Author’s Note: The Seder evening is probably the evening most celebrated by Jews around the world — and for good reason. It is a “family evening”, filled with singular minhagim and shared quality time. Many of us have fond memories of the unique customs developed at our family sedarim over the years — memories that are embedded in our minds and hearts forever.
This family-centered character of the seder is built into the evening’s make-up from the outset, by design. It stems from the Torah’s unique mandate to commemorate the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim through, “והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא”, “and you should tell your son on that day.” We are commanded not simply to commemorate and celebrate leaving Egypt, but to make sure to tell the Exodus story to our children and grandchildren- to pass the narrative and its lessons on to future generations.
Precisely because of this unique mandate to tell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim to future generations, the Seder night and the Haggadah are structured in a way that is meant to create that experience. I have long felt that the text of the Haggadah and its accompanying rituals contain countless lessons about chinuch; about how to best relay important messages and values to our children and grandchildren. There is much that we, as parents, can learn from different aspects of the Seder night and the Haggadah text.
I would therefore like to spend the next few weeks highlighting a few of the lessons that emerge from the Seder evening; lessons that I believe can help us grow as parents.
Some of the Haggadah’s most popular Chinuch messages emerge from the section containing the four sons. Numerous commentaries note that each child is answered differently in the Haggadah — to teach us that all children are different, and each child must be educated in his own way. As the passuk in Mishlei proclaims,”חנוך לנער על פי דרכו” , “educate each child according to his path”. Every child brings his/her unique personality and singular life experience to the tasks of learning and living. We are challenged, as parents and educators, to identify and respond to the specific needs of each child; to develop an educational approach that considers the unique needs and temperament of the child. These factors must into account by parents at every stage of a child’s development, as we respond to each of the challenges presented during our children’s journey into adolescence and adulthood.
Rabbi Normal Lamm zt”l, past Rosh Yeshiva and President of Yeshiva University, adds an extremely sharp, and important insight to this discussion in his Haggadah The Royal Table. He suggests that while any discussion concerning Chinuch should certainly recognize the four sons and their respective makeups, it should also include a discussion of the four fathers. He identifies four different parenting styles modeled by four paradigmatic fathers — the Domineering Father, the Wise Father, the WASP Father (whose American identity overrides his Jewish identity), and the Democratic Father. He then outlines the impact that the parenting styles of these four fathers might have on their children.
While the specific parenting styles that Rabbi Lamm lists are certainly illuminating, I believe his overall point is most important. As we consider best parenting practices, and explore optimal approaches to the education of children, we must take into account not only the personality, strengths and weaknesses of each child, but our own personality, strengths and weaknesses, as well. As with any interaction between two people, each side contributes to the interaction through their disposition and style. Challenges that arise cannot be attributed solely to one side of the dynamic — but must be attributed to both sides — and to the dynamic created between them. One parent’s parenting style, for example, may not work productively with a particular child. An adjustment on both sides must be made in order to make the relationship work. Also required is the recognition that each person brings his/her own life experiences and “baggage” to the mix- all of which may have a powerful impact on how that individual reacts to a specific situation.
In the world of psychology and therapy, the well-known phenomenon of “transference” occurs when an individual projects his/her feelings/emotions concerning an important life figure onto a third person, often the therapist. A parallel phenomenon, known as counter-transference, occurs when the therapist projects his/her own unresolved emotions onto the client. The success of the therapy can be critically affected by either of these phenomena — and the more aware the therapist and client are when transference or counter-transference occur, the more easily these obstacles can be overcome within the therapeutic relationship. It is extremely important for any psychologist or therapist to be self-aware, and to understand when their own feelings, emotions, and biases are having an impact upon the therapy.
The same is certainly true for us, as parents. We each bring our own life experiences, emotions, and biases to our role as parents — and they may affect how we respond to various situations and scenarios. Rather than simply blaming our child for any dysfunction or challenges that arise, we must recognize our own limitations and we must honestly consider the role that we play in the dynamic, consciously or unconsciously.
In their book Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish devote several chapters to this phenomenon — to the importance of a parent’s self-awareness of how their own personal experiences impact upon their parenting. A parent who grew up as the oldest child, for example, may have felt extra pressure resulting from that role. Such a parent may be extra sensitive to their own oldest child, wanting to save their own oldest from feeling that pressure. Another parent, who was often picked on by older siblings as a child, may be quick to project blame onto older children during their conflicts with younger siblings, simply as a result of that parent’s own experience. And the possibilities are numerous! Each of these possible reactions is understandable, given the parent’s own experiences. However, only when we are honest with ourselves, and make a concerted effort to deal with these potential biases, can we make sure that our own past does not interfere with our success as parents.
Being a parent is one of the greatest gifts in life — but it is also fraught with challenges. The Haggadah teaches us that successful parenting requires an awareness at both extremes. We need to know each of our kids well and understand what specific type of parenting they will respond to. We also need to know ourselves well and identify the particular challenges or biases that we may bring to our parenting. It is through this honest and awareness that we can become the greatest parents that we can be.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!