Judeo-Christian theology espouses an immanent, loving God, a celestial coach rooting for each individual’s spiritual growth. Scripture is filled with reminders of this abundant love, with prayers and rituals offering myriad opportunities for returning God’s grace with grateful service. On the other hand, Biblical stories are rife with descriptions of disastrous cause-and-effect chain reactions resulting from arrogance, indifference and infidelity. God’s love includes challenging us with real life responses to our choices. The secret of true love is tough love, the presence of consequences. But it all starts with love.
Children have a tough time appreciating the gift of a reprimand. Parents have a tough time doling them out. We’d rather be friends with our kids than parents to our kids. We selfishly don’t want to disrupt a meal, spoil an outing or cancel a vacation. But if we’re not going to be the parent, who is? One Sunday, when my oldest son Max was fifteen, he woke up in a dreadful mood. He emerged from his room with a sullen expression and heaped insult on each family member. I reluctantly had to draw the line when he slammed his brother Jesse’s laptop on his fingers. The punishment? His lifeline to the world, a new cell phone, was promptly snatched away and hidden. This didn’t bode well for the outing we had planned that day. Max ensured all of us suffered until he was having too much fun on his bike to remember his resentment.
Our kids go berserk when we reprimand them. Thankfully, they are usually considerate of others and know when they are crossing the line. They have also learned when to steer clear of their mother just by reading the look on her face. But when we have to lay down the law, we let them freak out in their room during the requisite “time out.” Strangely, afterwards, they are especially sweet and loving. I think they intuit that structure in their lives is crucial for them to flourish. If Jesse smashed Max’s fingers in the computer, Max would expect swift justice. They have learned from their middle school peers that those who are spoiled rotten turn out just that way: rotten.
Parents must be prepared to punish, but only as a last resort. Better to have rewards and positive reinforcement doled out in a calm, unruffled manner. Maintaining tranquility in the heat of battle requires that parents have an arsenal of anger management techniques like reframing and deep breathing. We must be the adult in the situation! Child-raising expert Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe describes children’s two mutually exclusive modes: learning, characterized by a relaxed state that facilitates real change, and obedience, a nervous and rebellious state inhibiting real change. Punishment may seem effective initially, but it flips children from learning mode into obedience mode, stifling long-term improvement. A vicious cycle results from frequent punishment since increasingly harsher measures must be imposed, further stunting the internal growth needed to effect long-term change. Calmly dispensed reprimands teach children methods to handle their own anger with peers and eventually, with their own families.
In the book, “In Forest Fields,” Rabbi Shalom Arush recommends that we feel gratitude for the trials we face, because in the long run, life’s problems bring us closer to God. Part of God’s role as Father in Heaven requires dispensing love in the form of discipline or rebuke (wait till your father gets home!) Just like I had to take away Max’s phone to make my point, so, too, does God give us pause for thought when it’s necessary to reorient our actions. By intervening, I show my son love. To ignore the problem would be cruel. Richard Bach sums it up in his artful book, “Illusions”: “To love someone unconditionally is not to care who they are or what they do. Unconditional love, on the surface, looks the same as indifference.”
Sometimes our parents’ love can take on strange forms. My folks are a daily presence in my life and their involvement is welcome and cherished. My father has taken upon himself the job of worrying for me. It’s quite a relief I don’t have to worry for myself since my dad does such a good job of it. Many of our conversations evolve from small talk about day-to-day matters to an analysis of all the problems in my life. It took me years to understand that my father isn’t trying to wreck my good mood. He shows his love by ensuring I remain focused on what needs doing for my family. His broken record repetition regarding the uncertainty of my finances is the way he communicates love, hidden in the “garment” of worry.
How many parents show their love in the “garment” of screaming, paranoia or nagging? My mom still admonishes that I might break a finger while skiing or skateboarding. “And then what?” she adds accusingly. She still reminds me to take my jacket because it might get cold. I love it! Some only see the silver lining of their parents’ love after they have left the earth. I remind myself that my parents’ caveats and tantrums represent their abiding affection.
We don’t ask for tests; we don’t seek problems. They do a perfectly good job finding us. Divine reprimands may appear in the form of soul-crushing setbacks like financial disasters, illness and breakups, God forbid. Of course, it is difficult to appreciate a loving Universe when one is in the depths of despair. Overly helpful friends may advise that God only tests those whom God loves. Some might explain how God is counting on us to grow. In the thick fog of despondency, we are typically blind to the opportunities in any so-called “reversal of fortune.” Our appreciation of God’s hand within the reprimand is directly proportional to the health of our divine relationship. Patience is essential to interpreting our holy reprimands. It may even take years, but likely a silver lining will appear. For those oblivious to God’s presence, setbacks are just bad luck. Sometimes it takes an enlightened guide to coach us out of the trough, to “lift our eyes” to a vision of healing, consolation and even victory. We must be that coach for our vulnerable children.
Max eventually recovered from having his cell phone confiscated. He experienced real consequences for his irresponsible behavior. Subconsciously, he realized his parents love him enough to do something seemingly odious for his own good. The Ten Commandments are divided into two tablets, one side detailing responsibilities between us and God and the other side, our interpersonal human relations. Surprisingly, the law of respecting parents is on the God side. The reason? Appreciating our parents’ love (and their tough love) is a stepping-stone to appreciating God’s love. The gift of a reprimand served to bring me closer with my son, and the two of us closer to the Creator.