Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Because I Said So: Saying No to Our Children - Part 2

The discussion at our Shabbat table about parenting also led to the following question: when you say no, do you have to explain yourself to your children? Must they appreciate the fact that you're doing it for a reason, or is it better to impose your authority on them?
Most people would argue that it's better to explain the logic behind the parental imposition. After all, we're parents, not tyrants. To a point, I would agree. Children need to relate to their parents as logic-driven beings, and not irrational despots. But I think that a parent should also at times specifically not explain or justify. "Do it because I said so." I think this is important because our children need to learn to submit to authority in their lives, a critical part of spiritual and religious development.
In numerous discussions with young people, it seems clear that many were never educated to submit. They were taught how to "relate" to a mitzvah or a halachah. If it made sense to them then they followed that law, but if it doesn't seem logical to them then they did not. Many had very little sense of obedience and acceptance of a system of laws (halachah) when the law either didn't speak to them and give them a sense of spirituality, and especially when they did not agree with the law.
But that's not how we raise children who aspire to spirituality and religiosity. While it would be nice for us to understand and appreciate every mitzvah, not only is that not reasonable; it's not possible. God embedded into Judaism mitzvot called chukim whose reasons we simply do not and cannot comprehend. They're beyond us, and yet we follow them.
More importantly (to my mind), Judaism places great emphasis on obedience. The word mitzvah refers neither to a good deed or meaningful act. Rather, it's a commandment. "Do it," God says, "because I said so." If we want to find beauty and meaning, that's fine. But the beauty and the meaning are never the underlying motivation for the mitzvah. They're just the icing on the cake. Why then do we do it? Because it's a mitzvah. Because God commanded us. In a very real way, "Because He said so."
In our attempts to instill meaning and purpose into every religious activity, we have also forgotten the crucial importance of obedience. Of course spirituality and meaning are important. But what about the days when a child wakes up in the morning, and simply doesn't feel like davening? Or putting on tefillin? Or going to school for that matter? Do we withdraw, fearful of imposing upon them and having them hate religion (funny, but I never hear that argument when it comes to school - only shul), or do we tell them that we're sorry, but this is what we do?
Imposition as a parent - forcing our children to follow God's Torah - isn't easy, and of course requires balance and care. It is obviously possible to come on too strong and push a child away. But to my mind, today's generation of parents often errs on the side of caution, failing to impose itself at all. That failure can also carry dangerous repercussions later on.