My parenting epiphany came unexpectedly when my older child was 4 years old. I was reading, of all things, a book review in The New Yorker, not a regular part of my media consumption. But the title of the 2012 article caught my attention: “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?”
In it, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that a not insignificant portion of American children are among the most privileged children in human history. It is not just that many have an “unprecedented amount of stuff,” more importantly to my mind, she claims that “they’ve also been granted unprecedented authority.” She cites two psychologists who write that today, “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval.”
I am certainly not nostalgic for a bygone era of unquestioned parental authority in which kids were meant to be seen and not heard. However, those words, “Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,” felt addressed to me. In reading those words, I realized I had misunderstood my work as a parent.
The intimacy and trust of a child is one of the greatest gifts to receive. It gives purpose, joy and meaning. And it can be a dangerous intoxicant, at least for me, as my desire for those things blinds me to my most important parental responsibility—to help create the context for my children to grow into good people who can be responsible for their own lives.
Pirket Avot teaches aseh licha rav (make for yourself a teacher) (1:6). I have always understood this to be an outward-facing imperative—we have to find people who can be our guides, even finding the teachers within other people when what they have to teach is not always obvious. What I have come to see is that this insight of our ancestors is also an inward imperative, to make yourself become a teacher. As parents, that work requires us to do the internal work necessary to be competent, and hopefully skillful, loving stewards of our children’s emergence as people who can endure, survive and thrive outside of our homes and embraces—long after us.
We all have a personal parenting curriculum. For me, it includes, among other things, setting limits on my own desire for my children’s affection. May we all take up this challenge and obligation, to make ourselves our children’s guides. Our kids are depending on us.
Daniel Klein is an instructor of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. He is a 2010 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he serves as associate dean of admissions and student life.
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