Why are they doing this to me?"
*This was originally a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times*
My problem comes up mostly around Shabbos and Yom Tov family get-togethers. We are blessed with seven kids, mostly adults now; the youngest are 17 and 19, still living at home. We also have a growing number of grandchildren, and love to see them as often as possible.
We worked hard to give our children a strong Jewish education- in excellent Yeshivas and post high school learning programs. We tried to make our home a Torah-based environment, and to teach our family not just “what to do” but also why, and how important it is. We are mostly proud of how they have developed. Not that everything was perfect- our parenting isn’t perfect, and neither are our kids. But we have good relationships with them and think they feel the same way. In most ways we are a close, happy family.
The one sticking point we have is that two of our married kids have become less religiously observant than we are and raised them to be- still Orthodox, but less strictly. We try to gently inspire them to get back on track, but they don’t seem to appreciate it, so we also hold back more often than they realize. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal.
But when they come to us for Shabbos, and especially for Yom Tov, when there are other grandkids around, there is some tension around this. One of the couples is more respectful than the other; trying to blend in more with how we do things, and it makes it easier to overlook the smaller differences. But the other couple really doesn’t seem to make any effort. My daughter stopped covering her hair, and both she and her tween girls walk around the house in pajama pants and even come to the meals that way. Her husband sleeps late, often skipping shul altogether; never even taking out a sefer to learn.
They don’t participate in the divrei Torah or the zemiros, often just wandering from the table mid-meal, and the things they talk about seem very shallow. Sad to say, their presence kind of detracts from the kind of environment we strive to create in our home. It bothers us personally and I also worry about the influence it could have on my other kids and grandkids.
I’ve asked them many times to be more sensitive to these things- at least when they come to our house. They’re not rude about it, they’re sweet kids, and they even seem to agree, but then when they come, nothing changes. My husband and I are considering laying down the law, and just telling them that these are the house rules. If they can’t or won’t follow them, then they can go somewhere else. But part of me is scared that they might really just stop coming. It pains me to see some of my kids and grandkids choosing not to follow the beautiful path we bequeathed to them. Do they not have an obligation to at least honor their parents in this case? Why would they be doing this to us? Is there a way I can get them to do better- not just for us, but because it’s right?
Thanks in advance for your advice,
Dear Concerned Bubbe,
Congratulations on having raised what sounds like a beautiful family and offering them your legacy of sincere, committed Torah values. The tension you’re feeling around religious practice and lifestyle is not unusual within families, and it’s admirable that you’re trying to figure out a better way to deal with it.
Your questions seem to come from both a religious/ Halachic perspective and a psychological/ relational one. I’m not qualified to weigh in on questions of Halachic obligations, so I will stay within my lane of psychotherapeutic thought. I will say that even if your children do have Halachic religious obligations- to you as their parents, and/ or to G-d, a practical question is also really: to what extent is it helpful or effective for you as their parents to attempt to enforce them at this point?
The relationships between parents and adult-children are inherently different in many important ways from the relationships we had with our kids when they were actual children and teens. It’s often an adjustment for both sides. For many formative years, it was our sacred job to educate, guide, and direct our kids’ behaviors and beliefs. And then one fine day- it’s not only not our job anymore, but possibly not even our place to do so.
As parents, it’s natural that we strive and pray for our children to experience the values we impart as moral, meaningful, and relevant for them to inherit and perpetuate. As religious parents, often these values and practices are seen and taught as not only advisable, but as objective truth and an intentional, obligatory way of life. This is all well and good when the next generation receives that messaging in the way it was intended, and chooses to emulate it, as it sounds like your children mostly have.
But when you have children who grow up and don’t adopt all the same exact beliefs and practices you hoped they would, it can hurt not only parents’ spiritual sensibilities, but also feelings and, if we’re being honest, ego. This is all understandable- it can feel not only like disappointment, but even rejection, embarrassment, or failure. I’d like to try and offer you an alternate perspective:
It sounds like your kids have essentially chosen to embrace your values. They’ve stayed close with you and with each other. That’s very special, and not always a given. It’s probably a credit to both you and to them. They’ve also thus far all chosen to ostensibly continue living a Jewish, Orthodox lifestyle, and are raising another generation similarly. This is also not always a given.
The fact that some of them have made some choices that don’t align with what you taught them is a function of them exercising their free will, a gift granted to them by both G-d and by you. Our job as parents is not to ensure the kind of adults that our children become- we can’t control or guarantee that even if we wanted to.
Our job is to be the best parents we can be, to the children that we have, for the years that we have them, within our own and their own limitations. Parenting responsibilities for babies and toddlers are much more hands-on than for teens and tweens. As kids mature and develop, they individuate, and need space to flex their own bodies and minds. They need to make mistakes and forge their own identities. We’re not the only influences in their lives.
Once they’ve launched, and certainly once they’ve married, I believe that our input in their lives works best when it’s offered judiciously, with their invitation, or at least with their permission. Our relationships with our adult children tend to be healthiest when we honor the fact that they are, in fact, adults. When we indicate that we respect, love, and appreciate them as they are, even and especially when we may disagree with them. This isn’t easy.
We can make suggestions and offer advice if they seem amenable to it. We can certainly make requests about how they comport themselves in our homes, especially insomuch as it affects us directly. But it sounds like you’ve tried all that. Noncommunication and action are also communication. The fact that they’re not making the changes you request tells you that for whatever reason, they are not ready or willing to do so.
You ask why they’re doing this to you, and while I can’t answer on their behalf, I’d guess that they’re probably not doing this “to you.” This is who they are now. It might be a reaction to something from their childhood and/ or it might have nothing to do with you.
Are you within your rights to issue an ultimatum for repeated offensive behavior in your home? Technically, sure- it’s your house. But such a drastic move would likely depend on the severity and disruptiveness of the infractions, and your level of tolerance or intolerance toward them. For example: if there were violence toward others, that could be viewed as intolerable. If they were cooking nonkosher food in your kitchen, that might be where some would choose to draw the line. Others might say openly transgressing Shabbos or Yom Tov, or their choice of partner, and still others- how they speak or dress.
We all have our own thresholds, I can’t tell you what you can or should tolerate. But from what I’m hearing, your children, kids-in-law, and grandchildren sound like good people whom you love and care for deeply. They don’t seem to be doing anything directly harmful to the family. And despite the gentle judgement and polite criticism they undoubtedly feel from you, they seem to still want to visit you and spend time together, which is clearly a value to you.
If you give them the ultimatum, they might capitulate, or they may stop coming. Or they may come with resentment that could strain their feelings towards both you and Halacha. That’s a risk.
You ask if I know of a way to get them to change. I don’t; sorry. I do know that people who feel judged or criticized are usually less likely to feel inspired or motivated to accommodate or introspect than those who feel valued and accepted.
My suggestion at this point would be to let them be. Your years of being responsible for them are behind you- now you get to just enjoy them. Run your home the way you want to from your end– with all your sensitivities, adherence, warmth, spirituality, and wisdom. Sing your zemiros, share your divrei Torah. But stop asking them to change; it doesn’t seem to help. Shower them all with affection and genuine interest.
If a conversation offends you, you can try to discreetly change the subject. Turn a blind eye to the other stuff if you can. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because the bigger picture matters more. You’re finished “parenting” them, but you can always pray for them. (Although please don’t tell them that- it would sound condescending.)
Enjoy the abundant nachas that you have, rather than focusing on the little bit that’s missing. This might give them the emotional breathing room to eventually consider honoring your requests from a place of respect rather than guilt, or, more likely, they may continue not to. But regardless of what they choose to do, your letting go of the outcome will probably improve your experience of and relationship with them. And hopefully allow you to savor the beautiful family, home, and Yom Tov you’ve worked so conscientiously to create.
**If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this too: Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking