(Even though the sincerity and good intentions of most of their proponents is undeniable.)
This is partly due to personally disappointing experiences and partly due to having read Garden of Education by Rav Shalom Arush.
(Also, based on past posts, you probably think I’m a Breslover, but I’m actually not. Yet for some reason, Breslov stuff has always resonated very deeply with me.)
One of the most challenging aspects about being mechanech children with emuna is the self-introspection it demands. So I wanted to go into that a bit more, including encouragement on how to overcome one of the biggest obstacles that parents run into when using self-introspection as a tool of chinuch.
So let’s start with an example culled from the experiences of several different people:
The Big Problem
Your 17-year-old son suddenly starts physically and verbally bullying your 3-year-old daughter. He won’t even let her eat her morning cornflakes without pinching her to the point of tears the minute your back is turned. Appealing to his compassionate side, yelling at him, ignoring him, and anything else you can think of doesn’t work. Sometimes, your handling of it makes him act even worse – though you can’t figure out why.
You are shocked and disgusted by his bullying, especially since you know that even the son of mafia criminals tend to be nice to their much younger sisters. And you’ve always hated bullies. In fact, you are even the type who always sticks up for the underdog. You start to hate your son. Maybe you start to blame yourself or your spouse or your son's school for you son’s behavior.
Okay, so first of all, you thank Hashem for the nisayon because it is to your benefit in some presently unknown and painful way.
Now comes the truly cringe-inducing part:
You need to figure out what YOU are doing that is being reflected in your son’s terrible behavior.
If you are really repulsed by your child’s behavior, this is a very tall order. So the best way to face this is by realizing that you are probably NOT doing something as horrible as whatever your child is doing.
In addition, Hashem already knows everything about you anyway, so if you ignore your bad stuff, you are only hiding from yourself. (And your blissful denial might not even be such a good cover because haven’t you known people with obvious flaws who aggravate everyone they know, yet they seem unaware of the all aggravation they’re inflicting?)
Because of His great Love for us, Hashem wants us to scour the stains off our beautiful souls, to be the wonderful people He created us to be, and to earn the most beautiful eternity possible.
To achieve these fabulous goals, Hashem sends messages that are impossible to ignore.
(Although some people manage to ignore them, anyway.)
So He takes a little, tiny wrong turn that you are taking and magnifies it a thousand times over in your child – just to make sure you won’t miss it.
(Before I go further, I want to acknowledge that, yes, there is a paradox here. Especially if your child is over bar/bat mitzvah, they need to work on their own middot and do their own teshuvah. So how can it be that their behavior is purely a message for you AND their own responsibility at the same time? Well, it just is. Just like how we have free will, receiving reward and punishment for our actions, AND simultaneously, Hashem is controlling all of our actions, right down to the way we clear our throat. By their very nature, paradoxes are impossible to resolve, so we’ll just focus on the parent’s part of the equation.)
So now you start thinking about how you might be acting like a mini-bully.
You’re a teacher of third-grade girls. You’ve noticed that Shani has started being a nasty little gremlin to Chedva. Being a compassionate and experienced teacher, you know how to nip this kind of thing in the bud. Your methods save Chedva from trauma and teach Shani that this kind of behavior is intolerable. You don’t fear Shani’s influential parents, gossip, or your status-conscious boss. Furthermore, you get a lot of gratification out of teaching Chedva how to deal with the Shanies of life.
But...if you’re being honest with yourself, a streak of vindictiveness tints your treatment of Shani. While you’re confident that you aren’t treating her with excessive harshness, in your heart, you kind of enjoy putting the nasty little gremlin in her place.
With honest self-introspection, you realize that even a hint of smugness is really not appropriate, especially since Shani is, all in all, only 8-years-old. Despite your instinctive revulsion toward bullies, you ideally should be mechanech Shani out of sincere concern for her. Even punishments and sterness should be done out of love for Shani and out of the sincere desire for her to become a better person.
She is, after all, only in third grade, and you know that many people who were problematic as children later grew into great adults.
Then you ask Hashem to forgive you (and you’ll ask Shani, too, if you really were too harsh with her – in a way that does not harm your authority). You resolve to change your attitude toward Shani and ask Hashem to help you do this.
Then you tell Hashem how much you hate your son’s behavior, how much pain it causes you, how you can't stand seeing your little girl suffer so much, and you ask Him to improve the situation.
At this point, you might see an immediate change. It may even be a big change. Or you’ll see a change in a few days. Or it may get worse before it gets better. No matter. Just keep on connecting with Hashem and examining your own deeds and motivations.
Now, let’s say that either things don’t improve or they improve, but not completely. Or they improve a lot for a while, but then get worse again.
So you go through the whole self-introspection again, but digging deeper. And again, you ask Hashem to help you find the answer, knowing that He certainly will because that is why he brought you the distressing situation in the first place.
You have this horrible sister who lives nearby. No matter how much you give her the benefit of the doubt, no matter how much you try to empathize with her in your mind (you both grew up in a dysfunctional family, but she had it much worse), your only real question is whether she suffers from Narcissist Personality Disorder or is Erev Rav.
She knows your worst vulnerabilities and all your weak spots and always makes sure to chisel away at them in the most excruciating manner. Despite your best efforts, sometimes you explode at her.
Your rare explosions are probably not your bullying message.
When, despite your most sincere and heroic efforts, you still crash on your face, that isn’t really counted so much as your fault.
However, what might be the bullying message is how you sometimes speak to her angrily or sarcastically or harshly without any provocation from her. And maybe you vent to your husband (or someone else) about her a little more often than you really need to. Understandably, just seeing her makes you seethe inside and your resentment leaks out through your words and tone of voice and other minor behaviors.
The thing is, if you truly believe that everything is from Hashem, then you also believe that her horrible behavior is also from Hashem. So why are you getting so angry?
(Of course I understand why you’re getting so angry. I get angry about this stuff, too! I am speaking theoretically.)
The Kli Yakar compares this situation to leaves blowing in the wind that get angry at other leaves for bumping into them when it’s the wind that is causing all the friction.
In some ways, this is harder and calls for grittier fine-tuning than dealing with Shani the Future Psychopath.
This is a very, very tall order, but it is a way of getting you to truly increase your emuna and awareness that This World, convincing as it is, is really just an illusion.
It's this kind of grueling ordeal that bumps you up to your next level.
So you really get down to the nitty-gritty and really think about how your sister is just a tikkun or a message or whatever from Hashem. (And if you can manage it, you can even thank Hashem for this nisayon, knowing at least intellectually that something about your sister’s horribleness benefits you in some unfathomable way. This acknowledgment can really lighten the whole nisayon.)
You resolve to handle her better (at least until she slams you into the wall again, so to speak) and you ask Hashem to help you with it all.
Again, you pour out your pain regarding your son’s behavior and beg Hashem to improve things.
And He does!
Suddenly, your older son leaves your little daughter alone completely. Time goes by, and you even forget that he was ever such a jerk. He even starts helping little sis out with things and protects her when other siblings or kids want to pick on her.
Yes, you can go consult with all sorts of experts when you have problems with your kids. And sometimes, their solutions will help. But a lot of times, they won’t. Or they’ll only help temporarily.
It depends on what Hashem wants from you.
The reason they don’t help a lot of times is because Hashem is trying to get you to fix something in your otherwise wonderful self.
I know parents who will try any method and consult with any expert and pay any amount of money and even go against their very nature by behaving in any way they are told will help (also known as “middot work”).
But they won’t do a cheshbon hanefesh.
(And you can’t do real middot work without a real cheshbon hanefesh.)
They refuse to look inside themselves to see if they might possibly be behaving in some way that is similar to that of their child.
(And I was like them myself until I read Garden of Education, thinking that such heroics were all there was for a good parent to do.)
Why Many Chinuch Methods Either Don't Work or Only Work Temporarily
With a few exceptions, my experience has been that most chinuch methods and courses don’t emphasize the importance of prayer and cheshbon hanefesh.
They either borrow a lot from pop psychology (plucking supportive sources from Chazal to back them up, basically drawing a bull’s eye around the arrow after it has been shot) or they take another method, like the early 20th Century method, which theorized that children just want attention (or that they're manipulative in some way) and so you should emotionally detach and ignore a lot of stuff (and declare that this is the old-fashioned way to raise children that our grandparents used – and it is, which kind of worked as long as it was within a basically moral society, but its resulting repression eventually led to the Sixties Revolution).
Or they focus on middot work, but don’t acknowledge the messages that Hashem is sending.
All methods promoted by frum experts certainly mention the importance of davening for children, but with a few exceptions, it is usually not the main focus of the method.
Some mention Hashem more, some mention Him less.
Furthermore, they rarely mention the fact that children mirror parents, unless it is something blatantly obvious like a parent who complains that her children say “Shut up” to each other and their friends when the parent also tells the children to shut up.
Some might blame the parents for subconsciously provoking a child’s behavior, but that is not at all the same as seeing the experience as a message from Hashem and looking more deeply for extremely subtle similarities.
In my experience and everything I’ve read and heard from others’ experiences, the subtle mirroring that can only be discovered through true self-introspection is never mentioned.
But it’s the key part of the chinuch puzzle.
It is not easy, but time is running out and that’s why we’re all getting pushed to the wall by our children’s behavior.
And if it’s not by them, then it’s by someone else.
There is a lot more to say about the subject. But that’s it for now.
Note: In some cases, the child may not be mirroring the parents at all. There may be a deeper reason that has to do with tikkunim and gilgulim or klippot that is beyond the parent’s control or comprehension (such as was the case with Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, for example). Of course, the only way to discover this is by doing a thorough cheshbon hanefesh over a long period of time. In such cases, the only thing to do is turn to Hashem completely with gratitude and an outpouring of your heart, and other forms of davening.
May everyone have much blessing and success and nachat d'kedushah from all your children.