Over the holidays my sister from NJ was at my house and complimented my (wicked) potato kugel. “How do you make it?” she asked.
Exactly two years ago, at the close of 2014, I wrote a post about that year. It was a gut-wrenching year full of bad news and sad moods. Since that time, I find myself getting especially reflective this time of year, looking back on the year and deciding what I want to say about it.
cross posted from jfxramblings.blogspot.org
There’s so much talk about parenting these days. Don’t be a helicopter mom. Don’t bubble-wrap your kids. Don’t hire people to write their college term papers. (Yes.) Teach them to stand up to bullying. Teach them not to bully. To clean up their language. To handle technology. And in one Dove-sponsored video, teach them to take a selfie. (Yes.)
This is all, possibly, good.
What no one is saying is this: parent yourself.
Teach yourself not to be bubble-wrapped. Teach yourself to stand up to bullies. To manage technology. To write your own work. To clean up your language.
Whenever I teach a group of adults about a particular concept in Judaism, a value, a higher, more ethical way of living, the FIRST thing people usually think about is their kids. “How can I teach this to my kids?” But that’s not really the first thing. The first question should be, “How can I teach this to myself?”
The Jewish world-view I was raised with teaches that you’re never done growing up. That ethical development and responsible decision-making is never complete. You don’t get a free pass to drink, swear, and gamble indiscriminately because “you’re a grown-up.” Being a grown-up means MORE responsible behavior, not less.
And no, not only because this is the most effective way to parent (it is), but because it is the most effective way to BE, whether you have kids or not; whether your kids are grown or small; whether you’re pleased with how they’ve turned out, or sadly, otherwise.
Take all the questions you would direct toward your child, like:
- Did you clean up your room?
- Are you careful with what you post online? It’s there forever, you know.
- Are you treating your siblings and parents with respect?
- Are you cultivating self-control?
- Are you eating healthfully?
- Are your spending habits sustainable?
- Are you succumbing to peer pressure?
- Are you dressing to impress others?
- Are you relying on others to build your self-esteem?
- Are you reaching your potential?
Now ask these questions to yourself. The answers may not come easily.
Parent, parent thyself.
This past weekend, our educational organization, JFX, offered a little experiment: an “outreach” Shabbaton for Orthodox Jews. A Shabbaton is a weekend retreat, often at a hotel, where Jewish folks celebrate Shabbat together, usually with workshops or other inspirational and motivational sessions. In an Orthodox-led retreat, there is observance of Shabbat in public spaces (no photos, microphones, electronic media).
JFX is an organization that mostly services families whose kids are in public school (although we have a nice minority of day school families), so this “Orthodox-only” Shabbaton was new for us. Our thought process: often, people need to zoom out in their Judaism and seem to really appreciate a back-to-basics approach that organizations like ours offer, since we don’t assume that anyone knows or believes anything. We have found that Orthodox people, whether they’ve been so their whole lives, and thus never experienced this “outreach” approach to education, or whether they are “BTs” – people who have become religious as adults or teens – and have moved through and past the “outreach” approach, and miss it, very often crave the kind of positive, panoramic style of teaching we offer.
(Sidebar: in no way am I suggesting that “our” style of education is superior to “classic” Orthodox education. Different models are appropriate for different situations.)
So, the Shabbaton.
A lot of really interesting things came to light, in contrasting this particular Shabbaton with the others we run. Maybe another post one day. But for now, I wanted to focus on one thing. We had a panel discussion on Shabbat afternoon, which covered topics such as “Balance in Family – Kids and Marriage,” “Love and Discipline in Parenting,” “Making Judaism Real for your Kids,” and “Happiness.” One of the questions was:
We all know that in order to raise emotionally and spiritually healthy children, we need both unconditional love and clear boundaries. What is your red line in parenting? Which battles do you pick?
Every single one of our panelists gave the same response (which didn’t happen with other questions). I am really curious if this is an “Orthodox thing” or a “universal thing,” so I am turning it over to you guys.
How would you answer this question, and do you affiliate Orthodox? At the end, I’ll tell you what they said!
I went to get some routine bloodwork done. The woman helping me was clearly “in the know” about Orthodox living, and was proud to show it. After some Jewish geography, she dropped the bomb. “Can I ask you a question? If your child decided not to be Orthodox anymore, what would you do?”
Welcome to the club.
I know what you’re thinking: “not my kid.” I hope you’re right. But you may be lying to yourself – like so many others.
Yes, I’m just like you. I come from a great family – as does my wife. Our home is loving and open. Our family dynamic is strong. We are a model to so many. We are not poor in any way. Our children have everything they need.
We did it all right. We have no regrets. Yet it happened to us.
We learned many lessons the hard way – lessons that have allowed us to keep a strong connection to our struggling child – to keep a truly positive and loving relationship. Lessons that are universal – that apply to ALL children.
We daven [pray] every day: “Hashem [God], give us the strength and wisdom to persevere. Give us the gift of chochma [wisdom] for continued personal growth. Allow us all to come out the other end as greater people.”
I thought it couldn’t happen to me. I’ve got a great marriage, a happy home, we’re open-minded, warm, and friendly, we don’t have crazy expectations of our children, they have what they need… no, it can’t happen to me. Think again.
Why am I writing this? Mostly for myself – to gain clarity. Writing really helps. I also believe that Hashem has guided us with an extra dose of siyata d’shmaya [Divine assistance] and allowed us to find the perfect people to mentor and guide us through these challenging times. We want to share what we’ve learned – and for the honest sincere parents out there who want the best for their children – we are confident that they will find some valuable lessons in this article.
Who do you blame? Whose fault is it? How do I take control? How do I show my child who’s boss? These and hundreds of other questions fly through our minds. What will my family say? What will the neighbors say?
And let’s be honest, in our cruelly judgmental society – where so many people are more concerned about how others perceive them – when we think about “straightening out our child,” is it for the child or for our reputation?
This child can be the catalyst for the most exceptional personal growth you’ve ever experienced. This child will change you in a way that nothing else ever can. This child is your key to greatness. Are YOU ready?
They are hurting – they feel like failures – they’re NOT bad kids. They want to belong and feel whole. Treating them as if they’re bad is a guaranteed way to ensure they’ll hate you and the system for a long time – and with good reason.
I know it’s painful. Feel their pain. Allow it to envelop you. A wise woman who has dealt with many of these challenging situations told me, “Remember, as much as it hurts you, your child has even more pain.” We, as parents, are in pain. Yet, if we’re healthy we have a life outside of our challenges. Our child is living a nightmare of pain. They want to belong so badly, they want you to be proud of them, and yes – they want to be like everyone else.
Deep in their hearts (and sometimes not so deep) they want to know what’s wrong. “Why can’t I be like my other siblings?” It will take them some time to figure themselves out and how they can see themselves as valuable members of a Torah-based society.
These aren’t bad kids! There are very few bad kids. These are kids who don’t fit and they’ve been destroyed so badly inside that they simply don’t care. Forcing them to conform – pouring your frustration on them – will KILL your child – and you only have yourself to blame.
The litmus test for this principle is anger and frustration. If you have any anger or frustration towards your child – you’ve got some growing to do. Let them live THEIR lives, not YOURS. This is really hard. We want the best for our children. We will do anything to see them successful. Yet, it would be a worthwhile exercise to go into a quiet room and ask yourself the following question, “Am I embarrassed of my child in front of my friends?”
Do you believe your child has greatness? Do you know where your child excels? Where are they unique? Where do they stand out? Why are you proud of them? If you can’t answer these questions – you’ve got a problem.
How can you be a good parent and be your child’s best advocate if you don’t believe in them? We are living in a society where we value children. A family of 10 children is commonplace. This is a real example of our clear values. Parenting doesn’t end with having a child and sending them to school. That’s the easy part. The challenge is to dig deep within yourself to gain a sense of your child’s greatness and steer him in that direction.
Have a picture in your mind of them being successful in the future. It’s not enough to believe it – although it’s a great first step – you must articulate it. Again and again.
This doesn’t mean you have to approve of what they’re doing. Nor do you have to share their values. But you MUST appreciate their inherent goodness and potential – and you must find the areas in which they excel.
We all know that Hashem created each and every person as a unique individual with a unique set of talents. As a parent you’ve been charged with helping your child find the areas where they can excel. Are they artistic? Dedicated? Funny? Thoughtful? Creative? Musical? Friendly? Hard-working?
What do they enjoy? Find those areas and encourage them. Please don’t be bound by what others find acceptable – don’t abdicate your parenting to them. If your child doesn’t feel that you believe in them – you’re a failure as a parent. Hashem has given you a great gift – the greatest gift – a child. You may be a Rosh HaYeshiva [spiritual head of a rabbinical institution] or a CEO, you may be a millionaire and a macher. All of that pales in comparison to your role as a father or mother. You will ultimately be judged on how you dealt with your children.
Separate your nisayon [test] from their nisayon. You’re not a BAD parent (I hope) – recognize that Hashem has given them a nisayon – and you CAN’T win their nisayon for them. You can only deal effectively with your nisayon. Welcome to the gift of growth. This is an unparalleled opportunity.
We only grow when we are challenged – and this challenges us like nothing else
We only grow when we relinquish control – and that’s the only way to succeed
We only grow when we REALLY rely on Hashem – and now we’re in a foxhole
We’re forced to find the best in them
We’re forced to keep our mouths shut
We’re forced to reassess our parenting skills
We’re forced to think about the values we hold dear – and what is being transmitted to our children.
Stop the religious fight. They’re empty inside and feel apathetic (at best) towards yiddishkeit [Judaism].
Do you think they don’t know what’s right and wrong? Do you think they need your reminders? Do you really think it’ll help? So GIVE IT UP. Never tell them the obvious. It’s counterproductive.
Your job is to be totally positive and not demanding. Ask yourself, “Why is it so important for me to mention this halacha [law]?” If it’s for your reputation – forget it! They will see right through you. If it’s because you’re worried about their neshama [soul] – then the right question is, “What’s the most effective way to engage them?” It’s not about getting them to do the right thing today – it’s about allowing them to begin to feel connected again. If they feel connected everything else will follow.
Focus on the joy in mitzvos – don’t expect them to join in – allow them to see the experience.
How real are mitzvos to you? Are they an expression of ahavas Hashem [love of God]? Are they an expression of hakoras hatov [gratitude] to Hashem? Do you live with “ivdu as Hashem b’simcha” [the concept of serving God with joy]? If you’re just “going through the motions” your kid knows it – this is a wakeup call for you – to start making Torah and mitzvos real for you. You can fool a lot of people… but not your kids.
Remember the choice is yours – will you sit and kvetch about how “the system” is at fault… or will you recognize the great gift Hashem has given you – the incredible opportunity to be forced to grow as a person. If you can shift your perspective – this can be the greatest growth opportunity you have ever experienced.
I learned that whatever my gut told me was wrong! It was quite a humbling experience. I was convinced that it was my job to be mechanech [an educator], and I learned that it was my job to let go. It’s my job to fix my child? Wrong again – it’s me who needs the fixing.
No one is equipped to deal with this alone – and if you think you are – you need help more than everyone else – because it means that you’re an arrogant fool as well.
Please, I beg of you, don’t speak to your friends for advice, don’t ask your parents. Speak to someone who is an expert in this field. It can save your child’s life.
Finally, pray. Let’s be honest – for many of us it’s hard to make davening [prayer] real. I remember the lyrics of a song from when I was young. “You can get up every day and pray those same quotations, you can do it all on the outside going through all the motions…” These words always spoke to me – as I recognized how shallow much of my davening was.
Remember this nisayon [test] is your ticket to greatness. Don’t squander the opportunity kvetching. You can make your davening real. You can beg! You can speak from the depth of your heart and soul….
There’s more. Much more. All of it honest and growth-oriented.
My answer, then, to my erstwhile questioner in that random suburban lab, should have been: “If my kids, God forbid, decide to give up this faith that means the world to me, I sure hope I can be just like this writer.”