We all try to be perfect parents. We all know how difficult it is to be a perfect parent. And eventually we realize that we can never be perfect parents. But we can and must grow to improve as parents, on a constant basis. There is only way to do this. We have to spend time and effort working at bettering our parenting.
Parenting is a skill like any other. Without a concerted and consistent effort to work at parenting, without reading books, articles, and essays, without speaking to friends and experts, and most importantly, without asking lots of questions, we can never become better parents.
Parshat Tazria, with its opening discussion of some of the Torah's laws concerning purity and childbirth, affords us an opportunity to sit back and reflect upon our monumental roles as parents. What follows are a few questions involving parenting asked of Rav Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, including a summary of his answers to each question. These were part of special parenting sessions held with Rav Yaakov.
Question 1: What would be the most important aspect for a husband and wife to focus on relating to parenting?
Answer: The foundation of all foundations is consistency. Without it, nothing can be accomplished. The child must know that you mean what you say.
It can't be that today you say no and tomorrow you say yes. The child needs to know what to expect. You need to give off the same displeasure for a misdeed as you did yesterday. This, of course, includes husband and wife being consistent with each other as well. Otherwise, the child will play one parent off the other. It's far better to do nothing in parenting than to have disputes over parenting matters in front of the child.
Even when one parent strongly disagrees with how the other parent handled a situation, this cannot be verbalized in front of the child.
Question 2: What is the Torah view of punishment for children? Should we live with the attitude of "they'll grow out of it"?
Answer: There is no way around the fact that punishment is necessary. As King Shlomo says: "He who spares the rod, hates his child, but he who loves him, disciplines him when he is young" (Mishlei 13:24). But punishment does not necessarily mean physical. In our day and age, this is highly inadvisable, because any 'potch' or slap is taken by the child as a severe rejection. Making a child feel severely rejected, is terrible parenting because it sends a message that the parent has given up on the child, that the child is all bad.
Punishment includes any disapproving reaction, even if only a frown or a sigh. 'Timeout' and temporarily disallowing use of toys or games are also appropriate means of punishment when necessary. Children must be taught when they have done something inappropriate. If not, they will grow up lacking a sense of values and will not know what is acceptable behavior.
Parents have to beware of the feeling they give off when they punish. Parents cannot punish out of anger and frustration. Children must feel that the punishment stems from the parents' love and concern for them. Parents should talk briefly to the child during and after a punishment, telling the child exactly why he is being punished and how the punishment is only being given to teach proper values.
This conveying of love even in punishment is not only important in terms of the parent/child relationship, but it also affects how the child will relate to God.
Since we call God 'Our Father,' the child's image and understanding of a father will be shaped by how he views his biological parents. If children see their parents' love and concern and develop a strong, loving relationship with their parents, they will relate to God in this way. If someone has a negative and stressful relationship with his parents, it will be harder to develop a positive connection to God.
So, the parental responsibility is a serious one and is the essential basis for all service of God.
Question 3: What is the most important lesson we can teach our kids?
Answer: It is clear that good character traits are the most important areas for parents to concentrate on. Jewish law states unequivocally that it is forbidden to teach Torah to a student who does not have good character (see Rambam, Talmud Torah, Chapter 4). We must work with a child to set him on a path of good character before we can study Torah with him.
Good character comes before teaching a child to observe any Mitzvot.
Question 4: If a child does not enjoy carrying out certain Mitzvot, should he be forced? After all, we are supposed to teach the child to observe the Mitzvot.
Answer: Never force. If you do, the child will come to hate the Mitzvot. Coax, persuade, reward, but never force.
Question 5: How can I teach my child about spirituality?
Answer: Getting your child to read is a wonderful beginning. But you have to make sure that they are reading topics that challenge the mind. We tend to give them comic books and mysteries which simply entertain them. We must be very careful to monitor the books that they read so that the children read meaningful, mind-expanding material. From this comes the message that there is more to life than eating gourmet food and watching television. There is a mind that needs to be satisfied.
Emphasizing the mind to the child is the beginning of teaching spirituality. From there, the child will progress to discover for himself that physical gratification is not all that life has to offer. You cannot teach nor can you preach spirituality in ways that will impact upon the child. The child (and adult for that matter) must discover spirituality on his own if it is to last.
May we continue striving to be the best parents we can possibly be.