Children learn by our example. If your children are to develop genuine respect for you, they need to know what respect looks like in action. More than listening to your words, they observe how you and your spouse treat your own parents. In Jewish theology, deed carries more weight than creed. This means that God is more interested in our actions than in pledges of faith, in how we treat others than in the quality of our prayer. The sages of the Talmud taught that God said, “Better that my people should forsake me but observe my laws, than believe in me but not observe my laws.”
An Old Parable
This truth is elegantly expressed in the story of the burgher Schmuel, whose elderly father kept spilling soup on the tablecloth because of his trembling fingers. One evening the old man dropped a fine teacup and it fell to the floor and broke.
“From now on you will eat in your room, Father,” declared Schmuel. “Here is a wooden bowl for you to use. This, you cannot break!”
The next day Schmuel came home and saw his very young son sitting on the floor trying to carve out a chunk of wood. “Dearest Yitzik, what are you doing?” Schmuel asked the boy.
“It’s for you, Father,” the son explained, “so you can use it to eat in your room when you are old and your hands start to shake.”
For any of us with aging parents, this parable can be chilling. Do we give our parents the respect they deserve, or are we so busy accomplishing things and improving ourselves that it’s more convenient to toss them a wooden bowl?
When Grandparents Are Not Necessarily Near
To be fair, it’s not always easy to demonstrate respect for our parents even if we want to. We aren’t the blacksmith, son of a blacksmith, so they can’t teach us their trade. Nor do we necessarily see them very often. Many older people are independent and live far away; they have pension plans, condos in retirement communities, and enough money for their medical care. They don’t need us for financial support, and they don’t live near enough to help us care for our young children. The less we need one another, the less we see of one another. Often, families come together only on the High Holy Days, Thanksgiving, Passover, and Mother’s Day.
The pace of our lives and the appliances and services available to us also erode our connection with the older generation. Observe the scene at the next birthday party your child attends: even relatively young and healthy grandparents can seem like tokens at these events, creatures from an ancient civilization unable to ascertain which of the varied, tiny buttons to press to make the video camera function. Willing but superfluous, they’re not needed to cook the meal or supervise musical chairs because the food is provided by Domino’s, the cake by the bakery, and the entertainment by the Lizard Lady.
Building a Bond
Instead of having a practical need for one another, love alone becomes the hook that the whole relationship hangs on. This connection with our parents mostly takes place in an abstract realm of greeting cards, gifts, and checks. Even gift giving has become a problem in affluent families. One grandmother lamented, “I don’t know what to buy for my granddaughter. She already has three hundred dresses.”
To remedy the situation, you need to maximize those times when you all come together, and consciously create opportunities to honor your parents. In our deed-centered religion, honor and love are best demonstrated by doing. So consider giving your parents a chance to “do.”
This doesn’t mean simply asking them to baby-sit or pick something up for you at the market. The purpose of this enterprise is not to help you out or save you time. The purpose is to demonstrate to your children that you cherish the unique contribution your parents make to the family. My husband’s grandfather could bray, honk, and bleat a medley of startlingly accurate animal noises to amuse the children; my father-in-law accompanies our children’s dancing and singing at the piano.
Finding Unique Virtues
My own father is a wonderful storyteller. We ask him to tell us about how he and the other young ice cream vendors would run into the ocean at Brighton Beach holding the heavy boxes of their wares over their heads until the police, aching to fine them for not having licenses but wanting to keep their feet dry, gave up in frustration. He delights me and my daughters with tales about entering (and losing) dance contests at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and about selling men’s suits at Saks 34th Street along with the older salesmen: Mr. Gold, Mr. Diamond, Mr. Silver, and Mr. Seltzer.
Both grandmothers contribute cuisine that I have neither the talent nor patience to prepare: cucumber salad, pot roast, mandelbrot, and Ukrainian roasted eggplant appetizer. My husband and I request these dishes, both for our own pleasure and to show our children how much we appreciate the special talents of our mothers.
Before you think about ways in which you can encourage your children to treat you more respectfully, take a few moments to reflect on the way you behave toward your parents and in-laws. Honoring them now is an investment in how you’ll be treated when it’s time for your children to decide whether to seat you at the dining table or hand you the wooden bowl.
One caveat, for those who are choking. In the Mishneh Torah, physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides provides guidance to people whose parents are cruel, crazy, or criminal. If an adult child is unable to endure the strain of an insane parent, he should leave the parent and appoint others to care for him properly. A child should turn his back completely on an abusive parent, because such a parent will be a bad influence on the grandchildren. If the parents’ physical needs are so great that the child cannot care for them, Torah tells us to hire someone to do the job and to pay for it with the parents’ money if they have enough. If they don’t have the funds, the adult children must provide it. Nowhere is martyrdom even suggested, but everywhere in Jewish literature we are reminded that thoughtfulness, dignity, and compassion for those who brought us into the world is a divine mandate.
Excerpted with permission from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner).