One bad way to parent children is to ignore them. Another bad way to parent children is to be over obsessive about them. There is a long list of what not to do. But there is no one right way to be a parent. The reason for this is, as King Solomon said,חנוך לנער על פי דרכו Bring up a child according to his way (his nature). The right way to parent varies with each and every child and the strengths and weaknesses of each and every parent. It is also dependent upon significant factors in each particular situation. People are not machines, programmed for standard behavior. Just as it is hard for us to figure ourselves out, it is hard for us to figure out how our children perceive us; however, we must invest effort in doing so and guide them accordingly.
Even after doing their very best at bringing up their children, many parents are beside themselves when the child does not develop as they had expected. Although we can easily understand and sympathize with such parents, there is, nevertheless, a grave mistake in their way of thinking. A parent has the responsibility to do his best – the best he can at a given time with his given abilities. That’s it.
I have spent time talking with more than a few teens who did not like the “way” of their parents. They felt either their parent (or parents) ignored them or was (were) too obsessive about them. So instead, they found their “own way”.
This “new way” upon which the child has set out causes parents to become self-critical or even to assume a self-defeating attitude toward themselves. It’s sad to see parents accusing themselves and blaming themselves for their children’s failures and mistakes. This is one of the greatest causes for depression: taking responsibility for another person’s negative behavior when you actually have no control over it. After spending time with children “at risk” and getting to know them well, I often have parents ask me, guiltily, – “So, what was it that I did wrong?”
I hate that question. It puts me on the spot. And the truth is how can I know? There are so many factors causing the child to want to be distanced from his parents at this age: a desire for independence, teenage syndrome, not having the greatest of friends, wanting to find his own way, social immaturity, peak of hormonal changes, etcetera, etc. More often than not, this is just a passing phase. The child can be given guidance by someone he/she chooses, when he/she is open to counseling. The right person can help him/her navigate through this unsettling time and come out of it successfully. There is no way any human can judge whether parents were good or not. Many times, what was right for one child is not suitable for another. So instead of taking responsibility for a question I can’t possibly answer, I turn the tables and ask the parents, “What do you think?” And then they pause and they answer me, “I hate that question.”
The Torah solves the issue for us this week. It tells us how a parent can know if a problem was connected to bad parenting, or if it was something that developed over time, due to circumstances. It can even pinpoint the inception of the problem for us.
ובת איש כהן כי תחל לזנות את אביה היא מחללת באש תשרף “The daughter of a Kohen who started to behave like a harlot – she disgraces her father, she shall be burnt in fire.” (21 – 9) Rashi comments that this girl was engaged or married. She causes disgrace to her father. Because of her, people now say about him “Cursed is he for giving birth to such (a person). Cursed is he who brought up such (a person).” (Rashi learns the word תחל as disgracing herself. This is not the same explanation as that of many other commentators, as brought down by the Ibn Ezra. The word תחל means start, and the word תחלל means disgrace. Rashi did not want to interpret the word as “start”, because this can imply that only if she is at the beginning stage of harlotry can she get punished. And this is not the case. So Rashi, and many others, interprets it to mean disgrace, despite the missing ל. Either way, the passuk in its simple form is sending us a message.) Harlotry at the start of her married life is what causes her father’s name to be disgraced; that puts the blame on him. How and why?
The answer given by the Imrei Shefer is preceded with the words of our Sages. “The way of the Evil Inclination is that today, he tells you do this small sin. Then, tomorrow, he tells you do a different little sin. Finally, he gets you to a level where he tells you- Go and serve idols!”. On the basis of these comments, we can make the following observation: if a child rebels gradually, stage by stage, we can attribute the cause to the child’s evil inclination, not to some deficiency or mistake made by the parents. Gradual changes are usually an expression of the child’s free choice. However, if the unacceptable behavior was something sudden, it was a result of something deeply rooted in the child’s past, dating back to the time and way he was parented.
The fact that the daughter of the Kohen suddenly started to do something so grave as being with another man during her own marriage, without any prior sign of gradual spiritual decline or other examples of extroverted behavior, points the finger of blame at the parents. Had her actions been due to her evil inclination, such behavior would have come about more gradually.
And still, believe it or not, even when the father is pointed at for faulty parenting or for having been a bad example, the Torah holds the daughter of the Kohen responsible for her actions. She is to be burnt, while the parents stand by and watch. I hate these sad endings, but it all points to and exposes the anti – Torah psychological approach that children are not responsible for the way they act if they were brought up with mistakes. The Torah tells us that the child is still responsible.