The parent gap
Back To Basics Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
“When I was a boy, we had in our lives adults who took pride in being adults,” writes commentator Dennis Prager. “To distinguish them from our peers, we called these adults ‘Mr.,’ ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss,’ or by their titles, ‘Doctor,’ ‘Pastor,’ ‘Rabbi,’ ‘Father.’ …Having adults proud of their adulthood, and not acting like they were still kids, gave us security…”
In a contrasting view of modern adulthood, British nanny Emma Jenner describes her sippy cup test. “How will the parent react when, having poured milk into a blue sippy cup, the child says, ‘I want the pink sippy cup, not the blue!’ More often than not, the mum’s face whitens and she rushes to get the preferred sippy cup before the child has a tantrum. Fail! What are you afraid of, mum?”
Until recently, “adult” was an intrinsic feature of identity, a specific stage of life regardless of behavior. According to the Bible, “no longer a child” simply meant of marriageable age (puberty) or military age at 20. In Ethics of the
Fathers, the rabbis of the Talmud similarly defined a progression of life’s stages, including moral maturity at 13 and adulthood at 20 (5:22).
These long-lived descriptors suggest not only a change in status but also a change in focus from the self to society.
However, since the end of World War II, adulthood has been defined not by age but by outward markers. “leave home, get an education or training, get a job, marry, buy a home, have kids,” writes Barbara Ray in What does it mean to be an ‘adult’ today?
A more recent trend combines these markers with Peter Pan Syndrome, reflected in today’s urban vocabulary.
Adult has become a verb, “adulting,” in which being an adult means engaging in specific behaviors or activities that can be turned on and off like a switch.
This modern confusion about the nature and significance of adulthood is echoed in the dynamics of parenthood, much to the detriment of children, families, and society.
Three biblical texts are key to grasping the profoundness of parenthood. Highlighting the kinship between parents and God as creators and liberators, children are commanded in Leviticus 19:3, “Venerate (revere) every man his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.”
To ensure the health and longevity of society, children are commanded in Exodus 20:12, “Dignify (honor) your father and your mother, in order that your days may be prolonged on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Finally, parents are commanded in the familiar verses of the Shema (Deut. 6:7), “Impress (teach) them (the Commandments) diligently to your children, and talk of them when sitting at home, and when on the way, and when lying down, and when rising up.”
The notions of a permanent, hierarchical and sacred relationship between parent and child and their moral obligations to one another and to society are central to Jewish tradition.
However, this traditional understanding of parenthood highlights a growing parent gap. It undermines the modern notion of having a child as a kind of bucket-list check-off for adulting, as in, “I became a parent. I adulted.”
The gap disentangles emotional love (not loving behavior) from the role of parenthood, never commanding parents and children to love one another.
Modern preoccupations with having “a baby to love” or “a child to love me” leads to unhealthy parenting behaviors that ultimately undermine the very result desired. Parenting with love is very different from parenting for the purpose of love.
It establishes a hierarchy, ranking parents above children and defining the obligatory behaviors of each rank.
Parents are not their children’s peers, servants, nor co-equal friends at any age, in contrast to modern views.
A parent’s role is to “make good people” by being the primary moral authority, a higher power to whom children are morally accountable.
Successful parenting involves three components: parent style, expectations, and content.
Parenting styles abound, from permissive to helicopter to authoritarian. But for nurturing moral adults, research favors the authoritative model.
With a strong sense of their moral authority, reasonable enforcement of standards and boundaries, and a warm and responsive style that favors conversation and reasoning, researcher Diana Baumrind concludes, authoritative parents raise the most secure, self-confident, morally astute, and socially responsible children.
Parents should raise the bar, with high expectations for their children’s character, maturity, and achievement, more than what is generally accepted.
They should also raise the bar for friends and other adults in their children’s orbit, ensuring that they too reinforce family standards and moral expectations.
Finally, when we view the purpose of parenting as “creating good people,” the most important content of parenting becomes character development rather than caretaking, pursuing happiness, or achieving academic success.
Like adulting, parenting is threatening to change from a permanent identity to a temporary role. But if 20somethings and older are only sometimes adults, and parents are only sometimes parents, who’s left to fill society’s growing gap of mature leaders, moral advocates, and wise ones for future generations?
Literature to share
Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig. Using elements of the Seder to explore a wide variety of Passover traditions, this nonfiction book captures twin themes of Jewish unity and cultural diversity. Simple maps, unusual recipes, and unique customs are balanced by an overview of Passover and its traditional symbols. The lively text, colorful design, and varied format are especially inviting for upper elementary readers and classroom exploration.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume. In this bestseller adult novel, Blume imagines the stories of three generations of families, friends and strangers whose lives were affected by a series of real-life airplane crashes in Elizabethtown, N.J. in the 1950s. Unusual in its wide array of characters, Unlikely Event explores the complexities of dealing with tragedy and finding ways to make sense of our lives.