Our Torah provides a clear mandate for children to honor their parents. We also find repeated directives in regard to loving and caring for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the poor, the neighbor, and, of course, God. In contrast, laws requiring respectful behavior toward children — especially mitzvot in which parents honor their children — seem glaringly absent.
Some might argue that such laws are unnecessary: Because the love for a child is assumed to be natural and unconditional, it would seem superfluous to command parents to honor their children.
The problem with this rationale is the assumption that all loving parents instinctively understand what it means to honor their children. In reality, even parents with the best intentions may resort to harsh criticism and other inappropriate reactions to their children’s behavior. To love a child is not the same as to honor a child; healthy parenting is a skill that must be learned. Thus, in the absence of a clear 11th commandment — “Honor Thy Children” — where else might we find guidelines within our textual tradition for respectful and ethical parenting?
The classic parenting text in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) states, “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say [the obligation is] to teach him how to swim as well.” Today’s commentator might add, “Teach him how to ride a bike.”
Neither this text nor other passages about a parent’s duty to educate children mandate parents to honor their children in the process of loving them. Nor do these texts address the importance of developing a respectful parent-child dynamic.
Ironically, the Torah’s approach to honoring children might be embedded in its opposite commandment — to “honor your father and mother.” Children can only be expected to truly honor their parents, beyond the strict letter of the law, when they have had a mother or father who has modeled for them what that respect looks like. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning to the teaching, “Who is honored? The one who honors others.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Privacy is one area in which parents can model respect. Do parents have the right to read their children’s text messages, to leaf through their journal, or to snoop in their room? How can parents best grant their children private space and still oversee their wellbeing?
Putting the obvious legal rights of a parent aside, our tradition offers meaningful ways to frame the issue of privacy. The Talmud (Pesachim 112a) relates seven lessons Rabbi Akiva hopes to impart to his son Rebbe Yehoshua. Among them is the instruction “not to enter your home suddenly.” In his early twelfth-century commentary on this text, Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) explains that one does not enter a home quickly in order to respect the privacy of others. He quotes a supporting text from the Midrash (Vaykira Rabbah 21) linking this idea to the requirement of the High Priest to wear a robe with bells sewn into the hem. “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy of Holies before the Lord and when he leaves, so that he will not die.” (Exodus 28:35) The bells rang to announce the High Priest’s arrival before God. Certainly, this was unnecessary from the perspective of God, but it serves as a timeless reminder to the worshiper not to simply barge into private places. Rabbi Akiva’s lesson to his son and the bells of the High Priest’s robe are regularly cited as a proof-text to the tradition to knock on a closed door before entering any room.
In a similar manner, parents should respect their children by affording them an appropriate degree of privacy. Parents should knock on their children’s doors before entering and they should not listen in on phone calls or read text messages without permission. By modeling respect for their children’s private spaces, parents are teaching them the skill to respect the private spaces of others.
And yet, there are circumstances when parents cannot give their children that privacy: if there is suspicion of substance abuse or of involvement in a dangerous relationship or situation, or if a child’s behavior or mood alarms the parent. It is not always clear when these lines have been crossed, and it is a normative struggle of parenthood to seek the balance between instilling independence and ensuring the safety of children. Furthermore, children should be taught that privacy is a privilege that depends upon mutual trust. If that trust is broken, parents may no longer be able to honor that privilege.
As children enter adolescence, they can be impulsive, and they can sometimes make dangerous decisions. Suspecting that a child is involved with substance abuse may pose the dilemma of when and if parents should override their child’s right to privacy. There is no formula dictating when it would be warranted to check a child’s text messages or to read a journal, but child psychologists caution parents that invading a child’s privacy carries its own risks: Children are more likely to become defiant when they feel violated. On the other hand, ignoring a problem doesn’t alleviate it.
Open communication is key to navigating between a person’s right to privacy and a parent’s need to protect. Changes in a child’s behavior could be the byproduct of many things — depression, struggling academically at school, or being bullied by peers. Nurturing open dialogue and trust — from an early age — is essential for parents who want to broach difficult subjects during the teen years. After all, part of what it means to honor children is to remind them lovingly to honor themselves.email print