We live on the third floor, and have a little balcony. My 4-year-old has taken to throwing things–toys, couch pillows, books–off the balcony. It’s really not OK, and he knows it. He also knows that if he throws toys he won’t see them again for a while, and that there may be some other consequence, to boot. But he’s 4, his impulse control is not so hot, and he’s testing boundaries.
This morning, I asked him to share the toy he was holding with his little brother, so he ran halfway across the apartment in order to throw it off the balcony. It was a clear f-you: If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. It was the last straw of a frustrating morning, and I yelled at him, really shouted, as I put him in a time out.
There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to raise my children in a home with yelling. I have a pretty firm commitment to raising them to feel loved, safe, and not afraid in their own home, and a screaming adult is terrifying to a small person. So to have slipped in a way that’s human and understandable but still, well, urgently not where I need to be–it’s a terrible feeling. This morning, I failed my son and I failed myself.
Jewishly, this is the season for making amends and making things different. The work of the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur is, famously, that of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentence,” but it literally means, “return.” It’s about coming back to where you need to be–emotionally, spiritually, ethically, interpersonally–and repairing any damage you’ve done by straying. The classical literature on teshuvah talks about cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul that has to happen as part of this process. You can’t come back until you’ve figured out where you’ve gone, and you can’t make amends until you’re clear on where you’ve messed up.
Luckily for us parents, we are offered ample opportunities to get clear on this. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to who we are and how we are with our children for a couple of hours–a week max–and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? When are we pretending to be engaged but are actually checked out (or checking our smartphones?). When are we manipulative or deceitful with our kids, even in little ways that ostensibly “don’t matter”? When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect back to us about who and how we are is necessarily so comfortable.
But it’s important, crucially important. For a few reasons, of course–first and most of all, because it is our job to try to show up for them as the best, most loving versions of ourselves. Part of the parental covenant involves protecting and nurturing our kids so that they can grow into their biggest, brightest, holiest selves, and to not truncate their spirit even unintentionally.
It’s also critical because our ability to check ourselves helps us to become the people we should be–to return to the place from which we’ve strayed—in a more general sense. My rabbi, Alan Lew, used to say that, during the month of Elul, a person should watch their behavior (including their decisions, motivations, and emotions) around food, money, or sex, and they will see all of the neuroses and problems of their life illuminated–the universe in the grain of sand, if you will. Needless to say, I think a hard look at our parenting could do the same thing. Our relationships with our kids offers an easy-access onramp to all of our laziness, pettiness, and unresolved stuff–if we’re willing to look.
Maimonides defines perfect teshuvah as that moment when you come to a situation in which you had previously acted badly and, this time, do it right. How could it be that you might be back in the exact same situation as the one in which you had sinned? If you haven’t faced down your problematic traits and unhealed wounds, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in that same situation over and over–because you keep putting yourself there. Only when you do the transformative work necessary to become a different person do you, naturally and organically, make a different choice.
Fortunately, children continue–again and again and again–to offer us the chance to try again, to do better. The intensity of these bonds are a monastery, of sorts, an enclosed spiritual space in which to do the work that we need to do. It’s messy, sometimes, and inelegant, but if we decide to face who we are with intention and humility, there’s the possibility for us to grow and change into the people that our children so desperately need us to be.
This season offers us a chance to see ourselves, and to do the work to become different people. Today, I not only needed to make amends with my son for raising my voice–which I have done–but I now need to figure out how to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, even if I’m exhausted, frustrated, and have my hands fuller than one person can reasonably handle in a given moment. It’s not a small task, but there is nothing more important.