A short while ago, my husband and I answered an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ question about whether deciding not to have children was acceptable. I was struck by the many reader comments we received that were variations of, “Better not to have children if you can’t be a good parent.”
At the same time, on the advice of someone I respect, I picked up a novel aimed at young teens which dealt with a boy overcoming an abusive home. You may remember that I recently wrote a book review recommending a historical fiction book for even slightly younger children that shared a similar premise.
While I saw how engaging this second book was, it troubled me. There is something wrong in presenting a dysfunctional view of family and society as the norm even if the underlying message is that tribulation can be overcome. When popular literature and entertainment repeatedly emphasize a theme, much more than just the intended message can get absorbed.
While the Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best families are often derided for being unrepresentative of anything other than white, middle class homes of the 1950s and 1960s, they were also aspirational models of marriage and parenting. Even if your family didn’t look like theirs, millions of kids were being told that happy healthy and fulfilling family life does exist. Compare the list of more recent years of Newbery Medal winners with earlier decades. The emphasis has changed.
When people wrote to us saying that if you couldn’t be a good parent it would be better not to have children at all, I think their unspoken message was that so many people are so hopelessly flawed that it would be best for them not to have children at all. Even more disturbingly, they are also saying that there is no need, or perhaps no ability, to improve oneself.
Obviously, neither my husband nor I encourage abusive parenting. And we recognize that most of us automatically tend to repeat the behavior we saw as children, even when our memories aren’t positive. In a vicious cycle, the bullied often become bullies and abused children often grow up to be abusers. We are already a number of generations down the road of youth in our society growing up with parents (or a parent) who failed to provide them with a psychologically and spiritually healthy home. Not surprisingly, many fear replicating that scenario.
I don’t think there is a parent on this planet who hasn’t at one point or another stopped him or herself and said, “Oh my goodness, I sound just like my mother – or father.” Many times, that’s a positive thing as we belatedly recognize our parents’ wisdom. But, sometimes it is a scary realization as we find ourselves repeating behavior that we know is wrong.
In the latter case, there are two ways of breaking the cycle with future generations. One is by not having children. The other is putting in the hard and often grueling work of consciously changing. I know that most people live lives filled with a struggle to earn a living. For many of us, the hard work of building and nurturing relationships seems to grow each day. It certainly can be overwhelming to think of adding another area of life that will demand time, effort and money.
Yet, by avoiding the growth needed to become a great parent, either by not having children at all, or by blindly relying on so-called ‘experts’ or upon the latest fads informing us how to raise them, we stunt our own growth. One of my husband’s favorite sentences is that a cow will always be a cow and a camel will always be a camel, but a human being has the ability to completely change his or her entire being. One of the bravest things anyone can do is to look in the mirror, recognize the need for change and commit to doing so.
God’s very first message to mankind is usually translated as, “Be fruitful and multiply,” a poetic repetition of one idea. That isn’t what the Hebrew says. The first word in the Hebrew phrase “P’ru u’rvu,” does mean being fruitful and in fact, since P and F are the same letter in Hebrew, the English word fruit derives from the Hebrew. What does that mean? Well, when you plant apple seeds you do not shockingly find orange trees growing. When you plant corn, you don’t wake up to a field of wheat. Being a parent means passing on the genetic material that is there.
But God didn’t stop with one word. R’vu (the U’ of u’rvu means ‘and’) has a deeper implication than just multiplying. The word shares a root with ‘rabbi,’ a word that implies teaching, leadership and greatness. The implication is not only that we must teach and lead the next generation, but that in giving that command to man, God is telling us that becoming a parent means teaching and leading ourselves to become great people. We have the ability to transform whatever genetic, social, psychological and spiritual input we received as children and reach for greatness. Amazingly, our evolving understanding of epigenetics suggests that we can even change our genes themselves! Making the commitment to have children of our own is a most powerful fuel to drive that transformation.