Most of us blessed with children profess that being a parent is our most cherished role and that the time we spend with our children is most precious. Curiously, however, we often willingly (and perhaps unwittingly) relinquish our parental responsibilities. When our children are young, we assign core parenting duties to teachers. As our children reach adulthood, many of us tend to abandon our identity as parents altogether. By relinquishing our parental responsibilities, we diminish ourselves and our children.
There’s No Place Like Home
Day schools, yeshivas, shuls and youth groups play integral roles in the academic and religious development of our children. Impressively, these communal institutions are producing generations of children who are exemplary students, committed Jews and emotionally healthy human beings. Moreover, these institutions’ embrace of our children is essential to their integration into the Orthodox community, and to their ability to continually resist the powerful allure of contemporary secular society.
On occasion, however, we expect too much of the community and not enough of ourselves. How often does the banter around the Shabbos table include complaints about the schools’ failure to teach our children middos (behavior and respect) or how to daven (pray)? How often do we blame educators and rabbeim for our children’s insufficient passion for Judaism, meager intellectual curiosity or misplaced values and priorities? Such complaints imply that we have reassigned these core parenting functions to others. We betray both ourselves and our children if we fail to be the primary players in our children’s upbringing and delegate the responsibility of parenting to educators. Despite our overburdened lives, and the fact that our children spend an enormous amount of time in school, we need to view teachers as merely assisting us in fulfilling our parental duties. Unfortunately, we frequently view our role as being supporting cast members in our children’s lives, supplementing the parenting efforts of others. Some may find this distinction a matter of semantics. But whether we choose to view educating our children as our own responsibility, or that of teachers, makes all the difference in the world.
The shift of certain roles from parents to the community has burdened our educational institutions with a plethora of non-academic functions and expectations. Rather than having the time to teach our children advanced halachah and the meaning behind the details of various mitzvos, schools are responsible for the threshold parental obligation of imbuing children with a sense of pride in being an observant Jew. Teachers must spend class time introducing a love of mitzvos, such as Shabbos and yom tov, even though our children’s Shabbos and yom tov experiences take place at home. As many of us have increasingly receded from being the source of religious inspiration for our children, schools are compelled to hire staff to introduce extra-curricular programs to enhance students’ connection to Judaism. These efforts to fill the gaps not addressed at home consume valuable class time, preventing teachers from providing our children with the full depth and breadth of Torah scholarship that we expect and that our children deserve.
Even more consequential, however, is that only at home can a child benefit from his or her parents’ keen and detailed observations and continual one-on-one interactions, both of which are necessary to identify a child’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs. With classrooms comprised of anywhere from fifteen to thirty students, teachers cannot possibly be expected to identify the often subtle characteristics of each student or to offer the personalized attention necessary to ensure that each child’s weaknesses are addressed and strengths are actualized.
Moreover, a scholastic curriculum complements the intellectual orientation of certain students, while frustrating others who may not be academically inclined or have academic and intellectual capabilities in areas not integral to a contemporary school’s curiculum. For example, it is common for a student earning low grades in school to blossom when later exposed to the fields of technology or engineering. It is even more common for students perennially suffering low grades to discover upon graduating that their creative writing skills or business acumen is far more appreciated than was reflected in their report cards. Understandably, absent the careful inquisitive focus of parents, many students’ strengths, creativity, and occasionally even genius are thus never discovered, squandering their potential and leaving them with an inferior self-image.
Each individual also has a unique emotional and psychological makeup, and each child matures at a different pace. Appropriate behavior, ethics and religious commitment should certainly be addressed in the classroom, but these lessons are most likely to resonate only when tailored to the child’s emotional and psychological profile.
In addition, ideas, values and behavioral expectations presented in school or shul tend to reflect broadly accepted communal principles, perspectives and priorities. In religious communities such as ours, such messages tend to be particularly broad and uniform. In fact, however, values, priorities and ideas are quite nuanced.
For example, attitudes concerning the obligation of Torah study or the degree of involvement in general culture are often misleadingly presented in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion. Even concepts like truth, honesty and loyalty are far more complex than can be conveyed to students in a uniform fashion. Consequently, if a student learns these and myriad similar ideas in school or shul, he or she is prone to accepting them blindly and possibly misapplying them. On the other hand, he may begin viewing them critically and thereby reject them as being primitive and simplistic. A parent should be the filter through which ideas are tailored to the individual child.
On occasion, however, we expect too much of the community and not enough of ourselves.
Only a parent (or a caregiver serving in the role of parent) can possibly expend the requisite care, time and focus necessary to address a child’s nuanced intellectual, psychological and emotional makeup. Only at home can a child’s untapped strengths be uncovered and his often subtle weaknesses be addressed. And only a parent can convey values, views and expectations appropriately tailored to a child’s individuality. Therefore, while formal and informal education are certainly invaluable resources, individualized attention from the home is essential to maximize a child’s potential and to shape a child’s middos, relationship with tefillah and love of Judaism.
The Parent as the Underpinning of Emunah
Parents’ day-to-day involvement in their children’s lives is not only essential in guiding each child’s academic and emotional growth but is actually a critical and inherent dimension of his or her religious growth as well. From their earliest years, our children are encouraged to pursue a personal relationship with the Almighty. Not only do we teach them that God sees all even though He cannot be seen, but we also assure our children that their Father in Heaven loves them unconditionally and cares about every detail of their lives and needs. Adopting these beliefs is challenging, and children are far more likely to embrace these ideas after first experiencing the love and attention of a parent—a parent who unconditionally loves them and who cares about every detail of their lives. An emotionally healthy child naturally craves the love and approval of a parent, and suffers severe alienation and distrust when these longings are unsatisfied. Therefore, a child who experiences parents as being inattentive, aloof and uncaring will likely perceive God as being the same.
The Talmud advises that there are three partners in the creation of an individual—father, mother and God (Kiddushin 30b). If a father or mother parents by proxy, how can the child be expected to believe that God does otherwise?
Parenting an Adult Child
As my children left home and assumed increasing degrees of independence, I understood the warning I had received from friends—that one of the most challenging parental duties is to refrain from intruding into a mature child’s decision-making process. Like most parents, however, I reveled in the joy and sense of accomplishment that accompany a child’s maturation into an independent, self-sustaining individual. I had learned from my own parents and in-laws that providing an evolving adult with “space” is just as important as providing a young child with constant attention and guidance.
Then began the struggle and introspection. Being a father had long been a core of my identity. The role had dominated my religious focus. It had been central to my life’s mission. If no longer a father, what was to replace that role? Who was I if not a father?
The Torah, however, teaches that the parent-child relationship never ends. A child’s duty to honor a parent never concludes, and the obligation to be a parent is no different. What then is the task of parenting an adult child?
First I recognized that there remains the lifelong parenting role of being a source of unconditional love and encouragement. Secondly, I came to the realization that there is one ongoing parental function that is most pivotal. It is a role that never wanes yet is sorely under-appreciated: modeling for one’s children, whatever their age, how one is to live at every stage of life.
Parents of young children are often cautioned that “do what I say, not what I do” simply does not work. When modeling behavior, however, a parent is not only influencing the child’s current behavior and attitudes. He or she is also illustrating how one is to act and view life as an adult. This function is, in certain regards, the most profound role of parenting. And we cannot deny its impact. How often do we observe our own adult behavior or decisions and recognize that we have become our parents!
When I was forty-five years old, I was not only teaching my fifteen-year-old child how a fifteen-year-old should behave, but was also imparting the behaviors, values and attitudes that will be appropriate when my child reaches forty-five. And now that I am fifty-seven years old I am doing the same. With God’s help I hope to teach my children how to be a seventy-year-old, and if fortunate, even older. This key aspect of parenting includes modeling how to respond to experiences that, when observed, are hopefully entirely unfamiliar to the child, such as how a religious Jew confronts serious illness, the loss of loved ones and the approach of death.
Parenting Is Essential for Parents
The axiomatic rule of parenting is that parents’ choices and aspirations for each child must be based solely on the needs of the child. A child can discern when decisions are influenced by the parents’ own convenience, by an image of themselves that the parents hope to convey or by the parents’ urge to actualize themselves and live out their own dashed hopes and dreams via their children. When a parent does not base decisions on the needs of the child, oftentimes the repercussions are destructive.
Nevertheless, and while seemingly inconsistent with the need for parents to be child-focused, parents must appreciate that they themselves are ultimately the greatest beneficiaries of their own hands-on focused parenting. Mundane benefits of such parenting may include raising children eager to provide aid in old age or mitigate loneliness. More sublime benefits include reciprocal love, adoration and pride. But the ultimate benefit to parents is the exalted emulation of Godliness that parenting affords. Through the blessing of children one is given the opportunity to be selfless, insightful, compassionate and loving. In other words, through parenting one may reflect the characteristics and behavior of the Almighty, as it were.
How tragic it is when parents squander the opportunity to fully embrace their parental role. Not only do they thereby fail to help their children actualize intellectually, emotionally and religiously, they deny themselves perhaps the most exalted spiritual experience.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.
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President, Orthodox Union