The Jewish idea of parenting without a manual begins in the book of Genesis, with Joseph. The once-favored child of Jacob, Joseph rises up from slave and prisoner to become Pharaoh’s right hand. He assumes responsibility for a far-reaching 14-year business plan to ensure that after seven years of plenty, Egypt would be prepared to endure the seven years of famine. Once an egocentric young man who drew the enmity of his brothers, so much so that they almost killed him — literally — Joseph develops expertise necessary to successfully navigate complex managerial responsibilities. Ultimately, Egypt will thrive because of Joseph’s proficiency as a politically connected businessperson. Joseph was truly blessed.
Then more blessing comes Joseph’s way. Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath, bring two sons into the world.
We imagine Joseph being overjoyed as children enter his life. We dream about the nachas (pride) he feels. And, like so many parents back then and now, he also probably felt overwhelmed. Although Joseph was very successful as a businessman, he had little helpful guidance on how to be a good parent.
His father, Jacob, was a poor role model; Torah speaks frankly about Jacob’s lackluster parenting skills. When Joseph brags to his brothers and parents that they will all bow down to him, Jacob is silent in the face of Joseph’s egotism. Does this lead to the subsequent plan to sell Joseph into slavery? Following the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s inability to respond — again he was silent — might have allowed for the brothers’ overkill against the people of Shechem.
Yes, Joseph is extremely underprepared for his new role as a parent. Yet, Proverbs expresses the long-term significance of our actions as parents: “Train up a child in the way she should go and even when she is old she will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Thankfully, later generations find guidance in later Jewish texts.
Talmudic Wisdom on Raising Children
In the Talmud, our Rabbis delineate five (or six) central obligations incumbent upon all parents:
האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי”א אף להשיטו במים
A parent has the following obligations towards a child — brit, to circumcise him [others add: or enter her into the brit/covenant]; pidyon ha-ben, to redeem him if he is a firstborn; to teach the child Torah; to find the child a spouse [others add: a partner]; and to teach the child a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that a parent must also teach the child how to swim.
Contemporary Jewish Wisdom on Parenting
Recently, parents gathered under the auspices of the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to consider the role and responsibilities of parenthood. With children in nursery school through high school, these parents engaged the Kiddushin text to understand the wisdom of our ancient rabbis’ teachings.
Then, assuming the role of parenting coaches, they listed five essential responsibilities for parents today:
Guiding, not befriending
Parents are guides, not friends or buddies. Eventually, our children will do what they choose, so parents are responsible to help guide our kids toward their own good decision-making. We do this by being loving, intentional, values-based and expansive as we guide our children.
Remembering kids are kids
Children — teens especially — are hormonally driven, peer-pressured, biologically unfinished and emotionally evolving. Our children will face almost every challenge we can imagine and will be constantly seduced to try to follow their urges. We help set limits, because when parents treat their children as fully formed adults who can make their own decisions, we set them up for failure.
Parents set expectations clearly and follow through on consequences because children need and most often (secretly) desire clarity and limits. Consequences should be clear, firm and situationally appropriate. Only then do parents provide the strength and excuse to keep kids from making decisions that are not in their best interests and/or are not what their higher selves really want to do.
Parents should always tell the truth to their children, because it ensures that they will know they can always trust us. Nonetheless, complete openness is not necessary as it is usually not age- and situationally appropriate. Sharing partial truth without lying, or not answering certain questions because they are private, is preferred to lying. (Think: Mom, did you ever smoke weed?)
Upholding Jewish values
Judaism teaches age-appropriate moderation in most situations. Specific values guide parenting: b’tzelem Elohim (being created in the image of God) expresses the intrinsic value and worthiness of every person, emet (truth-telling), shmirat ha’guf (care of our body, mind and spirit), chesed (kindness), tzedek (do what is just or right), chaim (affirming life), and shalom (seeking wholeness).
So, like Joseph, manager extraordinaire, many of us become new dads and moms. Amid the joy and wonder, may we remember our parental responsibilities so that our children can grow into ethical, resilient, compassionate adults. Then we will truly be blessed.
A version of this story originally appeared on the author’s blog.