When I look at my oldest child’s feet I often wonder if he is jumping off the school bus and directly into a pile of razor blades and mud. Almost from the second we buy him sneakers, he begins destroying them. And not just a little bit, but to the point where the sneaker innards start leaking out. Much of this, we’ve discovered, comes from stepping directly into his Velcro shoes without opening them, thereby breaking the backs of the shoes and allowing all kinds of structural damage that I didn’t even know was possible.
At our last visit to the shoe store, the salesperson suggested buying shoes with laces, which are harder to step into, and therefore destroy. The only problem is that my son didn’t know how to tie his shoes. So we started the learning process, taking a couple of turns in the shoe store and a few more at home. As he painstakingly tried to get the finger work right, I thought about the ways in which shoe-tying is one small step on the road to independence. That first step was completed when he learned to put on his own shoes at all. But now, he has learned a skill that can be applied not only to shoes, but other areas as well.
The true test came the next morning. We were rushing to get out of the house, as we do most mornings, and it didn’t occur to me to allot an extra five minutes (or 10 or 15) into our carefully honed schedule for shoe tying. As he sat there trying and trying again, I was pulled into a mental battle between wanting to let him do it and let him learn and needing to leave the house.
At this moment, tying his shoes could either be a step on the road to independence, or if I didn’t let him do it, something that bound him to me more strongly—since it would require adult intervention every time he wanted to go outside. I am someone who often moves quickly, so watching him struggle with this was painful. I knew I could end it in just a few seconds. But I also knew that, if I left him, he would learn to tie his shoes and soon enough he would be doing it without a second thought.
When the rabbis and sages discuss parental obligations to their children, teaching them to tie their shoes doesn’t come up. But the rabbis are very concerned that parents should teach their children how to be good people and how to make their way in the world, through study of Torah and learning a trade. Like Torah study, gaining the skills for professional life do not come easily. They must be acquired through hard work and repletion. Only once the child has mastered them have the parents fulfilled their obligation.
And so too with tying one’s shoes. Yes, it’s true that I could leave my child in Velcro forever, and I certainly understand why some parents opt for that at different stages with different kids. Velcro is easy and doesn’t require any practice or skill. The reward for Velcro is instantaneous. Shoelaces are another story. They require patience, practice and dexterity, which children have in different amounts at different times in their lives.
I sensed that my son was ready for shoelaces now. By helping him learn this skill, I am teaching him that often, independence comes with hard work, with grit and perseverance, but that the reward, a pair of sneakers that stay on your feet, can be priceless.