Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why parenting scares me

For me, the scariest part of parenting is not knowing where my actions or words will lead.

Parents talk to children, reward or punish them, assign them tasks and mark their progress, all with the best intentions and perhaps even with some knowledge, but who know where it's going to go? Who can predict the impact?

Who can predict whether going easy on a child who lied will encourage further lying, or whether punishing harshly will lead to rebellion?

Who can predict whether presenting cash incentives for academic success will spur interest, or deflate interest where there is no reward, or lead to an academic focus that blocks out other types of growth?

Who can predict whether pushing a child athletically will help her to grow, or will have disastrous results?

In searching for something else on-line, I came across this video, "Transformational Leadership Example". It features a coach getting his star player to perform an incredible feat of strength – the Death Crawl – in front of the team, goading him on and pushing him even when he is clearly exhausted.

That was fiction, but it reminded me of a real story, memorialized in the film Miracle. Take a look at this:

And as I watch those videos, I think of this piece from the news a few months ago:

At a doublewide trailer along a dirt road in rural Alabama, authorities say 9-year-old Savannah Hardin was forced to run for three hours as punishment for having lied to her grandmother about eating candy bars. The severely dehydrated girl had a seizure and her death days later was ruled a homicide.

Frankly, reading more about the Alabama case makes it seem that there was greater dysfunction here – but that's not the point. How do we draw the line between pushing our children to be successful and endangering their lives?

Intellectually, I'd say to draw it far short of danger in order to avoid any risk – but while that's easy in the realm of the physical, it's a lot harder in other realms of instruction and growth.

Of course, the risk is present in all of our interactions; Rabbis, certainly, are capable of inflicting great harm without even knowing it, in a derashah, in a class, in private rebuke. I can remember several times over the years when I said the wrong thing and caused serious harm, and after-the-fact apologies could do little to repair it.

Still, for me it's hardest and scariest as a parent dealing with vulnerable children. How do you ever know the results of acting? And yet, how can you refrain from acting?


  1. You can't know for certain what will happen. Ripples in a pond come to mind. You do the best you can and hope like hell you haven't screwed up in a major way.

    History tends to make me believe we have to work hard to really screw up, but that isn't all that comforting either.

  2. I vote for the soft approach.
    This is what i saw in my own home and it is what i saw by rebitzin berenbaum also.

  3. Agree with Jack that you can't know for certain how any approach will work out. But what was a lot scarier for me was that no approach was necessarily going to work for all of my kids in every situation at all times. What worked with child A on one day wasn't necessarily going to work with that child on another day under other circumstances. And that approach might or might not work for child B or child C.

    Sometimes parenting requires us to be all things to all people at all times in all situations--impossible but we try anyway.

  4. It's tough. Flexible but consistent seems to be the best approach I've seen. The best mothers I know (and I say mothers only because that's the kind of parenting I see most often) have clear, high expectations of their children, make those expectations known, and follow through in every instance where the children don't meet those expectations, although what following through means depends on the child, the situation, etc. They also consistently reward good behavior and choices.

    Personally, I find that approach HARD and exhausting, even with just one child. I don't always feel confident that my expectations are right for his age, temperament etc., or when I'm just being pressured into something by peers with more well-behaved children.

    I just try to be as consistent, calm, and loving as humanly possible.

    And I know this is probably easier with a 5 year old than it will be with a 15 year old.

  5. Jack, Adam-
    I hear.

    Very true.

    Good to hear from you! I agree with your comments here. Regarding your last point, you might also want to take a look at this recent post.