Saturday, August 8, 2009

Parenting and Ekev: The Courage to Say No

As our children grow older, the challenges seem increasingly complicated and tricky. As a parent, how much should I impose, and when should I pull back? When do I insist and coerce in any and in every area of a child's life - homework, obedience, davening, fighting with siblings - the list goes on and on - and when should I pull back and just let things be (and hope for the best)?
I know that I'm not alone. I still get questions from parents struggling with these very same issues: my son doesn't want to go to shul - how do I get him to go? Should I force my daughter to learn during the summer? One wonders why the kids didn't come with some kind of manual. But maybe they did. Actually, I think that the manual came before the kids. Long before.
I find myself drawn to particular passages in the Torah that seem to give us a direction in terms of parenting our children, and I came across a very powerful one in Parshat Eikev which we just concluded. Describing the extended trek through the desert and the "mon" (there's no good way to spell that word in English. "Man"? No. "Mon" - sounds like some Jamaican's trying to get you to take his taxi from Newark Airport. But I digress.) that the people ate throughout, Moshe says, (Devarim 8:2-4)
וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה--בַּמִּדְבָּר: לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ, לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתָו--אִם-לֹא.וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה--זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה.
(Sorry about the YeOlde translation. It's what you get for free on the Mechon Mamre website.) And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no. And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years.
Moshe tells the people that God had afflicted them - caused them to suffer during the forty years of travel in the desert. They were constantly hungry. But it wasn't arbitrary. Rather, God did it for a reason: to teach them the critical lesson that bread doesn't bring life, but God does. Fair enough. But then Moshe adds the following:
וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ.
And thou shalt consider in thy heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the LORD thy God chasteneth thee.
This is what caught my attention. What I read from this verse is that the Torah expects a man to "chasteneth" - which really means "afflict" his son. (The word ייסר shares the same word as the word ייסורין - "afflictions" or "sufferings.") God only treated the Jewish people in the desert the way that a father would treat his son in order to educate him properly. And it seems that proper education involves a kind of affliction. If we want our children to learn and grow, then we have to make them suffer - not through physical harm, God forbid. No, we must parent the way God parented, by not giving the people what they wanted, but only what they needed. In essence, God parented the people by saying "no."
The more I think about this notion, the more I think that it's true. If we want our children to truly grow to be responsible, thoughtful, spiritual people, we must develop the courage to say "no" and not give our children what they want.
In my limited experience, parents today suffer from this malady to a great degree. We love saying yes and we hate saying no. Actually, yes is often easier than no. Who needs the backlash, whining, begging, cajoling - the torture that comes with a no. If I don't let my child watch a movie or play video games all summer afternoon, who's going to have to deal with that child the entire day, and provide the entertainment instead?
Think about your own children: what thing do our children truly want that we will not buy them? When is the last time that our children asked for something - and then nudged and pestered and begged, and the answer remained "no"? In the age of affluence in which we live, we somehow have come to believe that because we can afford to give our children something, that they should have it, whether it's a cellphone, a new video game system, a car, a concert, new clothes, anything. And if their friends have it, then of course we have to capitulate as well, because we would seem cruel in comparison.
Sadly, also in my limited experience with American teenagers, it's precisely the parental habit of giving children everything that makes them value nothing. In a spurt of honesty kids would admit to me that they really didn't care much about the electronic equipment costing hundreds of dollars that their parents bought for them. It didn't mean much to them. How could it? It was handed to them on a silver platter.
So the next time your daughter asks you for money to go to the movies with her friends, say no. Tell her to spend her own money that she earned babysitting (if it's appropriate for her age). And if she doesn't have any money, tell her to get a job so that she'll have the money to go when she wants to. While she'll probably complain, of all her friends who go see that movie she'll appreciate it most.