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Question: My wife and I have two very young children.  In our neighborhood, we sometimes notice a lack of respect in the way the parents and children communicate.   How can parents teach their children to respect their parental authority?   –Yaakov, Chicago, IL
Since it is the parents who are the ones who structure the parent-child relationship, it is wonderful that you and your wife are discussing this question while your children are still very young.   When parents do not have a parenting plan, the default position is almost always derivative of their own childhood experiences. That can work out fine if both maternal and paternal grandparents held the clear parental authority and respectful communications flowed in both directions.   But if either parent was raised in a home where, for whatever reason, the parent-child relationship was strained, it is a great idea to make a conscious effort now to set the right tone so that your children will naturally learn the correct balance of authority in your family.

Our ultimate authority figure is, of course, Hashem Himself who we refer to as Avinu Malkeinu (our Father, our King).   While ‘Avinu’ refers to Hashem’s caring, loving and protective relationship with each of us,  ‘Malkeinu’ implies a reverence and awe, as with a subject towards his king.  This duality sets the paradigm for the Jewish parent-child bond. As parents, we must try to create a working balance between providing loving protection and keeping our place of respect and authority.

The halachos (Jewish laws)  of Kibud Av V’aim (the commandment to honor our father and mother) seem emphasize the respectful distance aspect of the dual relationship.  For example, according to halacha children should not sit in a parent’s seat at the table and should stand when either parent enters the room.  Children are not to contradict their parents nor call their parents by their first names.  Children are even to to serve their parents food and drink and escort them in and out,  with a pleasant demeanor.

We, as parents, are given the right to allow some flexibility with the performance of this mitzvah (commandment).  But, I believe,  it is still  important not to dispense with these displays of respect entirely.  For example, each parent can teach the children the custom of keeping a place at the table for the other parent.   In addition, we can ask the child to bring us a drink, smiling at them when we tell them that they are learning the mitzvah of Kibud Av v’Aim.  The mitzvah therefore becomes pleasant to perform. It is a goal to have our children address us with appropriate respect.  But teaching proper communication skills  is an ongoing project.  Respectful (and disrespectful) speech occurs in a context.  Children have to explore our boundaries. That is how they learn.  Sometimes, because we hold the power in the relationship, we can choose to overlook an occasional outburst or boundary cross.     Especially the child is in an angry frame of mind and not in control of herself,  the parent, as a matter of common sense,  should not force her to comply with a request, in the name of Kibud Av v’Aim.      What can result is resentment, both at the parent and at the mitzvah itself.  This association is toxic and, if the scenario were to repeat itself,  there could be a real risk that the child will view the mitzvah as coercive, rather than a mitzvah that Hashem has given her with love. When the parental mindset remains focused on the child’s benefit, we can decide to delay discussion until everyone is ready to discuss things more effectively, and with more derech eretz (civility).    The goal is an atmosphere of compassion where the child learns from our example how to best resolve differences respectfully.

Around the house, parents can expect cooperation from their children.  But, again, gaining cooperation is an ongoing project.  Starting as early as age 4, we begin to teach our children to take on more and more responsibility.  When we ask our children to do something for us, and they cheerfully cooperate, we meet them with enthusiasm and gratitude.   If however, they are otherwise occupied, we must teach them to ask us for our permission to delay.  Any reasonable request for extra time will usually be accepted. But, children should not be given the right to simply ignore their parents’ requests.    If they do ignore a request, an appropriate consequence should be calmly and consistently applied to set a limit on the disrespectful behavior.   In this way, we keep abreast of  our children’s progress as they continue to assimilate this aspect of being respectful to parents.

Honoring parents is, of course, one of the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments).     As we approach Shavuos, and prepare to receive Hashem’s Torah with a full heart, let us all focus on being the type of caring and self aware parent that our children will want to respect and  emulate.  When we have the clear intention to partner with Hashem as a loving authority figure to our beloved children, we can be assured that when we teach our children the mitzvah of Kibud Av V’Aim , it will be,  first and foremost, for the children’s own benefit. And, because we are following the example of Avinu Malkeinu, we can also be assured that Hashem will be helping us along the way.

©2009 Debbie Katz , JPARENT, LLC All rights reserved.

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