Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Liturgy - 1

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The First Benediction - Making Distinctions
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who gave the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night.

What an odd benediction! Why on earth would we be worrying about roosters? The language, of course, is symbolic - back before alarm clocks and the plethora of technology that wakes us up in the morning, there was the local rooster, crowing often before dawn, to get our day going. We depended on that guy, to be sure we were awake in time to say the morning Sh'ma, so that all our obligations could be fulfilled at the proper time. We were, therefore, thanking God for putting mechanisms in place in the natural world to help us fulfill our obligations to God.

So what does that have to do with parenting? I like to think of the benediction as making a statement about the ability to tell the difference between black and white. If, after all, a mere rooster can tell when the sun is up far enough to announce the new day, why can't we make distinctions?

I'm thinking in particular of the choices parents make when disciplining their children. When we are in the midst of a behavioral crisis, the last thing we are able to do is step out of our confrontation with our son or daughter and consider just what we are doing. To my way of thinking, knowing the distinction between day and night, in parenting terms, is knowing what to "go to the mat for." How can we tell the difference? How can we know when to smile and let it go, and when to put our foot down? How do we deal with tantrums? When do we just let it go, and when do we apply the time-out? There are no easy answers, but the asking of the questions is what's important. A rooster may know the difference between day and night, but after all isn't the presence or absence of light fairly obvious? Making distinctions in how we respond to our children's behavior is far more difficult.

I don't have any wisdom to impart. What I do have is the experience of raising three rambunctious sons and watching (at this point) two of them raise their own children. I also have the experience of watching my friends' children and grandchildren, and of having to bite my tongue on a regular basis, sometimes, watching certain behavior, thinking, "Why are you allowing that behavior?" and other times, watching other behavior, thinking, "Is this really so terrible?" There are parents who are afraid to say no, afraid to set limits, afraid their children will hate them. And then there are parents who feel the need to control every one of their children's choices. Neither of these kinds of parents has figured out the need for distinctions. Neither of these kinds of parents has fully embraced the idea that parenting is very hard work, and that the work isn't only about laundry and finding the right schools and keeping the kids in clothes and shoes. The real hard work comes with understanding what's expected of us as disciplinarians. We know we need to be consistent in our approach, but consistent how? Always saying no? Always saying yes? And is "consistent" the same as "always"?

There is, of course, another difference between parenting and listening to that rooster. God put in place in the natural world a mechanism to get us going in the morning so that our obligations may be fulfilled. I'm not aware of any mechanism in the natural world for knowing instinctively when to allow and when to say no. Making the decisions about how to raise our children to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults is the toughest job we will ever take upon ourselves. But maybe if we begin our day with the morning benedictions and we recite that first benediction with mindfulness, with kavanah, we can focus our thoughts each day on the need to make distinctions in the way we confront each foot stomp, each NO!, each tantrum, each attack of one sibling on another, and most important, each challenge to our authority. And maybe just the awareness that we have choices at each step of the way, and that the choice we make in the morning may not work in the afternoon, can be the first step in raising our children right.

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