In close competition with the number of weight-loss books are the number of parenting books. And in almost equally close competition are the changing fads: be permissive, be strict; don't raise your voice, show them who's boss; be empathic and mirror their emotions, be matter-of-fact and business-like. And each in some way makes the same false promise that accompanies each new diet: a quick fix, a magic answer.
Just as we have yet to discover that special pill which allows us to consume unlimited calories and remain a size 2, we haven't found the perfect parenting potion either. In fact, it's just not available.
Paradoxically, the first step to healthy parenting is to recognize that it's out of our control.
There are, I think, a few basic rules to good parenting, and none of them are foolproof -- because our children have free will. And all the parenting classes and books and tapes and techniques can't rob them of their ability to choose. In some paradoxical way, the first step to healthy parenting is to recognize that it's out of our control.
The second step, following closely on the heels of the first, is to recognize Who does have control. And to pray. And pray. And pray. This is probably the biggest gift we can give our children.
However since we don't believe in relying on miracles (no matter how tempting the thought!), we must have some strategy when it comes to child-raising.
Our teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt'l, gave us two parenting tips which we (try to!) live by:
1. It doesn't really matter which strategy you adopt (i.e. whether you talk so your children will listen and listen so your children will talk -- or not); what matters is consistency. The rules should stay the same and the parents should stay in synch. This is one of the most difficult challenges of parenting and marriage.
When Brian walked in at the end of a long day of work, little Sarah was acting up. "Go to your room immediately!" screamed Yael, his harried wife.
"Sweetheart," Brian said soothingly (and within earshot of Sarah) to his wife, "don't you think that punishment is a little harsh for her behavior?"
"How dare you undermine me?" his wife shrieked. "You haven't been home with her for the last two hours and seen all the other problematic behaviors leading up to this last straw!"
I can only imagine (!) scenes like this which damage both the child and the parents. The key is to have the discussion in private (it requires a lot of tongue biting and deep breathing) and then present a united front to our child.
Our children must clearly know and experience our love for them. That love must be demonstrated.
2. The second tip our teacher gave us was that we need to recognize that the power of parental authority has diminished in our society (and is mostly held in place by restricted access to the family finances!) and by and large, all we have is our personal relationship with our children. This does not mean we are their friends; it means that they must clearly know and experience our love for them. It's not enough to feel it; it must be demonstrated. (A little practical aside: that 'helpful' or 'constructive' criticism we so eagerly offer our children is NOT perceived by them to be a manifestation of our love!)
No matter how frustrated we are, how aggravating the behavior of our teenagers (and it can be pretty aggravating!), we never want to push them away. We may need to impose discipline but it must be accompanied by warmth and caring.
I once heard a story of a child who ran away from home. "I hate you," she screamed to her parents. "I never want to see you again."
"However much you hate me," replied her father, "I love you more and I will never give up on your return." When the circumstances of her life proved too much for her she ran back home, to her father's waiting embrace.
It's crucial to appreciate our children's individuality and to support them in their endeavor to figure out their strengths and weakness and goals. They are not living out our missed opportunities or our visions; they are not symbols of our success or failure. They are unique and wonderful human beings with special, personal gifts to offer. We need to move out of the way.
Our children need to discover and express their own passions, not ours. I've even seen some studies that suggest the less we push our offspring into our chosen fields, the more likely they are to choose it. Psych 101 or the Almighty's sense of humor?
Lastly (though not exhaustively), we need to trust our intuitions. When training therapists, professors admonish their students to learn the theories, then throw away the books. Lives of real and complex human beings can't be governed by a one size fits all formula. Each person and each situation is not the same as the last. We need to be focused on the person in front of us, not on a page in a text book.
Many parenting issues have no right or wrong answers -- to feed on demand or on a schedule, to let your baby cry or pick him up, cloth or paper diapers -- but depend on the needs and judgment of individual parents.
We can't abdicate that responsibility. Only we, the parents, know and understand our children. The advice of outsiders is limited at best, damaging at worst. I received confirmation of this theory recently when one of my children called to say, "Thank you ima and abba, I'm so glad I listened to you." I wish someone had been taping that conversation! I was unable to save the message but I carry it with me. That and my constant prayers.