Wisdom Wherever You Find It
That’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example. Reya El-Salahi
Recently, I became the oldest person in my immediate family, which is to say my mother died. My father is gone more than thirty years, cheated out most of the rewards of being a grandparent. My mother was more fortunate. She saw her three children and seven grandchildren in happy families of their own, and she met all (so far) eight of her great-grandchildren. She lived to inches short of 93.
Because of the circumstances forced on us by the covid pandemic, I spent a lot more time alone during the week of mourning prescribed by Jewish tradition than I might have in less complicated circumstances. And one of the things I spent time doing was thinking about parenting.
I thought some about the parenting I received. It is inevitable, of course. Aside from my own direct experience, conversations with my younger brother and much-younger sister were exercises in understanding how differently children in the same family are raised. It shouldn’t be such a surprise. Circumstances change. I was an only child for close to three years while my sister was the only one at home when our parents could see the light at the end of the childcare tunnel.
But mostly I thought about the parenting I gave. And I mean “I,” not “we.” I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s career as a mother. My self-evaluation as a father is a little less consistent. I think that I am like most parents when I admit that I hoped my kids would turn out better than I did and have an easier time getting there. Some of that is ego, I know, even if it is disguised as altruism. But some of it, too, is an honest appraisal of my internal landscape to know what mistakes I made.
For me, the hardest part of being a father was knowing how important it was to allow my kids to make their own mistakes while at the same time meeting my responsibility to keep them from unnecessary suffering. I know the consequences of wrongheaded behavior, and I also know the tactics to divert attention from it. I used to say to my kids, “You can’t lie to me, because I’ve done whatever it is you are lying about, and I will see right through it.” Even when I said it, I knew it wasn’t true (they could indeed lie to me, as all children do to their parents, and I was nowhere near as delinquent as I pretended to be).
But there were times that my experiences as a little kid, a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young man were indeed relevant to my offspring’s behavior. Sharing my personal history, that is, leading by example, was often not the right choice. In fact, it was often the very wrong choice. When I offered advice or discipline, implicit or explicit was always the question, “How do you know that?” And if you are a parent, I don’t have to tell you twice that you don’t always want to answer that question. In fact, you almost never want to answer that question.
Why that is I can only surmise. It is some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity and, again, ego, I am sure. But whatever it is, as El-Salahi says, that’s the trick of parenting – you can’t always lead by example.
Eventually, you discover how effective you have been as a parent. In the large sense, you see your kids living out the values that they have internalized. They may not live the life you would have chosen for them (okay, they NEVER live the life you would have chosen for them), but the way they live their life is their distillation of what you have communicated. That fact sometimes makes you feel good, and other times not so much.
I learned this lesson all over again when I made a wrong decision for what I convinced myself were the right reasons. My children were not having any of it. And, as I might have done to them when they lived under our roof, they confronted me about it. Dealing with some combination of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and ego, I was pretty defensive. Eventually (and it was not a very long eventually), I came to recognize that just because you can’t always lead by example, it doesn’t mean you can never lead by example.
There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about the rabbis in the study hall ganging up on God and using God’s own instruction to reject God’s argument in a debate. As the legend goes, an eyewitness in the heavenly realm was asked what God’s reaction was to losing. “My children defeated me,” was the proud response.
I’m not God, but I had some small sense of the lesson God learned, if you can say such a thing. You can’t always lead by example. But, as it turns out, mostly you do.