I recently read two separate articles that seem to conflict about parental responsibilities and parental involvement in children’s lives.
The first article was about the creation of “safe spaces” on university campuses. These are places where college age kids can go to be supported and comforted when there are conversations about issues that are uncomfortable or disagreeable. It described a culture that has taken political correctness to an extreme. And a culture that coddles young adults who have no tolerance for disagreement. So in conversations that are difficult – about race, gender, sexual behaviors, war and peace, or other conversations that create great disagreement, we have seen numbers of students unable to tolerate the discussions.
Why? It could be a culture of political correctness, but more likely it reflects a culture where children have always been protected from that which is unpleasant. We hear about a generation of parents that don’t want their children to ever experience disappointment, pain or failure. This is reflected in “over parenting” – the helicopter parent. And it’s also seen in parents who push back against any structure that imposes boundaries on their kids. So for example, if the child receives a “B,” the parent fights with the teacher for the child’s “A.”
To walk, we have to learn to fall. To succeed, we need to know challenge. To learn, we need to have experienced failure. It’s simply the truth. And if we think we help our children by protecting them from themselves, we do them, our families, and our societies a disservice.
The second article I read was about parents who let their children wander in a neighborhood by themselves. The parents thought their children were smart enough, responsible enough, and old enough to be out in the world. They were picked up and the parents were reported to a protective child agency. In our society, we know that we fear the unknown and the “bad” things that can happen to kids “out there.” Yet, going out and experiencing independence is an important part of growth. So how do we do this? How do we balance these demands and these needs?
That’s the questions we ask as parents. And these are really hard dimensions of raising children.
It’s almost Passover. At the Seder, we will read about four sons. Each child is different, each child asks a different question – or no question – and we are challenged to answer them, appropriately. We need to allow our children to explore, to experience the world and to learn to stand up in the storm and in life’s difficulties. It’s not easy. Overprotecting, overwhelming, helicoptering, is simply not the answer. But challenging and loving; encouraging independence and supporting…these are our tasks.
In the wonderful French child’s book, The Little Prince, we learn “you are always responsible for the one you tamed.” We should never lose that sense. Responsibility is a key to love. It’s about teaching and encouraging independence. After all, if things go well, someday they will be in life without us and we want them to inherit a meaningful world and pass it on to the next generation.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l