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Not To Be Confused With Raising Jewish Kids
A friend of mine had recently become a grandmother for the first time, and was concerned about some of the decisions her son and his wife were making about the baby. She told me she hated to meddle, but she also hated to ignore what they were doing that she thought was a mistake, and she asked me "When should a mother just let go, instead of telling her children what to do? My son is an adult and a respected attorney; should I quit giving him advice and trying to control him?"
My response was "That is a silly question. You are a Jewish mother. If you are doing your job right, you should still be in control of him twenty years after you are dead!"
There is some truth behind the old joke that the difference between Jewish mothers and Rottweilers is that Rottweilers will eventually let go.
Of course, as it says in Dan Greenburg's book How To Be a Jewish Mother, you don't have to be either Jewish or a mother to be a Jewish mother. I have an Italian Catholic friend who has lived in the United States for the 40-some years of her marriage, but who comments in a very thick accent, and with a mischievous smile on her face, that she no longer tells her grown children what to do "because they are old enough to make their own decisions; I just always make suggestions in case they had not thought of them." There are plenty of older adults, of many nationalities and religious faiths, who are never at a loss for advice they feel quite adamantly about giving their children or others, always in the name of being helpful. My mother-in-law, a Swedish Lutheran-turned-Presbyterian by marriage, begins many a sentence with "You know, _____ [fill in the name here of the person being addressed by her], what you ought to do is to...." It is something of an endearing trait the way she does it, even on those, of course, rare occasions when you have no intention of taking the suggestion.
And, for a while, I thought this was a European immigrant phenomenon, but after having watched many Jewish parents of my generation become permissive, something I thought not at all possible, and that still seems it ought to be a logical contradiction, it occurred to me one day, having seen Asian mothers explaining their amazingly accomplished children's imperfections to them, that if I had wanted to marry a woman today who would have been a Jewish mother to my children, I would have had to marry an Asian.
Or one can find advising people anywhere. On the second Cosby Show series one night, Cosby protests being chastised for being an opinionated old man, lamenting to his wife that she used to find it attractive that he had ideas about things. Her response is "But not about everything." Nobel laureate in economics, Paul Samuelson, has made the observation that Nobel hoped his prize "would subsidize and support the young winner's research efforts for the rest of life. One vulgar view is that the reverse of Nobel's wish is what actually happens. After winners receive the award and adulation, they wither away into vainglorious sterility. More than that, they become pontificating windbags, preaching to the world on ethics and futorology, politics and philosophy."
Amy Borkowsky has written a book and compiled a CD (Amy's Answering Machine) of her mother's advice and verbalized worries left on her telephone answering machine over the years. Although her mother epitomizes the stereotype of the concerned and perhaps even nagging mother better than most, and although some of the concerns and admonitions are unique, many people can easily recognize themselves or their own parents in the collection.
Now Rabbi Harold S. Kushner espouses the view that Judaism has so many laws, guiding every minute aspect of life, because God wants people to see that there is a bit of the Divine in all aspects of life. I would argue that there might be a different reason, one that Jewish mothers (of all faiths and genders everywhere) would hold -- that everything in life is extremely important; so important that God and your mother need to constantly remind and tell you what to do so that you don't make mistakes you will regret. Or that you should regret.
For it seems to me that people tend to give advice and seem opinionated or seem to be "control freaks" only because they believe that all the things they advise about are extremely important. But the importance is not about one's current happiness; it is about one's overall happiness or one's overall good. "I am only telling you this for your own good...." is not an unfamiliar phrase to people who have been subjected to advice. Real "Jewish mother's" would never say, as many modern parents would say, "I only want that my child should be happy." A "Jewish mother" would be more interested in the child's doing the right thing because there will be plenty of time for happiness later if s/he does. And if not, happiness is not that important anyway; there is work to be done. "Jewish mothers" are not Jeremy Bentham's arguing that the obligatory acts are those which bestow the greatest pleasure on the greatest number. ("Pleasure/schmeasure. You want pleasure; I'll give you pleasure; I'll let you live another day. Now go do your homework.") Or where real "Jewish mothers" are interested in their children's happiness, they are interested in extremely long term happiness or deserved happiness, not just mere short term pleasure. "You do your school work now and you watch television later if there is time; your school work is more important; you need to learn all you can so you can make something of yourself." "I know you would rather stay up and watch television, but you will be tired in the morning and you won't want to get up and you won't be able to pay attention in school; so turn off the television and go to bed." In other words, another ten minutes of watching tv tonight, and you will have to go on welfare as an adult instead of being a doctor.
Now all this may often seem to be overdone. It may even often be overdone. It is certainly, at the very least, disconcerting to kids who think they are supposed to be living in a free country and who think the notions of independence, liberty, autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness ought to mean something on the personal level. It can be aggravating, embarrassing, and perhaps even psychologically damaging in some cases. It is also the fodder of much humor, as most people can relate to comedians' stories about controlling parents and teachers; and those who are not paying lots of money to psychiatrists can find those stories hilarious when told right. And the domineering parent stories are not particularly dissimilar from the stories about being taught in schools by Catholic nuns who were able to spot the slightest imperfections waiting to become major character flaws from across the room and be there with a ruler to the knuckles in a moment to correct them. In hindsight, for people who were not severely damaged by such behaviors of parents and teachers, the war stories of such experiences will often bring gales of commiserating laughter.
What separates parental behavior of this sort that is harmful and damaging to children from that which is not, I do not know -- perhaps it is the quality of the advice given or the (implied) unfair harshness of the punishment for not heeding it; or perhaps it is that damaging control leaves no room for autonomy, whereas harmless control still leaves some sort of choice and exercise of responsibility. Perhaps damaging control carries with it no love, but that harmless control shows great caring, concern, and simply misguided compassion.
But I have brought up all this in order to make an important point. All behavior is potentially important because almost any careless act can result in consequences that range from the merely disappointing and regrettable to the disastrous and catastrophic. Apart from obvious superstitions and a few clearly overblown concerns (such as "you should wear a coat because I am cold"), it is often only in hindsight when things worked out okay that we can say certain parental admonitions and fears were overzealous. Parents who raise their kids "Jewish" in the way I am describing here, are letting their children know that their behavior is important and that they should always be thinking before they act -- that they should be thinking about the consequences of their actions.
Kids raised this way will still sometimes make mistakes and do the wrong thing, but they will never answer why they did such a bad or stupid thing by saying "I dunno; I didn't really think about it." They may have a mistaken reason, perhaps an impractical or even a naive reason, but they will have a reason, and it usually will not be a stupid reason. They will have considered their action.
I think it is also important because I think it makes children become what is popularly today called "proactive". Children raised to believe that nothing is too unimportant to deserve thought and serious consideration are, I suspect, more likely to notice things that need to be done for others and to do them. If they are reared properly, and not damagingly, they will enjoy being helpful and they will do things because they see they are right, not because they are acting out of fear.
Of course, it would be best if controlling parents could themselves distinguish between which advice was necessary and which advice was undesirably irritating and undeservingly demeaning; between which advice might foster maturity and which might foster dependency; between which controls were necessary and which were far too rigid. But my suspicion is that if we had to choose between parenting and teaching that gave priority to kids' short term happiness and undeserved self-esteem based on false praise on the one hand -- which seems to be the contemporary view -- and that which gave priority to being demanding, critical, and overzealous in advising, out of obvious love and concern for the long term well-being and development of the child on the other, the latter is the better child-rearing practice. I believe it is more important for people to be raised with the possibility of believing that everything is potentially important than believing that nothing really much matters beyond their own fun and immediate gratification. Immediate gratification and fun are only good things when they do not cause some unjustifiable harm or wrong.
All that being said, I do think there is one form of control and manipulation that is bad -- that which prevents children from becoming educated in important areas of life. Asian and Jewish and many other parents I have described here were strict about all kinds of things, but they were most strict about the need for their children to learn and to become educated. ("How old are your children now?" "The doctor is 5, and the lawyer just turned 3.")
While I understand, respect, sympathize, and agree with fundamentalists' concerns some schooling can be too liberal and inaccurate, and even harmful, I also think that there are better ways to deal with that than to try to isolate children from the world of ideas and reasoning altogether, especially when cultural influences are almost impossible to keep out anyway.
I tend to suspect it is ultimately better for the child, and for the parents' goals for the child, for a parent to point out and explain certain evils than to try to shield the child from them, especially when such shielding is almost impossible to be successful. I think there are better ways to prepare children for confronting bad ideas and harmful influences than to try to prevent them from ever coming into contact with them or being influenced by them. I think it does a child harm not to learn about science or math or philosophy because parents think some aspects of them are evil and not true. I think it does a child harm to shield him from video games rather than getting him to see they are a potential waste of time and mental effort and talent. I think it is better to teach children to discriminate between bad and good tv and bad and good ideas rather than to prevent them from being exposed to either tv or the world of ideas. In short, I think parental zealousness for their child's development in seeking goodness, beauty, and truth is often likely a good thing; but not parental zealousness in pursuit of a narrow, and possibly flawed vision, of what is good, beautiful, or true.
The devil, of course, is in the details of all this. I will leave it to more capable people than I to work out those details. This is just meant to be a primarily humorous, but pointed, pop psychology perspective and somewhat speculative observation.