Friday, April 15, 2011

The Good Parent

Children & Society

Hobn kinder iz shver ober hodeven zey iz nokh shverer
(Bearing children is difficult, raising them even more so.)
Yiddish proverb

Home is the place where boys and girls first learn how to limit their wishes, abide by rules, and consider rights and needs of others.
Sidonie Gruenberg, U.S. educator

When you teach your son, you teach your son's son.
The Talmud

A Parent and Her Child: A Nepalese woman and her infant child. "Your children need your presence more than your presents," Jesse Jackson said.
Photo Credit
: Nancy Collins, 2011

I am going to say something that every parent already knows. Parenting is the most difficult, often thankless, job in the world. Yet, most parents take it on with a mixture of love, fear, duty, frustration, pride, joy and enthusiasm. As a parent of three children, such emotions are not alien to me. I live them daily.

It is said that parenting is not for the faint-hearted. That might reflect the reason that thousands of articles and millions of words are dedicated to giving advice to parents, often with conflicting results. Some articles contend that having children comes with a great economic investment, and discuss the economic hardships of raising children.

For an example of the costs to raise a child, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says in its latest report, for 2009, that it costs a middle-class family $239,000 to raise a child until age eighteen. For families with incomes exceeding $98,000, the figure is $396,000. The USDA updates its report yearly.

The hard cold reality of figures offer little comfort. More so, they will not influence many parents on the lower socioeconomic scale, as their reasons for having children have little to do with money, and more to do with the natural inclinations for having children. Such figures are put out chiefly for policy reasons. My response? Are cold economic terms the only metric of benefits? Perhaps in the limited world of such economists and policy-makers. More's the pity. I think such people are over-analyzing parenthood to everyone's detriment. These articles, presented in the veneer of practical advice, tend to discourage.

Perhaps that is their desired intent. Population control a la Malthusianism (and neo-Mathusianism), a contrived scientific belief against morality, individual freedom and humanity. If their intention is to limit the number of children to only the wealthy or industrialized nations, it is an argument that is as scientifically specious as morally bankrupt. Although money makes life more comfortable and affords more opportunity, there is no correlation between wealth and well-adjusted children.

I suspect that these articles and reports are typically written by people who either don't like children or don't like the sight of the poor. Such social scientists ought to be more intellectually honest and let others know about their biases up front.

I raise such points for a reason. Such articles are telling and do little to comfort parents. That alone tell us how frightening a task many of today's parents look at bringing up children. Parents read and want to be informed, which is a good thing. With the best of intentions and motives, parents want to do it right. They want their children to turn out as good, compassionate, hard-working, responsible citizens of society. (One wonders how parents of old were able to survive without such articles, books and guides.)

I have not touched here on abusive parents, and they exist in too many numbers. One is too many. Truly, not everyone is fit to become a parent. Many lack the empathy, understanding and dedication it takes to raise a child. Accordingly, such parents in the best of cases pass on their fears and hatreds to their children; and in the worse cases harm their children, even kill them. Nothing more can be said about such people, other than they are few in number and an aberration to societal norms.

The great majority of parents, however, do a fine even exceptional job raising their children, and operate from within a mixture of confidence, doubt, self-denial, cultural expectations and personal traditions. In the old nature versus nurture debate, parents can take some comfort that scientists have found out that children are already genetically encoded with some abilities and talents.

All the coaching, nagging and lessons will not make Johnny a classical pianist, Jill a ballet dancer, Moshe a professional baseball player or Molly a doctor. Or at least a happy one. Countless biographies and memoirs attest to this.

So, the need to push your children into pursuing things that do not interest them, I suspect, will only frustrate both parents and child. Introduction and encouragement to an art or sport is one thing, parental bullying and pressure to perform is quite another. It might get you what you want, through a torrent of tears and tantrums. but your child will never forget it.

Jewish Children with their teacher in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (then part of Russia). Early color photograph from what was then Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915.
Photo Credit: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii [1863-1944]. Taken between 1905 and 1915.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., Washington, D.C.
Parents Shape a Moral Outlook

That does not mean parents have no responsibility. Quite the opposite. Parents have many important roles, including teaching and guiding behavior. The parental presence and guidance, what social scientists call parental investment, does go a long way to shaping, for one, a child's moral outlook on life, notwithstanding his individual personality and genetic makeup.

While Science is good at explaining how our brains develop and work, it is Religion that does a better job of explaining why we ought to behave a certain way. The great moral codes of religion show that parents contribute greatly to a child's moral development, both by personal action and behavior and by the imparting of moral traditions and knowledge.

The major religions, for example, have worked out in great detail the role of the parent in influencing and guiding the child, often through ordered ritual, the child's development to adulthood  (see, for example, The Jewish Way)

Such can act as firm guideposts as the child becomes older. He might not act upon them at various stages in his life, but he has an ingrained if not intimate knowledge of right and wrong. Consider an article on parenting directed at Jews, The Good Parent, but it could equally apply to any tradition:
Our tradition tells us that we parents and teachers can be powerful role models. The rabbis of the Talmud long ago explained, for example, that a child speaks in the marketplace the way he heard his parents speaking at home. [1] Psychologists also remind us that the model we parents present influences even our youngest children
In the same manner that the Laws of Moses provide boundaries for our benefit, sometimes not easily apparent to us, so do parents provide safe boundaries, not always understood or appreciated by young minds, for their children. Although it's true that there is no guarantee that children taught and modeled proper moral behavior will turn out all right, as good social citizens, in a home where the child is taught nothing, the likelihood is decidedly less. Since nature abhors a vacuum, it is filled with something, and that something is often things that are both harmful to the child and the society at large.

Take a look at children who have grown up with negligent parents—and these still exist—and you will see children left to their own devices, often ill-equipped and immature, to make good moral decisions. Some have had the resiliency and determination to push themselves to succeed, albeit with regret in their voices. Such children might have achieved great things, but it was a more difficult task, and scars remain for life. And through no fault of the child who was looking for loving guidance.

Such children might still love their parents, and have developed a fine moral outlook without their guidance and help, but have done so at a disadvantage, with deep regrets and a mournful soul that the parent-child bond was not loving and giving. Others are less kind to their parents, using the voice of honesty, to break all ties. It might be the actions rooted in basic survival. Where was the love? is their cri de coeur?

Good Loving Attention

Who could blame them for a need that is basic to all life? Although I might be waxing poetic here, and forgive me if I am, that might be the simple secret to success of a good parent-child relationship: a parent that gives what the child needs and craves: loving attention within a structured, proven and permanent foundation. At times, I have been guilty of forgetting the importance of consistency in my many years as a parent. At times I have been overly indulgent, at others overly strict. I am also learning about consistency.

As parents, caught up in our daily rituals of work, play and self-interests, we can easily forget such simple details that mark a child's life passage from infant to young adulthood. Some, if not many, children realize only after they themselves become parents on the responsibility and importance of  parenting. In their late twenties or thirties, or even forties, as is today's norm for parenthood, such children look back at their lives with fondness and some sentimentality if their childhood was happy and some regret if it was not.

It's often mixed. Such was my case, and that of my wife. Now, we are both anticipating the happy event of our oldest daughter and her husband becoming parents in a few months. I am sure that this will change their lives forever in many countless positive ways, including bettering their understanding of the traditions of parenthood and the role in passing on the traditions of our fathers.

As young grandparents, we'll be there hovering in the background, offering our guidance and hard-won wisdom. I am reminded of a Yiddish proverb: "Nakhes fun kinder iz mer tayer far gelt." (Joy from children is more precious than money.)


  1. Jewish parents are typically lenient. Perhaps that is the secret to Jewish success.

  2. Prof Jochnowitz,

    Thank you for your comment. Interesting point. My parents were, and my inclination is similar, toward leniency.


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