Yossi Goldin
Yossi Goldin

Parenting from the Parsha – Parshat Toldot – ‘Labeling Our Children’

In this week’s parsha, there is plenty to talk about from a parenting perspective, but I would like to focus on one specific aspect regarding Yaakov and Eisav. Soon after the twins are born, and as they grow up, the Torah describes their personalities:

“ויהי עשו איש יודע ציד איש שדה ויעקב איש תם יושב אהלים”

“Eisav was a man who hunts, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a simple man, who sat in the tents.”

With this passuk, the Torah outlines the characteristics of the two brothers- Eisav is defined as a boorish and coarse person who spent his time out in the fields, while, in contrast, Yaakov is described as simple and refined, one who studied Torah. These descriptions set the tone for the upcoming stories, where the distinctive personalities of these two brothers continue to be reflected.

What’s striking about these portrayals of Yaakov and Eisav is the very pointed and definitional way in which they are written- Eisav is defined as an איש שדה and Yaakov is defined as an איש תם יושב אוהלים- this is who they were, this is what defined them. While we don’t know exactly what age these brothers were at the point of these descriptions, it is worth considering whether these pointed labels may have impacted upon their self-perception and future actions.

The text thus points to an issue that is  very crucial for us, as parents, to think about as we raise our children. Each of our children is unique and special- and they all have singular qualities that form their personalities, both positively and negatively. It is very common for parents to label their children or place them in very specific roles- “this is my brilliant child”, “this one is my trouble maker”, “she is my responsible one”, “he is my middle child”, “she’s my musically talented one”, “he’s my athletic one”. And while it is natural to recognize and understand the tendencies and characteristics of each child, and it is also important to properly identify both their strengths and weaknesses, we need to make sure that we don’t define our children by these traits, be they positive or negative.

When we label our child based on a specific trait or characteristic, or when we relegate our child to a particular role, that often becomes the prism through which we continue to view the child- and often even becomes how the child views himself. The more a role is reinforced, either explicitly or implicitly, the more that role penetrates the consciousness of both the parents and children, and becomes a part of that child’s personality. Depending on the trait/characteristic that is assigned to the child, the impact can be extremely challenging.

Consider a few examples:

  • If one child is referred to as “the troublemaker”, “my challenging one”, that description impacts upon how that child is perceived by others and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A parent may be more inclined to blame that child for something (even unconsciously) or react disproportionately to something that child does. Other children in the family may take advantage of the perception to get away with a lot more at the expense of their sibling. And the child himself may be quicker to make trouble or be a challenge if that is what everyone expects of him.
  • If a child is referred to as “my smart one”- again, the impact this label can have upon all relevant parties is greater than we might think. It can cause the parents to have unrealistic expectations of the child and can lead to quicker disappointment. It can cause resentment among the other siblings, who may be bright as well, but will now consider themselves inferior to their smarter sibling. And it can also put undue pressure on the child herself- by becoming a defining factor in her self-esteem and sense of value. If everyone expects her to be the smartest, after all, then she must feed into that perception.
  • Labeling one child as the oldest and one as the baby- even if factually that is the case- may also define our expectations of those children, shaping their lives as they grow into adulthood. Being the oldest may cause the parents to have unfair expectations of the child, and being the baby may perpetuate a certain type of spoiling of, or immaturity within, that child.

We have to realize that every child is a complex and multi-faceted human being. Even if certain characteristics or traits become more pronounced than others at various times in a child’s life, we have to find a way to understand and appreciate those traits without allowing those traits to totally define the child.

How can we accomplish this? How can we escape the habit of assigning or reinforcing roles to our children? In their bestselling book Siblings without Rivalry, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish discuss this issue in detail and make a number of great recommendations. While a complete discussion of their approach is beyond the scope of this article, here are a couple of their suggestions that specifically resonated with me:

  • Define the action, not the child– if an older child often mistreats a younger sibling, instead of saying to the older child “Why did you do that? Why are you always so mean? Go say Im sorry right now”, simply say “That wasn’t a nice thing that you did– please apologize”
  • Treat our children not as they are, but as we hope they will become–  if a child, for example, constantly throws a fit when he/she doesn’t get what she wants, rather than saying “Why do you always cry at every little thing!” we could respond with “I see that you are upset not getting what you want, but I know that you are capable and calming down all by yourself”.

Parenting is certainly not an easy task. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is finding a balance between the cultivation of, or the discouragement of, particular traits and characteristics within each child – and the avoidance of allowing those traits to define the child.  The more aware we are of this challenge, we better parents we can be.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and Yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at yossigoldin@gmail.com.
Related Topics
Related Posts