I meant to fulfill the promulgated chinuch principles to the letter, but having taken psychology in college and having been inundated with all sorts of child psychology pundits, articles, best-selling books, and methods since my preteens, I viewed with concern the obvious borrowing from pop psychology in classes claiming to teach the "authentic" or "real" or "traditional" TORAH way of raising children.
And as several of the methods either didn't work or backfired with my own children (and with no workable alternative solution from whatever chinuch person or book I consulted), I opened my mind to watching what actually worked for others, instead continuing the exhausting jig of pretty theories.
A Parenting Wake-Up Call
I found that my friends and I never wanted to NEED a child's help. Furthermore, such a situation also always seemed discouraged among the chinuch experts.
Yet I was seeing this among Israeli families, particularly Sefardi families, and it seemed to be working out just fine. Children helped much more than in American families and in general their homes seemed to run better. (These are big generalizations of course, and there are many exceptions to them on both sides.) Furthermore, children seemed to do more at younger ages, seemed to feel good about themselves with regard to it, and even took the initiative to clean or cook. Even more impressive, they seemed to WANT to continue these habits when they set up their own homes.
And I never saw those rotating "job charts" so popular among the parenting experts during my childhood.
Furthermore, these meaningful contributions extended into adulthood. I saw adult children who paid attention to their parents and concerned themselves with their well-being. They also spoke of their parents differently, without the emotional distance I was used to hearing secular adults in America speak of their parents. They seemed more cognizant of their parents' feelings and viewed their parents as individuals rather than as a magazine article of behaviors.
I wondered why.
Structure is Not What It Seems
This included friends whose parents leaned on them in ways others considered inappropriate. For example, I had one friend who from 10th or 11th grade, was expected to prepare supper between the time she came home from school and the time her parents came home from work -- and this was a daily long-term expectation she needed to organize around her homework and other activities.
I was aghast, but she defended it, explaining how logistically speaking, it really wasn't practical for her parents to prepare supper around working full-time jobs and also how much they liked her cooking. In fact, she seemed proud of her accomplishment and not put upon. She also pointed out that she now had skills that would serve her for life, skills that weren't common among her peers, so she felt a cut above the rest.
Also, I noticed many mothers in my generation, regardless of their religious background, had very set views about children and housework, trying to make it fun and free of stress. With regard to structure in general, a great many decided that if they felt they were too tired or stressed to deal with their children calmly, then they just let things go. Tidying, bedtimes, and other responsibilities were pushed off just so the mother wouldn't end up yelling or showing any anger.
This was supposed to show children the value of overcoming anger, but (and this will come as no shock to the generations above ours) children instead interpreted this as a lack of consistency and responded accordingly.
Chores that have no meaning or necessity other than to teach the child self-discipline become meaningless pointless work.
NO ONE wants to engage in meaningless pointless activities (unless they're fun), including adults. And because children aren't particularly interested in self-discipline or building character, it's hard for them to help around the house unless the work actually contributes something meaningful.
If I tell you to flap your arms around "for your own good," how happily and how long will you be able to keep flapping?
But what if I tell you that by flapping your arms, you create air currents (I'm totally making this up) that cool off heat stroke victims and help asthma sufferers, particularly when the sufferer is an immediate family member?
It's a lot more meaningful.
Traditionally, parents needed children.
Yes, that is actually the authentic traditional TORAH way of rearing children -- and not just the Torah way, either. Out of necessity, everyone used to raise their children this way and still do in many parts of the world. Children who helped out in the field, assisted in the family store, fetched water from the well, or brought the cows home were performing genuinely meaningful and necessary contributions to the family.
Attitudes changed over time, possibly due to mandatory schooling keeping children away home for huge chunks of childhood and also possibly due to advanced household technology, plus smaller family sizes and a move to urban life. Suddenly, fastidious housekeepers had electricity, indoor plumbing, spray cleaners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers to cut down on time and labor spent on housework and reaped a cleaner result too (i.e, a dishwasher or even hot running water and a good-quality sponge clean dishes much faster and better than wiping dishes with a soapy rag dipped in cold or lukewarm water from a bucket). They also had fewer children to contend with, so a mother didn't feel the same need for an older child's help when she's nursing or otherwise occupied.
Gradually, children became only a hindrance for housework rather than also being potential help.
Teaching children that parents have needs teaches children compassion.
Parents get tired, sick, and overwhelmed. It's perfectly fine for children to realize this. Yes, a parent who is tired, sick, or overwhelmed to the point of incapacitation for a long time may be scary or overwhelming for a child. But a child who sees that a parent NEEDS help and the child can help that parent? Well, that builds good middot in the child, particular when the parents show their gratitude and appreciation for the child's meaningful contribution.
A child who allows the mother to sleep hopefully finds a refreshed and joyful mother when she wakes up -- all in the merit of this wonderful child. A child who washes all the dishes to save the mother that chore or who surprises the mother with folded laundry will ideally encounter a thrilled and very thankful mother.
As a child in America and as an adult in Israel, I also noticed that parents who needed their children tended to produce children who were more sensitive to others. Let's face it: If your mother continues to function just fine even when she has the flu or hasn't slept properly for a month, then how are you going to respond to people who have the flu or who are tired? If you don't realize that people really need help at times -- and that you are able to help AND your contribution is meaningful -- then how will you relate to others who are struggling?
Needless to say, this can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Needy parents wear out their children with their ceaseless demands. Such children may develop apathy to others because they assume that people who need others are simply lazy or manipulative.
The Modern Mommy Challenge
As mentioned above, it is important to strive for balance:
- Needing children's contributions is good.
- Needy, demanding parents are not good.
And with Hashem's Help, that's what I'm trying to do.
The Last 200 Years of Chinuch I: The Non-Jewish World
The Last 200 Years of Chinuch II: The Jewish World
Will the Real "Chinuch shel Pa'am" Please Stand Up?