| Family Reflections |

Gray Zones

How to make parenting decisions when the choices aren’t black and white


One of the things that makes parenting so challenging is that parents have to make a lot of decisions that fall into the “gray zone.” The “black and white” questions are easy to deal with: on Shabbos, we don’t drive to the zoo; at the checkout counter, we don’t buy the nonkosher candy bars, and so on. Parents announce their “black and white” verdicts with a confidence that children immediately discern and respect.

However, when in the gray zone, the ambivalent parental reply is also immediately perceived. The slight wave of uncertainty reflected in the subtle change in skin pallor, respiration rate, and head tilt of the parent is not lost on the child: there’s an opening here for endless debate. “Mommy is wavering; we can surely wear her down!”

Take this example: “My husband and I are struggling about how to handle this issue with our teens. We’re not sure whether we should insist they comply with government rules regarding social distancing.

“The law here is that indoor social visits aren’t allowed. But my teens are in school with their friends all day, and they feel it doesn’t make sense that they aren’t allowed to go to the same people’s homes after school.

“I agree it doesn’t make sense. Very few of their friends are keeping to the government rules. We’re really conflicted about this... we’re not comfortable ‘allowing’ them to break the law, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really make sense from a risk point of view.”

A Reflection of Our Values

The gray zone is a reflection of our own values. If, in the above scenario, the parents themselves were serious “rule followers,” they wouldn’t have entered the gray zone with this question. For them, it would have been black and white: we follow the law of the land — end of discussion. It wouldn’t matter to them if no one else followed the law or even if the law made no sense.

Gray zones are gray, not because of society’s uncertainty, but because of our own relationship to the world. We’re uncertain. And when we’re uncertain, it becomes difficult to guide our children.

“I don’t know what’s important to teach my kids. Should I encourage them to respect the law without question? What if, one day, they’re in a situation in which they are too afraid to break the law when in fact, the law ought to be defied in order to protect a victim of injustice? Don’t I want them to be able to think for themselves and do the right thing when that action is called for?

“But if I teach them to think for themselves, then might I also be teaching them to defy Hashem when some Torah ruling doesn’t make sense to them? Or might I also be teaching them to defy us when they think they know better than their parents about some issue?

“In fact, if they see that we allow them to break the law, then don’t they see that we don’t respect the authorities who decided that visiting homes is more dangerous to health than sitting in classrooms and that instead of relying on experts, we just draw our own conclusions about things without research or evidence? Will that encourage them to think they know everything too?

“And, one more thing — is it important for them to be fitting in with their group of friends? Will they resent us if we restrict them because of a silly regulation? Will they lose important friendships at this critical developmental stage?

So many questions. In the gray zone, it’s parental conscience and consideration alone that will win the day. No other person’s opinion matters here in this place of no defined answers. In this place, it’s important to be honest with one’s children and declare the parameters at play: “We don’t know for sure what’s the right way to go. After weighing all the factors, our best guess is that it is important/unimportant to follow government rules in this case.”

The parents announce their “best guess” as a guess, refusing to disguise it as an authoritative ruling. But as they’re still in charge and still responsible for raising their children, their children will have to respect the decision they’ve come to. It doesn’t have to make sense to them. It simply has to be understood as the parents’ sincere attempt to do the best they can to guide their children safely and properly through the gray zones of life.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 731)

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