My Eight Favorite Parenting Lines
And why I credit Judaism for all of them.
You know you've arrived in parenting when your kids start quoting your parenting lines – whether in sarcasm or enthusiasm – before you can get them out of your mouth. It means you've ingrained certain messages in their fragile psyches so strongly, they'll never forget them.
These are the things they'll go into adulthood saying, "My mom always used to say...." Here are my eight go-to parenting lines that have withstood the test of time from my 19-year-old down to my four-year-old, and how Judaism is the source of each one.
1. "If you show, you share."
Usage: One child walks into the home with a prize, treat, or reward and proceeds to eat, drink, or use it in front of the other kids without sharing.
Result: Other kids get jealous and upset.
Rule: If you have something special that is exclusively yours, that's fine. Don't flaunt it in front of others who can't use it. It's insensitive. If another person is going to be exposed to your privileges, either invite them to share or use it in private. You don't have to split it 50/50 or anything. It can just be a sip, bite, or short turn. But don't withhold it completely.
Torah source: You are not allowed to muzzle an ox while it's threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4). If the animal is going to see grain or grass and be prevented from eating it, it will experience discomfort.
My extraction: If we are to be that sensitive to an animal, why not to a human?
2. "Fair does not mean same." AKA "Different kids get different things."
Usage: You want to buy one child a gift or treat because they need or deserve it, but are conflicted because then how will the other children feel?
Result: You try your hardest to treat everyone the same. NOTE: They will still reliably sing the refrain: "IT'S NOT FAIR!"
Rule: Everyone has different needs. Treating everyone the same is NOT fair, because it prevents us from giving each person what they need, and rewarding them for effort and intention. And it’s not even possible.
Torah source: "According to the effort is the reward" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:23).
My extraction: God rewards each person differently. It all depends on what was hard or easy for him. God didn’t create us all the same. Some of us are advantaged in obvious ways; some are disadvantaged in obvious ways. Each of us has our own unique cocktail of stuff. God gives us all exactly what we need to grow and develop, not what everyone else has.
3. "I will never lie to my kids."
Usage: Your child really, really, really wants to go to Chuck E Cheese. Just as badly, you don't. You fib (hurting no one, you presume, and helping everyone) and say they're closed.
Result: You avoid the tantrum, but when your kids get older, they're on to your game.
Rule: My kids know I will be honest them even when it makes my life less convenient. This applies almost all the time. There are rare exceptions where the information I withhold or fudge would be damaging to them, but even then I try to fudge as honestly as possible. Otherwise, truth is the rule, and my kids learn that they can trust whatever comes out of my mouth.
Torah source: "Stay far away from untruthful words" (Exodus 23:7).
My extraction: Staying far away from something is pretty strong syntax. Also, if I'm trying to pass down values to my kids, it is so crucial for them to know that they can believe the things I say. Otherwise, why shouldn't they lie themselves? And why should they believe the things I tell them about God, the world, and Judaism?
4. "I'll explain as soon as you do it."
Usage: You ask your child to do something. She says, "Why?" Or more accurately, "Whyyyyyy?" You proceed to explain and engage in a small debate club where child is sole judge of who wins, and performs accordingly.
Result: You're annoyed and resentful, and your child learns to defy authority.
Rule: If a parent asks a child to do something, child is expected to do it prior to receiving explanations that convince her of efficacy of said something. However, in the interest of education and a positive relationship, parent is happy to theoretically explain rationales once compliance has occurred. Curiously, child usually no longer cares at this point.
Torah source: "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:8).
My extraction: The Jewish people accepted the Torah with these powerful words – with acceptance coming before hearing explanations. This demonstrated an incredible level of respect and love for God. This is a goal in my parenting.
5. "I love you because you're mine."
Usage: You want to convey to your child that he is loved for so many reasons, but you also want to convey that he is loved unconditionally. Giving reasons for your love seem to imply conditionality.
Result: Your child may take your praises to mean that if he stops behaving that way, your love may wane.
Rule: I will convey to my child that I love him simply because he is mine (this is true – and sometimes it's the only reason!) and since that will never change, neither will my love. I don't love them because of their kindness – although I love their kindness. I don't love them because they're smart or funny – what if something changes in their brain or personality? I will never stop loving them, no matter what changes. The fact that they are mine will never change.
Torah source: "You are children of the Lord, your God" (Deuteronomy 14:1).
My extraction: The Torah indicates that we have inherent holiness and dignity because we are children of God, completely irrespective of our behavior. No matter how badly we sin or err, we will never become un-Jewish. God will never disown us. No matter how much we alter our body or soul, there is an untouchable holy center that can never become ruined. This is the type of unconditional love I want to convey to my children. While I am incredibly proud when they achieve and succeed, this is not the reason or condition for my love. They are mine, and always will be.
6. "If you tried hard, I'm proud of you."
Usage: Your child came home with a 75 on her math test, but you know she studied hard and tried her best to succeed.
Result: You're annoyed at her low grade, even though you know she worked hard. You want to praise effort, but not at the expense of results.
Rule: Intention and effort count for much more than results. Results are often not in our hands, but intention and effort are. Each person has different things that are hard for him and her, so results don't truly reflect personal growth and grit.
Torah source: Once again, "According to the effort is the reward" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:23).
My extraction: In much of the civilized world, only results matter. This is true in business, politics, and most professions. No one really cares that you really "wanted" or "intended" or "tried" to invest their money successfully, book them a cheap ticket, or bid successfully on their dream home. People want results, deliverables. But in the spiritual world, and the realm of emotionally successful relationships, intentions and effort are infinitely more meaningful than results.
7. "If you tell the truth, I won't punish you."
Usage: You suspect that your child colored on the wall, cheated on a test, dented the car. Your child is scared to own up and lies to avoid a scene.
Result: You can't figure out how to teach your child honesty and still provide consequences for bad behavior, since the threat of punishments is a deterrent to telling the truth.
Rule: If my child will tell me the full and honest truth about what happened, the mitzvah of telling the truth and admitting his mistake will be its own penance. He may still need to fix damages done if applicable (clean the wall, apologize to the teacher and retake the test, pay to fix the car) but will not get an additional punishment.
Torah source: The mitzvah of repentance includes a responsibility to verbally admit that which you've done wrong (Maimonides, Laws of Teshuvah 1:1).
My extraction: Cultivating a culture of honesty between parents and children is one of the most important things a parent can do. It goes both ways, with parents not lying to their kids (see #3) and with making it worth it for your kids to tell you the truth. If their admission of bad behavior leads to verbal flagellation and greater consequences, you're effectively teaching your kids that fibbing is a far more attractive option. Make telling the truth the most compelling choice.
8. "If you do that, I'll give you a marble."
Usage: You want your child to clean up, wash dishes, or give his sister a turn on the video game. You want to bribe him, but are unsure how to motivate good behavior.
Result: You are haphazard or inconsistent with what to reward and what to expect without rewards.
Rule: Each child receives a marble jar. Each child will get a list of items that are hard for him or her (see #2) that he will get rewarded for. The list is different for each child. Each child will also get a list of rewards, preferably privileges instead of tangible items, to earn with designated numbers of marbles. The marble jar works on the honor system, with the child giving himself marbles as earned.
Torah source: "A person should always do good things [even] for ulterior motives, since this will lead to doing them for the right reasons" (Talmud Pesachim 50b).
My extraction: I have seen my kids outgrow the marble jar, so yeah, I'm okay with rewarding them for cleaning up, washing dishes, and giving their sisters turns on the video game. If they are habituated to good behavior thanks to the dangling carrot on the end of the stick, they will form good habits that will likely stay with them. In time, they will even come to feel silly about getting marbles for those behaviors – and this is the sign that they have reached to goal the Talmud describes.