Many of us, fortunate to become parents, do our best to raise happy, independent, and emotionally and physically healthy children. This year, on the back page of each issue, we will be exploring the ethical obligations of parenting. We define parenting broadly: parenting children from birth through their adulthood, and what feels like “parenting” when we care for our elder parents as they age and require a different kind of filial attention. We define ethics broadly as well: We’ll look at the moral dimensions of parenting and the array of values that are tested as parents coach their child developmentally through life’s challenges.
Over the course of ten columns, writers will explore Jewish texts and traditions and imagine creatively how to address the questions parents face about the day-to-day practicalities of life as well as the big existential questions we want to share with our children.
My husband and I have five children; three are my biological children, and my husband brought two into our marriage. Now in their 20s and 30s, these independent and interdependent beings remain much in our lives, and we often find ourselves reflecting on the choices we and they make.
We also have two living parents, each in their 90s. My mother, 92, has lived alone for the past 27 years since my father died. I’m blessed, I know, because I built my life on a solid foundation of love; there was nothing equivocal about my parents’ love for me or my mother’s role as a mother. I only began to grasp that unusual upbringing in my 20s as a college student who compared notes from childhood with other young women.
But now, life has put before me several complicated questions: Who is my mother to me? What of the term (and role) “mother” still exists in our relationship? How do I responsibly serve and respond to the glimpses of “mother-as-mother” in the context of a very old, frail, and sometimes forgetful woman? Almost a year ago, she had a fall and then a brief stay in the hospital and rehab center. On her release, her discharge team recommended that she not live alone. But my mother is happiest in her own environment, and she doesn’t have the resources for more than sporadic help (housekeeping, occasional driver for errands). Does my mother have the right to make her own decisions — even if they leave her vulnerable or at odds with professional advice? At what price happiness? At what price my clear conscience or my ease, knowing she’s safe? When do I push her to do more, and when not? At what point do my sister and I (for her or with her) veto her wishes?
Two biblical verses address the relationship of a child to her or his parents: The fifth commandment, “Kibud av v’em,” “Honor your father and your mother…” (Exodus 20:12) and “Ish imo v’aviv tira’u” “Each person shall revere his mother and father.” (Leviticus 19:3) Why the two commandments? One teaches to honor and the other to revere; one teaches us a behavior and the other an attitude. Not all of us have parents we can revere, but — according to Jewish teachings — we must still honor them and attend to their needs. A passage in BT Kiddushin (31b) helps with this distinction. It asks: What is “revere” and what is “honor”? Again, honor ensures that the needs of the elder are met, and reverence — the child “must neither stand in his [the father’s] place nor sit in his place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him” — suggests that we respect our parents’ wishes without contradiction, allowing them to make their own decisions whenever possible.
Though I could have launched this series on parenting with a column on babies or children — there is no shortage of topics that address ethical questions in child rearing — I chose instead to focus on the other end of the spectrum. It is often our experience of being the child that informs our own parenting — learning through example (or counter example) how to love, nurture, be gentle and forceful, set limits and boundaries, listen and hear, speak with and not at, stand close or lean away. We don’t learn only from our parents, of course, but regardless of how much we try to distinguish ourselves from them, the imprint is noticeable. And we know that our parenting leaves a similar residue in our children. This past year I’ve watched my daughter become a mother, I’ve been struck by the easy assimilation of what she carries forward from my mothering instincts and behaviors — and, no doubt, what she’s discarded.
Over the next months, among the questions we will explore are:
- Is it ethical for parents to tell their children something they don’t believe?
- How do we negotiate the line between respect for authority and critical thinking? How do parents teach children about obedience and loyalty and yet acknowledge bad systems, or evil?
- Is it ethical for parents to read their children’s private writings in an effort to “protect” them?
- How do parents weigh the decision about vaccinating children?
- What are the limits of “helping” our children with their homework? With their college applications?
- Is it ethical for parents to lie on their children’s behalf?
- How much does a parent contemplating a personal change that will severely test or possibly dissolve the family(for example, divorce or a gender identity transition) need to take into consideration his or her children?
- How do we weigh decisions about eating in the non-kosher or less strictly kosher or even more kosher homes of our grown children or parents (or parents-in-law)?
- What ethical questions are raised if parents decide to conceive another child because his or her bone marrow could be a match for and save the life of their older child?
Visit our ethics page on shma.com to raise additional questions, and to join the conversation and share your own experiences and observations about how you have understood your ethical responsibilities as a parent.