Thursday, December 08, 2022

As a parent, grand­parent, and psychologist, I am often considered to be something of an ex­pert on parenting and child-rearing. In that capacity, I have frequently been asked to review or give an opinion about any of the plethora of books on the subject of raising one’s children.

Like in any genre, there are better books and worse books in this category. What I have noticed is that many of them fail to include a chapter on one of the most important compo­nents of child rearing: discipline. With few ex­ceptions, the most that these books contain on the subject of discipline is a chapter on “setting limits.”

In my opinion, and certainly in my experi­ence, discipline is an essential component of all parenting and teaching relationships. And dis­cipline is not just about “setting limits.” It is also about “setting goals.”

My reading on the subject of dealing with children, whether as a parent or as a teacher, has taught me the importance of setting clear and achievable goals and objectives for chil­dren—and then to show recognition of the achievement of those goals.

My experience as a parent myself, as a teacher for many years, and as a psycho­therapist for much of my adult life, has borne out the wisdom of these two steps: Firstly, lay out the expectations that you have of the child and clearly define the na­ture of the task at hand. Secondly, when the child has accomplished the task, even if not totally successfully, give him or her feedback and recognition, whether in the form of a verbal compliment or a nonver­bal gesture.

Discipline does not just involve “setting limits.” Indeed, saying “no” and issuing re­strictive commands may not at all be what discipline is about. Rather, it involves “set­ting goals.” It is about extending a challenge, with the implicit confidence that sends that child the message, “You can do it!”

This, to me, is the essence of discipline. It is not synonymous with punishment. It is synonymous with learning and person­al growth.

And this is what I think is meant by the pas­sage in this week’s Torah reading, Ekev, “Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.” (Deuterono­my 8:5)

The Torah has much to say, even if the parenting books don’t, about discipline. It takes for granted that parents will disci­pline their children, and that teachers will discipline their students. After all, that is why students are called disciples.

The Torah insists, moreover, that the Al­mighty, too, disciplines us. And He does so in much the same way as successful par­ents do. He sets clear expectations for us, and He shows us His favor when we meet those expectations and His disfavor when we fail to do so. The Lord really is a Father in this sense.

It is no wonder then, that the book of Proverbs cautions us to “heed the disci­pline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother.” Notice: first discipline, and then instruction. First “mus­sar,” and Torah only afterwards. As usu­al, there is an even deeper message in the word that the Torah uses for discipline. The root “YSR” is the root of both “discipline” and “suffering.”

Judaism teaches us that there is a mean­ing to our suffering. Sometimes that mean­ing is obvious to us; more typically though, the meaning eludes us, and we desperately search for it.

But one thing is clear. We learn through discipline, and we also learn through suf­fering.

The words of Victor Frankl, the psychol­ogist and Auschwitz survivor, who certain­ly knew a thing or two about suffering, are very instructive here:

” . . . On the biological plane, as we know, pain is a meaningful watcher and warder. In the psycho-spiritual realm it has a similar function. Suffering is intended to guard man from apathy, from psychic rigor mortis. As long as we suffer we remain psy­chically alive. In fact, we mature in suffer­ing, grow because of it – it makes us richer and stronger.”

It is through the processes of discipline and suffering that we develop and are trans­formed. Both processes are painful, some­times profoundly so. But through both, we widen our horizons, enhance our spirits, and attain a deeper understanding of our life’s purpose. Discipline and suffering: im­portant to us all as individuals, as part of the Jewish people, and as mortal humans, struggling to cope and, ultimately, to grow.

By Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

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