Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Shemot 76 - Mass education and the bondage in Egypt

The beginning of the Parasha describes the radical deterioration in the stature of the Israelites in Egypt. The Torah repeats by name all the sons of Jacob who came to Egypt reflecting their greatness as individuals worthy to be mentioned by name, because like 'stars ' they gave off light and made a contribution to society. Their descendants are regarded as a group, no longer   individuals, but the children of Israel. The Torah then describes the dramatic increase in their numbers in a somewhat derogatory way – they became many, swarmed – like 'insects'    - conducting themselves like a swarm of insects and grew enormously in number and influence so the land became saturated with 'THEM'. They were called THEM – not only a people who have lost their individuality but they became a people without a name, like insects. This transition played into the hands of the Egyptians who were looking for a justification to persecute and enslave the Israelites.  The Israelites began to leave Goshen and began to mingle in Egyptian society. They were seen as a group and not individuals and so they were perceived as a threat. According to the view in the Midrash, the king was dethroned,because he would not comply with the wishes of the people, to deal harshly with the perceived threat posed by the children of Israel. He felt it would be bad for Egypt and it was a lack of gratitude to Joseph who had saved Egypt from the famine. After 3 months he agreed to cooperate with the people and deal with the Israelite problem. He was reinstated and  became a 'new king who did not know Joseph '.He was no longer willing to make the sacrifice for his values – showing gratitude and therefore is considered an ungrateful king.
In order to enslave the Israelites, and oppress  them , and ignore  the  contributions, Joseph and his descendants had made to Egypt, the king began to objectify and dehumanize them. Even Joseph, no longer had a name.. Once you objectify and dehumanize people, the next step – being cruel to them is no problem. They were construed as a threat to the country and all evil including infanticide  could be justified.
 Moses, due to divine providence was raised as a prince in Pharaoh's palace. Only a prince, an individual with great stature could redeem Israel from Egypt. Moses empathized with his brothers and showed compassion. He   began to intervene to improve the plight of the Israelite slaves as a group. But just as important were matters of the community – Tzibur, was the plight of each individual person and here too we see Moses intervene on behalf of individuals.

The treatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians was extreme, abusive and cruel, but in certain ways it shared  something common with traditional parenting. Traditional parenting focuses on ' doing to ' the child as opposed to ' working with ' the child. Traditional parenting seeks to control and manipulate children's behavior by being contingent, consistent using the tools of control  - punishments, consequences, praise and rewards. The way the child experiences ' being done to' and  love and privileges made  conditional on behavior and grades in school is not a factor. A child's concerns, perspective or how he sees the world through his own eyes is totally ignored. What concerns the parent is behavior, not the whole child, the motives, feelings and underlying values behind the behavior. 
The alternative is to work with the child, supporting his autonomy so we focus on the whole child and the development of his unique character and potential in the context of caring community of learners. We can help him develop a love for learning, discover his unique contribution and connect to God by focusing on what he does and not on how well he does. If we get rid of judgment, kids can develop in stature and become leaders impacting on society and God's presence in the world. Unfortunately the focus is on mass education and trying to get each kid to fit a certain mold and look the same. The tools of mass education are the consequences,  rewards, praise and punishments and a focus on grades and competition rather than focusing on developing the uniqueness of each individual child and making him into a potential leader. The difference is expressed in the leadership of Pharoah or Moses.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Vayechi 76 - R' David Pelcovitz - Balanced Parenting , a response

Here is a response to R' David Pelcovitz's views on parenting -' Balanced Parenting ' gleaned from the 3 keys of parenting talk - not the book. So the response is very much about what is stressed and emphasized in  talks and what is missing. R' David Pelcovitz talks about the 3 keys of parenting.   (1) Balanced Parenting – the balance between limit setting and love, (2) Perspective taking and (3) nurturing the Uniqueness of your child.
I will start with nurturing the uniqueness of your child as this is alluded in our Parasha. Jacob blesses his sons in a way that seems to be more about describing their personalities and sometimes being very critical when their inherent natures were used in an inappropriate way – like that of Shimon who with his brother attacked the city of Shechem.  In fact, the city of Shechem is inscribed on the flag of Shimon, the flag representing the essence of the tribe. Rabbeinu Yeruchum explains that the blessing was a stimulus for personality growth based on the unique strengths and natures of Jacob sons'. Developing their inherent uniqueness would not only lead to character actualization and perfection but also have a ripple effect on other lesser dominant traits.  'So hoping that your kid will realize your dreams for yourself or a 'one- size fits all ' approach with the same parental expectations for all kids - everyone to Ivy League or Lakewood etc.  Is not the way to go and certainly will not help the child to achieve his uniqueness.' Your wishes and blessings for your kid must relate to his innate talent and character , something for which  you are also grateful  - DP
                                                                                                                                                    I suggest it is not only about focusing on a child's strengths and sending a kid to a school that fits the kid, we need to also support his autonomy in order to help him realize his potential and give expression to his uniqueness.  Kids   should feel that they are the authors of their actions, 'self –determined - endorsing their actions on the highest level of reflection and connected to their inner –beings, souls and core values. When we support their autonomy, we enhance the uniqueness of the children.

'Perspective taking is a key skill and value needed to be successful in human relations like marriage and in the work place. When kids see parents treating each other with respect and parents being able to see the perspective of others with whom they disagree, kids   internalize this value better than being told how to behave. '  - DP

R' David Pelcovitz  advocates a balance between Love and limits, that a child's behavior is contained with limits but there is always love no matter what the kid does. He suggests that we are love specialists and weak on limit setting.  To give context to his words and dramatic effect he refers to a book by Jean Twenge on how kids are becoming ever more narcissistic and this is due to permissive parenting and the fear to set limits and enforce them with consequences. He uses anecdotal evidence of silly parents from dysfunctional  families , in the same way as many  articles on today's  parents  show that instead of disciplining kids they coddle them and shield them from frustration and what we get is a generation of narcissists with a sense of entitlement . He quotes Twenge who says that the sign of the times is that ' obedience ' - to be obedient children is no longer a goal that parents have for their children.

I want to suggest that if we focus on one key - being responsive to a child's needs and particular supporting a child's autonomy, we have an integrated system and don't have to balance between love and limits and we promote perspective taking and the uniqueness of the child.

. DP talks about for a need for a balance between limits and loves and he says that if one does not have a good relationship with a kid, imposing limits will lead to rebellion. And this reminds me of the ADHD specialist who told parents that if they have a good relationship with kids, it will make your consequences and punishments more effective.  And this is where I disagree.  A good and loving relationship is our goal, relationship is also a skill kids need to learn and it depends on how we set limits and why we set limits while still supporting their autonomy. Relationship isn't for helping you make limit setting more effective.  Everyone agrees that people and especially children need limits but the question is how you set limits, the parent or teacher alone, unilaterality or together with the child and how do we deal with problems and infractions focusing on CPS – collaborative problem solving and teshuva or with consequences. Is it a' working with' approach or a 'doing to' approach?  When the parent's concerns are being addressed by the solution, a limit is being set, and the limit is also something which the child has participated in creating. If we are really interested in a child's moral development we need to help them to grapple with the issues at hand and try figure out the limits and boundaries needed and generate choices and solutions. We want kids to learn to set limit themselves, limits that are intrinsic to situations, limits that are decreed from the situation itself and this is done grappling with the underlying values of how to behave in the context of different situations. This is not about imposing rules and limits but rather helping kids to live according to principles and values. 
 When we parents and kids solve problems in a collaborative way, perspective taking and understanding the concerns of both parties is crucial to the problem solving process. Here, the parent not only models perspective taking by addressing the child's perspective and concerns, but the child acquires the skill as well, as he learns to articulate his concerns and take into account the concerns and the perspectives of the parent. CPS – collaborative problem solving is very different from a parent or teacher telling a kid how to behave, or even a parent making decisions taking into account the perspectives of the child. It is a collaborative dynamic where we support the kid's autonomy, his competence - as he learns   to articulate his concerns, address both concerns   by generating solutions that are mutually satisfactory to both parent and child. And in the process, the relationship is enhanced. So the obvious question is why not promote ' perspective taking and empathy' by the way you directly interact with your child instead of just relying for an indirect way of teaching this value?

For sure, there will times where we have to insist on a limit, thwart kids autonomy  and kids will be unhappy about it, but the more we solve problems in a collaborative way , be  open to discussion,  they will begin to trust that our judgment takes into account their concerns and is in their best interests. This is a rather different take on limits from that of Twenge and DP who say that if we don't set limits and cause frustration and discomfort to children they will grow into narcissistic people with a sense of entitlement who won't be able to cope in the outside world. The question is are we using a 'doing to' approach ,imposing limits to contain children's behavior  or are we ' working with them ' so that they grapple with ideas and figure out how the limits they need to set. 
I take issue with the idea that we are love specialists. The question is not whether we love our kids but how we love our kids. Is it with strings attached? –  do we love them more when they behave themselves or do well at school and use love to leverage behavior. Even more important is how our kids experience our love, do they feel just as loved when they 'screw up and fall short.'  In fact many – SDT researchers, and in the frum world R' Benzion Sorotzkin hold that ' conditional regard and acceptance ' is one of the main problems in parenting or teaching. When a kid's need for respect, love and unconditional acceptance etc. are not being met, kids compensate by becoming more materialistic but when parents are responsive to kids needs spoiling a kid never becomes a problem.  Unconditional acceptance and love is not about being a permissive parent. In an illuminating passage from her book Learning to Trust (2003), Marilyn Watson explained that ' a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing “a very deep kind of reassurance – the reassurance that she still care[s] about them and [is] not going to punish or desert them, even [if they do] something very bad.' Unconditional parenting means solving problems and dealing with a teacher or parent's unmet expectations using collaborative problem solving and enabling the child in an autonomous way to do Teshuva and engage in the moral act of restitution. This is rather different from imposing consequences if rules or limits are broken as suggested by DP and Twenge.
It is not the place to discuss Twenge's writings and the validity of her ideas and research Imho, difficulties with kids have to do the ever increasing demands placed on kids that outstrip their skills and development stage, a regime of high stakes testing, and an educational system that is driven by grades, the learning itself has no inherent value alienating kids from learning. I would like to comment on the negative way she and David Pelcovitz see the fact that ' obedience is no longer a goal that parents have for children. The fact is that hardly anyone would want their kids to grow up as obedient people and for sure kids themselves place no value on being obedient.  Parents long –term goals for kids are usually more about being decent human being, kind people, happy and being concerned about the happiness of others, independent, critical thinkers, altruistic, fulfilled, self-reliant, inquisitive, responsible, competent, etc.  Obedience and compliance are more about a parent's need for control rather than being responsive to the needs of kids. And the tools of gaining obedience and compliance are imposing limits and enforcing them with rewards, consequences and punishments which teach kids to ask what's in it for me – thus we promote the most primitive of moral behavior.

Imho it is not a balance between 2 opposing forces - loves and limits.  A respectful and loving relationship with kids, nurturing their uniqueness and moral development, perspective talking and empathy is dependent on how we support their autonomy,love them, how we set limits - together and helping them grapple with issues involved, and solving problems and unmet expectations using CPS – collaborative problem solving with a focus on Teshuva - engaging in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Vayigash 76 – Repeating the parenting and discipline mistakes of parents and teachers.

Joseph sends off his brothers with wagons containing a generous supply of provisions to go and bring their father, Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt. He also gave each of his 10 brothers 2 sets of clothing .He treated  full brother Binyamin differently by giving him  5 sets of clothing and 300 pieces of silver.  The Talmud asks how could Joseph ,a victim of jealousy  do such a thing. Joseph had been singled out by Jacob when he gave him the 'coat of many colors ', and  now he was adopting the same strategy that caused him so much suffering.  Because siblings vie for the love and attention of their parents, their anger is directed against the sibling who is being treated as the favorite child. The Talmud answers that Joseph was alluding to a future event when the descendant of Binyamin, Mordechai would in a triumphant way emerge from the presence of the King Ahasuerus wearing 5 royal garments.  The commentators ask how could  the brothers  know that the 5 sets of  clothes communicated this message and not a message of favoritism. The answer given is that the word for the sets of clothing given to Binyamin is written in the shortened form חליפת and not  in the long form חליפות indicating that the quality of Binyamin's present was of a much lesser quality. Thus the differences in the presents could not be ascribed to favoritism but to some other message. The 300 silver pieces could have been given in secret or as compensation for Binyamin's suffering.

  In general we should always try to attribute to people and especially children the best possible motives consistent with the facts.

The question I want to examine is why children who were parented in a controlling and conditional way - making love and attention conditional on how kids behave or perform in school and use love to leverage behavior,- as parents ,  do the same things to their kids. They use the same parenting that contributed to their needs not being met and that sometimes caused suffering to the point of physical and/or emotional abuse. We can also ask how teachers who were once pupils and were often treated disrespectfully by teachers who totally ignored their concerns or perspectives and controlled them with punishments and consequences adopt the same approach to discipline and learning as their teachers did. Even though parents were once kids and teachers were once pupils, they seem to totally have forgotten and are totally unaware of how kids and pupils experience the way they discipline and teach. In education it matters not what we think is the lesson we teach, but the message kids take home and how they experience what we do to them.

Parents will often justify a ' doing to approach ' rather than ' working with ' kids because this is how I was raised and I turned out OK.  For sure they have not turned out OK if they do not respect the dignity of kids, are controlling and love and accept them conditionally. The obvious answer is that kids learn how to parent the way they were parented and because it is the only way they know. And as a result of this, a cycle of aggression or even abuse that is intergenerational is created. According to Alice Miller kids who are emotionally abused have a natural tendency to deny or minimize the harmful nature of the parental abuse and blame themselves for being bad kids. This causes a variety of emotional and behavior problems. There is an unconscious need to believe that everything that our parents did for us, was really for our own good and was done out of love. It is too threatening for many kids to even entertain the possibility that our parents weren't well-meaning or even competent. In order to show what was done to them was not that bad and out of love, they do the same things to their own children that their parents did to them.

Another simpler reason is that because of various fears and weaknesses ,  parents have a need for control and therefore adopt  a ' doing to ' approach that  trumps the needs of the kids for love , attention, guidance and unconditional acceptance. These needs can only be addressed by adopting a ' working with' approach. A  ' doing to' approach is also so much easier. It is often mindless, relying on power , status and position and does not take into account how the child experiences what is being done to them. However this ' bad discipline' works, at least in getting temporarily compliance. So because a ' doing to ' approach is easier and ' works' (works for what? = temporary compliance),  it is so easy to parent this way and fall back on these ways even when one has adopted a working with approach. 

 Working with kids and supporting their autonomy is much harder and takes a lot of thought and patience. It is giving up control so that you gain influence and can inspire kids to connect to their inner souls and give expression to who they are and develop a love of learning and a love of people. When we attribute to kids the best motives consistent with the facts, and believe children do well if they can and not children do well if they want to, we will be more inclined to work with them and find out what is getting in their way. We will also put our relationship first and try to see the world through their eyes, the eyes of kids as we collaborate with them to solve problems and grow together with them to make a better world.

If we focus on the long term goals for our kids and not our need for control and compliance we will be able to ask ourselves if what we just did to kids had more to do with our upbringing, our needs and fears and is not in the best interests of our kids. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hanukah – Vayeshev- Mikeitz 76 What you stop yourself from doing – defines who you are

The Talmud asks -  ' Why was Hanukah enacted ? - on account of which miracle?  For the Rabbis taught  -  Hanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts for 8 days on which it is forbidden to fast and give hespedim = eulogies for the dead. The reason is that the Greeks entered the temple and defiled all the oil there. When the Hasmonean dynasty overcame and defeated them, they found only one flask of oil with the seal of the high priest. The flask had the amount of oil sufficient for one day, yet miraculously it lasted for eight days. The following year these days were designated as a religious holiday on which the Hallel and Hoda'yah = thanksgiving praises are said.'

The obvious question concerns the structure of the passage and the way the prohibition of fasting and saying eulogies for the dead is emphasized and stressed. I would have first told the story of the miracle of the oil, the fixing of the holiday of Hanukah to say praises and give thanks, and therefore in the spirit of the holiday it is forbidden to fast and or give eulogies.

Similarly, the first law=Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch = code of Law on Hanukah is the prohibition to fast or give eulogies during Hanukah.  So what is so significant about this negative prohibition that it is the first law that is taught and precedes the positive mitzvoth= commandments of lighting candles and saying praises and giving thanks.

Hanukah is also called the festival of the lights because of the mitzvah to light candles. The lighting of candles has a universal message – a small amount of light can chase away a large amount of darkness. For this reason many non-Jews light candles on Hanukah because they identify with its universal message and feel spiritually enriched by the ritual. Non- observant Jews also light candles because of the universal message and the association it has with the military victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks and the regaining of the lost independence of the Jewish state. By lighting candles, non-Jews or non-observant Jews have not changed or redefined themselves; they are merely enriching their lives by introducing more spirituality.

Jews who are in the process of becoming more observant and 'dati', do not change and redefine themselves as observant and dati until they start to keep and observe the negative mitzvoth and prohibitions - Shabbat – Sabbath, Kashrut = dietary laws and family purity. Until they stop for eg driving  or working on the Sabbath , stop  eating non-kosher food and or begin observing the prohibitions involved in the laws of family purity , any positive mitzvoth they do,  merely enriches who they are , but does not change or redefine them.

The negative mitzvoth and prohibitions define us with their limits and boundaries, the positive commandments and mitzvoth enrich our lives in the context of the negative mitzvoth – the boundaries and limits. It enables us to  ' Sur me'ra ve' aseh tov, turn aside from doing bad and then do good. There are many wicked and evil people who also do a lot of good. It is their failure to stop and resist doing evil , that defines who they are.

So on Hanukah what defines an observant Jew and gives his mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles a completely different dimension is the Isur = prohibition of fasting and giving eulogies for the dead.

Joseph- Yoseif is called 'Yoesif Ha'tzadick' – Joseph, the righteous and saintly man because he stopped himself from having relations with the wife of his boss – Potiphar despite incredible pressure, bribes and threats. He also allowed himself to be incriminated when she grabbed his garment. He slipped out of it and then he ran outside leaving his garment in her hand instead of using a bit of 'force' to grab back his garment. This became Joseph's undoing as she used the garment as evidence against him. Joseph was prepared to pay the price for being the person he was – someone who does not commit (a) immoral sexual acts, (b) nor betray his master or (c) does not use violence to get what he wants. On this account he spent 12 years in an Egyptian prison. After the officer of the butlers tells Pharaoh about Joseph's ability to interpret dreams, Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph. THEY brought him hastily out of the dungeon and HE – Joseph said he is not a person who goes to meet a king looking like prisoner who has not had a haircut for years, so he first went for a haircut and shopping to buy new clothes.

Parents and teachers should be helping and guiding kids to define who they are and how to give expression to their values and develop a love for people, learning and life. Traditional approaches to discipline or learning focus on obedience and compliance and the tools to get compliance and obedience are power, seduction, extrinsic motivators like rewards, punishments, consequences, praise and grades etc. Limits and boundaries are set and enforced with punishments. Instead  we should be helping kids learn to set their own limits and boundaries because of their values, who they are and guidelines to behavior which the Torah gives. These guidelines help kids to analyze situations and let the limit be derived from the situation instead of following and complying with rules out of context. The reason why kids in a traditional framework do things or avoid doing things is because of what they will get or what will be done to them.   It teaches them to ask what is in it for me, instead of asking ' what type of person do I want to be, what are the consequences of my behavior on other people, how do I impact on others '. 

 We give value to ideals and Torah when we make sacrifices and prepared to dedicate a lot of money and effort in expressing and fighting for these values.  The Hanukah story is not about people asking ' what is my reward or what will I get if I go to war. It is about being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and go to war over values, because it expresses who I am and my commitment to the Torah and Godly values.