Just as we need to know when to take action, we need to know when not to intervene
Once, on a transatlantic flight, I had the good fortune to sit in front of the most apathetic parents I’ve ever seen. Their five-year-old daughter terrorized the whole plane. She flung food and toys in all directions, screamed at record decibel levels, and pounded my seat like a champion kickboxer.
Only when the flight attendants’ warnings grew serious did the parents bother to quietly tell their daughter, “Please stop that, sweetie.”
How can parents be so irresponsible? Don’t just sit there — do something!
A responsible parent can’t be lazy or complacent. But there are also times when a truly responsible parent must not act. I know parents who spring into action every time their child says or does anything objectionable. They think they’re the most responsible parents in the world, but the opposite is true. If we want to be responsible, just as we need to know when to take action, we need to know when not to intervene.
Why is that? We need to understand our role as parents. Sometimes we think a child is clay in our hands, and our job is to mold him into a tzaddik. No; a child isn’t inanimate clay, and the parent is not a potter. A child is like a sapling, and the parent is like a gardener. We don’t need to make him grow. He has his own vitality, and he will grow on his own. Our job is to provide the conditions necessary for him to grow in the ideal way.
We all want our children to become tzaddikim. But if we want our children to be tzaddikim, we’re in trouble. Parents who fall into this trap get very nervous whenever their child isn’t in the mood to daven, say a brachah, or do a mitzvah. They forget that a child doesn’t really grasp the significance of mitzvos. They think the mitzvah of chinuch means to make him do it. So they constantly police their children, convinced that they’re the world’s most responsible parents.
If they only remembered that a child is a sapling, they would realize that constant enforcement is a very irresponsible way to raise a child in the path of Torah. Imagine an overeager gardener who’s distressed that his tree is still oh, so small. So he decides to help it grow. He grabs its top branches and begins to tug it up — till he yanks it out of the ground.
Growth can’t be forced. It has to be natural, at the child’s own pace. If we’re impatient — or worse, nervous — we will only impair our children’s development. I know parents who fight with their children to get them to daven.
“What will be when he’s bar mitzvah?” they ask.
Relax. Over time he will grow, not simply become older.
When I was a young parent, other boys came to shul and answered “Amen, yehei Shemei Rabba” so beautifully, while my sons noisily played soccer right outside the shul’s windows. I imagine people said to themselves: “Leuchter the mashgiach lectures about chinuch? The shoemaker’s children always go barefoot.”
Today, baruch Hashem, all of my sons take davening very seriously. But had I been impatient or insecure about my reputation, and dragged them inside, I might well have made them associate davening with torturous incarceration.
That doesn’t mean chinuch starts when they’re older. We start when they’re very young. But we begin by showing them our values, not by enforcing them. When my sons were with me, I found opportunities to show them that tefillah is real. An occasional brachah said with genuine feeling can show our children that we’re really speaking to Someone when we daven.
Once, a couple weeks after Tishah B’Av, I was home learning the Haftarah. I was moved by Hashem’s promises of redemption, and I let myself cry. Years later my children told me how much that moment built their emunah. Without ever explicitly stating them, we can impart clear messages to our children. Those messages will ripen with our children as they grow. Eventually, our children will actualize them on their own. Forcing mitzvos upon them doesn’t teach them any messages. It only shows them that we are policemen who jeopardize their freedom and should be avoided at all costs.
Forcing growth isn’t the only way a hasty gardener can kill his sapling. When a child begins to exhibit negative behavior, our natural inclination is to nip it in the bud. Sometimes that’s the way to go. But sometimes the behavior is an expression of the child’s personality, and correcting it prematurely can destroy that element of the child. A gardener who wants to prune his tree into an aesthetic shape has to be cautious. If he immediately shears off every unwanted branch as soon as it appears, he will kill the tree. First, he needs to let the tree grow. Later, when the tree is robust, he can remove the unsightly branches.
When my son was a toddler, he climbed up everything in the house. That pastime wasn’t very convenient, to say the least. Once he ascended the seforim shrank and sent an expensive tape player crashing to the floor. But I recognized that his love for climbing was an expression of a natural disposition for taking on challenges with energy, courage, and determination. Later in life, he would learn to climb a Tosafos. So I did my best to remove potential dangers, and let him be.
Of course, truly adverse behavior has to be stopped. But we’d better think twice before we pick up our gardening shears. Unfortunately, I know parents who’ve amputated their children’s kochos. They proudly point out how their once-unruly son is now so well behaved. Yes, he’ll be a docile lamb, a good little boy who never accomplishes anything remarkable in life. Is that what they really want?
It’s not a question of all or nothing. Of course I didn’t let my son climb up museum exhibits or restaurant tables. But I dealt with those scenarios as they arose. Though I was certainly tempted to do so, I never said “Enough is enough!” and forbade climbing altogether. I realized that I never saw a 20-year-old man climb a seforim shrank. He would grow out of it on his own, and I was willing to wait till he did. Today, he no longer climbs furniture, but he learns Torah with that same energy and determination. It was worth the temporary inconvenience.
Parents who sit back and let their child terrorize a whole plane are definitely irresponsible. But parents who intervene too much are equally irresponsible. Chinuch is a constant balance between actively tending to our sapling and letting it grow. Most of the time, we intervene too much because we get caught up in the here and now. We want our children to be tzaddikim now, to behave properly now. If we have patience, we’ll remember that we’re gardeners, not ER doctors. Not every issue demands immediate intervention.
It’s not easy to be a gardener. It’s not easy to constantly weigh whether or not to take action. It would be much simpler to mold our child like a lump of clay. But if we’re responsible, we’ll resist the temptation. We’ll remember that sometimes, the most responsible course of action is not to act. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)
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