May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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This week’s parsha is action packed parenting-wise, but I’d like to focus on one specific aspect regarding Yaakov and Eisav.

Soon after the twins are born, as they grow up, the Torah describes:

“ויהי עשו איש יודע ציד איש שדה ויעקב איש תם יושב אהלים”

“Eisav was a man who hunts, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a simple man, who sat in the tents.”

Here the Torah outlines the characteristics of the brothers: Eisav is a boorish and coarse person who spends his time in the fields, while Yaakov is a simple and refined person who studies Torah. These descriptions set the tone for the upcoming stories, where their distinctive personalities continue to be reflected.

What’s striking about these portrayals of Yaakov and Eisav is the very pointed and definitional way in which they are written: Eisav is defined as an איש שדה and Yaakov as an איש תם יושב אוהלים. This is who they were, this is what defined them. While we don’t know the age these brothers were at the point of these descriptions, it’s worth considering whether these pointed labels may have impacted their own self-perceptions and future actions.

The text thus points to a very crucial issue for us, as parents, to think about. Each of our children is unique and special—with singular qualities that form their personalities, both positively and negatively. This sometimes causes parents to label their children, or to place them in very specific roles: “this is my brilliant child,” “this is my troublemaker,” “she’s my responsible one,” “he’s my middle child,” “he’s my athletic one.” And while it’s important to recognize the tendencies of each child and to identify their strengths and weaknesses, we must make sure that we don’t allow ourselves to define the child by these traits.

When we label our child, or relegate them to a particular role, based on a specific trait or characteristic, that often becomes the prism through which we continuously view the child—and often becomes how the child views himself. The more a role is reinforced explicitly or implicitly, the more that role penetrates the consciousness of both parents and children and becomes a part of that child’s personality. The impact of this could be extremely problematic.

Consider a few examples:

1) If one child is referred to as “the troublemaker,” “my challenging one,” this description impacts how the child is perceived by others and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A parent may be more inclined to blame the child for something or react disproportionately to something the child does. Other children in the family may take advantage of the perception and get away with more at the expense of their sibling. Finally, the child himself may be quicker to make trouble, since that is what everyone expects of him.

2) If a child is referred to as “my smart one”—again, the impact this label can have is greater than we might think. It could cause the parents to have unrealistic expectations of the child, and lead to quicker disappointment. It could cause resentment among the other siblings, who may be bright as well but consider themselves inferior compared to their smarter sibling. And it can also put undue pressure on the child herself—by becoming a defining factor in her self-esteem and sense of value. If everyone expects her to be the smartest, after all, then she must feed into that perception.

3) Labeling one child as the oldest and one as the baby—even if factually it is the case—may also define our expectations of those children, shaping their lives as they grow into adulthood. Being the oldest may cause parents to have unfair expectations of the child, while being the baby may perpetuate a spoiling of, or immaturity within, that child.

We must realize that every child is a complex and multi-faceted human being. Even if certain characteristics or traits are more pronounced than others, we need to find a way to understand and appreciate those traits without allowing them to completely define the child.

How can we accomplish this? How can we escape the habit of assigning or reinforcing roles to our children? In “Siblings Without Rivalry,” Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish discuss this issue in detail and make several great recommendations. Here are a couple of suggestions that resonated with me:

1) Define the action, not the child: If an older child mistreats a younger sibling, instead of saying to the older child, “Why did you do that? Why are you so mean? Go say I’m sorry!” simply say, “That wasn’t a nice thing that you did; please apologize.”

2) Treat our children not as they are, but as we hope they will become: If a child constantly throws a fit when he/she doesn’t get what she wants, rather than responding, “Why do you always cry at every little thing!” we could respond with “I see that you are upset, but I know that you are capable of calming down all by yourself.”

Parenting is not an easy task. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges is finding a balance between recognizing and cultivating traits and characteristics within each child, yet not allowing those traits to define the child. The more conscious we are of the challenge, the more careful we can be.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement adviser/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected].

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