The Bonds of Love
In parenting, the most powerful tool we have is love.
With apologies to the left-handed, I must reveal that in Jewish understanding the right side is the stronger side. The right side represents compassion, and both literally and figuratively we lead with this trait. The left side stands for judgment, discipline. This is important but not equally so. It shouldn't be our dominant characteristic and it should be de-emphasized in our relationships. In fact the Talmud advises us we should pull close with the right and push away with the left. Our relationships should be governed by kindness with a small and judicious dose of discipline where absolutely necessary.
This is most true in our relationships with our children. In crafting and adhering to a parenting technique or style this should be the underlying foundation. Whether there once was a time when parental authority was the be-all and end-all or whether it is just a universal parental fantasy, I don't know. I do know that it no longer holds true, that today's parent-child relationships need to be governed by love, by mercy, by understanding, by compassion. Our teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l, taught that "all we have today is our personal relationship." I believe he meant that it is the bond of love and caring that will encourage our children to share our values and our lives. It is not punishment, nor threats, nor rational argument. It is only love (and possibly the credit card!).
Love is not magic (despite what the movies say), nor is it a guarantee, but it is the most powerful tool we have. And it must be the predominant emotion expressed from parent to child (whether or not they respond in kind).
As the Talmud says, there are times when discipline is necessary, even appropriate. (I personally find chutzpah intolerable. And do you mind if I rant about the inappropriateness of small children calling me by my first name...) But we have to be careful. It needs to be thought-out and rational and definitely not excessive. We want it to be effective and administered with love. A tall order? Tall orders are a parent's job.
Eliminating a negative trait may be best accomplished through bribery. But there are moments where thoughtful discipline is required. A life without structure and rules can be very anxiety-provoking, can make a child feel unloved. A life with too many rules can be repressive, can make a child feel imprisoned.
We, as parents, are constantly struggling to find the balance. We want perfect formulas where none exist.
In addition, each child is different. Some children need more love. Some need more direction. Some just need more. The Talmud has given us a crucial insight upon which to base our decisions. Always begin with rachamim, with compassion.
This may sometimes be frustrating to siblings of the 'disobedient' child. "Tell him to stop!" they whine. "Send him to his room." "Punish him!" Their desire for justice (revenge?) is loud and frequently insatiable. We need to get in the habit of private rebuke so that our children will let go of their expectation of a public hanging.
Sometimes one child appears to "get away with" more than others. It may be difficult or complicated to clear up this misconception. We are not required to explain our complex accounting of the needs of one child to all the others.
All we can do is continue to apply our strategy evenly and fairly. Lots of love and compassion for all. If we are always pulling close with the right and pushing away with the left our children will hopefully get the message. They will feel loved and empowered and they won't begrudge their brother or sister feeling the same way. There might even, however briefly, be peace in the home.