Parenting my children (biological and foster), more than any other endeavor in my life, has taught me deep insights in ways that I have yet to realize fully. One aspect that I am completely certain of is that they are challenging me to grow in my character traits, or middot. In particular, I have had to learn a new form of humility.
Along with my wife, I want to craft perfect moments for my kids, moments that will be lifelong memories; moments that will have intentional and deliberate meaning. But what my kids have taught me over and over during their short lives so far is that, while I must be present in their daily living, I must also step back at the appropriate times. Their development is not about me and my intentions. It is about them and their experiences.
My children also assist me as I work on controlling my ga’ava (arrogance). They remind me—constantly—that if I truly love them, then I’ll often need to let them control the space. For example, sometimes I’ll start singing a song (a song I’m trying to teach) and my daughter will start with her own song in the midst of mine.
It can be frustrating: Why aren’t you listening to me? This is an important song! But, over time, I’ve come to realize that it’s not her intention to ruin the spiritual music lesson. Rather, she’s expressing her innate creativity. She is internalizing and processing the moment in her own way. Instead of getting frustrated, I have to improvise with her and adapt to how she learns.
Another example: At my daughter’s last birthday party, I wanted to be close to the action and be a major part of her experience for the day. I wanted her to have a birthday she would never forget! But I had to catch myself: this was her story, not mine. I needed to take up less space for her to take up more. While she left the day with presents and cake, I walked away with thoughts of being metzamtzem (retracting): her experiences need to blossom while mine need to retreat.
I continue to pledge to be present and responsive and helpful and loving. But I must also pledge to let my children steer the ship (sometimes), to craft their own narrative, to be their own teachers. I must learn to not be on the top of the hierarchy as captain, leader, and teacher, but rather to be a partner and follower and co-learner.
For me, this is an experiential model of humility that is about putting the self aside. I feel emotional removing myself from her center but this is the gift we must give: presence not dominance, accessibility not centrality.
The late Rav Shlomo Volbe, a modern teacher of the mussar practice of Jewish ethics and piety taught this:
One who craves attention from others has not yet found himself. He is unaware of his true worth. Lacking self-esteem, he depends on the opinions of others. He hungers for their praise for without their appreciation, he feels worthless. When people fail to applaud him, he becomes hostile and angry (Alei Shur, volume 1, p. 43).
Often, we parent not for what’s best for our kids but for them to enjoy our company, to think we’re cool, even to applaud us. We want them to view us as in touch, fun, perhaps even heroic. But again, we should be more concerned with ensuring they know they’re loved and celebrated—not about bolstering our own egos.
In our world, there are many people who grow distant from their parents. As a rabbi, I have heard stories from people that they feel uneasy, even a little sick, being around their parents. There can be many reasons for these feelings, of course, but one of the reoccurring factors is that the child knows that the relationship was all about the parent—the parent’s hopes, dreams, and fears were paramount. That parent never cultivated self-awareness; never made space..
In the Talmud, Rabbi Alexandri commented, “Whoever has arrogance, the slightest breeze will shake them” (BT Sotah 5a). Our kids often have different plans than we have in store for them. If we command control at all times, it will be deeply frustrating when their vision is different. With a little more humility, we can adapt to their desires with more flexibility. We must, of course, still parent with principles and maintain our commitment teaching and modeling important values—but there are so many other spaces that are about how we play, how we learn, how we exist. In this space, we must step away from our rigidity.
Raising children to be sensitive to the world, and to explore their true selves, is challenging work. But when parents model growth that stems from a reflective, responsive mentality then we not only grow in our relationship with our children but grow in our character as well. While I still have a long way to go, I’m honored and blessed to have the greatest teachers I know guiding me—even when they won’t go to sleep on time.