When my daughters ask me if they should take Lamaze classes, I tell them that childbirth boils down to two simple choices – breathe or scream. This is advice that carries throughout the whole parenting experience.
Additionally, there are a few basic principles that are consistent through all ages, phases and times. The first is that we constantly need to pray. Parenting is a tough job. If you don’t recognize that, then you must be very new parents! We need the Almighty’s help at every step of the way.
The second is that children are not blank slates or lumps of clay. They come with personalities and drives, with strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to help finely tune their qualities, to give them focus, to assist them in making the most of their strengths and channel their weaknesses in a negative direction. We do not get to start from scratch and decide who and what we want them to be.
Thirdly, the goal is to create successful adults. While the definition of success is in itself a whole discussion, the main point is that we want to keep our eye on the ball, on the end game and not on this particular moment in time. This may mean allowing a child to have a full-fledged temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store rather than indulging their demands. It may require putting up with uncomfortable stares and assumptions from the other patrons. But you know that, ultimately, not giving in will help create a healthier adult, one with realistic expectations and lacking a sense of entitlement.
With this foundation in mind, we can now elaborate on a few basic tenets of parenting.
1. Educate each child according to his way. These words, from King Solomon, our wisest of men, have many important implications. They teach us that each child is different with different needs. There is no one size fits all parenting. We need to appreciate and respond to these differences. Appreciating may mean that if you are a bubbly, outgoing personality who enjoys a good party and your child is quiet and prefers to be alone, you should respect her wishes. She should definitely not assume there is a problem or try to get her to be more like you. Don’t try to make her into something or someone she is not.
2. Our children are not an opportunity to relive our unfulfilled dreams. They are not here to be the pianist or dancer or poet that our parents told us we couldn’t be. It is not appropriate to in any way live vicariously through them – their educational experiences, their friends, their interests and experiences. Either of these attitudes places an undue burden on their shoulders (how can they be everything you’ve always wanted to be?), confuses them about their responsibilities (what about their own goals and desires?) and distorts the parent-child relationship (why does mom seem a little over eager to hear about that party?)
3. With each additional child, the family dynamic changes. A younger sibling is not growing up in the same family as an older one. No two children are actually from the “same” family. We need to be alert to the ways in which this is manifest. Are we not disciplining enough because we’ve gotten tired? Are we relying too much on the older siblings to parent the younger ones? Or conversely, are we overindulgent (as all the other kids seem to believe!) of the babies in the family?
4. We must make an effort to discover and understand the unique gifts of each child and actively look for ways to develop these gifts and praise our children when they use them well. In some of our children, these talents or character traits may be well hidden. We need to search and uncover them. We need to help polish and refine them. Particularly when our children have good qualities that are not given to public recognition, it is our job to help them appreciate how special they are. (Caveat: since the self-esteem movement insists on telling children they are special for no good reason, we need to make sure we hook our praise on something real about our child)
5. We are our children’s parents, not their friends. This too has a few implications. We need to keep our values solid and strong. We cannot allow ourselves to be buffeted by the constantly changing mores of the world around us. Our children need to know where they can find us. They need to be able to rely on us. Our goals and convictions should be a secure constant in their lives. I’ll never forget when a group of high school boys (who enjoyed a little underage drinking in their spare time) told me how upsetting it was on the rare occasions when their fathers got drunk. They (obviously) weren’t opposed to drinking. But they were profoundly troubled to see the figures who represented stability in their lives seem so out of control.
An additional aspect of this is that we need to teach our children to respect us – and other adults. We must have a zero tolerance policy for chutzpah, even from a very young age. Our kids absolutely cannot see us laughing when they call their parents by their first name. And speaking of which, my faithful readers know that I feel strongly that children should address adults using their titles – Mr. Mrs. Dr. Rabbi. Their parents’ friends are not their peers.
Included here would be training children not to interrupt. Children (and some adults) believe they are the center of the world. Our job is to (gently) teach them otherwise. One crucial strategy is by insisting that they wait to speak until we are finished (this particularly applies on the phone, where unless it is, God forbid, an emergency, I really don’t want to stand silently on the other end while you have a prolonged discussion with your 3 year-old about her different snack options!).
6. There seems to be a competition in the world today over which ethnic group makes the best parents. Is it Chinese tiger mom’s? Is it the French? It’s been suggested (by Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting) that French mothers are good at ignoring their children on the playground and maintaining adult conversations. You may of course question why this is a skill to be cultivated!
I certainly believe that children should have free time on the playground without their parents hovering over them but I subscribe to the theory of benign neglect (as opposed to the French style which sounds more like just plain neglect!). Children need to learn to be creative and entertain themselves. They need unstructured time and unguarded moments. Yet, simultaneously, they need to know we are they if they need us. We need to be paying attention – from a safe distance. We must move out of the way so they can thrive and grow yet still be ready to catch them when they fall. Even though I believe that children need to be taught not to interrupt adult conversations, I think the real secret is to wait to have those conversations until your children are in bed!
Parenting is complicated. Theories are easy; the reality is much more complex. New situations arise every moment. There are no magic answers; it just helps to have a framework from which to view these challenges. It also helps to get a good night’s sleep.
And most of all, it helps to recognize that while we certainly need to make the effort, and while the effort can sometimes (okay always) be overwhelming, the rest really is in the Almighty’s hands. We need to do our job, but not His.