We all aspire to greatness for our children. It’s woven deeply into our psychological makeup. We believe in them and see them for what they truly are: remarkable.
Ask most parents: Their newborn child was destined for a spectacular life. Their potential was endless; all that was left was to usher them to the promised land of success. As soon as this little infant emerged from the womb, it showed signs of elite performance. The way it rolled over: The eye contact suggested greater awareness – a personality that was apparent from the moment it first babbled. It’s beautiful and breathtaking – but without being kept in check, it can also become highly pressuring.
We act as mirrors for our children. They learn about themselves from the things we say and the messages we portray with our actions and body language.
Expectations are natural, and high expectations breed self-belief, a necessary character trait for highly effective people. They also, however, have a common side effect of communicating conditional love.
A child who is exposed to high expectations needs to be handled with care. It is a delicate balance to maintain. If we aren’t emotionally attuned, we may be lauding our children for their qualities while portraying their value as dependent on our impressed praise.
“My son, the doctor” is a phrase that characterizes an aspect of our social structure. It evokes different feelings for different people, but it is a loaded statement no matter how you slice it.
Imagine a child born to a family of musicians. “My father was a professional pianist, my mother traveled with the New York Philharmonic, and even my grandparents were professional musicians.” These credentials are a praise – and a prison. The potential pressure is self-evident. What if I don’t want to be a musician? What if I want to blaze my own trail? What if that isn’t me?
“But it’s in your blood! You have so much talent! G-d has blessed you with a gift, and you’re not even using it!”
The answer is simple, Mom: He’s not you. We all want our children to follow in our footsteps, and sometimes we want that in the most literal way. It may hurt when he doesn’t. It may feel personal, intentional, or antagonistic.
You know something? It just may be.
We may present it to ourselves under the guise of guiding our children, but there’s a necessary ingredient in guiding that is usually missing: acceptance.
Raising children is a process of watching as children unveil the version of amazing that they are. Yes, we have to show our children the proper path, but our efforts are futile unless children receive a message from parents that they are breathtaking beings, befitting of all the miraculous wonders of the entire creation. After all, wasn’t every person created in the image of Hashem? Isn’t this what Chazal meant by bishvili nivra ha’olam?
Perhaps we intend to suggest an edit.
“My child, you are a tzelem Elokim, to whom it applies the statement bishvili nivra ha’olam, as long as you follow these rigid expectations and continue to impress me and those around you.”
I hear criticism all the time about this “new-school” chinuch, and how it is raising our children to be “fragile.”
“Never tell your children ‘No.’”
“Don’t worry about resilience, as long as we care about their feelings.”
“Aren’t you suggesting we raise delicate children?”
Absolutely not! We need rules, expectations, limitations, and consequences. We need to find appropriate moments to allow our children to pull themselves out of difficulty without swooping in and rescuing them from life. We need to believe in our children to be resilient, intuitive, street-smart, and hard-working. We need to treat them according to this belief so they can rise to the challenge that has been put before them.
All I ask is that you check yourself. Look inside and discover whether there is enough space in your expectations and belief for your kids to do things that make you uncomfortable. Is it so bad that he’s not into davening yet? Is it terrible that she isn’t excited by tz’nius clothing right now? Is there room for patience and an unaltered level of love if he stops wearing a yarmulke? Does chutzpah really mean she should be thrown out of the house? Maybe they’re communicating. Maybe they’re saying, “See me.” “Hear me.” “Love me for who I am, not what I do.” Children want to be like their parents. They will hold onto our values and will likely pick up a bunch of our flaws. We can depend on this, unless, of course, we try to micromanage their personalities to perfection. Or even greatness. Then we can be confident that at some point they will push back once they are sick of us trying to change them.
It’s important to note that my opinion is not borne out of a lack of care for Torah observance. I care deeply about all of our children clinging to a relationship with Hashem. It is of utmost importance that they daven, learn, give tz’dakah, avoid speaking lashon ha’ra, keep the halachos of tz’nius, grow up to keep Taharas HaMishpachah, and so on. I’m just playing the long game. It’s ineffective to focus on changing them. No one wants to be changed, not children, not adults. We want to be seen, loved, and accepted. Some of us may have the mentality that criticism helps us grow and challenges us to be better, that it provides an opportunity for self-development. This is true and is the attitude we should try to maintain when on the receiving end of criticism. It is in no way a calculation that allows us to criticize anyone, especially our children, and crushing them under the weight of expectations is no different.
It’s important for us to recognize that being a frum Jew requires a tremendous amount of commitment and dedication. There will be ups and downs, and sometimes the downs are difficult to get out of. Let’s focus on what we can control: our own growth. If we love, believe in, and accept our children, while striving for our own personal growth, we can be sure that they will become the best they can be.