Two key factors have kept us sane while raising the next generation of Jewish kids: involving God in the process and striving for consistency in our parenting effort.
My wife, Shira and I leave the heavy lifting to God. What we eat, how we treat others and what we do on Shabbat and holidays isn’t something we have to negotiate. We have a priceless 3,500-year-old tradition offering precise guidelines on maximizing life and minimizing drama. We treat God as a member of the family, hearing us, helping us, loving us. The words B’ezrat Hashem (with God’s help) and Baruch Hashem (Blessed or Thank God) are constantly on our lips. Our children see us not only respecting halacha (Jewish law) but also maximizing hidur mitzvah, taking our observance up a notch by beautifying the details.
We appreciate that the genius of Judaism is revealed within the minutiae and we embrace, rather than obsess about, the supposed limitations of religious life. We didn’t grow up religious but took it on in our 20s on a “baby-step” schedule. We never wanted our new-found enthusiasm for Torah to extricate us from normative society. We demonstrate to our kids that they can pursue favorite activities, hobbies and vacations and keep spirituality intact. We serve our children a banquet of mitzvah opportunities on a buffet of real life examples rather than through lectures. Our efforts to raise mensches are greatly assisted by our tight-knit community where love of Torah and adherence to mitzvot is the norm.
Our kids learned the laws of kavod (respect) for parents in day school, including those basic “how-tos” taught for millennia, for example, not to sit in our chairs without permission or to anticipate our thirst by offering us a drink. Obtaining kavod doesn’t require emotional distance; our children sense we are teammates and do whatever we can for them within our means. Shira and I rely on Torah, God’s instructions for life, for parenting skills and our kids learn techniques to function peacefully within the family dynamic.
The other factor around which we have rallied is consistency. We try to always be available for our kids, cheering them on, going to bat for them at school, giving them an attentive ear, encouraging self-expression. We try to be consistent with our discipline, not tolerating their abuse of one another, wasting time or rudeness. Back in carpool days, when we said we’d be at the corner to pick them up, we would show up promptly, give or take a few minutes. Much thanks to my overachieving wife, dinner was on the table for a family sit-down every night. We rarely had to police their actions or resort to punishments other than occasional time outs and groundings. When the ground rules in our mostly peaceful household were broken, our kids immediately sensed the placid order of their micro-universe was altered. Yes, they could have kept pushing or nudging or driving us crazy, but why do that? It didn’t get them anywhere.
We consistently temper criticism with unconditional love. As hard as it is to have a meeting of the minds, Shira and I dispense justice in tandem and resist attempts to play one parent against the other. We strive to enforce immediate consequences in response to errant behavior. A household with consistency as a foundation sets up children for a lifetime of achievement. We model follow-through and expect them to meet obligations they have undertaken. Living with consequences prepares children for the real world, and not delivering them in the name of “kindness” is really cruelty. Our parenting style isn’t “disciplinarian.” Just disciplined.
My father had a mantra: don’t be a quitter. God forbid we ever quit anything or we would have to endure his accusing finger pointing at us as he uttered, “Quitter!” Sometimes one must cut losses and stop throwing good money after bad. But rarely do we look back and state, “Wow, I’m glad I quit that.” This has been one of our quintessential challenges as parents. We have watched our kids take on various sports and hobbies, some requiring substantial investment, only to abandon them weeks later. We blame their short attention span on iPhone ownership. Their pastimes are either “instant satisfaction” or nonexistent. As parents, teaching our children the value of their word and of maintaining a “good name” is of utmost importance. Our relationship with God is unbreakable when our word is our bond.
We all have areas in which we are inconsistent. Our shortcomings typically involve the very traits necessary for accomplishing our tafkid (personal task) in life. The million dollar question is: how can we conquer the yetzer harah (evil inclination) and create more consistency in our lives? The key is threefold: once we identify things that make us procrastinate, give us cold sweats or get us addicted, set small, manageable goals in writing and tackle them one by one. Too big a mountain and we’ll never climb it. Secondly, bring God into the picture. Some folks feel funny praying on their own behalf. Of course you should pray for your own well-being! Establish a small goal and ask for God’s help in achieving it, in the same language you would use asking a friend to do you a favor. Finally, reward yourself for being consistent. (For me, chocolate ice cream is a great perk.)
There are so many lessons we can learn from that simple Modeh Ani sentence we utter upon awakening: “I am grateful to You, living and eternal King, Who consistently returns my soul with abundant compassion.” Consistency is God’s gift to us. Every morning on this spectacular planet is a miracle. Modeh Ani reminds us not to leave our beds without acknowledging our miraculous lives are sustained by God’s quiet consistency. Perhaps the best way to emulate the Creator is with an emphasis on bringing the same consistency to our interactions with our children, spouses and everyone we meet.