A Model Parent
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
I don't know how many happy endings you hear, but here's one. My son is blooming, he's a top bachur in his yeshiva.
I'm calling with tears of gratitude in my eyes.
He had been on a slippery slope.
There is no statute of limitations on gratitude. The last time I had spoken with Henoch was nearly 4 years ago. He called me back then because he was concerned about his son Mendy. Henoch and I worked together for about five months. When we ended our work together, he seemed more optimistic than when we had begun. He had become more confident in himself as a father as a result of learning some new skills.
The first time I had spoken with Henoch he sounded nothing short of distraught. He had found a letter his son, then an 11th grader in a well known "main stream" yeshiva, had written to a girl, saying she should call him at yeshiva, and say she's his sister. He told me that Mendy had always been a good student, had good friends, had a good relationship with both of his parents, that he's a "really good kid." And then Henoch asked me what he should do.
As a rav, my answer to that question is to follow the guidance of the Ha'ksav v'Hakabala on the mitzvah of giving admonishment. He writes that you should not say "why did you do that?" You should instead describe what you observed the person saying or doing, and then ask them what happened. As a therapist, I also asked dad what he thinks will happen when he does that. The reason I asked him that question, was that I was pretty sure that he was not going to do it. I wanted to help him figure out how he possibly could. This was the first of the new skills we worked on for dad.
My conversation with Henoch went something like this:
What do you imagine will happen when you sit down with Mendy, tell them you found the letter that he wrote to this girl, and ask him what's happening?
I can't do that! I can't tell him that I found the letter. He's going to want to know why I was snooping around in his room.
That sounds like a reasonable question. What are you going to tell him?
I don't know! What am I supposed to tell him?
I'm not sure I understand the problem here. When he asks you why you were snooping around in his room, I would assume you would simply tell him why you were snooping around in his room, no?
I can't tell him that!
You can't tell him what? Why were you snooping around his room?
Because I'm his father, I have to know what he's doing.
All right, so you were doing what you believe is appropriate, yet you're not willing to tell your son what you were doing even though you believe it was appropriate. I'm not sure I understand that.
He is not going to understand that it's appropriate and he's going to get very upset with me.
You're probably right. And, you're concerned about him. So what would you like to do here?
I'd like to tell him that I don't want him writing to letters to girls, and I don't want him talking to girls at all. But I can't tell him that without telling him that I found his letter, and I couldn't have found the letter if I hadn't been snooping around in his room. It's not like he left it on the dining room table. Rabbi Ackerman, just tell me, did I do the right thing or not?
So I sat back, took a deep breath, and taught Henoch a new skill. I told him that unless something is in the Shulchan Aruch, you don't always have a clear "right or wrong." A lot of things in life come in shades of gray. That doesn't mean they're unclear. It means there is clearly something good about it and clearly something not so good about it. Parents are often left with choices that are less than perfect, and the skill is to make what you think is the best available choice, rather than wishing there was some perfect alternative. This is the skill of accepting uncertainty and moving forward despite it.
The second skill I taught Henoch was how to explain to his son what it was like for him to tell his son the truth, knowing that his son might resent him for what he did. This is the skill of humility, to do the best you can and accept the fact that someone else might think you should have done better.
And the skill of being a "model parent?" I didn't teach that to Henoch. Every parent is a model. Children do learn by osmosis, almost exclusively.
B"H Mendy is now a top bachur in his yeshiva. I would like to think that he has earned that status by the quality of his learning, and by excelling in the middos of humility and gratitude he sees in his father.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LHMC, is the Director of Parent Mentoring for Agudath Israel's Project YES. He has worked with hundreds of parents from around the world.
He also works with educators in 18 schools offering guidance on how to connect with children.
Rabbi Ackerman has a private practice specializing in family, couples, parenting, and pre-marital counseling, and can be reached at 718-344-6575.