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  • Writer's pictureNitzotzos

The Soil We Plant Our Children In

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As we marvel at a majestic oak tree, we would do well to remember that it was once but a small acorn. It’s hard to imagine that all that raw power is contained in such a small seed and yet it’s true. We do not need to modify or enhance the seed in any way, it already has everything it needs to become a mighty oak. All we need to do is plant the seed in an appropriate environment that nourishes it into being. An acorn on a desk is just an acorn but planted in rich soil with water and sunlight it develops into its truest form.

As we marvel at a healthy adult, someone who is honest, giving, authentic, resilient, loyal etc… we would do well to remember that he or she was once a small child. It’s hard to imagine all that raw power was once contained in such a small person and yet it’s true. We do not need to modify or enhance the child in any way, they already have everything they need to become great people. Our responsibility is to plant our children in an appropriate environment so that they can be nourished into being. As we look at our precious children we know that they have greatness inside of them, the question is what are the conditions necessary to help them develop into their truest selves.

Today’s modern world is encountering widespread social challenges. We have seen sharp spikes in teenage depression and anxiety, substance abuse continues to be on the rise, children seem to have an inability to learn as they did in previous generations, and the ability to communicate and pass on values to our children is increasingly difficult. This cannot just be about failed parenting strategies. Were that the case the problems would not be nearly as widespread as they are. If we planted one hundred acorns in a field and one or two of them did not develop it is reasonable to assume that those specific seeds were defective. If fifty percent of the acorns did not become oak trees we would examine the soil, not the seed. So as we encounter these challenges we cannot just look at the individual child and what parenting strategies were or were not employed. We must ask ourselves what changed? What environmental conditions are our children growing up in that are not allowing them to develop and what can we do to create an environment that nourishes healthy development?

Continuing with our parable about the planted acorn we must consider two factors that relate to the development of the seed. Well adjusted adults grow up not only in a family but also in a community. On a familial level children require parents who are emotionally available and attuned to their needs. But even in the healthiest nuclear family children must be raised broadly as well. Extended family, a deep sense of community, a connection to their heritage and culture etc… It really does take a village to raise a child. Strong attachment to adults both in the nuclear family and in a larger community gives our children the deep sense of belonging that they need in order to become well adjusted, autonomous adults.

Owing to the economic pressures of life in the modern world we are less available to our children than we were in generations past. A father who is working eight to ten hours a day (which doesn’t even include time spent commuting), who learns Daf Yomi and davens three times a day with a Minyan has already dedicated an enormous amount of time every day to important and meaningful things. But the job can be stressful and often exhausting. Religious obligations consume whatever time is left to say nothing of the time spent running from Simcha to Simcha (Baruch Hashem!). How many fathers have I spoken with who wish they could spend more meaningful time with their children but they simply have nothing left in the tank at the end of a long day and an even longer week. Today we ask mothers to be superhuman. Not only do we ask them to provide a warm and emotionally nurturing environment for the children (and let’s not forget the myriad of physical responsibilities that come with running a home) we ask them to hold down full time jobs and contribute meaningfully to the economic challenges that the family is facing as well. No wonder we are hearing from so many women that they are simply “done.” Given the stress that we are under and the exhaustion we are experiencing, who can blame parents for not being as emotionally attuned and available as we all want to be. Even when we are with our children it is hard to truly be present. And we have not even begun to talk about how much time children spend in school each day away from their parents not because the school has so much to teach them but simply because the children need a place to be while the parents are out working. To be clear, this is not at all to lay blame on anyone. I believe people are doing their best. Given the current economic realities of our community and the enormous stress we are under we often have no choice but to be away from our children more than we would like and it is extremely difficult to be present when we are.

In previous generations it was natural for extended families to grow up together. My mother regales us with stories of going “down the shore” for the summer with all of her cousins. Aunts and uncles played a type of secondary parental role and cousins could be as close as siblings. Today we are more isolated than ever before. A parent can spend thousands of dollars to send their children to camp and schools only for children to be on their phones in their bunks or on their phones in between classes. Ask anyone in the field of education about the post Covid return to school and you will hear about the maladaptive behavior that is a direct result of the isolation these kids experienced.

We reap what we sow. What we label as “behavioral issues” is often a product of the lack of attachment to family and community. When a child acts out, it is a form of communication. Think of it as a game of charades, you cannot speak so you act out your message. A child who does not develop healthy attachment does not develop the emotional language to communicate what they are experiencing. Instead they act out to let us know that something is going on inside of them. While a punishment may curb the behavior in the short term, in the long term the underlying issue has not been solved. The child still has not developed a strong attachment to the adults in their life that is necessary to give them the emotional language so that they can stop acting out. In fact, if the punishment drives a wedge between child and parent it is quite possible that the punishment exacerbates the problem.

Furthermore, children, like adults, are hardwired for connection. In the absence of attachment to adults, children will create greater peer attachments. It is their way of protecting themselves from the vulnerabilities of life. But children, who by definition are immature, are not meant to raise other children. In our community we speak about the importance of having a positive peer group but we often fail to ask ourselves why our children are developing such strong attachments to their peers in the first place.

So as we take a step back and look at the soil in which our children have been planted we can easily see that our children are behaving exactly as one would expect given the environment they are being raised in. In the void of meaningful adult attachment, children act out their issues as a way of communicating and form unusually strong peer attachments. In this environment the maladaptive behaviors of the children are highly contagious, even when these behaviors fly in the face of the values that are communicated at home. Given that our children are overly dependent on their peer relationships, when faced with the option of choosing the values of the home versus being part of the group they will choose the relationships that they are more dependent on. Our children are, in a word, understandable.

And while all of the above is true in every generation, we live in a world that is changing at unprecedented rates. Even adults find themselves disoriented as new technology shapes the society in which we live. And in a world that values flimsy connections over deep rooted belonging the need for us to have stronger relationships with our children is greater than ever before. While we can and should negotiate the way in which our children interact with technology, we are best served by attacking the problem at its root. Meaningful adult attachment gives our children what they are truly looking for. Perhaps in previous generations when the culture valued parental attachment and the attachment occurred more organically it was not necessary for us to be consciously aware of this need. That can no longer be the case. Today we are required to swim upstream. Given the aforementioned challenges this is no small task but I do believe we are up to the challenge. Engaging in self care so that we have the strength and energy to be present for our children, lowering the stress levels of our lives to whatever degree possible, putting away our phones when we come home, creating opportunities where we can be with our children not just next to them (playing games with them vs watching something next to them) and much more are all steps we can take to improve our relationships with our children. Baruch Hashem we live in a community with a strong infrastructure. Our Yeshivas, Bais Yaakov’s, shuls and camps are incredible institutions that are designed to create meaningful communal attachments but we would be well served to consider what steps can be taken to make them even stronger.

There is perhaps no greater mission in life than rearing a healthy child. As the saying goes, sometimes our greatest contribution is not in something we do but in who we raise. We have invested enormous amounts of time and energy and money into sending our children to the finest institutions and while those are certainly incredible opportunities to create communal attachments they cannot be a substitute for the adult attachment that gives our children the deep sense of belonging that is necessary for becoming a healthy and well adjusted adult.

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