Every Wednesday afternoon, my son goes swimming with his grade three class. It is one of the highlights of his week. A few months ago, I received a phone call on a Wednesday morning. It was Mendel, calling from his teacher’s cell phone.
“Tatty, I forgot my swim suit! Can you please bring it?”
My to-do list for that day was flexible, so I was able to make time to bring the forgotten swim suit to Brooklyn. The only question remaining was, is it the right thing to do?
My mind tossed the pros and cons back and forth: It’s the highlight of his week! On the other hand, what message will this teach him about responsibility?
What is a father to do?
In this case, the loving father within me won out over the disciplinarian. I felt bad for the kid! So I drove through the rain and delivered the precious goods to a boy waiting eagerly at the entrance of his school.
Yet I didn’t feel so good about it. Had I made a parenting mistake (albeit not a huge one)?
The next day at school, there was a special assembly. Representatives had been chosen earlier that week from each class to recite a verse from the Torah in front of the school. The caveat: you had to wear a white shirt.
Mendel was his class representative. He forgot to wear a white shirt. He called me from his teacher’s cell phone: “Tatty, I forgot to wear a white shirt. Can you please bring one to me?”
“Sorry, Mendel, I’m not able to do that today.”
The result? He was not permitted to represent his class. Another boy – clad in a white shirt – was chosen.
Later that day, Mendel’s teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schapiro, texted me: Mendel was spoken to beforehand and he understands. Ask him later. He will be given another chance at the next event.
When he came home from school, Mendel and I discussed how he felt about it, and what we may be able to do to avoid something like this happening again in the future.
Are these two events correlated? While at first I thought that Mendel not being allowed to recite the Torah verse was too harsh, he hasn’t forgotten his swim suit since. My gut told me all along that I shouldn’t bring him his swim suit; it sounded harsh, and, as mentioned above, my loving parent won out. I think I made a mistake that day.
Every parent has the loving parent within them who wants to give freely to their child. There is also an inner disciplinarian. Though they may sometimes seem at odds, they can, in fact, be harmonized.
A story heard from Rabbi Shmuel Lew, senior Chabad-Lubavitch emmisary in London:
Years ago, it was possible to have a private audience (“Yechidus”) with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Children would come with their parents, and the Rebbe would invariably engage the child by asking questions. He would sometimes offer them a dollar as a reward for reciting the said verse. This happened with his children on numerous occasions, Rabbi Lew told me.
On one occasion, the Rebbe asked a young girl to recite the Shema, a six-word verse. He offered her a dollar as an incentive. Overcome with awe, the girl was unable to recite it. When it became clear that she would not say it, the Rebbe handed the dollar to the girl’s mother and told her to give it to her when she would recite the Shema later that evening.
Numerous lessons in education and parenting can be gleaned from this episode.
One thing we may observe, is that the Rebbe did not go back on his offer, and the girl had to recite the Shema to receive her reward, as initially stipulated. Like the loving parent, the Rebbe wanted to give, and he found a way to do so: The condition did not (necessarily) have to be met immediately. She would have an opportunity to receive the dollar at a later time.
We may also note that the Rebbe was positive in his outlook. Although he stuck to the “rules of the game,” it was with kindness and trust that the girl would, ultimately, do what was requested of her.
A loving parent who doesn’t exercise their inner disciplinarian is akin to a gardener who doesn’t remove weeds from the garden; the weeds will ultimately take over. In order to walk the fine line of discipline and being overly harsh, one must always retain a positive outlook, and carry out the discipline itself with love.
The same teacher who exercised his role as disciplinarian in not permitting an eight-year-old to represent his class because he forgot to wear a white shirt (the predetermined “rules of the game”) is the same teacher who tended to this boy as if it was his own child, when he became ill in school a month later. Suffice it to say, Mendel absolutely adores Rabbi Schapiro. We are truly fortunate to have such a wonderful teacher for our son.
When it comes to educating our children, it is crucial not to compromise on the demands made of them (provided, of course, that they are age-appropriate), yet to do so with love and positivity.