by Sam Glaser
“What to Expect When You’re Expecting” was our bible for the first few years of family life. Soon thereafter, we let the instinct that we developed from our own upbringing take over, and thanks to the fact that my wife and I were raised by loving parents, we had pretty good role models on whom to rely. When your kids start speaking after about a year, they tell you what they need and save you from having to run back to the book with every crying jag. We seem to be doing all right in that our kids are in good shape, get along well with others and keep up with their schoolwork, thank God. Once in a while we panic, usually because one of them is falling off the minimum line of the development chart or because there’s a playground bully on the loose. But most of the time, at least for me, bringing up children has been the single most fulfilling, awe-inspiring experience of my life.
I practice Telescope Parenting. I love watching my kids run around in public and get great amusement seeing what they may do. I let them pick the agenda, interact with whomever they choose and climb or explore at will. This works great on hikes, at the beach or when visiting museums or shopping malls, where kids can safely wander and express themselves. It’s always interesting to see who will get amusement out of their antics, who will initiate conversation and who is looking around for the irresponsible guardian that set the kids loose. I want my kids to feel that the world is safe so that they develop a sense of confidence and learn to make good judgment calls in any situation. Of course, I can only be anonymous until they run back to my arms or there is a need to intercede. But in the meantime, I get the great joy of observing their innocence and exuberance, something that would impossible if I were to act as a Helicopter Parent, interrupting their explorations with the cacophony of shrill rotors overhead in the form of claustrophobic supervision.
I came up with this telescope term after witnessing the behavior of parents who transmit their own fear and anxiety to their unwitting progeny. I want nothing to do with such shenanigans and I have learned catch myself when I start to go into this insecure, overly involved helicopter mode. Telescope Parenting requires giving children the space to make their own decisions. My wife and I realized early on that it’s better for the kid and the parent/child relationship to offer a choice rather than a command. It can be as simple as, “Would you like to go to bed now or in ten minutes.” As human beings with free choice, they crave the opportunity to make their own decisions. By offering a few alternatives, we keep the response in the realm of our preference. Allowing them to make choices also requires that they live with the consequences of bad decisions. “Are you sure you won’t put on sunscreen for our day at the beach? I don’t want to see you get sunburned!” When they can’t sleep that night because their shoulders are fried they put up much less of a fight the next time. (We call it “sunscream” because that is what my kids usually do when we try to apply it.) I try to avoid grandmotherly warnings like, “Wear a jacket or you’ll catch a cold,” or, “Don’t go that way or you’ll fall.” In other words, I choose my words carefully and believe in their power…I don’t want to unconsciously place a curse on my children! There are times when offering kids choices isn’t going to work and you have to lay down the law. Hopefully your kids intuit the difference since they usually do get a choice; when none is presented, there must be a good reason.
Helicopter Parenting yields unexpected repercussions. Dr. Deborah Gilboa reports
that the very consequences that such parents are trying to prevent are the best teachers of life lessons, lessons that could have served to make that overprotected kid into a mensch. Children who are accustomed to having their needs micromanaged expect to always get their way and develop a sense of entitlement. By “protecting” their children’s self esteem such parents send the message that “my mom doesn’t trust me to do this on my own” and therefore the child’s confidence plummets. Such kids often graduate high school with undeveloped life skills since their parents are compelled to do everything for them. According to a University of Mary Washington study, overparenting is associated with higher levels of child anxiety and depression. While all cultures have their helicopter parents, I’m guessing that the Jewish People have cornered the market.
Yes, there are caveats to Telescope Parenting. My kids fall and scrape knees. Sometimes I bring them home muddy, wet and/or sticky. They can wander too far for comfort and I have to frantically chase them down. Some folks with whom they interact are too friendly or freaky or inebriated. But even the sad souls are deserving of conversation or curiosity from my adventurous youngsters. They have witnessed their dad not only giving tzedakah to anyone who asks but also engaging these human beings in genuine conversation. I believe in the precept from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that one who is wise learns from everyone. Our best outings include learning about fishing from those who fish for their supper on the Santa Monica pier. My kids have witnessed the ills of drug abuse by riding bikes amongst the homeless on the Venice boardwalk and negotiating with the hippies selling homemade jewelry. I recognize that we live in a homogenous neighborhood with schools where every last kid is Jewish. I feel compelled to expose them to the melting pot of society so that they fall in love with humanity and are open hearted to differences.
I have chosen to live in a world of honesty and security. That doesn’t mean I leave my wallet out at the shopping mall or my car unlocked in funky neighborhoods. But when we go to the beach we set up camp with our towels and snacks and leave them unguarded for hours when we take long walks. I let strangers borrow my iPhone. Bikes and toys can stay overnight on the front lawn. Acting with cavalier naiveté can backfire of course. But I’d rather take a hit once in a while than live in a state of paranoia. I want my kids to feel that they are off the leash, that they are making their own (age appropriate) decisions and that they can trust their fellow man. I teach them that 99% of the people they will meet are nice, that strangers are just friends they haven’t yet met. Yes, from time to time they may encounter the evil 1%, God forbid, but in the meantime they will feel safe and happy in a world of goodness.
I also have taught my children to be aware of danger, to trust their sixth sense and act on it. In the made-up stories that I tell them nightly I include sagas of surviving natural disasters, stampedes at crowded sporting events and finding out that the person you thought you could beat up has a concealed weapon. Openness and wonderment does not necessarily need to include being a sucker. When they do meet a member of that 1% club they need to realize that this is not someone with whom they should hang out or trust; and if they are pursued, to run fast. By exposing them to unsavory types I try to give them a taste of what that sixth sense might feel like. The Talmud instructs parents to teach kids how to swim. I believe that is a mashal (example) recommending teaching them to navigate the stormy seas of life; how to “watch their butt” in dangerous situations and “kick butt” when they must.
I think many parents don’t quite realize what a profound influence their actions have on their kids. I believe our children are watching our every move and storing the data in a seldom seen long-term databank for access over their lifetimes. We had a billboard in our neighborhood that stated: “Parents, the Anti-Drug,” requesting that parents have heart-to-heart conversations about life matters even if they believe their kids will ignore them. I can state from experience that as a middle-age dad I still care what my parents think and in a subconscious way want to please them. Parental concern and guidance supports the natural development of conscience in the child, even teenagers! Dennis Prager states that children are born selfish and narcissistic and it’s up to parents to teach them goodness and ethical behavior. We certainly can’t rely upon public schools for values education. Telescope Parents recognize that there is no sense in trying to shield their children from the vicissitudes of life. This is the “field” on which values are taught. Even our preteens are aware when cash flow is tight but they also see that it doesn’t vanquish our shalom bayit (peace in the home.) They have witnessed me paying back a cashier when I received too much change. I am careful to pay full price admission to Disneyland for my ten-year-old; he can read that he is too old for the child ticket and getting him to lie would unravel years of integrity training. I even drag my kids to shiva minyanim (services to pay respect for the deceased) so that they share in that powerful realization that time is precious and that it’s important to cherish their loved ones.
My wife and I realize that we are modeling how to treat one’s spouse and that we are constantly teaching unspoken lessons that will hopefully result in successful relationships for our offspring. We are very candid with our unabashed love for one another. Even though it embarrasses our kids, I get down on my knees and gaze lovingly at my wife every Friday night when I sing Aishes Chayil (the traditional salute to a virtuous wife.) We attempt to resolve conflicts peacefully and don’t let sharp word exchanges escalate. At least I don’t, and it takes two to tango. We have weekly date nights so that our kids see that people who love each other make time for each other. We never engage in lashon harah (slander) about each other to anyone, especially our kids. On one Shabbas we had a guest who kept affectionately dissing her humble husband throughout the meal. Each time my daughter would shoot me a look that said, “I know that’s not OK!”
Sometimes I think that parents should be licensed have children, much like a contractor or doctor needs documentation asserting that they have a certain degree of training and ethical behavior. Couples need to get their own acts together before planning a family. Helicopter Parents are typically just overbearing and insecure, not psychopathic. But those with significant personality problems or addictions who get married in an attempt to be less miserable must take radical measures not inflict these issues onto the next generation. One’s choice to smoke, gamble, watch porn or abuse substances has a direct affect on the family. Recent studies indicate that the probability of a child’s smoking doubles if one parent smokes and quadruples if both parents smoke. I would bet that the same is true for alcohol and pot abuse. We also have to model healthy behaviors like wearing seatbelts, eating right and staying in shape. A Norwegian National Health Survey demonstrates that the probability of a young adult’s abstaining from junk food is five times higher if one of his parents had a low fat intake. How many obese parents have I seen with oversized kids? Part of responsible parenting is realizing that one’s vices affect everybody. Keeping those vices behind closed doors is also damaging. Please pardon my soapbox moment, but those secret addictions to which you feel entitled or cannot stop create a soul sucking “double life” that tarnishes your very being. By definition, you have eliminated your personal integrity since your personhood is split into a public angel and a private deviate. OK, I’m off the soapbox.
Since I try to cover the Jewish angle in my writing I feel compelled to cover the hot topic subject of continuity. How can we pass Jewish values to the next generation? How can we stem the tide of assimilation and combat ignorance of our precious heritage? Millions of dollars are being spent to answer this question with programs like school and camp scholarships, Birthright and Hillel. No movement is exempt; even the Orthodox panic that the young generations will opt for the secular rather than the sacred when they are old enough to choose their own lifestyles. The Kotzker Rebbe was asked how one could make his or her kids devoted to Torah. The rebbe answered, “If you really want them to do this, then you yourself must spend time over the Torah, and they will do as you do. Otherwise they will not devote themselves to the Torah, but only tell their children to do it. And so it will go on.” In other words, if we model commitment, we get commitment, if we model lip service, we get lip service. We are more likely to pass on the legacy of our actions than our philosophy.
While I graciously let my wife suffer through the math textbooks, I go out of my way to assist with their Judaic homework. I let my young scholars know that I also am learning from what we are discussing and I get an unspeakably sweet jolt of nachas when they find a chiddush (a novel thought.) Helicopter parents feel compelled to press an agenda about their children’s curricula. Teachers and administrators see them coming and hide. Telescope parents realize that their offspring have their own unique needs and the school can’t be counted upon to meet all of them. In Mishlei (Proverbs) King Solomon states, “Educate a child according to his or her way, even when he grows old he will not turn away from it.” Some kids are aural learners, some are kinesthetic. Some great at science, some find algebra odious. Within the realm of Torah there are so many ways to get into it. A crucial part of raising Jewish kids is helping children find their “way” and reassuring them that their way is ideal for them. Parents of day school kids must be prepared to supplement beyond the standard Talmud-based curriculum for those kids who don’t have a “Gemara Kup” (a head for learning Talmud.) When the learning is fun and dovetails with the student’s strengths, then you have found the key to raising a lifelong learner.
In order to pass down love for Jewish life, parents have to model commitment and enthusiasm, even if they don’t feel it. Our sages guarantee that what starts “lo lishma” (not for the sake of heaven) eventually becomes “lishma” (for the sake of heaven.) Make sure your kids catch you in the act of doing Jewish stuff. They see me davening and know that this is not a time to interrupt. I study Torah publically in our well-trafficked kitchen. I share any exciting tidbits each night at the dinner table or on Shabbas. Most importantly, I don’t take for granted that they are getting Judaism by osmosis and keep the subject of continuity on the table. One of my friends, the dynamic Lori Palatnik realized that the key to righting our sinking ship is by inspiring young non-Orthodox mothers to fire up their Jewish connections. She took it upon herself to figure out a way to get them on spirited and spiritual all-expense-paid (after airfare costs) trips to Israel. This one woman’s effort succeeded in raising the funds to send over 6500 women on this remarkable program. Yes, you can go too! I have helped to conduct recharging weekends for the alumni and I marvel at the enthusiasm of this once disenfranchised group and see how it is revolutionizing Jewish life for these lucky families. When kids they see their parents excited about Judaism enough to make it a lifelong priority, then the need for continuity programming becomes irrelevant.
There is one area of Jewish life that does require Helicopter parenting: getting your kids married off. The same tractate of Talmud that recommends that we teach our kids to swim insists that every parent’s sacred duty is coaxing their kids to the chuppah. This point seems to be lost on adherents of all denominations except perhaps Charedim who still engage in arranging shiduchim (matchmaking.) I had very little marital direction from my parents or the Conservative movement. My dad encouraged me to sow my wild oats and to relish in the pursuit. He also gave me that old world advice that I find so destructive: to wait until I had a steady income before seriously dating. I didn’t have the marriage word in my vocabulary until I was nearly thirty! I’ve seen that those couples in our community that marry young also take the exciting ride of finding careers and settling down during their twenties, but they get to share the adventure with their besheret.
The bottom line is that if Jewish parents could get more comfortable with the role of nudge-in-chief, our highly prone to suggestion offspring would get married. As it stands now, most kids wallow in a transitory job market for a decade after college and drift in and out of multiple relationships. Precious time is wasted, hearts are broken and scar tissue develops. We certainly aren’t motivated to maturity or commitment by secular society. In fact, Western media intimates that real commitment in a relationship is foolhardy, terrifying or for wimps who don’t have the backbone to go it alone. The “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton recently made headlines by claiming that women should spend 75% of their time in college looking for a man, the time when they are surrounded by like-minded, unattached peers in their age group. Yes, it would be highly controversial to launch a Federation campaign to encourage youth to marry before the age of twenty-five, but it might put that “marriage word” in their vocabularies and solve the crisis of our declining birthrate. Most in vitro clinics would fold for lack of customers. Young parents would realize that their mentors were right all along; while children require lots of effort and cash, the reward far exceeds the sacrifice.
A final thought: practicing Telescope Parenting better prepares parents for the inevitable empty nest syndrome. Such parents have created a strategic distance between themselves and their children and have instilled in their kids the confidence to stand on their own. They don’t define themselves solely as mom or dad since their children’s developing independence is welcome and the parent’s own individuality is nurtured. Helicopter Parents describe empty nest separation as horrible and feel a sense of abandonment. Telescope Parents certainly miss their kids but are thrilled that they are functioning on their own and that they will eventually be off the payroll. Such parents may suggest career options but don’t impose their own bias or try to shoehorn the kids into a mold, they just give them the tools to know themselves and choose wisely. Ideally, we Jewish parents perceive that our children are gifts from the Creator, on loan, entrusted to our care for only a few short years. We do our best to endow them with all the wisdom and blessings that we can muster and empower them to formulate and pursue their own unique paths. Until, of course, they have too much laundry, and then they can come running home.