In Rabbi Abraham Twerski's book, Positive Parenting, he has a chapter devoted to environmental engineering that discusses a crucial and neglected aspect of parenting with a myriad of implications.
One aspect of environmental engineering is to make our homes reflective of our values. For example, if we have the television on throughout the day and evening, it doesn't matter what values we profess to hold, the ones shaping our families will be coming from that box - or flat screen.
Of course the type of marriage we present to our children is an aspect of this as well. Are we creating an atmosphere of joy and harmony and security in which our children can flourish?
And the type of Shabbos dinner we present, if we present it all, is an aspect of environmental engineering. Are we calm? Are we dressed up? Is the food presented with that special touch? Do we try to have a stimulating conversation that engages our children (and isn't about the latest sale at Banana Republic)?
These are deep and meaningful reflections of environmental engineering and require serious thought and practice.
But there are other types of environmental engineering which involve things we do to make our lives simpler, our homes more comfortable and "user-friendly".
If we want a home with pretty and fragile objects, we have to make some choices. Since we don't want to be yelling at our kids all day or hesitant to have guests, we can either move those things to higher shelves or accept the breakage with a shrug. If we can't do either, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We need to retake the environmental engineering course!
If we coop our children up in a car for many hours at a time, why are we so surprised when they fight?
Environmental engineering is not just for the home. If you want an elegant dinner out, don't (I repeat, don't) bring your small children. If you want to bring your children, start with a family friendly restaurant and expect that water will be spilled, someone's face will be covered with ketchup -- and likely portions of their clothing as well, and another child will probably be doing laps around the room. The Boys Scouts know of what they speak -- be prepared.
A lot of our parenting meltdowns (I mean us not our children!) are due to our own poor planning, our own lack of careful environmental engineering.
If we coop our children up in a car for many hours at a time, why are we so surprised when they fight? Why do we accuse them of ruining our family vacation? It was our choice. Environmental engineers plan shorter trips with more stops, more snacks, more bribes…And they pick sites that children will enjoy.
When we went to Washington a few summers ago, The Spy Museum was a big hit. The Library of Congress with the mandatory and long-winded tour guide was not. And the memorials were simply out of the question.
Every family is, of course, different. And trips and events need to be tailored to its unique and special interests. And there clearly needs to be some balance between the needs of our children and our own needs (yes, parents have needs too).
But we want to avoid situations of conflict and frustration where we can. There will be enough that we can't!
We have never had a TV in our home. Although I am certainly sympathetic to all the moral and educational value of not having one, I was compelled by something different. I was imagining the fighting. "I want this show." "No I want that one." "Tonight it's my turn." "No, it's mine." "He stole the remote." And I decided that I wanted to keep that out of my home. One less struggle. My personal environmental engineering.
We also have a home full of books and even though many of my daughters would like us to sell the books and replace the shelves with shoes, I have remained steadfast. Not only are they important to me but I figure that if they are always around eventually someone, even my most recalcitrant readers, will pick some of them up.
We have so many opportunities to tweak our world and make ours and our children's lives better and easier, by acting where we can -- and by never getting more attached to our "tchotchkes" than to our children.