Why is Parenting so Difficult?
That was the question the mother of a teenager asked me last month. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed many times in subtle and not so subtle ways, but I had never heard it so starkly articulated. She didn’t sound exasperated, despondent, or resentful; just genuinely curious.
Think about it. What do you think is the answer?
Are you tempted to say that it’s because children don’t respect their parents the way they used to? Maybe because teenagers are so hard to talk to nowadays; or because children are exposed to so many negative influences; or because extended families are so scattered.
I won’t disagree with you. Teens do think about things differently from their parents, and you may find it hard to understand them. Children are exposed to sights and sounds you consider inappropriate despite your best efforts to shield them. And many children see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins far less often than you wish they could.
Those are some of the factors that can make parenting difficult.
But the answer to the question, fundamentally, is this. Parenting is extremely difficult because it is extremely important. If it didn’t matter that much, you wouldn’t care as much. You’d put in some effort and settle for what you got in return.
Don’t misunderstand me. The concept of the “good enough parent” is true and very important. But it means that you do your very best and seek ways to learn how to do better, humbly accepting the fact that you can always improve, while accepting yourself as “good enough.” The alternative is to criticize yourself for not doing better until you become perfect. That attitude will leave you chronically discouraged. And it will do the same thing to your child if you respond to her partial successes as though they are failures.
Parenting is so important that when you don’t do as well as you wish you could, you feel very, very bad about it. That’s okay. Some describe this feeling as merirus hanefesh, bitterness of spirit. It is an internal message that something is not what it should be, and you are uncomfortable about it. It is a catalyst for improvement, learning, and growth. It’s not okay when you blame your child for turning you into a failure. You can learn how to better help her to do better next time instead of arguing over whose fault it is that she didn’t do well last time. You can either assign blame or take responsibility. What you can’t do is ignore it, because parenting is too important. The term for this is atzvus, despair, which leads to yaish, a loss of hope and you give up. For you as a parent giving up is never an option. Owning up to your need to learn something new, to do something differently, is always an option, but it requires the humility to seek help, and for many, that can be hard.
Parenting is hard because it is so important. How important? Here is the Shaloh haKodesh on that subject:
Now I will speak about the Crown of Torah: to fulfill “And you shall teach them to your children.” For this, a father offers his soul, his body, and his wealth. He expends large sums for the Torah of his child and thinks nothing of it. He guides him in the ways of learning, feeding him like an ox and enticing him according to comprehension. (Shaar haOsios, 4:22. Volume 1, page 287 in the Oz Vehodor 1993 edition)
Feed him like an ox? What does that mean? According to Rabbenu Gershom on Baba Basra 21a, it means to fill the child with Torah the way a farmer fattens an ox. Here’s how you fatten an ox:
In a breed of cattle evincing a disposition to fatten, it is erroneous to suppose that this properly is only obtainable by an extraordinary consumption of food at an unprofitable rate … It well known to every feeder of cattle that every ox in the same lot does not feed alike; and to what does he attribute this difference? …he allows that the difference of feeding arises from a difference in the “nature” or in other words the disposition of the animal. The Genesee farmer, Volume 5, published in 1835, italics in the original.
It is hard work to determine how best to feed Torah to each of your children. You want them to absorb and be nourished by the Torah you and your representatives in their schools give to them. You hope they’ll ask for more.
What does the Shaloh mean by the next part, enticing him according to comprehension? The Shaloh means that once you’re sure that you are feeding your child knowledge and setting expectations in a way that he is capable of meeting them, you then offer incentives that will help him want to learn and succeed at what you expect of him.
The men in my men’s parenting group seemed skeptical.
Okay, so you offer a 5 year old candy to sit still and learn Aleph Bais for a few minutes because you’re pretty sure she is capable and you’re real sure she’d rather be doing something else. But shouldn’t she outgrow that pretty fast, and do things because she realizes it’s what she has to do?
I opened the Shaloh, and read it aloud.
Here’s a literal translation:
Entice a young child with things he likes and desires so that he’ll go to learn with a good positive look on his face. When he gets older and disdains the little gifts from before, give him other ones according to what he desires. If he grows older and disdains all of these, tell him to learn and in return you’ll find him a wonderful wife. After that, when he grows even older, tell him, “Learn Torah and then you will become a leader and they will call you “Rebbe.” And after that, when he grows even older, tell him, “In the merit of the Torah you will merit Gan Eden.” After that, when he becomes wise, guide him to learn Torah for its own sake and not for anything in the world, as it says in the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) “from learning not for its own sake you come to learning for its own sake.”
The Shaloh haKodesh describes parenting as The Crown of Torah.
Shlomo haMelech taught us that grandchildren are the Crown Of The Aged. (Mishlei 17:6)
Parenting may be the most difficult responsibility we have. It can also be the most rewarding.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting.