Raise your hand if any of these scenarios sound familiar:
You spent all day schlepping your son around. First he went to boy scouts, then to the mall, then, as a special treat, for ice cream. At the end of the day he asks you to take him to his friend's house but you are just too tired. "You never do anything for me!" he screams.
You got up early to hit the grocery store before it got too crowded. You actually had to go to two stores because the first one was out of your daughter's favorite cereal. You devoted the day to cooking and baking for your family. Your daughter walks in from school, opens the refrigerator door, and then slams it shut in disgust. "I'm starving; there's never anything to eat in this house."
You help your 14-year-old son with his homework. You make a deal -- a new computer game for three months of A's. You sit and talk to him about school and his friends over hot chocolate with marshmallows. Later that evening he asks your permission to go to an unsupervised sleepover and you refuse. You overhear him on the phone complaining about how strict, mean and uncaring you are.
I thought so. The list goes on and on, these scenarios being enacted in all their multiple variations in home after home after home.
These are not bad kids. This is just the reality of parenting.
The Torah says that the one true kindness, the kindness where there is no external motivation or expectation, is escorting the dead. The dead have nothing to give back.
I think that parenting is a similar type of kindness -- don't expect anything in return. And if we accept that fact, we will actually be better -- and probably happier -- parents.
In all of the aforementioned scenarios what is particularly grating to us as parents is that we feel "I gave so much and this is what I get back?!" But what if we took the "I" out of the picture? What if we disconnected the giving from the getting?
Our job is to give. Their job is to grow up (albeit gradually). We wound ourselves needlessly when we try to impose a causal relationship on our previous actions and their ensuing responses.
Yes, we need to teach our children gratitude -- not because we need to be thanked, but because it's crucial to their character.
And they can be grateful and frustrated at the same time (can't you?). They can say "thank you" repeatedly for the new shoes (and even mean it) and still flare up when a later bedtime is denied.
It's not personal. It's who kids are. Making it personal is what leads to guilt.
There's nothing more crippling than parenting children to satisfy us instead of them.
Sometimes when children get married and leave home (a moment that can't seem to come quickly enough for parents of some teenagers!), parents look around bewildered. "What was that? All that work and now they're gone." (They're never really gone but that's another article!) All that giving and they've left, on to build their own lives. That's good, terrific even. Because that's the goal. To create adults who can now build their own futures. It's only puzzling if we're expecting something back. It's only confusing if it's about our needs, not theirs.
There's nothing more crippling than parenting children to satisfy us instead of them. It's hard to avoid that -- in the little ways and the big ways. It's hard to have no expectations. We give so much. Couldn't they at least pick up their dirty socks?
They can and they will. When it's age appropriate. As they grow. As they need to.
Of course we need to teach our children responsibility. Of course we need to teach them respect for others (i.e. us!) But we need to be realistic. A child who leaves a trail of discarded backpack, shoes and socks as he makes his way to the kitchen after school is NOT making a statement about his relationship to us, about his lack of caring and gratitude, about his cavalier attitude towards our needs. He's just hungry. He's glad to be home (and you want to keep it that way) and he needs to relax. Later, you can gently mention your request for order. (And even if it's not met then, it's still not personal.)
Parenting is about giving -- and giving and giving. If we get at all, it should be the pleasure of seeing our adult children behave with kindness and caring, with maturity and with gratitude, with the Jewish values that we tried so hard to model for them.
It's a long, frequently difficult, journey. It requires almost inhuman patience. It requires almost supernatural selflessness. And always, constantly, prayer. And yet, ultimately, we really wouldn't have it any other way.