In the good old days children were expected to be seen and not heard. The rules of childhood were clearly defined. They were taught to have good manners, follow parental instructions, and to never give lip to adults. Blind obedience was demanded and, punishments were often swift, corporal, and harsh. When a child became old enough it was expected that he or she help out in the house, the shop, or the fields, whatever the case may be. Yeshiva boys were often exempt from such labour but, they had little idle time to neglect the rigors of Torah learning. Marriages were often arranged by parents while the children were still adolescents giving the prospective choson and kallah little choice over the matter. How times have changed!
Our ancestors of yesteryear would be quite shocked to see how we raise and educate our children nowadays. The modern day approach seems the complete opposite of what it once was. After several decades of expanding our knowledge of child psychology, modern society has developed a much more nuanced view of children. They are no longer seen in black and white terms as miniature adults that need to be tamed through discipline. Today parents are told that each child is a unique individual with their own personality traits, desires, moods, talents, and special potential that the parents and teachers must respect and cultivate. While child rearing trends seem to come and go every few years, our modern view of the child is that he or she is an independent person in their own right with needs and wants that we have to recognise. Therefore, children are often given the freedom to make their own choices and to express their own opinions, and often in many cases, even outright child rebellion is seen as healthy.
Torah teachings are eternal, hence these are never subject to any shift in psychological theories or new discoveries. The famous teaching of ‘Al pi darko’, was Shlomo HaMelech’s ingenious pedagogical teaching of “educate a child according to their ways.” Each child’s chinuch should be accommodated to meet their particular needs. Our ancestors surely knew of and followed ‘al pi darko’, but they did so within their view of the child resulting in much more rigid and more clearly delineated parameters. The issue that arises these days is one of going to extremes. How far do we go to teach a child according to their needs? How far do we go to cater to each child’s wants and to allow them their own choices and freedom of expression until we go too far and wind up with a child that is chutzpahdik, undisciplined, or off the rails completely?
It is surely harmless and might even be healthy for a little girl to choose whether or not she wears her pink skirt or her blue one for Shabbes. Nothing will go awry if a boy is asked what parts of Torah he enjoys learning the most and allowed to focus on that. Indeed children should not be treated like little robots without their own emotions and minds. The old way had its advantages in that it created much more obedient children and less rebelliousness. However, one can be safe to surmise there was also quite a bit of repression and, even covert abuse in their methodology, albeit unintentional, as the parents were products of their day, as we are also products of ours.
Yet, the question remains, how much choice and freedom is too much? Should a child also be given the freedom to decide if she wants to watch a video a little bit longer than allowed? Or should a child be given the freedom to eat that cake right before dinner? Most parents would say of course not, as they are reasonable people, and there must be rules. It is understood that children must be given structure, limits, and discipline. We won’t allow them to skip bruchas, refrain from washing negal vasser, or to eat treifes, chas v’shalom. There are limits.
However, life gets busy and stressful. After all, there are kitchens to clean, bills to pay, and errands to run. If little Mendy or Chani is whining, pestering, making demands, or miserable, maybe we can feel pressured and feel like we are being a bad parent. Aren’t they also individual human beings with their own wants and needs? Maybe it’s harsh or cruel to deny them their freedom of expression? Modern child psychology is there to justify just giving in to their will. We could tell ourselves we are not being too lax but, we are respecting our child’s personhood. Where to draw the line between being overly permissive and respecting the child’s individuality becomes muddled and unclear. When this happens we could run the risk of ceasing to function as our child’s parent. Now we have become our child’s friend and this is dangerous territory.
A child needs their parent to be their parent and not their friend. A parent who functions as a friend is denying that child a functioning parent. A parent who cowers, shows anxiety, and gives in to their child’s unreasonable demands when their child tells them “I hate you!” has reneged on their parental responsibility. A parent who allows their child to run wild and to be ill- mannered may convince themselves that they are being a good parent by giving their child freedom to express themselves, but is actually doing that child a great disservice. A parent who asks their child their opinions about important family matters, or about whether they should be punished, or allows their child to berate authority figures or other adults, has put their child on equal footing with them as an adult. When parents do all this, how can we expect children to be respectful?
Much good has come from the modern child psychology. Nevertheless, as with anything in life, the path of moderation is the wisest one. Moderation can be defined differently for each person. Thank G-d we have a Torah and wise Jews we can turn to for guidance.