When my daughter was a toddler, almost every time she caught a cold, she would be stricken with an asthma attack. Due to “Reactive Airway Syndrome,” the tiny tubes in her lungs would fill with mucous plugs, and she would wheeze and struggle to breathe. Trips to the emergency room ensued, followed by shots of steroids, which would reduce the inflammation in her respiratory track. But it would also shoot her into hyper-drive, like someone had spiked her apple juice with caffeine.
Ultimately, her pulmonologist and pediatrician developed a plan of action that involved “hitting her hard” with a nebulizer machine at the first hint of the daintiest sneeze or cough. We would plop our 3-year-old down on the couch in front of a “Dora the Explorer” video (yes, this was back at the turn of the century), and persuade her to wear her special “magic” mask while inhaling the mist that calmed her bronchial tubes, but agitated her mood. With her strawberry blond curls and translucent skin, she resembled a delicate angel who was happening to emit the identical hissing and breathing sounds of Darth Vader.
“The secret lies in not letting bad things escalate,” the doctors counseled us. As a Reform rabbi, I was well acquainted with this Mishnaic truism about vicious and virtuous cycles (Pirke Avot 4:2) which says a good deed begets another good deed, and a transgression drags along more transgressions. My husband and I listened to our doctors, to the old rabbis, and to our daughter’s every hiccup. With each cough, we hovered, and we interceded. Just before she turned 5, her lungs became stronger, and we moved to a leafy suburb free of the fumes of the M96 bus. Since then (“pu pu pu” as my mother would say), her asthma has gone into a quiescent period.
When it comes to treating asthma, being an attentive, anxious parent seems to be a good idea, as it keeps your child breathing properly. But what about raising self-reliant, independent, caring, and confident children? How can responding to every whimper allow our children to grow up?
Someone asked me the other day what the most challenging part of being a parent was. Of course, the deepest answer has to do with a perpetual undercurrent of absolute terror that your children are running around this chaotic universe, outside of your womb’s protection, their bodies going everywhere without direction. But, assuming we are going to allow our children to participate in the world outside of the bubble of our homes, other more mundane difficulties crop up: Classmates might not invite them to birthday parties, teachers might grade them harshly. For me, one of the toughest parts of being a parent has to do with figuring out when to encourage our children to handle situations on their own, and when to intervene.
When I lived in Israel for a year, I remember watching children play together at a park. Things were not going well with a particular cohort of chums, and the caregiver advised the children, “Tistadru l’vad,” work it out among your selves. What if the biggest, meanest kid were picking on a little child who was not capable of defending himself? How could the caregiver trust that the children would indeed work things out for everyone’s mutual benefit? Why didn’t the caregiver swoop in and fix the children’s problems? I was equally mortified and fascinated by this style of parenting.
In the world of parenting, we all land somewhere on a spectrum between overbearing and absent. Some of us are hovering micro-managers, treating our children as though they have emotional asthma, assuming they will be unable to breathe for themselves. Others of us tend toward “benign neglect” (OK, not many of us), and we assume our children inhabit a world filled with decent people, and we can allow our offspring to explore and handle their lives with great levels of independence. In reality, most challenges are self-limiting, and will dissipate if we allow our children to handle them, and we don’t go crazy by over-treating with antibiotics.
We have read about Tiger Parenting and “Blessings of Skinned Knees.” What we need to do each day when we see our sons rolling around the floor grabbing for the remote control, or when our daughter is not invited to go trick-or-treating with a bevy of alpha girls, is figure out how much intervention is necessary. Parenting is tricky, because we love so completely, and because it requires nuance and delicacy. Occasionally, it requires metaphorical Liquid Draino pumped into our children’s lungs. Other times, a warm bowl of matzah ball soup is the best medicine. The trick is in knowing what to do when. I still am figuring out where the sweet spot lies on that spectrum of intervention. It’s all a work in progress.