Heart of the matter

Child rearing by our values

Jewish Family Identity Forum

Candace R. Kwiatek

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

For my son’s 7th birthday, I videotaped the party attendees as they reenacted his favorite adventure book My Father’s Dragon. Then, while the eight boys all ate cake and ice cream, they cracked up over their antics in the video. The birthday boy opened his presents, the kids got a goodie bag with a comb, a toothbrush, and a pack of gum (props from the drama), and their parents picked them up two hours after arrival.

Birthday parties are not the same humble affairs of yesteryear I recently discovered while flipping through a popular magazine and then finding dozens of similar articles on the Internet.

Over-the-top was once thought to be a hired clown for entertainment or a live goldfish party favor. Today it’s much worse: Limo service for toddlers? American Girl dolls as party favors? Race cars as photo props? Professional football players for flag football?

Obligatory meals for the parent attendees? A related television reality show, Outrageous Kid Parties, opened with a 6-year-old’s $32,000 birthday gala.

We all want our kids to feel like a prince or princess on birthdays, but also when vacationing, celebrating holidays, buying new clothes, and setting up a first apartment.

Our hearts tell us to buy this, provide that, say yes and not no. But is this healthy for a child? How do we occasionally indulge our youngsters without going overboard? How do we keep kids from becoming tyrants who think they deserve everything?

The increase in extreme parenting highlights the source of moral confusion in today’s society: reliance on the heart to identify values and guide behavior. But hearts are about feelings; allowing feelings to rule means there are no boundaries, no judgments. (“I feel this is right and who are you to judge?”) Besides extreme birthday parties, where does “parenting by the heart” lead?

We’re on a first-name basis. When I was growing up, it was traditional to address friends’ parents as Mr. and Mrs., and special adults were called “aunt” or “uncle.” These titles made clear the difference between peers and unequal age groups — kids and elders — and cultivated a sense of respect for age and experience.

First names, on the other hand, have generally been used to signal a relationship between peers or friends.

Thus, today’s teachers and parents who prefer being liked to being respected encourage youngsters to be on a “first-name basis” with them, and parents often refer to their young children as “my best friends.”

While the adults’ desires are heartfelt, what are the real consequences? In the eyes of children, grown-ups are demoted to peers. Adults have no wisdom to offer, since age and experience are devalued.

The concept of respect — for position and hierarchy — is diminished. And children become confused and concerned: If adults are just large peers, then who’s in charge?

Everyone gets a trophy. At Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average, as Garrison Keillor says. But what happens when, in the interest of making children feel good about themselves, not hurting feelings, or promoting “fairness,” Wobegon becomes a description of our children’s daily universe?

In youth sports, trophies are awarded equally to winning teams and bench-sitters. Baby shower and birthday gifts are expected for both celebrant and siblings, even party attendees. Teachers give stickers for effort and excellence alike and cannot correct papers in red ink because it’s “stressful, negative, and demeaning” to children.

According to A History of College Grade Inflation by Catherine Rampell, college grades are so inflated that nearly half of the letter grades awarded are As.

While adults believe they have children’s interests at heart, what are the real consequences? Unearned self-importance. An inflated perception of worth. Imagined infallibility. A sense of entitlement. What happens when these children grow up?

There are no bad decisions. Everyone has come across the type of parent who, when her child shoves an unsuspecting playmate on the playground, asks, “Why did you push him?” Not “That was wrong” or “Pushing is unacceptable” but an implied “What feelings made you want to push him?”

If feelings are the standard, then it’s no wonder that kids will cheat on college entrance tests, steal from big stores but not mom-and-pop shops, and save their beloved pet rather than the drowning stranger.

There are no wrong decisions. While adults want to acknowledge kids’ emotions, what are the real consequences?

Children who rely on feelings rather than values for decision-making. Youths who value entertainment rather than effort and excellence. Individuals who develop a sense of victimhood when their feelings-based decisions are challenged or thwarted.

What happens to society when feelings are king and it isn’t just teens who blog “There are no right or wrong decisions, just different ones?”

Parenting is about instilling values — standards and limits — that are often at odds with feelings. If the long-term goal is to raise a child to be a mensch — a good, kind, responsible individual — then the parent must be a caring moral authority, not only a cheerleader who validates feelings and lives for the moment.

Values come from longstanding, tested ethical traditions, not the fickle heart. Values-focused parents don’t ask, “How do you feel about it?” but rather, “What do your actions say about you? What does your conduct teach others? How does your behavior impact society?” If we choose to parent only from the heart, are we willing to live with the consequences?

Family Discussion: The Hebrew for “parents” is horim from the word l’harim meaning “to raise, to elevate” or “to carry out.” Describe a situation in which parenting from the heart leads to a different result than parenting by values. Which parenting approach best warrants the title of parent?


Literature to share

Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich: Set in the era of the Inquisition, this historically accurate novel transports the reader into the world of Jewish women and their families: childbirth, the Ghetto, Jewish-Christian relations, trade, and the plague — a rich, detailed picture of the era provides the backdrop for a high-stakes drama. I couldn’t put it down.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch: An unexpected find, this adventure-filled fantasy features an unorthodox sword-wielding Orthodox heroine whose adventures include crazed pigs, dragon slaying, and even a good stepmother. Capitalizing on the graphic novel craze, it’s a perfect preteen read.


Previous post

Loving one's fellow

Next post

Area Holocaust programs