Dealing with Parents

Don’t use me as an example. My case is exceptional. My parents after many years became Shomer Shabbos in-spite of me and more because of my wife and children. Children can have that kind of impact on relatives. I witnessed an irreligious grandfather, a holocaust survivor, being told by his little five year old frum grandchild, “Grandpa, where’s your yarmulke?” He rushes to put one on! “Grandpa, you didn’t make a brocho!” He asks for coaching on which brocho. Only a child could have gotten him to do those things and with that much joy!

The best thing when dealing with parents or anybody is to have no agenda to change them. When somebody has an agenda it interferes with the relationship. It says, “I don’t like you where you are now!” The person gets the message. “If I’m not appreciated where I am, then who promises I will be loved if I move to the next square? What kind of love is that anyway? I don’t feel safe around this person!” Therefore the basis of and the motivation of the relationship is love. Love must be unconditional. Sounds sappy? It’s the only thing that works.

When people are trying to change each other the fighting and tension goes on forever. It may be a useful process to “complete” the relationship we have with parents. That is to thank and forgive. In our own minds and maybe on paper to design a script that says, I am thankful for (Fill in the blank in detail) all you have done! I forgive you for all you were unable to do or whatever you did foolishly because I assume you didn’t or couldn’t know better. That’s how you learned to express love! It may not have been sufficient for me and I do not hold it against you anymore.” Something like that.

Then you’ve got to be a little blind and deaf when cutting criticism of Judaism and such things is launched at you…Sometimes we just have to duck. Sometimes we take it on the face. My experience is, the more we say to ourselves the script above, the more compassion we feel for the situation in which non-frum parent grew up and learned to survive without Torah, the less defensive they feel…the war is over…and the more a benign relationship stands to blossom into a respectful one as time does its thing!

11 comments on “Dealing with Parents

  1. Miriam,

    Nice story about your kid, R. The thought that ran through my mind as I read it is, You know, one day one of your kids (I was talking to myself) may have a child who is more frum than you and expect you to do x,y and z — and you’re going to do it to live up to his expectations.

    I guess that’s the way it works… Haisheev laiv avos al banim v’laiv banim al avosam. Fathers turn their heart toward their children, and [consequently] turn their heart toward their fathers. This is the grass roots process to restoring the generations.

  2. My six year old daughter, R, is great at that. My parents (somewhere between Conservative and Modern Orthodox) were visiting for Shabbos. My mother borrowed a scarf for candle-lighting, then took it off again for dinner and Kiddush, etc. R said, Grandma, why aren’t you covering your hair? I want you to wear the tichel!” and back on it went. After that, I was able to ask my mother to please wear it at the table during Shabbos meals, and she readily agreed. At another recent visit, R asked her, “Grandma, do you only cover your hair on Shabbos?” and we managed (my mother, R and I) to have a reasonable discussion on the different customs for covering/not covering hair that exist. (I cover mine pretty much all the time, but not always in my bedroom, for example.)

    But what do you do when one of your parents feels that you must obviously think they (and the way they raised you) aren’t good enough or you wouldn’t have insisted on following a different path? I don’t “look down” on them for not keeping to my standards of halacha, but I think they may feel as if I do.

  3. I agree, Yaakov. We really have no idea why our parents’ neshamas came into the world in the particular way they did – what they need to accomplish here and what their tikkun is. We have no idea where they are on their spiritual ladder. And especially as their children, the attitude that we sometimes have of judging where they’re at vis a vis Hashem is anti-Torah and destructive of shalom bayit and kibud av ve em. Big time.

  4. David, I agree with your response to Shamai. Numerous Gedolim have poskined that people like us, before Teshuva, and our parents are considered in the halachic category of a tinok shenishba, a kidnapped child. That means, among other things, that such people are viewed in entirely different ways by Hashem. From the perspective of true emes they many not be drowing at all, to use Shamai’s moshel. They may, in fact, be making great spiritual strides. It’s a different cheshbon.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t daven and hope through our role modeling that they become fully observant. All I’m saying is that even in the absence of that they may not be “drowning.” To me, the drowing moshel is counter-productive to use, both in conversation and even privately within.

  5. Shamai,

    The analogy just doesn’t seem to cut it. When someone is literally drowning they realize it and they usually will not make the foolish statements you included in your analogy. They will usually be grateful because they know they are drowning.

    Parents of BT generally don’t think there is anything wrong with their life decisions. In fact, it is they who usually think that their BT son/daughter is the one who is drowning.

    Aditionally, BTs (at least in the early stage) have a hard enough time keeping themselves afloat and are hardly in a position to be serving as a lifeguard for their parents.

    Add to that the psychological pull to desire others to think like us since it relieves our solitude and angst. That often causes people to lose focus that they are attempting to save others from drowning so that the others can live and not so the lifeguard can get a medal or citation.

    Being kiruv minded in general and being kiruv minded vis a vis one’s parents are two completely different things.

  6. Heres the real challenge: Someones drowning. You shout” Hang on, I’ll save you” and they respond “Don’t you dare patronize me like that! Are you insinuating that you, a drylander, are somehow morally superior to me, a drowner???” As they go under they burble something semi-intelligible about how you need to be less narrow-minded and judgemental and how you should participate in the next Drowners Pride march. What agony!

    While it is indisputably wise and true that “The best thing when dealing with parents or anybody is to have no agenda to change them.” It is really tough. We want to see our parents change not because of an agenda. It isn’t about power and manipulation or settling scores. When you passionately love something and are convinced of its truth, beauty and power it is only natural that you want to share this great gift with those you love the most. I think that it is davka those who have loving relationships with their parents (instead of dysfunctional ones) that are most challenged in this regard.

    Yes “When somebody has an agenda it interferes with the relationship. It says, “I don’t like you where you are now!” Well duh.. we don’t like to see “where you are now” i.e. in the drink and drowning by inches. And it takes superhuman patience and wisdom to understand that these drowners lack a basic danger awareness and survival instinct and that you must wait for them to apprecaite both the danger and the efficacy of the life saver before they will accept (and even then, not neccasserily from you) what you would’ve gladly extended to them the very first minute.

  7. That’s something else we have in common, Rabbi, my mother also became shomer shabbos later in life (The other thing we have in common is that both of our names begin with L). I also have a brother who became a BT and I avoided pushing anything Jewish on either of them unless they asked.

    When family members see that you are (relatively) stable, thinking and acting with derech eretz (respectfully) one of two things generally happens. Either they become more interested in yiddishkeit or the relationship boundaries that your life choices built up will be broken down or ameliorated. As far as I’m concerned that’s a win-win situation.

  8. Thank you Rabbi Lam for sharing meaningful experiences and lessons. Parents and grandparents (grateful to still have 3 grandparents) have so much to offer to us as adults and our children. Even when not frum or not yet frum, I still find there is alot more we share in common in values than not. With proper respect and honoring of them in place, many walls can be broken down. Not always. And not always quickly, but over time, and many times relationships can blossom and even reach a deeper level than before anyone changed their beliefs and lifestyle. We are so much of who are parents are, in thought, training and genetically. We can never separate that from ourselves, nor should we. We have to take the good and leave the not so good. Nobody is perfect. It always amazes me that now, at age 40, many times I find I think so much like my father who was absent from my life from age 5 through 17, formative years perhaps, and he always reminds me that I am half him and half my mother. Genetics are a powerful thing. I have also had the experiences whereby the children encourage grandparents or other family members towards observance and/or understanding. It definitely works wonders. The defenses are simply not there with children. They do not feel attacked. They sense the genuine sharing and usually respond to it, if not immediately, than later. It leaves a Roshem never to be underestimated. I just want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for sharing and writing. It’s really a beautiful idea and a Kiddush H”.

  9. I think that not having an agenda when dealing with not-yet-frum people is a terrific piece of advice and I hope to become expert at it.

    I also believe that forgiving parents for not adequately giving that which a person needs in order that he or she should feel loved is a very profound concept. Typically, a person expects that parents by nature should possess the tools needed to properly convey love to a child in a way that resonates with him or her. So, when children don’t get the “fair share” of love that they think they are entiled to, an enormous resevoir of resentment and anger gets stored away.

    Therefore, the solution, as beautiful and idyllic as it sounds, of a blanket forgiving of parents for either neglecting to give love or giving it in a retarded way, leaves me feeling skeptical that it is possible to achieve success in completing the relationship. I feel that a more complete understanding of why a parent acted or neglected to act is an essential step in the process to forgiveness, without which I question the effectiveness of a blanket forgiveness.

    I also feel that when a person has so much anger and resentment stored away there are many stages a person must advance through before they can arive at forgiveness, especially when the parent is not journeying along the same road towards self awareness. Turning a blind eye seems like a great idea, but what do you do with all of the pain and resentment? Where do you put that? It has to go somewhere, if not, it can manifest itself in terribly negative ways such as depression or chas v’shalom abuse. It seems to me that therapy is an important element not to be ignored.

  10. BS”D

    Beautiful post. It’s amazing that your kids did that to your father! Mine have never spontaneously been mekarev my parents, and your post makes me wonder why.

  11. I am very blessed that both sets of parents don’t make a huge fuss about our (my husband and kids) family being frum. In the beginning, my husband and I were extremely judgmental and holier than thou with them. We have since calmed down and let them be. We don’t forbid them from driving to us on Shabbos or holidays. We don’t get on their case about going out to eat at treif restaurants (without us, obviously) when they come to visit. We have learned and they have learned how to keep the shalom bayis. But until they become shomer mitvos there will always be something missing in our relationships with them. And it makes me feel sad, but we are all learning to work around that wall.

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