Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Standards, Expectations and Unconditional Love -- What's the Right Mix?

This weekend, I made a trip up to YU for the annual SOY Seforim sale. One of the books that I picked up is Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese, which I am finding truly fascinating. So far, I've finished the first seventy pages or so and am eagerly looking forward to the rest.

One of the main points that Ms. Margolese makes early in the book is that people leave observant Judaism not because of intellectual issues (Science/Torah and the like), but primarily because of emotional issues. Adolescents can gain a negative emotional view of Judaism from parents, teachers, school administrators and friends. These factors together can contribute to a person's decision to "ditch" observance of the mitzvos as they get older - regardless of any belief in the historicity of the Revelation at Sinai or the Creation story as told in B'raishis (Genesis).

One of the factors that is brought up is the need of children to feel loved unconditionally. She brings a few anecdotes of people who felt that their parents' love for them was conditional on the level of their observance (whether that was actually the case or not). Because they felt that their parents wouldn't love them as much if they weren't observant, Judaism developed as a negative in their minds as adolescents and was (in their own admissions) a part of the reason that they strayed from observance of the mitzvos.

I can certainly understand the need for a child (including adolescents) to feel that they are loved without reservation. As a child, friends may come and go, teachers may be good one year and bad the next, this year's well-loved or well-hated principal may be out the door next year, but parents (barring the truly drastic of life events) are just about the only constants in a child's life. They are (or should be) the one place that a child knows that they can turn to no matter how bad things become. Parents are that last thrown life preserver in a child's life when stormy seas threaten to engulf them. In short, children need to know that when the chips are down, their parents are there for them.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for maintaining standards and expectations of a child. One example that Ms. Margolese brings is of a girl whose father would ask her in the morning if she davened. If she replied no, then he would tell her to go daven. However, since she was not particularly interested in davening, she would simply go up to her room, read for about half an hour, and then come back down and tell her father that she davened.

Now, as parents, I do believe that we have a right (and indeed a responsibility) to set standards and expectations for our children. We have an obligation to tell them what behavior is considered acceptable and which is not considered acceptable. Who among us wouldn't try to reprimand our teens if they were caught stealing? Certainly we would go about it in different ways -- one parent may try the "soft approach," another parent a stricter approach and yet another with a mixed message. Not all responses are valid or correct, of course, but we would all agree that *some* measures are called for. Only the most irresponsible parents would take no action at all.

Well, just as we impose standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam l'chaveiro (relationships between people), we also set standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam lamakom (relationships between man and God). When my children are older, they will have to know, for example, that I will not allow them to bring chametz into the house on Pesach. They will know that I expect them to daven and learn every day. I expect him not to sacrifice his little sister to Molech. In short, I expect a certain minimum commitment to the observance of the mitzvos. Of course, if he does more -- all the more power to him; but a minimum is expected. I believe that children need standards in order to achieve... and that applies to all realms, academic, behavioral, religious, extra-curricular, you name it.

Of course, the question then becomes how to express your expectations and make them stick without endangering the security of the child's knowledge of the parent's unconditional love. You can't just sit your kid down and tell him "Walter*, we expect you to do A, B and C, but even if you don't we still love you," because such a statement lacks the force that is necessary to tell the kid what you expect of him. It's weasly and wishy-washy.

Of course, as adults, we can separate love and approval as two separate concepts, but I'm not so certain that most adolescents can emotionally make that distinction. You can try to explain it to them, but I don't know if (at the younger ages of adolescence especially) they can really distinguish between the two. I can tell an adult that I may still love him or her even if I don't accept what they are doing. Heck, I love my mother, but I strongly disapprove of her life-long smoking habit. She knows my feelings on the matter of her smoking -- she has for a long, long time, but she also knows that I love her unconditionally. But if I ever (God forbid) caught my kid smoking (something I don't expect too -- I think we've well ingrained the anti-smoking message into our kids), I could probably tell him the same thing I tell my mother, but I don't think he'd react the same way - one is a teen and the other is nearing sixty. My mother is much, much more mature than my son - and can understand disapproval of an action much better than Walter can.

In the end, we don't want our children to go off the derech. I think that among those of us that are observant, having our children become observant is a major goal in life - if not (for some) the most important goal. But we don't want to create an atmosphere that is so overbearing that the child will rebel at the first opportunity. We want to infuse them with a Yiddishkeit that is positive, not negative. On the other hand, we don't want to give blanket approval for any and all behavior. Adoniyah turned out the way he did, the Navi tells us, because Dovid never bothered to correct him on his behavior. As usual, there has to be a happy medium somewhere in the middle. It's up to us to find that exact message.

The Wolf

* No, Walter isn't our son's name. But it is one of any number of nicknames that we sometimes call our kids.


Anonymous said...

...we also set standards for behavior in the realm of bein adam lamakom (relationships between man and God). When my children are older, they will have to know, for example, that I will not allow them to bring chametz into the house on Pesach. They will know that I expect them to daven and learn every day. I expect him not to sacrifice his little sister to Molech.

Not sacrificing his sister to Molech is bein adam lamokom?!

beverly said...

And so, what does one say to a daughter who is not particularly interested in davening?

Unknown said...

It's an amazing book. I started reading it on Yom Kippur and had half of it read during the Avodah and break.

Honestly, you could write a post from almost every page in there. :)

As I was reading it - and I'm curious if you experienced this - I kept thinking "that's me", "that's my friend -----", "that's me", "that's -----". I can see why I once came close to saying "BYE!", and I can see why I actually didn't, from the book. It's not huge chiddushim - just sums it all up very nicely.

BrooklynWolf said...


Well, to some degree, it *is* bein adam l'makom. But it was just a throw-away joke line to inject some humor. Don't analyze it too much.


I don't know specifically. I would suppose it would depend on *why* she's not davening. If it's because she doesn't find it meaningful (something that I've felt at various points in my life), then you should try to find a way to make it meaningful for her. It's not going to happen overnight, of course, but over the long haul, if you show people that a behavior is in their own best interest, they will attempt to engage in that behavior.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...


Yes, I did get that feeling. I, too, have nearly "left the fold" on more than one occassion and many of the reasons she identified resonated within me as well as I remembered the soul-searching that I went through at those times.

The Wolf

and so it shall be... said...

Your post really made me think.

About my own struggles to want to stay frum. About my concerns for my children and how I would react if they chose not to be frum. And the relationship I have with a close relative who recently gave up observance. And with relatives who are not religious though are coming closer through their own version of observance.

The subject is fraught with confusion. I imagine yeshivish and chassidish people grapple with and are exposed to these issues significantly less often than regular middle of the road jews and modern orthodox jews.

So I wonder which way of life is better and more authentic.

I struggle with this question because I dismiss the uniformity, mindlessness, and lack of rational direction tyoical of the chareidi lifestyle.

Yet, I recognize that these populations, despite a propensity to close-mindedness and open denial of the texture of the Jewish universe, most likely take for granted that their children and relatives, for the most part, will be and remain orthodox.

Am I to assume that positioning oneself to attain near certainty that one's children will remain frum is worth sacrificing my sense of individuality and aceptance of a wider community of Jews? Do I do so at risk of my children's future as religious Jews?

Complicated stuff. I must read this book.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

I've read large portions of the book, including the section you mentioned. I've also had thoughts of leaving the fold cross my mind as well. Right now I consider myself frum, although on a personal level- there are things I believe right now and do/don't do right now (outside the Big Three) which maybe are not completely congruent with normative frumkeit.

The bottom line is, you can't enforce religious adherence. You can only set example. The girl in the book who didn't daven likely felt it was meaningless to her. Maybe she saw her father talking in shul. Or saw others talking, or saw her father just mumbling the tefillah distractedly, without any feeling. So she thinks, why do I need this?

In any event, the davening aspect for her was just a symptom. This girl ultimately went off the derech for reasons other than her father haranguing her about davening.

Again, the bottom line is, kids take their cues from their parents. If they ense their parents are being hypocrtical and disingenuous about their own observance, the kids' doesn't stand a chance.

mother in israel said...

I think that many parents today don't know how to form a strong, positive, emotional connection with their children. From their early childhood we distance ourselves from our children and we focus so much on their behavior and "education," instead of just enjoying being with them. We expect way too much of them way too young, especially with the oldest, and constantly worry about them doing anything that doesn't conform to our hopes for them as adults. We need to let them be little, play with them, and treat them as we would want to be treated (i.e. trust them, not talk down to them, not harangue and threaten them). Too much to put in one comment I know. But they will respect us more and follow our example if we respect them, and as a society, we don't.

Orthonomics said...

I haven't read this book yet and really need to.

I agree with you that we absolutely need to set standards in our homes. But I don't think that it excludes showing unconditional love.

MomInIsrael makes a very good point about building a relationship. I think that this is so important because parents are going to overreact at times and say hurtful things, etc. But when that relationship is strong it should be easier to recover lost ground (at least that is my experience as an imperfect parent).

Leah Goodman said...

First and foremost, parents need to teach by example. If parents sing birkat hamazon at every meal and act like it's an enjoyable thing, kids will take it on. If it looks like the parents are dying to get it over with, chances are, the kids will drop the ball as soon as they can get away with it.

Secondly, the thing that made me closest to going off the derech was a parent playing the holiness card - "I'm religious, and therefore you have to do what I say and I'm wonderful" while said parent did some things that I think are incorrect for a parent to do.

If you give your children love and you share yiddishkeit with them as something that you love and treasure, then you're moving in the right direction. It's not a guarantee, but if you don't love yiddishkeit and you don't make your children feel that they are sharing something valuable, you've already lost.

Baal Habos said...

>One of the main points that Ms. Margolese makes early in the book is that people leave observant Judaism not because of intellectual issues (Science/Torah and the like), but primarily because of emotional issues.

Not to take away from the desirability of having a loving home, the conclusion is simply not true.

Yours truly,
A beloved, emotionally stable, Baal Habos