Our forefathers all had parenting challenges, but none more than Yaakov, our ancestor who was closest to us in time and life experience. In a sense, Yaakov had more difficulties in raising his children – for the most part, as a single parent – than did Avraham or Yitzchak. It is easier to raise children if one is righteous and one is wicked. We have clearer guidelines when the dichotomy is black and white. Between Yitzchak and Yishmael, between Yaakov and Esav – there are separate, distinct paths. Shades of gray – the dazzling diversity of Yaakov’s children as exemplified by his blessings – are more difficult to manage and direct, and Yaakov was blessed with twelve colorful children, thirteen if Dina is counted, all whom required direction and discipline. And the stakes were never greater.
Somehow, despite their famous feuds, all of Yaakov’s sons gathered around his deathbed, and Yaakov was quite precise in identifying their uniqueness, their personalities, and their destinies are part of the nation of Israel. Of the twelve, only Shimon and Levi are described as “brothers” – in Ramban’s phrase, “complete brothers, resembling each other in a brotherly way in thought and deed.” All the others were individualists – and Yaakov raised them all, and uneasily, with one objective: to create the nucleus of G-d’s people. So how does one rear – and discipline – diverse children?
The model of our forefathers – and life itself – reinforces that there is no perfect system and no guarantee of ultimate success – but there are patterns that lead to successful discipline that in many ways is on the wane today. Here are some rudimentary thoughts:
Firstly, a parent must be a parent first, and a friend second or third, if at all. A child has friends – a child needs parents. A parent who acts like a child is not acting like a parent – and a parent who feels a need to ingratiate himself/herself to a child or who craves the child’s approval is also not acting like a parent. And a child needs a parent. I recently heard, incredulously, about the mindboggling case of parents who allow their children to smoke marijuana in their home – preferring that they smoke there “under supervision” than outside the home without supervision. Heaven save us – and children – from such “parents” (and their not-so-supervision) who through their children are undoubtedly re-living their wayward youth that apparently turned out so…well, or from parents whose search for personal happiness induces them into shirking or abandoning their parental responsibilities.
Parenting, secondly, requires occasionally saying “no.” Not always saying “no” or always saying “yes,” but occasionally saying “no.” A friend rarely says “no” – or you would just find another friend. There are parents who feel their children will love them less if they say “no.” In fact, the opposite is true – children love their parents more when the parents set limits. Limits – discipline – are examples of parental love, not only authority. In truth, parents whose good values have been absorbed by their children (and whose personal virtues have been witnessed by their children) will have to say “no” less frequently as the child grows in adolescence, not more frequently.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe cited the verse in Zecharia (11:7) as illustrative of the two models of parenting: “And I took two staffs, one I called noam, “pleasantness” and the other chovlim, “destruction,” and I shepherded the flock.” Parents have two tools of discipline – noam and chovlim – at their disposal, and must choose wisely.
There is a destructive form of discipline – when the parent thinks he/she can create a clone of himself/herself and becomes intolerant of any deviation. The child must look, speak, think and act like the parent, walk in the parent’s footsteps – live in the same community, attend the same school, etc. That is wonderful if the child so chooses, and destructive if it is coercive. It is destructive when parents discipline in anger, and without reason or rationale. That is the “makel chovlim”– the destructive staff.
The “makel noam” is pleasant – it rewards, it gives incentives, it provides guidelines, and it sends a message of love. Discipline is like the guardrails on a narrow, winding road; guardrails are not unreasonable constraints on one’s freedom but rather expressions of societal concern and caring. Guardrails do prevent one from experiencing the exhilaration of sailing over a cliff, but also spare one the gruesome reality of hitting rock bottom. Guardrails allow room for maneuverability – within limits. The great criticism lodged against King David, who also struggled with many of his children, is that he never disciplined his rebellious son Adoniyahu – “His father never aggrieved him” (I Kings 1:6) – never caused him any grief, never challenged him, and never said “no.”
Thirdly, it is no crime not to be able to afford something – especially these days when many parents seem to fear telling their children “we cannot afford that, you can’t buy that.” Indeed, it is no crime not to buy something even if you can afford it. Nor is it a crime to say “no” – “you can’t go there, you can’t watch this, you can’t buy this” – even if all your child’s friends can. Parents who judge their worth based on what they give their child materially are not really worth that much, or giving them that much. There are vapid politicians today who lament that our children’s generation might be the first in American history not to out-earn their parents – and the very sentiment corrupts our children’s values. So what if they are not wealthier – there are greater, more valuable legacies we can leave our children. Would we be in a state of deprivation if we had the same material bounty, or even a little less, than the last two generations? Certainly not.
Yaakov’s twelve sons were not an easy bunch – they were strong-willed, complicated, dynamic individuals who had legendary problems with each other and occasionally with their father. Yet, when Yaakov said “gather and listen,” they gathered and listened. And he blessed them, each with a personally appropriate blessing.
For a parent to bless a child requires that the parent knows both his child, and the blessing. To know the child and not know the blessing is as ineffectual as knowing the blessing but not how to transmit it to the child. We need both.
To know one’s child requires insight and objectivity, and to know the blessing – to recognize and use the “staff of pleasantness”– requires knowledge of Torah, and the spirit of our ancestors, our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. And then we will merit children who are productive Jews and responsible adults, we will be positive role models to the world, and our national history will reach its inevitable – and grand – climax.