Parenting and Control
Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )
Devarim, 11:19: “And you will teach them to your children to speak about them, in your sitting in your homes, and in your going on the way, and in your lying down and in your getting up.”
Twice a day we are commanded to say the paragraphs of the Shema. The Torah instructs us to teach our children about the mitzvot of the Torah so that our children will speak in them, and then it adds a few other situations where this applies – while we are sitting in our homes, while we are travelling, while we are lying down, and while we are getting up. The Ksav Sofer1 points out the seemingly unnecessarily lengthy language of the Torah, when the Torah could have simply said that we should teach our children so that they will talk about the Torah.
He answers that the Torah is coming to tell us that it is not enough that our children will learn Torah and keep the mitzvot while we are at home with them to encourage them to learn, but even when we are not home with them, and we are out of the house, they should be educated to the extent that they will learn and keep Torah even without being prompted by us. Hence, the Torah stresses that our children will learn even when we are not with them at home, and when they are in circumstances where they will need to be proactive in their Divine Service without being prompted by their parents or others.
With this idea, the Ksav Sofer is identifying an important, but not so well-known, principle in parenting (chinuch) in the words of the Torah itself. It is relatively easy to be able to influence our children to act the way that we want them to, when we are present, because we are more powerful than them, and at least at a young age, they hopefully, generally realize that they need to listen to us. However, when we are not present, and of course when they grow up and they are not in our vicinity, we need to be assured that they continue to follow the Torah way. He adds that this is the meaning of the verse in Proverbs, "Educate the youth according to his way, so also when he gets older, he will not turn away from it”2.
The obvious question is how to do this? The Ksav Sofer briefly addresses this – he writes that the way to ensure that the children continue in Torah throughout their lives, is to instill in them Emunah and the awareness that the purpose of life is Divine Service and keeping the mitzvot. If they internalize that, then they are assured to follow the correct path when they grow up.
The renowned chinuch expert, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakovson3 expresses this idea by dividing our role in bringing up our children into two main parts, which he calls chinuch and ‘haphaala’, which is translated into English as control. Firstly, he notes that the word ‘chinuch’ is commonly used as a general term for anything related to childrearing, but he explains that the most accurate definition of the word ‘chinuch’ is initiation, as is demonstrated by the context where the word chinuch is used, such as ‘Chanukat habayit’ where one initiates the use of the house in a way that he hopes to continue. So too, chinuch is about instilling the values and approach that will provide a sound foundation for the child so that when he grows up, he will want to continue in his Divine Service. In contrast, the role of ‘control’ is to get the child to do what the parent wants him to do now, which may involve asserting one’s authority to cause him to this. Control is also a necessary part of bringing up of our children, because it causes them to develop good habits, in terms of Mitzva observance, and to develop positive character traits4. However, if one uses control without chinuch, then there is a serious risk that although the immediate goal of getting the child to act in a certain way may be fulfilled, in the future, the child may turn away from such behavior because he only ever did it out of habit and necessity. This is expressed by the Vilna Gaon in his commentary of the aforementioned verse in Proverbs: “…train him to do mitzvot, so that when he grows old, he will not depart from them, but if you force him against his nature, he will obey you now since he fears you, but afterwards – once he is free of your control – he will depart from it5.”
This idea is dramatically expressed in the following story described by Rabbi Yaakovson6: He was discussing an instance involving a boy who had rejected religion. When the father was told that the boy did not even pray, the father expressed his astonishment: “I put so much into my son’s praying…I was always careful that he should come with me to minyan and sit next to me. During the prayers I didn’t even allow myself the luxury of concentrating on my own prayers, for I kept my eye constantly on my son. I made sure that he was following the place in his siddur and if he would start day-dreaming I would immediately step in to make sure that he would get right back to praying.”
When the boy was asked about his rejection of prayer he answered: “There’s nothing that I hate so much as praying. I’ve waited years for the day when I would be old enough to be able to stop praying. Just walking into the shul building gives me a bad feeling. I think it’s because my father was so hard on me about praying that it became such an unbearable burden…”
This father was able to force his child to pray at a young age, but instead of giving the child a positive attitude towards prayer, all he managed to do was to create such a resentment in the boy that when he was old enough, he immediately broke away from his father’s coercion. Had he focused less on coercing his son to pray, and more focused on making it a positive experience for him.
It is also important to note that the concept of control does not only refer to coercing through negative means such as punishments or threats. It also includes giving positive incentives such as prizes, to get the child to do what the parent wants. With regard to mitzvot, this can perhaps be a fulfillment of the idea of loh lishma boh lishma – that a child should start doing mitzvot for the wrong reason so that he will ultimately do them for pure reasons. However, Rav Chaim of Volozhin7 points out that this dictum only applies if the person’s ultimate goal is to reach the point at which he does the mitzvot for pure motives, for without this purpose, he will continue to do Mitzvos in order to attain ‘prizes’. Thus, giving prizes to encourage positive behavior can also be done in a detrimental way if it is not accompanied by chinuch aimed at teaching the correct values so that the child will ultimately want to do mitzvot for the right reason.
The following story, also from Rav Yaakovson, demonstrates this point8. A Rebbe and his wife ran separate groups for children that would say Psalms together (Tehillim). The Rebbe once asked each boy in his class what they would say if they were trying to persuade a friend to join the group. Of the twenty-one boys in the class, only one boy named the Mitzva as the first reason. Most of the others didn’t mention it at all, and the few that did, put it at the end of the list, after the ‘main’ reason. For most of the students, the main reasons were: “We get cards and treats” and, “Nothing interesting is going on then, anyway”.
The Rebbe’s wife conducted the same survey with her students. She got shockingly different results. Almost all of the girls said that the main reason they came was that “saying Tehillim makes us better”. In addition, they spoke of the great Mitzva, and how it helps all kinds of people with all kinds of problems. Five girls out of eighteen made no mention of the prize at all. The Rebbe was shocked at the contrast, but after investigation, it became apparent that the difference lay in the divergent approaches of the leaders of the two groups. The leader of the boy’s group would make a very big deal about the prize. He would go on about how worthwhile it made it for the boys to come and how otherwise there’s nothing to do on Shabbos afternoon. He would distribute the prizes with a lot of pomp and ceremony. In contrast, the leader of the girl’s group had a totally different approach. Every week, she would talk to the girls about how great and special they were for saying Tehillim, and how happy it makes God. She would tell stories about girls whose families were helped because of the Tehillim they said. As the girls prepared to leave, she would tell them, “I want all of you to go home with your heads held high. You should each feel that you are a little bit better than when you came in. The Tehillim you just said does so much for you, for your family, for the Jewish people, and it makes God so proud. Aren’t we lucky!” She would then hand them the bag of treats, adding that this is to make sure the yetser hara wouldn’t stop them from coming!
That is the difference between control with chinuch and control without chinuch. The leader of the boys’ group focused so much on getting them to say Tehillim because of the prizes, that the boys got the message that the point of saying Tehillim is to get prizes. Whereas, the leader of the girl’s group educated them about the true reasons for doing the Mitzva, and deemphasized the ‘loh lishma’ reward of the prizes. The obvious outcome of this was that when these boys would grow up, they would be more likely to only be motivated to do mitzvot if the prizes were worth it – thus, the Mitzva was at risk of becoming the ‘means’ to the ‘end’ of the prizes instead of the other way round. This is an example of the pitfall that the Vilna Gaon pointed out, and it can even be manifest through ‘positive’ consequences like prizes, as well as ‘negative’ consequences such as punishments and threats. The girls were being inculcated with an attitude that would encourage them to do mitzvot because of their intrinsic value, even without being prompted by others.
May we all merit to attain the level of chinuch that the Torah espouses.
- Ksav Sofer Al Hatorah, Devarim, 11:19, Dh: velimadtem.
- Mishlei, 22:6.
- The ideas discussed here are found in his excellent book, ‘Al techatu b’yeled’ translated into English, as ‘Spare the Child’. Needless to say, only a very small part of the book is touched upon here, and for a full understanding of his approach, it is necessary to read the whole book.
- Rav Yaakovson also speaks at length about the idea that control must precede chinuch, and if it does not, the consequences can be very negative. For the full discussion, see Chapter 6.
- Gra al Mishlei, 22:6.
- Cited in Chinuch in Turbulent Times, Rabbi Dov Brezak, p.42.
- Ruach Chaim, Avos, 1:13.
- Ibid.pp.148-149. The story has been shortened for space purposes.