A child, so the proverb goes, is like an arrow. If you shoot him in the right direction, he will pursue that course long after you have set it. But this metaphor implies something else, too. When an arrow is shot, a force is actually imparted to it. It may be invisible, but it's there.

This apparent paradox is at the heart of successful parenting. The objective is for the parent to be present and absent at the same time, as G-d Himself is. According to the Kabala, G-d creates the world through a process of creating a void within Himself. It's not a real void but rather an absence, or hiding, of His countenance.

So creation comes about by G-d being present and absent simultaneously. If He were to reveal His infinite presence, He would overwhelm us all. In the face of G-d's all-encompassing presence, none of us could have an identity. And if He were to remove Himself completely, nothing could exist. The world would be a void, a hollow, a nothingness.

So how does G-d manage this difficult balancing act? He guides and steers us in a certain direction and influences us, yet at the same time remains invisible to us and doesn't stifle our creativity. G-d is the voice of inspiration that speaks to us while always allowing us the freedom to choose.

In parenting, the same dilemma applies, necessitating the simultaneous presence and absence of the parent. How can a parent possibly be present and absent simultaneously? How can one be there and not be there at the same time? There are a number of ways.

Create the right environment. You want your toddler to play, but naturally you're afraid that he could hurt himself if he's left on his own. So to avoid bumps and bruises, you stand over him constantly. Every time he reaches toward the power socket, you move his hand. Every time he gets too near a jagged edge, you quickly move him away from the corner of the table. But this kind of regular intervention will stifle the child's initiative and ensure that he never develops his own personality. It is also likely to make him anxious and nervous.

There's another, much better way. You can create the proper environment for the child to develop and still be left to his own devices. So rather than yell every time he gets too near the stairs, you can place him in a safe room where the jagged edges are covered with cushions and the power outlets covered by safe plastic. In this way, you participate in the child's upbringing through a presence, rather than by intervening directly and inhibiting his learning and initiative. You set up the right environment and become the child's guardian.

The parental role of guardian is one that's not sufficiently promoted today. To be sure, G-d gave every child a father and a mother, representing the two strands of parenting. The fatherly role is the active role, embodying the masculine need to instill values, to discipline, and to give rules. It's a little like sculpting. You take the child--pure and undefined--and try to shape him into an image of your hopes and values. But so many parents continue to hammer and chisel away at their children, unaware that they're destroying not only their child's individuality but also his sense of security. And placing so much emphasis on the active side of parenting means that the child will be judged by how he behaves and by what he produces, rather than for what he is.

There's another, even more important role: the feminine role, which nurtures the child and guards him from adverse and harmful influences. This passive role is more important when it comes to education, because it's what allows a child to grow as his own person. It allows him to discover who he is and what his talents are. It also preserves his most precious commodity--his innocence.

It's extremely important not to always take an active parental role and to embrace the role of the guardian, cordoning off an area within which the child can operate and find himself. By doing this, the parent becomes present and absent simultaneously.

Power versus influence. The Talmud says that what prevented Joseph from sinning with Potiphar's wife was the vision of his father Jacob that flashed before his eyes. Here he was, 17 years old, at the height of his youthful passions, and a beautiful woman flung herself at him. Yet he resisted because his father was "with him" in the room--as the invisible voice of conscience that accompanied Joseph everywhere.

How does a parent become that voice of conscience? Being too strict a disciplinarian--too much stick, not enough carrot--can have an immediate result, but the effect is ephemeral and external. That's a principle that Moses learned to his cost, as Rabbi Elie Munk explains. Having nursed the Jewish people in the age of their spiritual infancy, he constantly reproached them for their numerous rebellions against G-d. But later, when G-d told him to speak to a rock that would give forth water and he struck it instead, G-d passed the leadership of the Jewish people on to Joshua.

There are many parents who make the same mistake. They think that their purpose is to use as much coercion and instill as much guilt as possible to get their child to comply. But if you can have a dialogue with your child from a very early age, you ensure that his mind absorbs your teaching internally, so that it always stays with him. It's sad that parents speak to children only as children.

Yes, actively disciplining a child with the rod will give a parent a certain power over him. But speaking constructively to a child, and occasionally treating him like an adult, gives a parent influence over him. Power is temporary and always invites a backlash. Influence is eternal and invites no backlash because the child doesn't feel that he's being forced to do anything. He feels that he's choosing of his own accord.

There's an enormous difference between power and influence. Governments, for example, have power over people, but it's external. It can force them to do things, only without penetrating their hearts or minds, and when the force is spent, it can no longer affect them. Influence is internal--the voice of reason and inspiration that speak to a person's heart--and eternal. Power has a sell-by date, but influence lasts forever.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad