the Torah at all?” The response: “Study it and you will be rewarded.”
Rabbi Belkin in his book Faith and Doubt explains that the intent of the Talmud is to indicate that if there is a child who is indeed rebellious, it is because the parents were in a sense deaf, blind, mute, or lame. While they were bringing up their child, they didn’t truly listen to or pay proper attention to him, nor did they advocate for him. The parents also did not communicate with each other; for example, one parent refused to act while the other pretended not to see or hear. In essence they were lame, mute, deaf, or blind to their child’s needs.
The Talmud adds that the time span in which a child can become a “rebellious child” is only between the ages of twelve and twelve-and-a-half years old. During the formative years, when the parents have the opportunity, and the obligation, to teach the child and help him develop, the child cannot be labeled a “rebellious child.” Only when it is already too late, when the child is nearly reaching bar mitzvah, can he be labeled rebellious.
How a child will grow and whether he or she will become a credit to our people is usually related directly to the actions of the parents. Children often become a “problem” because during the formative years something failed – there was a breakdown in communication, or the parents were not good examples for the child to aspire to. There is rarely a case of a “bad child.” Although many children have challenges as they grow up, parents must serve as the vehicles set in motion by Almighty G-d to advocate for the child and to become role models for him or her. A difficult task!
Let me give you an example of misguided parenting: A teacher in my former school had given a test and graded the papers. One child had obviously cheated on the exam, so the teacher gave that child a zero and proceeded to call the parents in order to seek their aid and work together so that such an incident did not occur again. When he notified the parents, their response was: “Rabbi, what kind of an environment do you have in your classroom that our child would be motivated to cheat on your exam?”
The real question should have been more introspective. What is my child learning at home that would make him think cheating on a test is an acceptable practice? There is something wrong when parents do not set limits for their children, when they continually shower them with whatever they want and teach them that they are entitled to everything that they desire without concern for respect and decency or just plain derech eretz.
I once served as an evaluator for middle school accreditation of a very religious school in Brooklyn. I noted in my report that the Judaic curriculum and environment of the school was outstanding. The children were taught profound respect for their Rebbeim. They treasured their interactions with these teachers and listened to their every word. But when it came to the general studies counterparts, the children were disrespectful, rude, and totally lacking in derech eretz, even though some of these teachers were also rabbis. I questioned the school about this problem: “What kind of message are you sending to your students? Isn’t everyone deserving of basic human decency and respect?” The administration responded: “This is what the parents want!”
The Talmud at the end of Tractate Succot states that the Kohanic family of Bilgah was excluded from serving in the Temple because their daughter Miriam became a heretic and mocked the service of the Temple. The Talmud asks, “Because of one daughter should they all be blamed?” “Yes!” the Talmud responds. “Because whatever she said most probably came from her father or mother at home.” The actions and attitudes that prevail in the home directly relates to the culpability and responsibility the parents will face for their children’s behavior as they grow up. It behooves all of us to focus on this very crucial point!