Akavia ben Mehalalel’s son said to him, “Father, commend me to your colleagues.” Akavia said to him, “I will not commend you.”
He said to Akavia, “Have you found something wrong with me?”
Akavia said, “No. Your deeds will cause you to be accepted, and your deeds will cause you to be distanced.” (Eduyos 5:7)
He was telling his son that he should engage in maasim tovim in order to be acceptable in the eyes of Hashem and his fellows. And, that if he fails to do this, his deeds should cause him to be distanced so that he will realize his errors and correct them. (Tiferes Yisrael ibid)
Why didn’t Akavia say to him at the outset, “No. Your deeds will cause you to be accepted, and your deeds will cause you to be distanced.” Why did he first say, “I will not commend you” without explaining what he later told him?
Akavia wanted to see whether his son would interpret this refusal as the result of some lacking that his father perceived in him or would his son assume that his father demurred because these colleagues would not accept recommendations from Akavia due to their dispute with him.
When Akavia heard his son’s concern about his own worthiness, he revealed his motive in refusing to commend him to the colleagues. (Ben Yehoyada, Eduyos 5:7)
The Ben Ish Chai goes on to apply this concept to “letters of introduction,” saying that we should learn from Akavia ben Mehalalel to present ourselves, not letters.
I heard that a certain Gaon wrote a letter of introduction for someone. All he wrote was two words: Mi v’Mi. This was an allusion to the term Mi v’Mi haholchim, who are these travelers? The words Mi v’Mi are an acrostic alluding to what Akavia said to his son, Maasecha Ykarvucha uMaasecha Yraakucha, your deeds will cause you to be accepted, and your deeds will cause you to be distanced. (ibid)
[In Hebrew, the letter yud, “y” is also used for the “i” the word “Mi.”]
Akavia ben Mehalalel refused to plow a path for his son. He taught his son to show his best and to work at doing better when necessary. He acknowledged that his son would face obstacles rather than mowing them down before his son ever came up against any. He knew that the day would come that his son would face an obstacle and would need to know how to handle it.
I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for
It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
(I Can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash, Epic Records, 1972)
Bright, successful lives are not built by parents who mow down obstacles. A child’s success comes from parents who allow him to see obstacles and gain the confidence to overcome them.
The term obstacle course is a felicitous double entendre. It is a course you travel through and a course of study from which you learn. Akavia ben Mehalalel understood that. He was the first to reject lawnmower parenting.
Lawnmower parenting happens when parents cut down any obstacle that could stand in their child's way. They do this to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle or failure. Or they do it because they, the parents, cannot cope with seeing their children struggle. At its worst, when parents go to extremes to give their children privileges they haven’t earned. These are the parents who gained national attention when they broke laws to help their children get into colleges they were not qualified to attend.
This need to mow down obstacles can distort a parent’s behaviors in less severe, yet harmful ways. If a parent becomes intensely focused on their child’s success and comfort, they are not only losing control of themselves. They are teaching their child that success and comfort are mandatory at all times and a disaster if even momentarily lost. Children acquire this anxiety and it may become a lifelong struggle. It is a parent’s responsibility to tolerate a child’s failure. Otherwise, their child will be afraid to try lest they fail and cause pain to their parents. That is a source of anxiety in children that parents can prevent. Failure, sooner or later, is not preventable.
When your child fails, use the failure as a lesson in what to do differently next time and how to go about it, not what should have happened last time.
The way to build confidence and prevent or reduce anxiety is by allowing your child to get knocked down and get back up again. Because you allowed her to experience that, she learned how to walk. Yes, she got frustrated and maybe sometimes got hurt. And she gained confidence in her ability to succeed after numerous failures.
There’s more than confidence and anxiety reduction to think about.
Lawnmower parents deny their children the gift of accomplishment. A mother recalled, One of my proudest moments as a parent was when my 9-year-old daughter forgot her New York City MetroCard. She had the smarts to ask a police officer at the local pizza place to escort her to the bus stop and tell the bus driver she didn't have her MetroCard. She got home and was so pleased with her problem-solving skills.
Does this mean that chesed is not a part of parenting, that parents should not intervene on behalf of their children, not try to smooth their paths? Of course not. Like everything, it is a matter of balance. Sometimes you choose to remove an obstacle, sometimes you help a child to anticipate and prepare for an obstacle, and sometimes you stand back and see how well he does when he comes upon an obstacle he didn’t know about.
And you daven that his deeds will bring him close to Hashem and his fellows.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.