Returning to the People – and the Parents – We Want to Be

September 6, 2017Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg

We live on the third floor, and have a little balcony. When Yonatan, my oldest, was 4, he took to throwing things – toys, pillows, books – off the balcony. It really wasn’t OK, and he knew it. He also knew that if he threw toys, he wouldn’t see them again for a while, and that there was likely to be some other consequence, to boot. But a 4-year-old’s impulse control is not so hot and he was testing boundaries.

One morning, I asked him to share the toy he was holding with his little brother, so he ran halfway across the apartment to throw it off the balcony. It was a clear eff-you: If I can’t have it, nobody can have it. It was the last straw of a frustrating morning, and I shouted at him, really screamed, as I put him in a time out.

There are a lot of reasons I don’t want to raise my children in a home with yelling. I have a pretty firm commitment to raising them to feel loved, safe, and unafraid in their own home, and a screaming adult is terrifying to a small person. So, to have slipped in a way that’s human and understandable but still, well, really not great – it’s a terrible feeling. That was one morning (not the first, not the last) when I failed my son and I failed myself.

Every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, rabbis start talking about the work of the season, t’shuvah. T’shuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but it literally means “return.” It’s about coming back to where you need to be – emotionally, spiritually, ethically, interpersonally – and repairing any damage you’ve done in your relationships with others, and perhaps with God, when your actions strayed from your ideals. There are several steps to making t’shuvah. You have to acknowledge what you did wrong (whether or not it was intentional). You have to take actions to correct the mistake, if that’s possible. If it was an interpersonal hurt, you have to apologize to the wronged person – up to three times, if they refuse you at first. You have to make amends, if that’s possible. And you have to invest some time working out how things can be different next time. After all that, then you can work on making things square between you and the Divine.       

The classical literature on t’shuvah talks about cheshbon ha-nefesh, the accounting of the soul that happens as part of this process. That is, you should spend some uncomfortable time figuring out exactly how and when you failed to be the person you want to be. Essentially, you can’t return – make t’shuvah – until you have some real understanding about where you’ve gone; you can’t make amends until you’re clear about how you’ve messed up.

Lucky for us parents, we are offered ample opportunities to see our failings. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to how we are with our children for a couple of hours – a week max – and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? When are we pretending to be engaged but are checked out (or checking our phones)? When are we manipulative or deceitful with our kids, even with little things that ostensibly “don’t matter?” When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect about who we are and how we behave is necessarily comfortable or fun to see.

The good news is that if we can untangle the places where we’re stuck and broken as parents, it can impact our entire lives in a powerful way. Our relationships with our kids offer an easy-access on-ramp to all our laziness, pettiness, and unresolved stuff, if we’re willing to look.

The medieval sage Maimonides defines perfect t’shuvah as that moment when you come to a situation in which you had previously acted badly and, this time, do it right. The second (or fifth, or 20th) time around, when you finally behave concordantly with your values and ideals? That’s t’shuvah. But a person might reasonably ask: How could it be that you might be back in the exact same situation as the one in which you had previously screwed up? Who gets an instant replay like that?

The truth is, if you haven’t faced down your problematic traits and unhealed wounds, you will undoubtedly manage to find yourself in some variation of the same situation over and over. It’s only when you do the work necessary to become a different person that you, naturally and organically, make a different choice.

Fortunately, kids continue – over and over and over – to offer us the chance to try again, to do better. The intensity of these bonds is indeed an enclosed spiritual space in which to do the work we need to do. It’s tricky, sometimes, and inelegant, but if we choose to face who we are with intention and humility, there’s the possibility for us to grow into the people that our children so desperately need us to be.

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