Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Jewish Mother

1946 was an important year for me. It was the year of my birth. That event did not really have much impact on the world. But another event of that year is among the most significant of the 20th century. It was the year Dr. Benjamin Spock published his book on parenting, Baby and Child Care. That book is one of the bestselling books of all time and became the bible for parents of my own parent’s generation, the parents of post war the baby boom.

That book changed the way parents raised their children. If I could use one word to describe that book - it is permissiveness. He planted that concept in the minds of millions of parents. They were taught that children raised in a permissive environment did better in life. That idea is often blamed for the way many in my generation turned out. And with good reason.

Although Dr. Spock was completely misunderstood, and never meant it this way parents took it to mean that saying ‘no’ to a child could hurt their development. Emotionally, educationally, and socially. The result was that masses of children in my generation grew up spoiled. They were given ‘permission’ to do whatever they wanted. And the relative post WWII affluence of America contributed to that. This kind of parenting contributed mightily to the culture of the sixties, when ‘boomers’ who were raised in the permissive atmosphere caused by Dr. Spock’s book coined the phrase: ‘If it feels good do it!’

As I said, I believe that Dr. Spock was completely misunderstood. He did not mean that parents should give children whatever they want whenever they want it. He just meant that parents should not stifle their children’s learning experiences and raise them in a more permissive educational environment. Doing that would allow a more creative learning experience for the child. Overly strict regimentation would stifle and frustrate the child’s learning experience in all areas of life – both now and in the future. He never meant that a child should be spoiled and granted his every wish and whim.

But a couple of generations of misinterpreting ‘permissive parenting’ fueled the counter-culture society of the sixties and in the end, has indeed harmed us in many ways.

So when Amy Chua published her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which was recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal it made a big and very controversial splash. Professor Chua argues that Chinese mothers are superior to all other mothers. And cites the things that make them better.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb wrote a response to this book in the Jewish Press that should be read by all Jewish parents.

He correctly makes the point that Professor Chau’s parenting style contains some important and useful methods that counter the permissive parenting attitudes of that last couple of generations. But he points out serious flaws in her approach - flaws that are not in concert with the way Judaism looks at parenting.

It is important to point out what she says and where she goes wrong. Here is what she advocates and how she raised her own daughters (as summarized by Rabbi Weinreb). They were never allowed to:

● attend a sleep away camp
● be in a school play
● watch TV or play computer games
● get any grade less than an A
● not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama
● play any instrument other than the piano or violin
● not play the piano or violin

This is the opposite of the permissive parenting style that so many American parents have adopted. And yet even though it seems to have worked for her daughters - this parenting philosophy can be just as destructive as permissive parenting. This should be obvious in light of the OTD phenomenon.

One does not go from one extreme to the other in order to change a flaw in our parenting styles. That’s just going from the frying pan into the fire. And it is anathema to a basic tenet of Chinuch – Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko. Teach your children in a manner that is most compatible with their skills.

This concept differs significantly from both the permissive atmosphere mistakenly attributed to Dr. Spock and the overly strict atmosphere of the Chinese mother.

While it is true that no child should be given carte blanche in their lives starting with the premise that any grade less than an A is unacceptable is a prescription for disaster. If we have learned anything from the OTD phenomenon it is that demanding an A in every subject leaves too many casualties. Those that can’t keep up with the increasingly high standards some schools set can easily fall through the cracks and go OTD. And those cracks get wider every time a school raises their standards.

Just like everything else in life, there is a happy medium between being overly permissive and overly strict. It is not a mathematical center, but one which allows for the uniqueness of the individual.

In my view the essential elements of successful parenting start with unconditional love and continues with knowing your child’s strengths and weaknesses. One needs to allow for a creative and open learning environment in one’s home where children are encouraged to build on their strengths, and to demand that they live up to their potential.

Properly understood, Dr. Spock’s approach more closely resembles the Jewish point of view. Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko.

So Yes! If you have a very bright child that is capable of getting an A in every subject, you must demand an A and no less. If your child is not living up to his potential, by all means be strict. But be sure that is the case. By demanding something your child is not capable of you are guaranteed failure.