Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A View from the Office

By: Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal

In these post-Pesach months, we read Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat afternoon. A number of mishnayot in Pirkei Avot begin with “hu haya omer”--he used to say. “He used to say” carries a different connotation than “he said”--it implies repetition, frequency. This wasn’t just a one-off--it was something that particular sage repeated constantly, the idea or phrase he was identified by.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Orthodox high schools for around twenty years now, and I have my own “hu haya omer”--the thought that I repeat often, a distillation of my years of experience. When I began high school teaching, I had no children. Then I had young children (and distinctly remember once, at a Parent-Teacher conference, when a mother asked for my counsel in dealing with her teenage son, thinking, “My oldest is 6. What do I know about parenting teenagers?”) Now I am the mother of three teenagers, and while I find this advice far harder to live by and implement than it is to dole out, it is no less true for that.

The most frequent parenting and educational problem that I see takes many guises, but it has one common root: the inability to accept that our children are the people they are, not the people we might have designed them to be. Our kids come to us not as mini-mes or projections of our hopes and dreams, but as bundles of DNA, further shaped by their epigenetics, their environments, and their experiences. And for all of the power of parenting, and of education, we can’t make them be anything other than what they are.

I have seen this play out in a host of ways: in parents or educators disappointed by their children’s levels of academic ability, interest in their schoolwork, choices about where to go for college or yeshiva, religious inclinations, or other personal characteristics. Conveying to our children that we are disappointed or dismayed by who they are or who they’ve become--because they’re too religious, or not religious enough; because they don’t want to go the college we went to or because they don’t want to go to the college we wish we went to; because they have academic or emotional health challenges; because of their sexual orientation--won’t change any of that. That’s simply not within our power. All it will do is make our children sad, angry, or alienated.

That is not to say, of course, that we don’t get to set boundaries or parameters. As parents, we can and should do that, saying for example that I will only financially support your choice of college if it meets certain standards for Orthodox life. But even then, we should be prepared to honestly face the reality of who our children are and what they need, and adjust accordingly. You might have hoped that your child would go to Yeshiva/Stern, or Harvard, or your alma mater. But look at the person in front of you. Does that make sense for your child? And even if you’re sure it does, is it what your child wants?

Sometimes, when we get caught up in the strength of our vision of what our kids need, of what’s best for them, an outsider can provide a needed reality check. “I know you want your son to be an engineer. But he loves history and literature.” “I know you want your daughter to be a doctor. But she loves learning Torah.” Sometimes our children themselves provide that reality check, if only we’ll listen: “I don’t think that academic program/yeshiva/career path is the right one for me, and here’s why.”

It can be hard to hear sometimes, that the dream that we always had of the path that our children would take in their careers, in Judaism, in life, isn’t going to be what we anticipated, or planned for, back when our kids were theoretical constructs and not real people. But they are real people, with their own identities that we cannot change. What we can do is understand the particularities of who they are, their strengths, the areas in which they need to grow, and do our best to help them develop as people and as Jews along their own paths.