I heard a story in the name of former Vice-President Joe Biden the other day. Apparently when he was a child, he had a stutter. Being asked to read aloud (not the height of sensitivity on the part of the teacher!) and having stumbled his way through it, Biden sat down, humiliated. This was compounded by the teacher’s response: “What’s that you said J-J-J-J-Joe?”
Biden got up and left the classroom. After hearing the story from her son, his mother accompanied him to the principal’s office and insisted on seeing the teacher, a nun. When she walked into the room, Joe’s mother turned to her and unleashed her fury. “If you ever treat my son like that again, I will rip your wimple off your head and make you eat it,” threatened Mrs. Biden.
Creative response, but was it the correct one?
For the former VP, it was a defining moment. It taught him that his mother had his back, no matter what. I believe that this is an important lesson and that all children need to feel that their parents are on their side.
But was it the full-credit response? We have been debating it at our Shabbos table ever since…
It’s certainly to her credit that she stood up for her son (although perhaps a less violent and more realistic threat would have been more effective) and that Biden saw her passion for and defense of him.
But I would argue that was not enough. Our children need more than our defense of them. They need tools, they need a coping strategy. Recent studies published in the WSJ back me up. All sorts of research about teenage girls demonstrate that they feel better about themselves and accomplish more when they are taught these skills by their parents.
Life is full of challenges. Biden’s teacher may have been the first but she certainly was not the last, especially given his chosen profession!
We’re all going to meet people who don’t treat us well and our mother won’t be there to threaten them.
But even if don’t run for political office, we are all going to meet people throughout our lives who don’t treat us well. They may be teachers, college professors, bosses, co-workers or even employees, and sometimes – unfortunately – other family members. And our mother won’t always be there to threaten them, and even if she were, her threat would not always be effective.
We need to help our children find ways to cope with these situations. While colleges may provide “safe spaces,” most corporations do not. We need to give our children the ability to deal with bullies and other unpleasant individuals without running for the hills or cowering in the corner.
Maybe Mrs. Biden did that also and it just wasn’t part of the story. (It’s a lot less exciting.) But that’s part of the real job of parenting, the nitty-gritty that isn’t dramatic but prepares our children to face the challenges of adulthood. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The Torah perspective is that while we can’t control the situations we find ourselves in or the behavior of others, we can control our reaction to it.
Yes, the teacher was wrong, very wrong. But Joe Biden – and all of our children – need to learn to take charge of their response and to maintain their dignity and composure under fire. It is the parents’ job to give coping tools, the ultimate one being the recognition that the Almighty runs the world and that everything that happens is from Him and is an opportunity for growth. It’s not easy but if we can work on modeling and internalizing that behavior ourselves we might just have a chance of passing it on to our children. And perhaps we can spare even the worst of teachers from having to eat their hats…