Remember those precious days just before and after your child was born? Remember your dreams of parenthood, and what kind of closeness you would have with your child?
Do you ever find yourself trying to remember those dreams in the midst of the never-ending logistical tasks that parenting requires? Do you ever feel more like a chauffer, short order cook, live in maid, traffic cop, homework enforcer, or complaint department than a parent?
Let's go back to those dreams for a second, because they hold within them the power and potential of raising incredible children. The Hebrew word for parent is "horah," which literally translates as an "instructor" or "guide." A parent is a teacher and guide for their children on how to live with values. How does a parent best teach those values? The answer is inextricably tied to all the chauffeuring, arbitration, enforcing, cleaning, and cooking that we do as parents every day. Allow me to explain.
The Talmud compares raising a child to growing a sapling. There are two essential modes in parenting and, while both are necessary, they are the diametric opposite of each other. The primary mode is planting, the secondary mode is pruning.
Let's begin with the latter first. Pruning is when you literally instruct your child often through correcting their behavior -- "Do it this way," "Don't do it that way." It will often get you immediate results, obedience and changed behavior, but there can be a cost as well. Occasional pruning is necessary, but too much pruning will kill the tree. The same is true with a child. Too much instructing and correcting will cause your child to feel alienated or even resentful, although they are responding to what you say. Children love to learn, and they even love to learn from their parents, but they do not love being told what to do. (Come to think of it, none of us like being told what to do!)
Occasional pruning is necessary, but too much pruning will kill the tree.
The other issue in the pruning mode is that although you may get immediate results, the change is coming externally from you -- not internally from your child. Chances are the change won't take hold over time. For example, let's say you are trying to teach your daughter how to honor her parents. You spend time reminding her to say thank you and please whenever she forgets, and you correct her tone when it's inappropriate. Sometimes this is a necessary component of teaching but too much of it will push your kid away.
THE SUBTLE ART OF PLANTING
The planting mode is subtler, takes longer, but infinitely more leveraged. Planting is when you don't say a word; your actions do the talking for you. You simply live the behavior or teaching you want your child to learn and trust that it will take hold in them over time. In the planting mode you may not know when your children will begin to learn what you are modeling for them, but when they do, it will be theirs forever. In the planting mode your kids are drawn closer to you out of admiration of how you act in the world and how you accept them for where they are right now. It is in this mode that we begin to become heroes to our own children.
In the teaching your child how to honor her parents scenario, your focus is much less on correcting and adjusting your kid's behavior and much more on your own behavior in terms of how you treat your parents! Your child sees you going out of your way to take care of your parents, to call them, and take every opportunity to give them honor and nachas. (All this equally applies -- if not more so -- to how you treat your spouse!) This makes an indelible impression on kids. They don't forget it.
Let's take another Jewish value that is close every parent's heart: teaching your child to be honest. Just to get a read on how important this is, imagine for a second if your child grew up to be a dishonest person, someone people couldn't trust.
In the heavy pruning mode, you catch your children when they act in a way that is less than honest. You use the opportunity to teach them about the importance of honesty. Your intentions are pure, but since your child is both being taught and admonished at the same time, the experience leaves them with a negative charge. They might be more afraid of lying than inspired to be honest. The next time you catch them not being honest, you repeat the teaching but possibly with a little less patience. Though your child may realize that this is an issue that's important to you, they will hear the disappointment and correction more loudly than the teaching. This doesn't mean that you don't intervene and correct, rather it's a practice that you used reservedly because of the potential fallout.
In the planting mode, you catch your children when they act with honesty. You praise them and identify them with the principle of honestly. You may even compare them to someone you admire for their honesty. Like a person watering a garden, you give them what they need to grow.
Equally important, you make sure that you act with great honesty yourself. If someone calls on the phone and asks if you are there, you don't tell your child to say you are out. If you are out driving, you don't cut into the turning lane at the last minute after you have passed many cars. You are teaching your child about the nature of honesty in an indirect way.
It is precisely through how you behave during the day-to-day tasks of chauffeuring, cooking, and cleaning that your child will learn the most about how they should behave and what they should care about. Those seemingly tedious tasks are imbedded with the potential for planting the seeds of deep integrity, love and menschlikiet within your kids. Done with the right spirit your everyday routine can have the potential to make a huge impression on your child - you are their very own hero.