Helicopter parents and safe spaces (Shabbos 48)

Yosef was always getting into trouble with his brothers.  Each time he opened his mouth to tell them about his dreams, they got upset with him.  And each time, their father Yaakov had to intervene to save Yosef from the wrath of his brothers.

‘What do you mean that I, your mother, and brothers would bow down to you?’ he asked his son.  Time and again, Yosef would make his brothers jealous of him, and “his father guarded the matter,” protecting Yosef from the sticky situations he got himself into.

But then one day, the brothers were shepherding in Shechem and Yaakov sends Yosef off to bring provisions to them.  Along the way, he meets a man who points him in an alternative direction.  Our Sages teach that Yosef actually encountered the angel Gabriel.  The angel directs him to find his brothers, who cast him into the pit and then sell him into slavery.

Why didn’t the angel protect him?

רַבָּה וְרַבִּי זֵירָא אִיקְּלַעוּ לְבֵי רֵישׁ גָּלוּתָא. חַזְיוּהּ לְהָהוּא עַבְדָּא דְּאַנַּח כּוּזָא דְמַיָּא אַפּוּמָּא דְקוּמְקוּמָא. נַזְהֵיהּ רַבָּה. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי זֵירָא: מַאי שְׁנָא מִמֵּיחַם עַל גַּבֵּי מֵיחַם? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הָתָם אוֹקוֹמֵי קָא מוֹקֵים, הָכָא אוֹלוֹדֵי קָא מוֹלֵיד. הֲדַר חַזְיֵיהּ דִּפְרַס דַּסְתּוֹדַר אַפּוּמֵּיהּ דְּכוּבָּא וְאַנַּח נַטְלָא עִילָּוֵיהּ. נַזְהֵיהּ רַבָּה. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי זֵירָא: אַמַּאי? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַשְׁתָּא חָזֵית. לְסוֹף חַזְיֵיהּ דְּקָא מְעַצַּר לֵיהּ.

Rabba and Rabbi Zeira were visiting the house of the Exilarch on Shabbat, and saw a certain servant who placed a jug of cold water on the mouth of a kettle filled with hot water. Rabba admonished him. He then saw him spread a kerchief over a vat of water and place a cup used to draw water from the vat, on the kerchief. Once again, Rabba admonished him. Rabbi Zeira said to him: Why? Rabba said to him: Just watch what he does next. Ultimately, he saw that the servant was squeezing out the water that was absorbed by the kerchief, thereby violating a Torah prohibition.

The servant makes a mistake in his Shabbos observance in the kitchen.  Rabba admonishes him.  He makes another mistake.  He chides him again for his actions.  But then he tells Rabbi Zeira to sit back and watch as the servant proceeds to engage in a completely forbidden act.

We don’t know what happened next between Rabba and the servant, but if Rabba admonished him earlier, presumably when he actually transgressed the biblical prohibition, the servant was in real trouble.  But if Rabba knew that the young man was about to transgress, why didn’t he stop him? Surely, one shouldn’t stand idly by and allow someone to commit a sin?   What was he thinking?

Ask many a schoolteacher, or even university professor, about the changed roles of twenty-first century mums and dads.  Many parents want to be there every step of the way for their children.  Often referred to as helicopter parents, some of them simply don’t know how to let go.  They believe that in order for their kids to succeed, they must guide them, advocate for them, and sometimes even fight their battles.  In yesteryear, the challenging parent screamed at the referee at the football game if they didn’t like the situation, today some parents will call up their kids’ teachers and shamelessly argue with them over exam grades!

When we don’t allow our children to make mistakes and fail, we don’t give them the chance to grow up.  They’ll never be able to sustain relationships or employment positions.  King Solomon declares (Prov. 24:16), “The righteous one falls seven times and rises.”  An important part of the journey to greatness is learning how to fall and get back up.  If we never give our children the chance to fail, they’ll never learn how to overcome the difficulties of life.

That’s why Rabba sat back and watched as the young man erred.  He’d already gently admonished him for his behaviour, but it didn’t really change anything.  He needed to fail properly in order to learn a lesson that would remain with him.  Likewise, when our Sages suggest that the angel Gabriel directed Yosef into the proverbial lion’s den, the Torah is teaching us that there comes a time, as parents, that we must stop being our children’s guardian angels.  We must cut the umbilical cord and allow them to fail.

Yosef couldn’t wait to see his brothers and share his latest dreams with them.  Unfortunately for him, this time, Dad was nowhere nearby to save him from the brothers’ response.  No guardian angel meant he would have to figure out how to fix his mistakes all by himself.  Once he was given that chance, he rose to the occasion, eventually becoming one of the greatest leaders of the day.  Had Daddy been there to protect him, he would have amounted to far less in life.

In recent years, we’ve seen the consequences of helicopter parenting.  Many young adults are insecure and unable to deal with practical or philosophical challenges.  Rabbi Lord Sacks devotes a chapter of his new book, Morality, to ‘Safe Space.’  He describes the situation today on many university campuses where lecturers are cautioned against offending the views of their students or making them feel uncomfortable by presenting new, unfamiliar ideas.  Previously, universities prided themselves on sustaining such debate.  Now, even tenured professors are second-guessing every word they utter.

On one occasion, writes Rabbi Sacks, a lively debate took place at Brown University.  The organizers were concerned, however, that students might be taken out of their mental comfort zone.  And so they arranged a “space where anyone who felt distressed could recuperate.  They equipped a room with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, together with staff members trained to deal with trauma.”

Good parenting means allowing your children to make mistakes and grow from them.  You cannot and do not want to be there for them forever.  If you bail them out every time they fail, they will never become mature, thoughtful, successful adults.   You have to let them figure things out for themselves, whether they’re in high school, college, the job market, or their marriages.  As a parent, it can be painful to watch your child make mistakes.  The challenge of being a good parent is figuring out the best way to help them.  And sometimes the best way is to take a step back.

Parenting is not a science.  It’s a fine art.  And all children are different.  But one thing’s for sure.  None of us will be here forever to save our children from themselves.  May you be near enough and far enough from your children, so that they become robust, successful achievers!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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