What Kind of Kids Are We Raising?

“My five-year-old son over there wants me to buy him a pair of those fake tefillin,” said the man. “I am not sure if having ‘play tefillin’ sends a good chinuch message. Somehow, I feel that to a child, tefillin should be a hallowed mitzvah that he will merit to fulfill when he becomes bar mitzvah and not used as a toy.”

Rabbi K. thought about it and agreed with the father.

“Okay. Thanks so much!” the father said, promptly returning to his son.

A few minutes later, Rabbi K. again heard someone behind him.

“Rabbi K., can I ask you another question?”

It was the same father.

“Sure,” Rabbi K. answered.

“My son really wants the tefillin. What should I tell him?” asked the father.

Rabbi K., looking directly at the father, said, “Tell him, ‘No.’”

The father looked at Rabbi K. startled. Then, as if a light bulb had gone off in his head, he responded, “Ohhh.” And he walked away.

The father might have gotten his answer, but Rabbi K. left the store concerned. He mused: “Have we reached a point where the most elementary ideal of basic parental authority has broken down so much that a father feels compelled to ask a chinuch expert such a question? Even more troubling is that the father’s ‘Ohhh’ was a cross between ‘Yes, I knew that,’ and ‘The menahel empowered me to actually answer my child without being terrified that I am making some horrible chinuch mistake.’”

This story, told by Rabbi K. himself, came to mind when contemplating some of the reasons for the lack of basic civility and mentchlichkeit that we often find in our generation, especially younger people, in our communities.

When Fear
Freezes Chinuch

To put it bluntly, many parents today are terrified of being mechanech their children, because an elementary element of chinuch is knowing how to be firm when it is warranted.

In fairness, many decades ago, in the post-war generation, there was an authoritarian and sometimes heavy-handed approach to chinuch that alienated some. Educating out of anger and without trying to understand where the child is coming from can produce catastrophic results.

Nevertheless, the opposite end of the spectrum – the liberal, sometimes “progressive” methods advocated by many so-called chinuch experts – is wreaking far more damage than the well-intentioned good for which they aim.

What has happened is that because of the tragic off-the-derech reality that is plaguing us, mothers and fathers are terrified of taking a stand when it comes to educating their own children. Instead of educating children to differentiate between right and wrong, and good and evil, preference is given to discussion and negotiation. What this effectively does is often blur the lines between right and wrong. It makes everything fuzzy.

Blurring the Lines Between Good and Bad…with Incentives

We often find that even with respect to fairly basic values, parents today prefer to negotiate, set up a reward system, and “incentivize.” While there is certainly a place for incentives in chinuch, when it comes to certain behaviors, the very fact that one makes incentives is a statement that the particular behavior is optional. If there is an incentive, then it means that if I choose not to avail myself of the incentive, I don’t have to do it. The incentive doesn’t necessarily have to be a material prize. It can be “making Mommy happy.” “You will make Mommy so happy or so proud if you don’t do this or if you will do that.”

Imagine a mother or father telling a child, “If you don’t play with fire, or if you don’t cross the busy and dangerous main street at a red light, I will give you a candy or even a kiss.”

What kind of foolishness is that? The message must be strong and unequivocal: “You may not play with fire. It is dangerous! It can kill you!” No sugar coating. No incentives.

Similarly, parents have to understand that certain behaviors – whether it is middos, chutzpah, or numerous other things – are not negotiable. They are wrong, bad and even evil at times, and children must know that. When we sugarcoat and try to negotiate and even at times explain, we rob our children of one of the most basic lessons in life: discerning between good and evil. When we tell a child regarding basic matters, “I would really like if you would do this,” or, “It will be so much better if you do this,” or, “You will make Totty or Mommy so proud if you do this,” we are in effect opening the child up to say, “I don’t want to make you proud of me,” or, “I am not interested in making you happy now.”

What a tragedy it is if we rob a child of these basic lessons of knowing exactly how to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil.

Love Coupled with Firm, Clear Chinuch

Progressive education in our times says that there is almost no objective truth. Everything is subjective. If you feel this is right, do it. If you feel it isn’t, don’t.

I am afraid that this alien concept has crept into much of our chinuch, and because of our fear of chalilah losing a child by making him or her unhappy, we have robbed our children of what they need most: clear and unambiguous guidance regarding what is right and wrong.

This idea of “all you have to do is love them,” and “keep on loving them and things will work out,” is simply wrong. Certainly, you have to love them, but loving your child sometimes dictates being firm. In fact, it often obligates one to be firm.

Certainly, no parent should ever punish a child when he or she is angry. I think it was Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l who always waited a day or two to discipline one of his children so that he could do so when he was calm and not angry. That is also an elementary lesson of chinuch that cannot be stated enough. Nevertheless, level-headed discipline and teaching right from wrong must be done firmly. It is the greatest gift that parents can give a child.

When children are not given clear guidance as to what constitutes mentchlichkeit, and how they should behave with civility at home, in the street, in shul and in school, they are being handicapped for life. If we, as parents, decide not to teach because we are terrified of alienating, what will happen to our dear children when they have to live with others? When parents are so terrified of their children or so averse to making them momentarily “unhappy” or “uncomfortable,” what they are doing is giving into a momentary weakness and exchanging it for a life-long handicap.

After all, it is almost certain that the man who was indiscriminately bumping into shoppers at the grocery story, the person who cut the line in the supermarket, and the driver who jumped in front of a person in the left lane and dangerously cut him off, as outlined in Part I of this series, demonstrated a similar lack of civility at work and with his wife and children at home.

In truth, when a person is in the comfort of his or her home, lack of civility often becomes even more pronounced than when in the public eye, where there is a degree of embarrassment.

When Parents are Civil with Each Other and Other Children Learn by Example

One more important point that was made by a reader that perhaps should have been the first point in Part I but was mitted because it seemed so elementary is as follows:

The first, most basic chinuch in mentchlichkeit that children learn is simply from watching their parents. When a father and a mother always interact with each other with respect, with nobility, and with caring, the children see this and internalize the lesson. When the most simple act of a wife bringing food to the table for her husband is requested with a please and met with a thank you, when a request for the husband to take out the garbage is done with a please and a tone of voice that reflects pleasantness, the children absorb that. When parents interact with a person at the door with civility, when the phone rings and they civilly decline a product that a telemarketer is selling, the children see this and learn that this conduct is required no matter how tired and stressed parents are.

So what can we do about this? Is there any way to plug up the gaping mentchlichkeit deficit?

More on that next week.