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What Makes Parenting Jewish?

Elisheva Appel

Is there a specifically Jewish approach to parenting? How can we establish what’s true to our mesorah, and when, if ever, can we borrow from secular wisdom?

Monday, May 29, 2017

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Y ears ago, “parent” denoted something you were, not something you did. You became a parent with the birth of your first child and then stayed one forever, but parenting wasn’t something you actively practiced. Whether in Galicia or Marrakesh, our grandparents didn’t spend much time thinking about unconditional positive regard or empathic limits, and probably never heard of the 80-20 rule.

Today, parenting is a booming industry, with a constantly growing plethora of books, lectures, and experts all purporting to teach us the right way to raise our children. Within our community, as well, many people and publications lay claim to being purveyors of authentic Torah-based parenting advice. While many of these educational resources do contain much Torah wisdom, they also — with varying degrees of apologetics — adopt buzzwords, techniques, and even entire premises from current psychological research.

Have we merely jumped on the secular parenting bandwagon, or is there a uniquely Jewish way to parent?

What changed?

Both philosophically and practically, the world we live in is very different from our parents’ and grandparents’ world. Dr. David Lieberman, renowned psychologist and bestselling author, explains that we all — Jew and non-Jew — spend less time churning butter, chopping wood, and escaping from bloodthirsty barbarians than our ancestors did. This has afforded us more leisure time to ruminate on our emotions and relationships, and allowed for an increased awareness of the importance of parenting.

This abundance of time for self-reflection has heightened the importance of focused parenting. When daily life was a struggle for survival, a potch or a harsh word wasn’t given the same weight it would be given today. Now that we aren’t expending so much energy simply to survive, our resilience is lower, and the emotional aspects of parenting may matter more than they once did.

Concurrently, following the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying disruptions of traditional social dynamics, government began to mobilize as the protector of children, outlawing child labor, instituting reforms like mandatory education, and establishing protocols for hygiene and disease prevention. Responsibility for children’s well-being began to pass to the authorities, who told us whether formula was safe for infants, what vaccinations to give, and when children must go to school. It was only a matter of time before parents began to rely on credentialed experts to dispense advice about how to toilet-train, deal with tantrums, or reason with rebellious teens.

 

Experts from various disciplines issued sweeping statements about the right way to parent, serving up heaping helpings of guilt for parents whose insufficient warmth, overbearing strictness, or myriad other failings were inevitably spawning all manner of neuroses in their offspring.

The 19th and 20th centuries were also the age of revolution, democracy, and expanded suffrage. “The whole world went through a change from a very autocratic style, where there was a clear hierarchy, to a more egalitarian society. The masses began to have a voice,” notes parenting educator Dina Friedman, who has trained thousands of women through her Chanoch L’naar program.

These trends toward freedom and empowerment were reflected on a microscale within the home. The new reality, in which the little people expect to be heard as equals — one person, one vote — has seeped into family dynamics, says Mrs. Friedman. Instead of a world where children were meant to be seen and not heard, we now face a reality in which children are celebrated, their feelings assiduously validated, and their opinions accorded the respect previously reserved for adults only.

Concerned parents, who knew that they wanted to raise their children differently than they had been raised, sought a new roadmap to help them navigate the unfamiliar terrain of child-rearing in modern times. Corporal punishment became taboo; children’s emotions began to be discussed and explored; and rigid expectations of obedience to authority became antiquated in this brave new world.

While the psychological sophistication and enhanced recognition of the important role parents play were not unique to the frum community, a factor contributing to our community’s redoubled focus on parenting is the alarming number of children who choose to leave their parents’ path, says Dr. Meir Wikler, psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice in Brooklyn and Lakewood, New Jersey. “While it’s not an epidemic, it’s certainly more of a problem today than it was years ago. And it’s definitely cause for legitimate concern and alarm. As a result of these three trends, therefore, parents are more conscious of their parenting style and the impact it can have on their children than ever before.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 544 – Shavuos 2017 Special Edition)

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