Parenting Wisdom & Discipline in Judaism
How Not to Raise A Spoiled Child
If your child views his allowance as Mannah from heaven, then skip this video. But if you are like most parents, this discussion on raising kids is not to be missed!
God afflicted the nation of Israel throughout their 40 years in the desert, withholding food and water from them...on purpose? Isn't God our Father in heaven? What kind of Father treats His kids like that? Join Imu as he explores this question and its implications for us mere mortal parents.
If you’re watching this video, I’m going to presume you love your children. I’m gonna presume that giving to your kids makes you feel a deep sense of meaning. That’s why we do the crazy things we do, right? Like brave the cold November weather to get the Black Friday deal on the latest toy that’s sure to be sold out if we don’t act fast? Or drive an endless amount of carpools for the 15 different after-school programs your kids need to attend, lest they not be adequately enriched. Or maybe you spend your hard-earned leisure time choosing to improve yourself by watching Aleph Beta videos, hoping that this is the video that will change your relationship with your child, and they will love you forever and walk in the ways of God. I get it. We love our kids; we’d do anything for our kids.
And yet, as if giving to our children were not hard enough, we’re told, that giving TOO MUCH to our kids can apparently harm them. We might spoil them. So is there some kinda formula? Buy your kids toys, but not too many? What’s too many? What are the larger values that animate how to give to our children, but also prevent them from being needy ungrateful demon-children?
What if the Torah has an answer for us? Now, at Aleph Beta, we are wary to provide catch-all solutions from the Torah. The Torah is not a parenting manual, and it doesn’t read like one - you can’t flip to the parenting section of the Torah or anything - but the truth is, there is a section of text in Deuteronomy that I, personally, think sheds light on this question. It’s a section of text we originally explored in a video on Parshat Eikev, but we’re reproducing much of that video here because I think it’s a really useful piece on parenting.
Now, the passage in Deuteronomy is just a portion of the long long speech Moshe gives before his death, encouraging and providing guidance to the people of Israel. In this speech, Moshe references disciplining your child; he says: “Viyadata im livavecha, know with your heart, ki kaasher yiyaser ish et bno, Hashem Elokecha miyasrecha - in the way that a person disciplines their child, so God disciplines you.” So Moshe analogizes God parenting us, and us parenting our kids. But I think this text actually goes beyond that. I think, when we read this text closely, and understand it in context, it gives us the necessary parenting values that help us navigate when to give to our children, and when we might be giving just a little too much.
Now, before we get started, I’d recommend pausing this video and reading Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy. What do you notice? What seems strange to you? Even consider this chapter from the perspective of a parent. Does anything feel particularly uncomfortable about all this?
Okay, welcome back - let’s start reading the chapter together, and I’ll point out what feels odd to me. Moses begins his speech. So what does Moses say?
Israel, remember the whole journey,
אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה ,אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בַּמִּדְבָּר
that God took you on, for 40 years in the desert.
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ
So that He could afflict you in order to test you,
לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא
to know what's in your heart, whether you'll keep God's laws or not.
God afflicted you by starving you,
and only after you were starving, He fed you the manna.
Whoa whoa whoa...hold on... First of all, Moses basically just admitted that God afflicted the nation of Israel through the past 40 years of the desert, withholding food and water from them...on purpose? That is so cruel. This is a God we're supposed to have a relationship with?
And second of all, why is Moses telling them any of this? This is hardly inspiring. Surely Moses has some speechwriters who could have counseled him to leave it out of his epic speech. "Yes, Moses, I understand that it's all true, theologically speaking, but why focus on it? Meeting God at Sinai, sure. Shema? Perfect. Leave out the part about how the all-powerful God starved us and afflicted us in order to test us. I think you lose more than you gain."
We all have that skeptical friend...the one who has serious problems with "The God of the Hebrew Bible." He's just so angry and vengeful. This would probably not be the week to invite him to your local Torah reading. But let's be brave. Let's ask our skeptical friend to read the rest of the passage with us. What would he say?
Well, right after Moses says that God tested them, He continues, and tells us why: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, in order to make it known to Israel,כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם, that mankind doesn't only live on bread; He needs God. And remember God, because he fed you in the desert, and made it so your clothes didn't wear out and your feet didn't swell.
Okay, so is this answer good enough to satisfy your skeptical friend?
"NO!" he says. God doesn't deserve to be praised because He eventually fed us and clothed us – He is the one who withheld all those things from us in the first place!
So you continue reading: God's going to bring you to a good land – and you'll be really successful, you're going to have everything you want – just remember, you're going to work really hard, and build beautiful homes, and build up your flocks; but be careful, lest you say, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, that it was my strength and hard work that generated this success. Remember God.
And so your friend retorts: Who is this God? Why is He so needy? He reminds you that HE took you out of Egypt, He protected you in the desert, He gave you food and water. Don't you for a second say that you accomplished anything yourself. He's the one who did it all. How is that fair?
So, this week's parsha is upsetting. Maybe some of us are like that friend, who reads this and says, it's just what I suspected. God isn't so nice, and I want nothing to do with a God who is capable of such cruelty. But I think that we're actually fundamentally misreading this story.
We, as humankind, have a fatal flaw – and because of that flaw, we misunderstand God's actions, and His choice to afflict us in the desert. If we understand this flaw, and correct for it, this passage will take on an entirely different light.
Let's say I have a teenage son. Every day, when he comes home from school, he's hungry. So, he opens the fridge and looks around. 'Hmm, what do I want? Chicken? Rice? Ooh, is that steak? Don't mind if I do!' Then, when I come home, all ready to savor the steak I've been saving, it's gone. My son says, oh, yeah, I was hungry, so, you know…I took it. And off he goes.
And... I'm not upset that he took food from the fridge. He's my son, I buy him food so that he can enjoy it. But...something about this is off. And I think that it's this, the fatal flaw mindlessly taking things for granted. When he opened the fridge that afternoon, he thought, oh good, food. He didn't think, wow, that food looks good, it's so sweet of my dad that he went shopping this morning, and that he always keeps the fridge stocked, so I can always eat when I want to. In fact, I should text him. "Hey Dad, thanks for always keeping my favorite foods around, you're the best! I love you sooooo much! And by the way, can I grab that steak? Smiley emoji! Steak emoji!"
In fact, if I asked him, hey, how'd you get that steak?, he would probably be confused by the question. He'd say something like, "Umm, I opened the fridge...and I got it..." My son is forgetting two very important things: 1) steaks don't just grow in the fridge. Someone put them there. And 2) That someone is me. His food comes from his father.
Of course, I want my son to have food to eat, but I also want him to understand that behind his food is a labor of love. I work to provide food for him, because I care about him. When he takes what he has for granted – when he takes me for granted – that hurts our relationship.
So how do I parent a little better? I have an idea. The next day, when my son comes home from school, and mindlessly opens the fridge for a snack… it's empty. Next day, same thing, nothing. And he is annoyed. Dad, he says to me, what's going on?? Where's the food? I'm starving!
So he understands Step 1 – food doesn't come magically from the fridge. And now, I want him to understand where it does come from, Step 2, he has a loving father, a provider. So we're off to the supermarket. We pick out food, we compare prices, we pay, we stock the car with groceries, and when we get home, we put everything away. And as we do all this, together, it sinks in for him. There is a series of actions, choices, sometimes blood sweat and tears, that are not his own, that go into stocking that fridge. And maybe that means something to him, to know that his father, out of love for him, makes sure that it's always full.
I could have taken this further – I could have taken him to the bank, to deposit my paycheck; to my office, to see how hard I work to provide for him. But at this point, the idea is there.
But how did he learn all this? What is the mechanism by which he understood that lesson? It was the lack before the gain. Those days with the empty fridge made him understand: everything has a source and that even something as mundane as pulling food out of a fridge can be a tool to strengthen the relationship between parent and child.
Now that we understand this great flaw of humanity, let's take a second look at Moshe's speech:
Israel. You're vulnerable to forgetting. You might take things for granted. So remember this 40-year journey in the desert.
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ
God afflicted you, to test you, to teach you.
לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא
To know what's in your heart, whether you'll keep God's laws or not.
וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ - וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן
He caused you to perceive a lack, and then He fed you with food from the heavens.
God had no interest in torturing you. He provided for you.
שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיך
Your clothing didn't wear out,
וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה–זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה
And your legs didn’t swell, for all these 40 years.
Know in your hearts,
כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ,
That just as a parent sometimes must chastise his child in order to teach a crucial lesson,
יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ
God does the same to you, to His child.
This analogy that we gave about the teenager? That's not ours. It's Moshe's. Our God is a loving parent, who chastises us...because it's good for us.
Moses explains why: כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה – God is about to bring you to an amazing land, a land of streams of water, deep fountains from valleys and hills. A land of wheat, barley, grapes, dates, pomegranates, olive oil, honey. אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם – a land in which you'll eat bread without scarcity! לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ – you'll lack nothing.
This is the full fridge! I can have anything I want, whenever I want! And Moses says, when that happens, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ – eat and be satiated! God wants you to have food. He wants to provide for you, always. But, וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ – you must also bless God for the great land that He's given you. Not because God is needy, Moses says. Because this bounty from God, your heavenly parent, is a tool, for building a relationship.
God gives you everything to be enjoyed, in love, and in love, you acknowledge what He's given you. If you merely eat and be full, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ, you are a teenager. If you acknowledge the source of your food, if you eat together with your beloved, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ, then you've built a relationship.
But…there's a grave danger.
This fatal flaw of taking things for granted? There's a time where we are particularly vulnerable, Moses continues:
פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Lest you forget God.
Lest you eat and be satiated.
וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ
You'll build good homes and settle down.
וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן;
And your livestock will increase,
,וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ
And your wealth will increase,
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה
Everything you have will multiply!
There's a grave danger to having everything, a danger when plenty becomes the natural state of everyday life.
Your heart can become haughty,
וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
You'll forget God, who took you out of Egypt.
And you'll say in your heart,
כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה
My own strength and power provided me with all this wealth. It's all from ME!
What happens when your teenager goes off to college? He settles into his own place. Now, he stocks his own fridge, he prepares his own meal, he feels so proud about that delicious steak he just cooked….all by himself. All by himself? Is that really true? How did he stock that fridge? He was using mommy and daddy's credit card.
Once we start doing some of the effort, and it can be a lot of effort, we tend to forget the earlier steps, the things that made our successes possible.
Our experience in the land of Israel would be vastly different than in the desert. We'd plow, seed, tend crops, raise cattle and bake bread. And we'd be proud! כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, my own efforts and my own strength are what caused my success – it feels sort of true! I built this home I live in, I raised this livestock, I accumulated this wealth, from my hard work!
So what is the antidote to this delusion?
It is an inspiring lesson that Moshe teaches us:
וְזָכַרְתָּ, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ, לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל
Because it's God who gave you the strength to be successful.
Yes, your strength allowed you to accomplish things – you should be proud of everything you do. But God gave you that strength. In the desert, God gave you bread, directly from the heavens. But when you pull bread out of the earth, remember that you do so by the strength given to you from God. And when you eat – וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ – recognize and appreciate that the same God of the desert is the one who facilitates your accomplishments in life, the one who gives you the strength to earn your daily bread.
We are the generation even more vulnerable than those who entered the land. They looked to the heavens for rain so they could grow their crops and bake their bread. For us? Bread grows in supermarkets. Earning our daily bread is a metaphor for most of us.
We are much further disconnected from the source of our nourishment than any generation that preceded us. And yet, we must enjoy our great bounty and appreciate the source of our strength.
וּבֵרַכְתָּ, we must bless God, and realize that all we have and all we have achieved is merely a tool for achieving the highest of relationships.
How does this help us figure out how not to spoil our children? Well, much of the video we just watched focused on parenting as an analogy for tapping into the spiritual dimensions of our relationship with God. But the funny thing to note is that the text seems to be relying on our experience of parenting to make a point about how God parents us. Right? Like the text takes for granted - hey, people of Israel - you wanna know why God let you wander around in the desert without food and water before making it rain food from the heavens and before water sprouted forth from rocks? You should know! You’ve been a parent, right? Do you just give and give and give to your children? What are you, crazy? Do you want to raise spoiled children? Of course not! Sometimes, providing a lack, letting your children experience temporary loss or scarcity is actually good for them. The text seems to indicate that we all intuitively know how not to spoil our kids!
But let’s pretend for a moment that it’s not intuitive - let’s make it explicit. How can we learn from this text when is the time to give give give to our children, and when is the time to do the painful thing as a parent, and let your child experience loss or scarcity? If there were one thing that would tell us when to give and when to withhold, what would it be?
I think the answer has to do with that fatal flaw humanity has: to mindlessly take things for granted. And the antidote to that flaw, I think, is hakarat hatov - Not colloquial hakarat hatov, a child who merely says “thank you” - but hakarat hatov more literally translated as recognizing good, or a deep recognition of who the true source of the good in their life is. It’s all about source.
If my child understands the source, appreciates the source of his food, then giving to him isn’t spoiling him. If he doesn’t, if he takes the source of his food for granted, then giving becomes spoiling. And conversely, withholding becomes a form of giving. A form of re-inculcating hakarat hatov, forcing him to grapple with recognizing good in his life. When it comes to spoiling your child, it doesn’t matter the size of the gift. If it’s a $2 toy from Amazing Savings or a monthly stipend from a trust fund - What matters is how much the kid recognizes the source of the goodness in his life. Does he know how to practice v’achalta v’savata u’veirachta?
We all intuitively understand this, deep in our bones: It feels good to go out of our way to give to a kid with a genuine and humble smile, who thanks their parents, who sometimes feels a little guilty at how hard the parent has worked to provide for them. We know there is no risk of spoiling that child. And so gifts to that child feel properly sourced within the context of a loving relationship between parent and child. And, on the other hand, we’re not exactly generous with the kid who takes us for granted.
But I think that this framework can help us to discipline with love, with patience and guidance. I once saw a child in shul who spilled their snacks out onto the floor and stomped on them, creating a mess that would’ve been a pain to clean up. I saw anger flash in the eyes of his parent - aside from wasting food, there was wanton disregard for the parent or staff member of the shul that would ultimately have to clean up the mess. But in a gift of kindness, the parent did not yell or berate. They simply provided a consequence - “Evan, we’re not leaving here until you clean up the mess that you made.” And through the meltdown that ensued, the parent encouraged her son “I love you sweetie, and I need to remind you that as much as you hate cleaning up this mess, it is your mess. And if you won’t clean it, someone else will have to, and that’s not right.”
This is true for little kids, and it’s true for bigger ones. If you give your children allowances, and they treat it like manna from heaven, then by all means, continue! But if they think that allowances are theirs by right, or worse, if they think it’s theirs by right, the act of giving to them is hardly improving your relationship with them. I’d argue it is giving them a false sense of entitlement, and giving them a false sense of the way the world works.
I’m not a parenting expert, so feel free to ignore everything I said - but if my read of this text is compelling, I think that we, as parents, have to remember that temporary loss, pain, and lack, are tools we kinda need to use every now and then. It doesn’t make us bad parents, it makes us stewards of the empathy of our children. They need to work on that muscle, recognition of the source of their gifts, of the consequences of their actions on others. We are the parents of children who will one day become adults, in meaningful relationships with other adults, and hopefully with us, their parents, and with God.