Believe In Your Child
A comedian's guide to Jewish parenting.
It had been a tough semester. After spending most of high school on the honor roll, the transcript for my second semester of college consisted almost entirely Cs. For me, this report card confirmed my worst fears. In my eyes it meant that I was, and always would be, a failure.
I remember returning home to Baltimore, and moping around the house. I told my mother that I was thinking of switching colleges. Maybe somewhere with less emphasis on academics would suit me better?
But over the course of the summer, my mood changed. It wasn't anything my parents said. My father didn't say, "I also got a C in college chemistry!" and my mother didn't insist, "Next semester will be different!" What changed my mood was simply my parents' unspoken and unwavering belief in me and my potential that I inhaled along with the air of my childhood home. It emanated from the bookshelves and the carpets and the very foundation of the house itself.
In my home, I knew that Jenny Freedman was no failure. I knew it because my parents knew it.
A few years later I was a new immigrant to Israel. Suddenly, even the simplest interactions with Israelis in my broken Hebrew -- paying the electricity bill, negotiating the price of a taxi ride, renewing my rental contract -- left me feeling incapable and humiliated.
I remember returning to Baltimore once every few months during those difficult years and feeling different the moment I walked through my parents' door. At that moment, I was no longer the stammering nobody my Israeli neighbors saw. In my parents' home I was Jenny Freedman, and that very fact meant I was capable. It meant I was somebody. And that made all the difference in the world.
MY OWN CHILDREN
After three years in Israel, my husband and I established a home of our own with the name "Weisberg" on our door. When I became a mother soon afterwards, I knew that of the many gifts my parents had given me, the one that I most wanted to pass on to my own children was the blessing of unconditional belief in them.
But as my children grew older, I learned that this is not always as easy as my parents made it look.
One day, several years after I became a mother, the phone rang. "Mrs. Weisberg, your daughter has been hitting the other children in nursery school. The other mothers have started to complain." My three-year-old daughter had already earned me a year of nasty looks from mothers of children with pulled hair or bites or scratches on playgrounds and any other place I risked taking her.
I was clearly a terrible mother. My daughter was hopelessly violent. Something, somehow, had gone terribly wrong. I remember the despair I felt like it was yesterday.
Every good comedian will tell you that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Eddie Murphy could have you in stitches with a tale from his recent root canal, but when the dentist was standing over him with a drill in his mouth, he was cringing, not laughing.
In the same way, when it comes to educating our children, my own experience of motherhood has shown me over and over that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Lots of time.
That same daughter who caused me years of hardship and embarrassment is today pure sweetness
That same daughter who caused me years of hardship and embarrassment is today pure sweetness. She is always the first child to lend a helping hand, or to make a get-well card for a sick friend, or to rush to comfort a crying baby. Today I can laugh at myself.
But back then, with the drill in my mouth, minus the time, it felt like no laughing matter.
Because raising children requires such large quantities of patience, Jewish sources compare faith in our children to gardening,
Just as a gardener plants a tulip bulb in the ground, and can wait months and months with no sign of growth or progress, so too, with our children, we can wait months and years and never see our parenting efforts bear fruit. The class bully remains a bully. The social outcast remains an outcast. The oversensitive child continues coming home every day in tears.
But just as the gardener believes that the tulip bulb he planted is developing roots unseen deep underneath the ground, our sages implore parents to maintain faith that even the latest bloomer will eventually bloom.
They remind parents of the supreme importance of maintaining belief in a child's potential even in cases when the child's teachers and principal and even grandparents became convinced that this bulb was a dud long ago.
One parenting expert had a son who earned her and her husband dozens of stern conversations from teachers and principals. Before one such meeting with a principal who wanted to expel their son from school, she and her husband spent a full 20 minutes sitting in their car assuring themselves that as parents they see a side of their son that the principal didn't.
The mother reminded herself that when this son was four years old he gave his very own coveted chocolate bar to his crying younger sister. The father reminded himself that he was a child who was unable to sit still, but that he was also a child with a heart of gold.
These parents spent this time in their parked car because they understood that their attitude towards their son had the power to make him or break him.
They also understood that at times when it is most difficult to believe in our children is when they require our faith in them the most.
Parents who believe in their children are not ostriches who bury their heads in the sand. Even the parent with the strongest belief in a child's potential also needs to take practical steps to deal with issues as they arise.
But without our unwavering belief that our children will overcome the challenges they face, even with the help of the best psychiatrists and parenting experts and occupational therapists, our precious children will still face an uphill battle- with a heavy backpack, our doubts, weighing them down.
Since the call from that nursery school teacher so many years ago, I have received other calls over the years. Without fail, each of these calls takes the wind out of me.
But when this happens, I put down the phone and remind myself that today that same boy whose parents sat in the car is a devoted father and husband and is a beloved principal himself. I take a deep breath and remind myself that as long as I believe that things will get better when I'm cringing in the dentist chair, chances are that within a few short months or years, I will be laughing.