Every family is a building block of the Jewish nation — and what holds this block together is the bond between family members. Only when the family is stable and united can there exist good relationships between family units. It is these very bonds which are the strength and power of the Jewish people.
How parents relate to each other has a significant effect on how their children relate to one another and, later, how they will relate to their own spouses and families. When children learn to get along with family members, they acquire an important tool which they will use when creating their social bonds in the future.
More specifically, the cooperation and mutual respect that a young child learns in his parents’ home are the essential skills he’ll need to build a successful marriage when he is older. Even situations of tension that arise naturally in every home can be turned into positive learning experiences. We should be constantly aware that all of our actions are being observed and that our every interaction conveys a message to the child. We all want to be sure that the messages we are sending are good ones and ones that will be most helpful to our children.
A living example of a message transmitted through action is that of Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s mother, who once bought herself a new dress. Instead of wearing it for the first time on a Shabbos or Festival, she wore it—with the Shehechiyanu blessing — at the siyum party that her son made upon completing all of Maseches Bava Kama.
One can only imagine the impact this made on her son. A family’s blueprint for behavior is passed down from generation to generation. It is possible, as we have said, to change this “tradition,” but it requires very great effort to learn new behavioral patterns. All the more reason, then, to teach our children the correct way from the very beginning. If it turns out that we have made a mistake, we should admit our error and apologize.
One of the basic fundamentals of Judaism is the concept of teshuvah, repentance. Even the kohen gadol, the high priest of the Beis HaMikdash, the holiest and purest person in the Jewish nation, brought a sacrifice to atone for his errors. If such a lofty personage can admit his wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness, so can parents.
By admitting our mistakes to our children, they learn that mistakes do happen, and they can happen to anyone. Our children will realize that they too can be fallible and yet still be loved and accepted. Too often, children who have misbehaved will sulk or deny what they’ve done. Our goal is to encourage them to understand their actions, to talk about why they did it, and to work it out.
The goal, as always, is communication. We always have the chance to do better next time, as long as we recognize the need for change. This powerful message can be conveyed by our conduct in these kinds of situations.
Hard times, too, can prove beneficial for a family, because family members have the opportunity to help each other and thus strengthen the bonds between them. They can learn to show commitment to and responsibility for one another. It’s an opportunity for each to give to the limit of his individual abilities. For example, if the family is experiencing financial difficulty, the children can help by taking over more of the household responsibilities, freeing the parents to bring in more income. Or, depending on their age, they can also, under parental supervision, try to earn some money to contribute to the household.
The way we handle financial matters will leave a lasting impression on our children. Life is not a game, and our goal is not to keep our children constantly entertained. Expensive and dazzling gifts will not make our children any happier. We’ve all seen a small child given an expensive toy as a gift — only to see him discard the toy moments later to play with the box it came in!
Parents can encourage creativity by letting the children themselves come up with ideas of things to do and by assisting them with their projects. If they want to bake a cake, help them. If they want to do an art project, get them the supplies they need. The projects needn’t necessarily be expensive. It is basic Jewish belief that our financial situation is determined by G-d. It is human nature, rich or poor, to want more than one has. Our Sages teach, “Who is truly a rich man? He who is satisfied with his lot.” Our task is to teach ourselves and our children to be happy with what we have.
Money, at best, is a tool; at worst, it becomes an idol on which man focuses all his energies. Chasing after money is an obsession which is passed down from parents to children. Money can become an issue among siblings, when one has spending money and another doesn’t. The family becomes a microcosm of society, complete with its haves and have-nots. One child babysits and begins to accumulate a great deal of money, and the inequities create a crack in the closeness of the family. Money should not be hoarded by an individual family member for his own use only, but rather should be shared with others.
Nor should money be used as a bargaining tool: “If you do this, I’ll pay you that.” Allowances can be very harmful to the relationship between parent and child if money becomes a struggle, with the child fighting for more and the parent fighting to retain control. Whatever money the child needs should come from the parents, in accordance with the family’s financial situation. A child should not automatically get ten dollars a week to spend on junk food. Spending money is not a child’s right.
Childhood should be free of financial anxieties. Youngsters can be educated in the proper use of money without turning it into an end in itself or making them obsessed with it. The Torah teaches that there are much more important things in life than money; this is a principle we can and should convey to our children.
Adapted from “Two Halves Of A Whole” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu & Tehilla Abramov. Available at www.jewishfamily.org