In loving our children, we’ve gone overboard and allowed disrespect
told my mother-in-law that she needs to call before showing up. I told her I will not be subject to surprise visits from anyone, least of all her.”
The world of relationships has changed significantly in the last decades. It’s no longer acceptable to mistreat or disrespect children, to abuse our adult power. This much-needed change has resulted in parent-child relationships that are friendlier, healthier, and more positive for both parent and child. Yes, we’ve come a long way.
But in some regards, we’ve also come a long way from Torah. In our efforts to behave more appropriately toward our children, we have often neglected our responsibility to ensure that they behave appropriately toward us as well.
The determiner of “appropriateness” is the Torah. It’s the Torah that demands that children ask their parents, rather than inform them: “Mommy, can I please stay up a few more minutes to finish reading my chapter?” instead of, “I’m not ready for bed yet, I need to finish reading my chapter.”
But loving parents haven’t wanted to be so insistent on these halachic details. “We’re family. We don’t need to be so formal. It’s unnatural.” But “unnatural” is exactly what Hashem wants from us.
“My daughter sat me down and told me that until things change, she’s not going to be visiting. She said she won’t accept my criticism any longer. I was very shocked. I wasn’t aware that I was being critical, but now that she pointed it out, I could see what she was talking about. I apologized profusely, and I’ve been really watching myself ever since. I really want to repair things. I mean, those kids are everything to me. I can’t imagine not seeing my grandchildren on a regular basis. I just hope I haven’t done irreparable harm.”
It’s not a problem that this woman wants to do teshuvah. Indeed, the ability to acknowledge our mistakes and work to repair them is laudable. We continue — and must continue — to learn and grow throughout our lifetimes, and we’re never too old to apologize and change course.
But what’s the story with this massive role-reversal in which a daughter sits her mother down to reprimand her? The lady in this anecdote sounds like a contrite child trying desperately to earn the favor of a verbally abusive parent. “Oh please, please forgive me. I promise I’ll do better!” she cries, terrified to lose access to her grandchildren. Without the Torah perspective, we might think that this scenario was perfectly acceptable: A frustrated daughter talks straight to her mother, setting a firm boundary. Her line in the sand is that she will not be visiting as long as Mom continues to make critical remarks. It sounds perfectly justified and totally reasonable.
And yet it’s so incredibly wrong!
Hashem’s Relationship Prescription
The commandment to “ask” rather than “tell” a parent sets the parent-child relationship in order. Parents and children aren’t equals, except in their human value. There is a hierarchy, with parents on top. Children need to accept their one-down position with appropriate humility (“I owe my life to you. You’re raising/have raised me. Hashem says that through honoring and respecting you I honor and respect Him. There’s a right and wrong way to speak to parents, teachers, and elders.”).
Following the halachah earns us both eternal reward and deep payoffs in this world as well. Knowing our place is very good for us. It helps us to develop appropriate appreciation and sensitivity along with self-control. Knowing our place makes us refined, strong, respectful people. If a daughter is being hurt by Mom’s excessive criticism, there is a “kosher” (ask, don’t tell) way to address the issue: “Mom, I know you’re trying to help me because you love me, but is it possible that you actually offer quite a lot of criticism when I come to visit or when you visit me? I find myself feeling so deflated a lot of the time. Do you think it might be possible to reduce that a little?” An even higher level of kibbud av v’eim is to ignore Mom’s “transgression” altogether and just carry on. When the parental flaw isn’t causing serious suffering, this second path is the preferred one.
The bottom line is that children of all ages have the opportunity to raise their personal and spiritual status through being careful to treat their parents with the utmost respect.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 867)
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