Cruise ship parenting
Children of the Bible series
By Candace R. Kwiatek
Of all the biblical children, Joseph has the messiest, most stuffed scrapbook album. A scrap of ornamented tunic. A dreamer’s doodles. Mug shots and princely portraits.
His life’s story, a novella told in great detail, is a series of reversals: favored son/hated brother; protected from danger /threatened with murder; sold as a slave/hired as a steward; thrown in jail/elevated as Pharaoh’s right hand; scorned dreamer/celebrated interpreter.
It’s easy to focus on the tragedies of Jacob’s favoritism, his gift of a “coat of many colors,” and the brothers’ ambush and sale of their despised sibling, placing upon them the sole blame for Joseph’s predicaments.
By the same token, it’s easy to credit Joseph’s survival and accomplishments to luck, chance, or good fortune — good looks, clever brain, God’s protection.
But these factors alone cannot fully explain Joseph’s life. After all, the earlier biblical children make clear that we ourselves are the authors of our lives.
Continuing their trend, Joseph depicts another aspect of fashioning our own lives: the role of resilience in becoming a mature adult.
Resilience is “the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life,” writes Edith Grotberg in A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit. It is a behavior that becomes visible only over time, one that takes an entire biblical saga to illustrate.
Joseph could have given up in the pit, succumbed to Potiphar’s wife’s advances, died from despair in jail, or refused out of fear to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. But he didn’t. Instead, each time his circumstances changed Joseph made a conscious choice to adapt rather than give up.
His extreme circumstances are not just biblical hyperbole. Everyone faces a lifetime of adversities both minor and life-changing: classmates tease, friends move, bullies threaten, floods destroy, divorce divides, stocks crash, illness debilitates, jobs disappear, terrorism devastates. The resilient individual — child or adult — chooses to bounce back or adapt rather than give up.
Make no mistake: resilience is not an inborn character trait. Jewish tradition and modern psychological research are in agreement on this fact. After all, what would be the purpose of tantalizing us with the example of Joseph’s resilience if it were out of reach except for a select few?
So, if resilience is a critical life skill but is not innate, how do we acquire it? The Torah seems reticent on this point. After all, we don’t know how Joseph became so resilient.
The Talmud is equally reserved, noting only that children must be taught practical knowledge: “A father is obligated to teach his son how to swim (Kiddushin 29a).”
Swimming — adapting to an extreme environment and not giving up — is a perfect metaphor for resilience.
Modern psychology, however, is quite talkative about this issue in hundreds of articles and studies on the Internet alone. Their common refrain is that children need multiple experiences in which to increasingly shift their reliance on outside supports to their own skills, while being encouraged to build their own sense of competence and autonomy.
We all know the adage, “experience is the best teacher,” yet we often ignore it when it comes to our own children. No more dodge ball and seesaws, many schools say. Trophies for every player on every team. Run to the store at midnight for supplies for a child’s project due the next day. Contest a child’s bad grade or “edit” his term paper. Call the teen’s boss to explain an absence.
Such “helicopter parents” and societal “cocooning” don’t do children any favors. Instead, by eliminating many experiences and protecting kids from failure, they create weak and vulnerable children who cannot deal independently with the bumps and bruises that come with growing up.
How does a toddler learn to walk? She holds on to parents and furniture, steps out independently to claps and cheers, topples and tries again with encouragement, and eventually becomes independently mobile. Similarly, good parenting is about directing to appropriate paths, supporting and encouraging and then letting go.
If we don’t let go, we are giving the message that our children don’t have what it takes to succeed, that they are incompetent without help. Children need to be able to exercise their free will and learn to trust their own instincts. They need to know that their own character is not about luck or circumstance, but is a matter of choosing how to respond to life and all its problems.
At different stages of development, children need to be in charge of appropriate activities in their lives: choosing clothes, doing their own homework, dealing with an employer. They need to know they are both in control and responsible for the consequences of their choices.
The parent’s role is to point out a child’s competence and capabilities and — even when mistakes are made or bad results come about — express optimism and confidence in the child’s ability to figure out what to do next.
We do our children no favors when we overprotect them and micromanage their lives. Wendy Mogel writes in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, “When we treat our children’s lives like we’re cruise ship directors who must get them to their destination — adulthood — smoothly, without their feeling even the slightest bump or wave, we’re depriving them.”
After all, what if the ship is the Titanic? Wouldn’t it be a good idea for our children to know how to swim?
Family Discussion: If children learn resilience through experience, mastery, and autonomy, can’t we increase it in ourselves in the same manner? What about spouses and friends, employees and co-workers: How can we encourage resilience in the people around us in these unsettled and unsettling times?
Literature to share
Life, After by Sarah Littman: Unlike the majority of today’s teen literature, Littman’s novel about the modern-day collapse of the Jewish Argentinean community has a decidedly happily-ever-after feel. Terrorism, love, immigration, loss, and forgiveness are just some of the themes woven together in this delightful story.
Coping with Adversity by Joel Roffman and Rabbi Gordon Fuller: This guidebook, subtitled Judaism’s Response to Illness and Other Life Struggles, is a treasure trove of wisdom and encouragement. Whether or not you are currently challenged, if you are seeking comfort, guidance, or inspiration, this is a book you will return to again and again. Definitely worth having on your bookshelf.