Like nearly all the other first-time mothers of my generation, whether FFB or not, there was no bar too high to jump. Bursting with idealism to raise our children perfectly and avoid the problems (especially like off-the-derech teens) we saw around us, we were ready to do ANYTHING we were told.
We saw the impossible as possible if only we would work hard enough and leap high enough for it.
And we did.
And one by one, we all fell, too.
And when I say “fall,” I mean to plummet from the highest heights to which we’d scaled to the bone and come crashing down to the rocky ground in a big gory splatter.
Every generation has its foibles and blind spots. Ours was b’kochi v’otzem yadai:
"with my own power and the strength of my own hands."
According to our observations, parents failed because they didn’t try hard enough, because they didn’t care enough, and because they didn’t invest enough in their kids. There is truth to this, especially in the generation that raised us, but it isn’t always true and even when it is, there’s often a lot more to the story than that.
So why, with all our idealism and resolve, with all those classes and books produced by experienced experts and stamped with the highest rabbinical approval, did so many of us plummet so miserably?
Because a large part of whatever their methods, techniques, and philosophies weren’t based on Torah principles as much as believed.
Synthetic Potatoes Cannot Reproduce—Nor Can Synthetic Chinuch
Yet when I tentatively brought this up with one chinuch expert, I got a rattled look, a shocked stammer, and then: “Well, maybe it looks that way, but really, it’s not. As psychology evolves, researchers discover Torah truths without realizing it. But they think they thought of it first.”
There is some truth to that, but not as much as many people like to think.
(Note: As long as psychology remains a Godless discipline, it will simply not be able to reach certain essential truths. And this means that total healing will ultimately be impaired.)
Yet the more I learned, the more I saw that much of so-called Torah chinuch was borrowing VERY heavily from both feminism and popular child psychology.
Just to be clear: I firmly believe that this was NOT done intentionally.
All the chinuch experts and advisers and professionals I've met or read impressed me as very sincere and are willing to invest a tremendous amount to help parents and their children.
Certain concepts simply feel right, so chinuch “experts” went with them.
The issue is why certain concepts feel right.
They might feel right for the wrong reason.
Or they might truly be right for one situation, but cause disaster in another.
Furthermore, when I brought up this unintentional "borrowing" with my fellow mommies, they responded by firmly shaking their heads before I even finished my sentence and said, “No. No, this is the real deal.” And they insisted that if whatever “expert” stated this was an authentic Torah principle of chinuch, then that was that. Even as I tried to suggest that the borrowing was accidental, I met with the same stonewall of denial.
Or there were those who admitted that yes, of course it was from pop psychology, but as long as it was cherry-picked by knowledgeable and respected frum people, then it was okay. (Sort of like what that expert told me above.) We were supposed to blindly trust these people.
So I quickly learned that questioning the foundation for the chinuch methods supposedly based on Torah was forbidden, both to the experts themselves and to their devotees.
Yet as the more I learned, the more I realized that what chinuch experts (unconsciously) often did was shoot an arrow at a wall, and then draw a target around the arrow, then point to it and say, “See? Bull’s eye!”
(Also, emunat tzaddikim/faith in completely righteous people is totally different than blindly trusting regular frum "experts" - even if those "experts" have rabbinical backing from some pretty big rabbis. Some frum people equate the two, and that's unfortunate. We can acknowledge that a rabbi or rebbetzin has expertise in an area, but it doesn't mean that they are always correct or without blind spots. In other words, it is not a virtue to blindly trust "experts.")
Currently, a completely different method is sailing through the frum community.
And once again, its proponents claim that it’s based on authentic Torah values.
And once again, its proponents claim that it derived from the methods “shel pa’am” (“of yore” or “old-fashioned”).
Many of the same mothers with whom I attended chinuch classes and exchanged chinuch books have now gone ga-ga for this new method. Not coincidentally, this method shifts blame off the mother, while all the pop psychology-based methods the mothers have been inundated with until now heave a heavy burden of not-necessarily-deserved accountability on the mother.
(After having been constantly and relentlessly held solely responsible for their children's chinuch and resultant behavior, many mothers are famished for a method that relieves that awful unrelenting pressure, which was self-imposed, society-imposed, and "expert"-imposed.)
But the admittedly little I know of this method sounds similar to the method popular prior to Dr. Spock’s 1946 book—and that method was extremely problematic, as discussed in The Last 200 Years of Chinuch I: The Non-Jewish World, and NOT based on Torah, but produced by a few character-deficient doctors.
Torah-based chinuch cannot copy secular-based chinuch and succeed.
It’s just not the way God’s spiritual Physics work.
Which Particular “Pa’am” Do You Mean?
there is a problem when we talk about “pa’am”—which “pa’am” is meant?
The 1900s? The 1800s? The 1300s? Before the Destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash?
Is the it the pa’am of America in 1885? Of Germany in 1885? Or of Morocco in 1885? Despite them all being the same “pa’am” of 1885, both the Jewish and the non-Jewish communities were very different in each of those countries.
Finally, why oh why do people never mean any Sephardi group when they talk about the chinuch methods “shel pa’am”?
Sephardim have an equally glorious history of tzaddikim and beautiful deeds. Furthermore, Sephardi Jewry did not suffer the same spiritual onslaught as Ashkenazi Jewry. And what they did suffer, they survived more intact. Meaning that even secular Sephardi Jews stripped of their religious externals by the secular Leftist brainwashing and treatment in Eretz Yisrael or by materialism and liberalism in chutz la’aretz still maintain warm feelings toward Hashem, Judaism, and the Torah. And when they do observe mitzvot, they tend to observe them in the traditional Torah way. They feel great respect and appreciation for truly great rabbis and their Torah learning.
(Certainly, this is not true of all secular Sephardim. But the truth of the generalization has been noted by Jews of all backgrounds.)
But going back to the “pa’am” romanticized and glorified by so many:
In my parents’ home, there is a large book extolling the era of Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe...pa'am!
Even as a secular Jewish teenager, I was shocked at the vulgarity and blasphemy displayed in the photos. Had non-Jews profaned Torah concepts with such vulgarity, they would be condemned as terrible antisemites—and these were Jews, likely from a frum background, the men likely products of the traditional Yiddish-language cheder system.
Despite the insistence in some circles today that Yiddish provides an extra layer of spiritual preservation and shelter, Yiddish unfortunately had a secular vulgar Torah-hating history for over a century that ran parallel to its vibrant, holy, Torah-embracing counterpart.
So maybe we should be digging into the chinuch methods used in pre-WWII Iraq or Morocco?
Ultimately, we have our own sources to guide us.
In Mishlei, Shlomo Hamelech commands us to “Educate a youth according to his way, so that when he is old, he will not depart from it.” We have commentaries on this verse, along with statements from the Vilna Gaon and a famous letter from the Ramban to his son. The Talmud also discusses child-rearing. In Pele Yoetz, Rabbi Eliezer Papo dedicates several chapters which cover different aspects of raising children correctly.
But most of all, we have millennia of stories and mussar which tells us the most important aspects of good parenting.
Torah-True Chinuch Methods
You've probably come across them in Orthodox biographies, histories, and mussar books.
Sincere, copious, heartfelt prayer, whether it consists of reciting pre-written prayers, Tehillim, or one’s own words. When the Chafetz Chaim spoke of his mother's parenting technique, he referred to her tear-soaked prayer book.
Parental modeling of good behavior
This means a parent constantly strives to improve his or herself via a daily self-accounting and strengthening his or her emuna and bitachon via reading mussar sefarim, talking to God, chizuk discussions with others, etc.
Allowing Hashem to give you whatever message you need when you need via HIS chosen messenger (whoever that might be)
Some of the best advice I or others have received came from unofficial sources. For example, a mother of 8 once mentioned to me: "When you're having a hard day, no matter how hard it is, make sure you smile at your kids at least once - or however many times you can remember to do it throughout the day." She continued, "When you're down, whether you're exhausted or in pain or just plain down, it shows on your face and your children can interpret it to mean their the cause. Just imagine for a moment spending the entire day being taken care of someone with a long face that never smiles."
I pictured it and realized how right she was.
This is very valuable advice, yet I have never heard it in a class or read it anywhere. It came from a "mere" housewife (i.e. a sincerely frum woman who takes her parenting job very much to heart).
Other times, you can learn a lot from people who aren't the ideal parents, but are doing at least one major thing right (and reaping a lot of success from it) and seem to be doing it better than anyone else, and you can learn that particular aspect of parenting from them.
Here's an extreme example:
A mother who'd attended chinuch classes for 10 years and had consulted with countless social workers, advisers, friends, rebbetzins, rabbis, experts, professionals, teachers, principal, youth workers, a mother whose child had been in a variety of schools and programs and medications, finally heard the root of her children's issues from a completely unexpected source:
her tax adviser.
She's not sure how he came up with it, but while they were discussing finance management, he suddenly slipped it into the conversation.
Judaism emphasizes hearing the truth from whoever says it. This could be a child, the meter maid, the homeless schizophrenic in the park, the librarian, your tax adviser, or anyone else.
Giving tzedakah in the merit of the child, getting blessings from tzaddikim, etc.
Personally, when I read Rav Shalom Arush’s Garden of Education, I found the secret to successful chinuch in there:
- Perform a regular and gruelingly honest self-introspection (which you are halachically obligated to do anyway outside of parenting) using your child’s undesirable behaviors as your personal springboard
- Discuss the problems with Hashem
- Beg Hashem for success and mercy
Following Rav Arush's recommendations alone reaped me more success than all the years of reading chinuch sefarim and attending chinuch classes (all rabbinically approved, of course!). It doesn't mean you won't have problems. I'm not perfect, so neither are my children. But his method either solved or greatly relieved certain problems that "experts" often insist can only be solved via heavy-duty intervention like intensive therapy, support groups, and a lot of what I call "juggling bowling balls" on the part of the parents.
Yes, our Gedolim have told us that certain methods no longer apply (okay—just one that I know of: No whipping your kid with a belt), but that emendation against physical punishment could have also been gleaned from Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, the Pele Yoetz (who were also against physical or any kind of harsh punishment), or just sitting down and pondering how to truly educate each of your children according to each one’s individual way.
You have to wonder why many people make it so much more complicated than it needs to be.
Personally, I know the reason why I initially clung to all the chinuch methods they whacked against my head, making things so complicated for myself:
It was a certain laziness, bullheadedness, ego, and fear on my part.
But I don’t know if that’s the reason for everyone else.
Yes, the chinuch problems themselves can be extremely complex: mental illness, difficult teachers, rapidly evolving technology, addiction, serious behavioral problems, social pressures, financial problems, exasperating sibling rivalry, chutzpah, criminal behavior, divorce, death, a sabotaging spouse, and much more. But the remedy is as Rav Shalom Arush describes above. And yes, it's challenging, grueling, long, and painful at times, but not necessarily so complicated.
(Having said that, nothing is surefire. Or easy. Despite your best efforts and copious prayers, it could just be that you and your child were meant to go through certain challenges in life. After all, even Yaakov Avinu and Rivka Imeinu had an Esav. But using the authentic Torah guidance as described above will get you farther than even the most well-meaning and experienced chinuch experts. Ask me how I know…;)