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What Makes Parenting Jewish?

Is there a specifically Jewish approach to parenting? How can we establish what’s true to our mesorah, and when, if ever, can we borrow from secular wisdom?

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Y ears ago “parent” denoted something you were not something you did. You became a parent with the birth of your first child and then stayed one forever but parenting wasn’t something you actively practiced. Whether in Galicia or Marrakesh our grandparents didn’t spend much time thinking about unconditional positive regard or empathic limits and probably never heard of the 80-20 rule.

Today parenting is a booming industry with a constantly growing plethora of books lectures and experts all purporting to teach us the right way to raise our children. Within our community as well many people and publications lay claim to being purveyors of authentic Torah-based parenting advice. While many of these educational resources do contain much Torah wisdom they also — with varying degrees of apologetics — adopt buzzwords techniques and even entire premises from current psychological research.

Have we merely jumped on the secular parenting bandwagon or is there a uniquely Jewish way to parent?

What changed?

Both philosophically and practically the world we live in is very different from our parents’ and grandparents’ world. Dr. David Lieberman renowned psychologist and bestselling author explains that we all — Jew and non-Jew — spend less time churning butter chopping wood and escaping from bloodthirsty barbarians than our ancestors did. This has afforded us more leisure time to ruminate on our emotions and relationships and allowed for an increased awareness of the importance of parenting.

This abundance of time for self-reflection has heightened the importance of focused parenting. When daily life was a struggle for survival a potch or a harsh word wasn’t given the same weight it would be given today. Now that we aren’t expending so much energy simply to survive our resilience is lower and the emotional aspects of parenting may matter more than they once did.

Concurrently following the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying disruptions of traditional social dynamics government began to mobilize as the protector of children outlawing child labor instituting reforms like mandatory education and establishing protocols for hygiene and disease prevention. Responsibility for children’s well-being began to pass to the authorities who told us whether formula was safe for infants what vaccinations to give and when children must go to school. It was only a matter of time before parents began to rely on credentialed experts to dispense advice about how to toilet-train deal with tantrums or reason with rebellious teens.

Experts from various disciplines issued sweeping statements about the right way to parent serving up heaping helpings of guilt for parents whose insufficient warmth overbearing strictness or myriad other failings were inevitably spawning all manner of neuroses in their offspring.

The 19th and 20th centuries were also the age of revolution democracy and expanded suffrage. “The whole world went through a change from a very autocratic style where there was a clear hierarchy to a more egalitarian society. The masses began to have a voice ” notes parenting educator Dina Friedman who has trained thousands of women through her Chanoch L’naar program.

These trends toward freedom and empowerment were reflected on a microscale within the home. The new reality in which the little people expect to be heard as equals — one person one vote — has seeped into family dynamics says Mrs. Friedman. Instead of a world where children were meant to be seen and not heard we now face a reality in which children are celebrated their feelings assiduously validated and their opinions accorded the respect previously reserved for adults only.

Concerned parents who knew that they wanted to raise their children differently than they had been raised sought a new roadmap to help them navigate the unfamiliar terrain of child-rearing in modern times. Corporal punishment became taboo; children’s emotions began to be discussed and explored; and rigid expectations of obedience to authority became antiquated in this brave new world.

While the psychological sophistication and enhanced recognition of the important role parents play were not unique to the frum community a factor contributing to our community’s redoubled focus on parenting is the alarming number of children who choose to leave their parents’ path says Dr. Meir Wikler psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice in Brooklyn and Lakewood New Jersey. “While it’s not an epidemic it’s certainly more of a problem today than it was years ago. And it’s definitely cause for legitimate concern and alarm. As a result of these three trends therefore parents are more conscious of their parenting style and the impact it can have on their children than ever before.”

Reality Has Changed

Have we drifted off course? Doesn’t the Torah discuss spanking wayward children? This newfangled touchy-feely approach can’t be part of our mesorah, can it?

Rav Reuven Leuchter, talmid of Rav Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l, and a prominent mashgiach, explains that sticking to old models of chinuch is not necessarily truer to Torah. “On Friday, you’re able to cook. The next day, all of a sudden, you can’t cook. Did the Torah change? No, the new day is Shabbos — reality changed!”

The Torah remains constant, but as reality changes, we may need to adjust which piece of Torah we choose to apply to our current situation.

Using corporal punishment as an example, Rav Leuchter explains how changing realities affect the expression of our Torah values. The Rambam, discussing beis din’s authority to beat a recalcitrant husband to force him to give a get, states that each person’s essential desire is to be a member of the klal in good standing, and that the grudging acquiescence obtained by beating is a manifestation of his latent desire.

This powerful urge to belong was universal. “Once, people were proud to die for the fatherland — Jews, Japanese, Chinese, South American,” says Rav Leuchter. “There was a strong sense of the klal being more important than your own pain.”

Now, nationalist pride is largely a thing of the past, and people prepared to martyr themselves tend to be met with bemusement at best, scorn at worst. Personal fulfillment has superseded the good of the nation as the highest ideal. Thus, says Rav Leuchter, the previously valid justification for hitting is gone, as there’s no longer that hidden drive for connection to uncover.

What, then, can connect a child to Torah and mitzvos, if he does not yet possess a personal relationship with them? The family, says Rav Leuchter, has replaced the klal as a child’s anchor in the world, but even family is on shakier footing than it once was. Whereas extended families used to live out generations in the same village, with a strong sense of identity and roots, our global village has weakened family ties by scattering them across the globe. Only love and warmth can strengthen that critical connection; harshness would sever it.

Psychology in a Torah home?

Given these seismic shifts in society, is it acceptable for us to turn to cutting-edge psychological research to help make sense of it, or does turning to outside sources contradict our mesorah?

The explosion of psychological understanding and parenting resources available to us today offers a great deal of value. Rav Ahron Lopiansky, rosh yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, invokes Rav Zelik Epstein ztz”l, late rosh yeshivah of Shaar HaTorah, who said that although the world poses greater challenges than it used to, we have the advantage of a better understanding of people and more sophisticated tools.

What’s important to understand, elaborates Rav Lopiansky, is that anything related to the mind always comprises two aspects: neurology (the workings of the mind), and philosophy. “There’s the mechanism of how people respond, and then there’s the belief about how people ought to respond,” he says. Psychological tools that teach us to harness human nature are valuable; the danger lies in allowing an alien philosophy to be the arbiter of moral truth.

For example, there’s nothing wrong with scientists examining the body of evidence and concluding that it’s counterproductive for parents to regularly play the authority card (“Because I’m the mother, that’s why!”) The problem arises when science attempts to make a moral judgment, such as by negating the concept of parental authority.

“One is useful, the other is counter to Torah,” says Rav Lopiansky. While psychology has many effective practical techniques, a secular discipline may never be allowed to pass judgment on an aspect of our spiritual lives, by suggesting, for example, that religion is restrictive or that individual happiness is paramount.

Similarly, Rav Leuchter points to a valuable, if limited, function that psychological research can fulfill: serving as our eyes and ears. By virtue of their far greater experience with a wide range of people, scientists can observe and document human nature in a way that the Torah community never could.

“They’ve seen a lot of reality,” he points out. “You’ve seen ten cases, they’ve seen 10,000. The toeles to a ben Torah from those books is that they’re opening your eyes to a reality that, by only learning Torah, you would not have fathomed was there.”

Quoting Rav Moshe Soleveitchik ztz”l, Rav Leuchter maintains that it’s incorrect to assume that by learning Torah, one becomes acquainted with every reality. Rather, a good grasp of the facts on the ground is necessary prior to understanding how to apply Torah to a particular situation.

You’d need to perform a lot of mental gymnastics, asserts Rav Leuchter, to find a Torah source that speaks about self-confidence. But psychologists, studying vast samples of the population, have been able to identify self-confidence as a characteristic whose lack can cause terrible pain. Having identified a lack, science then rushes to advise sufferers how to best remedy it.

“Now, they start theorizing,” says Rav Leuchter, “and that’s the point at which a lot of shomrei Torah begin to get wishy-washy.” Amid a chorus of voices advising us to be kind to ourselves, and proud of ourselves simply for existing, it’s easy to lose sight of Torah principles.

The correct Torah approach, explains Rav Leuchter, would be to recognize the problem described by science, and then to mine the Torah sources to understand how to deal with it. “You have to dig into Torah… and it’s always slightly different than what they say. But the reality they present is important, because you could miss it.” If the problem is a lack of self-confidence, then the parent needs a deep understanding of the Torah view of genuine anavah, which can’t necessarily be summed up in a self-help column.

Continuing his illustration, Rav Leuchter holds up the Ramban. “The Ramban was a very confident man… he wasn’t afraid of anyone,” he says, pointing to the Ramban’s extraordinary performance in the famous debate in front of King James of Aragon in 1263 as proof. And yet, the Ramban’s advice in Iggeres HaRamban encourages his son to walk with his head down, not make eye contact, and to consider everyone else superior to him — hardly the contemporary prescription for healthy self-esteem!

While psychology can describe reality, and offer us tools to correct certain problems, it cannot be the source of our definitions of a healthy soul.

Expert Sources

With such a fine line to walk, and with such a sacred and sensitive mission, how do our community’s parenting teachers determine what to utilize and what to eschew?

Dina Friedman reports that the insistence on a single, absolute right way to parent, backed up by chapter and verse, isn’t always the most useful way to approach the discussion. “There is no Maseches Horus in the Torah,” she says. While the Torah establishes our foundations of chinuch, and holds up the ideal we should be striving for, the exact methods for how to get our kids to clean their rooms or stop poking their sisters during carpool are not spelled out explicitly.

Instead, she finds it more productive to frame the question in terms of Torah values. We have certain fundamental ideals, such as shemiras hamitzvos, derech eretz, and chesed, and our job is to somehow get our children there. Halachah and our ultimate objective of raising ehrliche children must be our guides, she posits; tools that align with these essential Torah values and have proven effective in helping our children along their journey can be embraced. They are similar to any other innovation — e.g., electricity or cars — that can be used either responsibly or recklessly.

Dr. Wikler, who publishes and lectures extensively on Torah-based parenting, says that the “Torah-based” label applies to his work because of its total reliance on Torah sources. His points are all backed up with ma’amarei Chazal, and he consults extensively with daas Torah to ensure that his techniques are congruent with the Torah outlook.

At the same time, despite our best efforts to ensure an unadulterated chinuch for our children, Dr. Lieberman points out that the influence of general society is so pervasive it’s nearly impossible not to be affected by the zeitgeist. He urges parents to look at which way the cultural winds are blowing in order to understand the problems they need to look out for. Currently, society is anxiously trying to blur any lines of objective truth, watering down the absolute nature of truth and falsehood, creating a culture of permissibility where children are entitled to make their own decisions. “You want to see where culture is going and snap back from the craziness.”

Follow the Leader

With such a cacophony of voices eager to impart their wisdom, how is a perplexed parent supposed to know whom to follow?

Rav Lopiansky advises parents to look at the whole person espousing the ideals. Is he a ben Torah through and through who attempts to use Torah as his lens to examine the world, or simply an educated person on a soapbox who’s pasting a Torah veneer on his agenda? Because so many of our opinions are informed by our subconscious, deeply rooted beliefs, we must be careful to accept proclamations of Torah hashkafah only from people who are genuinely rooted in Torah.

At the same time, Rav Lopiansky qualifies, we as a community need to exercise our critical thinking skills. We’re accustomed, he says, to appraising a message in a binary way: “We say either psychology is 100 percent treif, or it’s 100 percent right. But we need to use more critical judgment in analyzing the elements of it; it’s not a package deal, but a mixture of things.”

Instead of trying to divide parenting resources into two categories, Torah and non-Torah, Rav Lopiansky advises evaluating them with common sense just as we would any other field. How radical is the advice being given? How similar is it to what I already do, or to what I see successful people doing? What are its long-term ramifications?

Just like we’d be wary of health manuals advising radical changes to our diet or sleep schedule, but more accepting of books that recommend sleeping seven to eight hours a night and eating more vegetables, in parenting we need to accept that which makes sense and fits our worldview while approaching much more cautiously anything too novel or unusual.

Rav Leuchter cautions parents to steer clear of anyone who is dogmatic and insistent that they have the one true approach. Although decisions in chinuch must be grounded in a profound understanding of Torah values and mussar, “Anyone who says I heard this from my rebbi and it’s the only way to be mechanech, it’s yeihareg v’al ya’avor, is mistaken. Chinuch is not handed down.”

While the Torah always sets expectations and ideals, and it contains the answers to all our questions, knowing which part of Torah needs to be applied in a given situation is something that takes a great deal of understanding of the particular individual and his environment.

The Parenting Pitfall

A potential hazard of our focus on parenting is the human tendency to miss the forest for the trees. Like dieters reading dozens of books in the hope of finding one that promises they’ll lose weight even while scarfing donuts and milkshakes, some parents Dr. Lieberman sees look to experts for quick and easy fixes for their children.

No amount of books or lectures, no matter how sound their techniques, can replace the love and warmth every child needs, he says. “You’ll have to do things you may have been avoiding — engage your child, spend time with him, invest in him and appreciate him. Many of the tools are really about how to be a parent by proxy.”

Ultimately, parenting is not about the best routine for smoothing out bedtime or implementing logical consequences; nor is it about finding the single book or sefer that will distill centuries of Torah wisdom into an easy-to-follow program. Rather, parenting is a long journey that will never be devoid of struggle, tears, and prayer, yet one that has abundant rewards along the way.

Spare the Rod & Spoil the Child?

One of the most noticeable differences in parenting styles between the current and previous generations of parents is the disappearance of corporal punishment. Why has it gone, and is its departure regrettable or long overdue? The experts weigh in.

Dr. Lieberman: “In one generation, we’ve gone from being scared of our parents to being scared of our kids. Most kids need to be hit — but most parents can’t hit properly. They need to be calm, not emotionally entangled, really understand the kid… realistically speaking, spanking isn’t on the table most of the time, but taking it off the table all the time is a problem. Parents are afraid to discipline. Discipline only works in the context of love; if you have a good relationship, discipline is important.”

Mrs. Friedman: “We’ve decided that if our great-grandmothers did it, it was the Torah way — but the non-Jews of that generation did the same. I don’t start with the premise that spanking is good, but unfortunately, today you can’t do it. Instead, I ask, how can I help my children? If spanking gets them where they need to be, good. But in today’s generation, it won’t get them there. Nothing has changed in terms of the goal; the method has changed. The voice of authority is different than it was in the past.”

Dr. Wikler: “As many gedolim, most notably Rav Pam, ztz”l, have said, other approaches may have been effective previously, but today’s generation is different. ‘Nor mit guttens,’ he used to say. Here’s an observation of mine that’s pretty universal: In a large family with many children, if you’ll ask the parents if they modified their parenting style over the course of their marriage, almost universally, they’ll report that they were more laidback and easygoing with their younger children. Parents simply learn through experience that the harsher approaches are not more effective, and there’s so much collateral damage that they’re not worth repeating. They learn through experience what works and what doesn’t, what’s really important and what isn’t.”

If hitting is pass?, does that mean we just let go of authority? Daas Torah tells us an emphatic no:

Rav Lopiansky: “You can’t sit with a stick and smack kids; that didn’t work all that well 100 years ago either (just see how many people dropped out of Yiddishkeit then!). What is morah? How do we give a sense of deference? It’s more nuanced: It’s about how we approach someone, how we speak to our rav. There are things that are kodesh, whether people, ideas, seforim. Kavod ha’adam is a good place to start — by emphasizing dignity for everyone. Teaching them only to have respect for the highest level of tzaddikim is not sufficient.”

Do We Over-Parent?

Dr. Lieberman points out that the luxury of time has brought its own challenges. He believes that the documented rise in mental health issues can be traced to our overindulgence in self-analysis and exploration of our feelings. “We think the more time and attention we give something, the better it is. But that’s not always the case.”

Instead of obsessing over every minor detail of our children’s lives and weighing ourselves down with the fear that our slightest misstep will irreparably damage our offspring, he advises that we channel some of that energy into our own shalom bayis and mental health to be the healthiest parents we can be, setting our children on the path for success.

(Originally featured in Family First Issue 544 – Shavuos 2017 Special Edition)

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