The Parent Trap

Teen-agers in Tennessee who want tattoos need a note from Mom or Dad. A minor in Indiana had best have parental permission if he of she is planning to pierce anything other than ears.

In both Israel and America, parents and politicians alike are searching for some solution to the plague of outrageous crimes committed by teens. In classrooms, state houses and homes, arguments rage about who or what is to blame. What causes youngsters, especially youngsters from “better homes,” to harm each other? Too many guns? Too few dress codes? Two-income families? A permissive society?

Predictably, teen-agers have responded that parents don’t know what they are talking about, that their views are Victorian, if not moronic. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quip about his father: “When I was 17,” he is reputed to have said, “my father knew nothing. But when I turned 22, I was amazed to discover how much my father had learned in just five years.”

Although all parents who have raised teen-agers, and all children who have survived their teen years and reached adulthood, can recognize the truism in this quip, we currently seem more perplexed than ever by the challenge of child rearing, by the dynamics involved in the “generation gap” that has led to the current gory headlines. Why are children deaf to the advice parents offer, and why does it take so many years before we understand the true value of our parent’s wisdom?

It is these questions that are answered in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah, in the third among the numerous mitzvot recorded in this portion, instructs us about the disturbing law of the ben sorer umoreh, “the stubborn and rebellious son,” whose terrible behavior causes him his life at the hands of the high court (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

But who is to blame for such a wicked son? Is it the child’s fault, the parents’ fault, or a combination of both? Maimonides declared that a son becomes “stubborn and rebellious” when parents are too permissive and allow him to lead a life of irresponsibility. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, an earlier 12th-century biblical commentator, agreed with this position and claimed that the Torah did not place the burden of responsibility entirely on the child. Based on the Talmud, he argued that the son can justifiably be tried and punished only if the conduct of his parents has been beyond reproach. If they did not provide a good example for him to emulate, then they have no right to bring him to court for “stubborn and rebellious” conduct.

The Torah notes this cause and effect when it states, “If a man has a rebellious son that hearkens not to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother….” Who, we must ask, is the Torah referring to? Who hasn’t hearkened to the voice of his parents? The simple answer is that this is referring to the child.

Perhaps, however, the Torah means that the parent himself didn’t listen to the voice of his parents. The “stubborn and rebellious son” never sees a living example of parents showing respect to grandparents. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Talmud instructs us to call our parents by the titles, Avi Mori — my father my teacher — and Imi Morati — my mother my teacher? A parent is supposed to teach, and teaching means setting an example for our children to emulate.

A philosopher once said, “Example is not the main thing, it is the only thing.” Although rearing children has never been easy, no child becomes suddenly intractable. The process of education begins at the very moment the child is born, and parents have to set the example for children to follow. If we do not do this, we shall produce what the Torah calls “the stubborn and rebellious son,” which will result in one more battle line across the “generation gap.”

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.