In 1990, the late psychologist and author Julius Segal wrote an article of exceptional depth, wisdom and practicality for Parents Magazine. His message was simple: For children to thrive, they must have the respect, acceptance and patience of parents who cherish them.
Each of these four elements -- respect, acceptance, patience and feeling cherished -- are essential so a child can grow up with the dignity and self-worth needed to fulfill any aspirations a parent might have. The Cornell University psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner agrees with Segal, and adds that children crave the respect, acceptance, patience and feeling of being cherished from at least one parent or other significant adult in their lives.
Each year, as we approach the holidays and reflect on the year past and the year ahead, I revisit Segal's moving article. Now, as the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, continues to cast varying but inescapable shadows upon our households at this time of the year, parents are under great tension. We are not as able to focus on our children as we would like to; we lose our temper more often, and perhaps more forcefully, than we want to. We have too many distractions and too many hassles. More than any time in the past, our teshuvah, our acts of forgiveness relating to our children, must be accompanied by a look ahead.
Given that we know the world is not going to change around us, how can we arrive at 5766 with less to ask forgiveness about? Our tradition gives us a path to follow: to "honor thy children." Here is how we can do this:\n
• We honor our children when we show that we are devoted to them, that they are our greatest priority.\n
• We honor our children when we are at least as courteous to them as we expect them to be to us and others. This courtesy should be shown particularly to our children, but also toward people we want our children to respect.\n
• We honor our children when we accept their individuality. We must recognize our children's talents, and we have to recognize their limitations. But we also must recognize that our children have quirks that we cannot explain; to try to change them all would be quite difficult and emotionally draining.
Of course, we should ask ourselves why we object to certain little annoying things that our children do. Why are these things so different from the arbitrary things we do that most certainly are of equal annoyance to them? How can a child be expected to thrive under the burdens of constant criticism? How do we allow ourselves to think that, "even for their own good," frequent criticisms will help children become proud and self-confident adults?\n
• We honor our children and show great boldness and courage by letting little things that are not truly important slip by without negative comment.\n
• We honor our children when we allow them to be children. Children are not adults. They do not think like adults. They do not carefully analyze the ramifications of all of their actions. Their emotions are not under the same kind of control as those of adults. They sometimes need to be childish or silly. They usually do not have the emotional stamina needed to be their best all the time. They value having a place where they can "let their hair down." Children also are not always good at being able to tell parents exactly what it is that is bothering them. Incidents at school or the playground that our children don't share with us may be causes of instances of stubbornness, laziness or babyishness that bother us.\n
• We honor our children when we give them the benefit of the doubt. We help them when we hold high aspirations and high expectations but also give them as much slack as we would like others to give us. When we do this, we keep a lifeline of caring contact with our children; then, they are more likely to share with us the uncertainties, the pains and the triumphs of their growth.\n
• We honor our children when we refuse to say that we give up on them. We must never let children think they can slip beyond our love and care. They always must know there is a place for them in our hearts and family.
All this honoring does not mean that we never get angry at our children or that we never set limits for our children or that we never discipline our children. Of course, all these things will happen and in fact are necessary. But what is not necessary is that children feel excluded from their parent's life or love.
When we are busy, frustrated or angry, we might do things that dishonor our children. When this happens, it is an even greater dishonor to ignore it. We must be willing to apologize for what we said and sometimes the way we said it, while not apologizing for our limit setting or our constructive feedback.
Ultimately, the concept of teshuvah works better for adults than for children. The idea that we can seek forgiveness for a year of transgressions does not erase the cumulative impact of those transgressions from the hearts of children. By working to honor them every day, and apologizing when we go off course, we will arrive at the next Rosh Hashanah with a lot less to ask forgiveness for, and with a lot stronger relationship with our children.
None of us want to have times when we move from parenting to dishonoring.
We must put up a barrier between parenting and dishonoring, and police it carefully. When we cross into dishonor, we must seek to move back to parenting and reassure our children that it was not our intention to dishonor them. We must do as much as we can to convey to children what Segal emphasized in his article: This coming new year, there will be no greater resolution than to say that we will honor our children to the extent possible by showing them respect, acceptance and patience, and by making it clear -- especially to our children -- that we cherish them as a part of our lives and a part of our family, no matter how hectic and distracted we may seem. n
Maurice J. Elias is a professor in the psychology department at Rutgers University and is contributing faculty at the school's Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.