Like many of you, I have been glued to the news in the U.S. over the past week.
A mob storming the Capitol building in Washington D.C.
A president’s speech that led to incitement.
Potential impeachment proceedings.
And a democracy that is far more fragile than any of us would you have thought.
As President-Elect Joe Biden said in a national address on the night of Jan 6th: “To preserve [our democracy] requires people of goodwill, leaders with the courage to stand up, who are devoted not to the pursuit of power and personal interest at any cost, but to the common good.”
Goodwill and Courage
As I think about his words, I consider the way that people and leaders of goodwill and courage had parents who helped raise them with strong characters.
I want to think about my part, and all of our parts, in building the character of the next generation of citizens. How can we ensure that in our day-to-day interactions with our children we take a long view of their development? And how can we reaffirm the belief that the family is the basic building block upon which all social structures rest, our democracy among them? What we do at home, how we act and interact with our children, will have a far-reaching impact on the kind of citizens they become.
Words Create Worlds
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us of this when he writes in his book entitled, The Insecurity of Freedom, “One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words. We use words as tools. We forget that words are a repository of the spirit… By the word of God the world was created.”
This week is a reminder to all of us that our words matter. What we say matters. Each time our child insults a sibling, it matters. Each time they say something to build up and encourage a friend, it matters. Speech is powerful and it is also the most elusive to control. We actually can’t control what our children say (just like we can’t control them at all). What we can do is influence them and their decisions. When they hear us using degrading speech about ourselves or others, or speaking disrespectfully about entire groups of people, it matters. How can we model kinder, more empathic and more empowering speech as a way of modeling the power of our words?
Make space for their hard choices. I remember well the teaching of a dear friend, Dr. Caroline Peyser, in Torah of our Mothers, about Moses as a young boy. Moses was confronted with a challenging situation as an Israelite who grew up in an Egyptian home. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and as the verse states, “…he looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-12).
While there is much to say about the verse, Dr. Peyser’s insights rest in Moses’ looking this way and that which is the marker of ambivalence. It’s a natural stage in the evolving identity development for adolescents. Should he do the right thing and risk being found out during a turbulent political time for the enslaved Israelites? Or should he look the other way and allow his fellow Israelite to suffer?
As our children grow older they will continue to look this way and that. They will try on alternative lifestyles, and be ambivalent about how to respond to the questions life presents. For us, bearing witness to their ambivalence and creating the space for them to wonder out loud with us sends the message that we can hold their struggle as they work out their own path forward.
Don’t Go at it Alone
When we talk about having character words like “strength” and “stoicism” may come to mind. One who has character also understands that sometimes we need help. If we have learned anything about the past year while parenting through a pandemic it is that we are all interconnected. We need each other. Our children need us. They don’t need to go at it alone but can surround themselves with peers, helpers and role models who will nurture and guide them.
I am reminded of a Jewish folktale in which a girl was trying to move a boulder from a path so she and her mother could pass. Her mother told her, “Use all of your strength”. The girl responded, “I am trying mom. I am pushing as hard as I can!” The mother continues, “Are you sure you are using all of your strength?” The girl pushes harder and harder, “Yes mom, I am, can’t you see!” The mother turns to her daughter with kindness and says, “No dear, you didn’t use all of your strength. You didn’t ask me for help.”
As we help our children develop into who they will become we also might need some help to move the boulders of cynicism, quick solutions and dishonesty from the path. When we continue to look to offer and receive help from others, we will be assured that our character as parents will be built in the process as well.
Blessings for the journey,