Friday, August 28, 2009

Parenting Lessons from the Wayward Son - Table Talk for Parshat Ki Tetze

A couple I know had trouble getting their son to go to minyan in the morning, especially during the summer. The kid (naturally) wanted to sleep in, and the father could never coax his son to get up on time for davening. Truth be told, though, is that the father's biggest obstacle to getting his son to shul wasn't the child. It was his wife.
She feels that summer is a time to relax, and that she didn't want her son to grow up resenting being forced to go to shul. So the child knew that if he simply did not go, the father could never actually force his son because his wife would never back him up. So the boy didn't go.
Who's right? Is the father right - that it's important to strong-arm a child (not yet Bar Mitzvah) and strongly encourage him to daven with a minyan, even during vacation? Or is the mother right, and summer is a time to relax and not coerce children religiously? Actually, I think that in this case they're both wrong. I'll explain why.
The Gemara tells us that the ben sorer u'moreh - the wayward son, never actually existed. There never was a young man who stole from his parents, drank wine and raw meat, got turned over to the courts by his parents and then executed not for what he had done - but for what he would inevitably do in the future. It never happened, ever. If so, why does the Torah include an entire section describing a practical impossibility? The Gemara in Sanhedrin (70a) explains, דרוש וקבל שכר - "study and derive from it, and receive reward." Whether it happened of not, we have much to learn not just from the rebellious son, but from his parents.
The Torah tells us that when the "rebellious son" acts out in the prescribed manner,
וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ
then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place (Devarim 21:19)
Based on the inclusion of both the father and the mother in the verse, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (Chapter 8) makes the following observation:
If the father wanted [to hand over his son] but the mother did not, or the mother wanted and the father did not, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son" until they both want. Rabbi Yehudah says, if the mother was not "worthy" to her husband, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son".
The Gemara immediately jumps on Rabbi Yehudah's final comment. What does he mean when he says, "if the mother was not 'worthy' (in Hebrew the word is ראוייה - which I translate as "worthy" but can also mean "appropriate" or "suitable") to her husband"? The Gemara rejects a number of possibilities and concludes that Rabbi Yehudah's rule teaches us that she must physically resemble her husband. The Gemara quotes a Beraita that states,
רבי יהודה אומר אם לא היתה אמו שוה לאביו בקול ובמראה ובקומה, אינו נעשה בן סורר ומורה
Rabbi Yehudah says, if she is not equal to her husband in [the sound of her] voice, in looks and in stature, [the son] does not become a "rebellious son".
Does he mean this phrase literally? Must they really look like each-other, sound identical and be the same height? Remember that this phenomenon never actually happened. Rabbi Yehudah surely did care about the technical details, but he also wanted to use those specifics to teach us critical lessons about parenting. This one is pretty clear: parents must be on the same page when raising their children.
Kids need the stability and safety of a unified message from their parents. They need to understand the ground rules - what's expected and what's not; what's over the line and what's acceptable. And they must present a unified front to their children, so that kids don't have a sense of confusion and lack of clarity.
Let's take it one step further. When parents disagree with each other in front of their children, they undermine their own authority. A child can reasonably conclude: well, my father doesn't agree with my mother, so why should I listen to her? My son is sitting here watching me write, and after reading this last sentence he said, "Actually, a kid thinks that if parents disagree with each other, why should I listen to either of them?" Smart words. The reason for this is that when one parent's authority is undermined, the other is automatically undermined as well.
So do parents have to agree on everything? Of course not. They should hopefully agree on most things, but each parents brings a different set of values to parenting their children, as they should. What then should they do when they disagree? Keep if to themselves.
This is where the couple went wrong: the father thinks his son should go to shul in the summer. The mother doesn't want to force him. Both have legitimate points of view. But they needed to discuss those points of view together first, come to a reasonable compromise, and present that compromise to their child.
That is not what they did. They openly talked about their disagreement to friends in front of their children. So their son did not attend minyan all summer long. After all, he knew that his mother wouldn't force him. But what his mother might not realize is that the next time she wants to parent, she too has lost her authority. In the end, her son won't listen to her either.