Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Unbroken (Ball and) Chain

Above all else, Orthodox Jewish parents impute great value in transmitting their ideals to their children. That our children remain in the orthodox fold is the first indicator of successful parenting. (Followed close behind by the right shiduch, grandchildren, etc..) Everything in orthodoxy is based on the unbroken link to past belief, and, the mitzvah to teach Torah to succeeding generations is elevated over virtually any other practice.

And, even outside of religion, parents strive mightily to influence the choices which their children will make. There is virtually no parent on earth who doesn’t have some preconceived notion of what path is best for their child, and we try to control, overtly or subtly, their choices. We show our enthusiasm and approval for those things which we find of particular value, and we demonstrate disappointment and displeasure with that which we distain. Some parents are more accepting than others, but almost all have some bottom line criteria for what they wish for their children.

In orthodoxy, the extreme case is intermarriage. Even today, marrying a non-jew is an unforgivable crime – an act which allows for no level of acceptance whatsoever. These children are deemed to be dead to the family. In choosing their partner, they have rejected our faith, and they are due the ultimate rejection. I have heard parents speak of trying to continue some type of relationship as an effort to retrieve the lost child back into the fold, but I have never heard an orthodox parent speak of simply accepting the child’s choice.

Obviously this is the message in its most extreme form, but the philosophy of rejection as a demonstration of disapproval – and as a mechanism for control – pervades religious parenting.

This is, perhaps, the control of love. We aspire for our children those things which we feel will be vital to their happiness and success – physically, spiritually and emotionally. And our template for what those ingredients are is bound up in our own experience and belief.

I certainly believe that parents have much to impart, and should strive to teach their morals and ideals to their children. But, I am often dismayed at the exclusive nature of this teaching. We teach not only what we feel is right – we teach that we are the only ones who are right. We teach not only that our ideals are important, but that other ideals are unimportant.

The world progresses not from those who have unconditional adherence to the past, but from those who can strive for a better future. Three thousand years ago, there were parents who taught their children about the importance of human sacrifice. Two thousand years ago, there were parents who taught their children the value of killing Sabbath violators. Two hundred years ago, there were parents who taught the righteousness of slavery. Somewhere along the line, there were children (and parents) who rejected those beliefs.

There are plenty of things which my children may choose which would disappoint me. They may choose values which I feel negatively about – in fact, it is almost certain that I won’t share all of their values. And, they will almost certainly make some decisions which I will consider mistakes, and may lead them to pain and unhappiness. It is not that I want my children to make poor choices – certainly not – and, if asked, I would tell them my opinion. But, ultimately, their path belongs exclusively to them.

I know plenty of parents who view this perspective as being irresponsible – an abrogation of ones’ child raising responsibilities. They would view it as showing a lack of love for ones children. How does this help then - To set them adrift in the world to flounder to make their way without the benefit of your guidance?

But remember this. If your children do ever find themselves in difficulty, it is not your advice which will be of primary value to them, it is the love which you can offer to them. It is not your moral wisdom, but your empathy and appreciation of them. It is not your certain knowledge of what is right for them, but your acceptance of their choices and consequences.

Parents and children have an innate bond which has an almost frightening intensity. This bond – this love - needs to be respected. It needs to be cared for and cherished. And it should not be used as a ball and chain to keep our children locked in our own personal world.


Blogger Shoshana said...

Very well-written post. There are a lot of parellels about what you are discussing here in a parent-child context, and what is the ideal counseling relationship, wherein the therapist shows empathy, understanding and unconditional positive regard (maybe lacking the love), and the client is empowered to make their own decisions. I completely agree that giving your children the foundation of support to be able to decide for themselves their own best path is showing the ultimate love.

September 13, 2006 4:22 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

No question that we should all get a bit of counseling training (and counseling) before we become parents. (or probably before we even start dating.)

September 14, 2006 12:09 AM  

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