By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Last year, a really good family in our neighborhood decided to return to the States*. Believe it or not, the cause was bullying. They had a daughter who was being bullied so badly that it got to the point where she absolutely refused to go to school. This situation persisted for weeks that stretched into months as the parents searched for a new school for their child – it was the middle of the school year – with no success. Finally, they decided that they had no choice but to head back to the old country for the sake of their daughter’s chinuch.
Personally, I was perturbed by this turn of events for two reasons. The most immediate thought in my mind was of a selfish nature: “This is a great family, and I am so disappointed that they will no longer be our neighbors.” Our children were friends with each other, and I was always very happy about that. On top of that, I felt upset at their daughter’s school for not having found a way to solve the problem. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great school (the fact that I send my own kids to a different school notwithstanding), but I felt that they had fallen short of the mark on this one.
Now, here is an interesting twist to this story. The family did what they did only after consulting daas Torah. No, that is not the interesting twist, but it is the backdrop for what is the interesting twist. As this situation was going on, I had occasion to discuss it with another member of the community. Please don’t suspect me, it was for constructive purpose. My reason for broaching the issue was to see if anything could be done to get the girl’s school to do more to remedy the situation and prevent the family from having to take such a drastic step.
Unfortunately, the conversation did not go as I had hoped. The individual with whom I was talking said that he thinks the family mollycoddles their children too much.
Well, that statement opened up a whole discussion about how to deal with such situations. What to do about bullying in general. Mind you, the person I was talking to is very involved in the world of chinuch and gives frequent lectures about a whole range of topics pertaining to child rearing, so his opinion obviously holds a lot of weight. But here is the thing: he mentioned a time that his own daughter was suffering from bullying and how he dealt with it. What did he do? Nope, he didn’t teach his daughter coping skills and allow this to be an important life-learning experience for her. He called up the bully’s parents and read them the riot act. In other words: stepped in and saved the day. This, from the same person who was concurrently insisting that our former neighbor is overprotective of his children. And, no, my chinuch-expert friend did not imply that he had accidentally handled his own daughter’s situation incorrectly. On the contrary, he made it clear that he felt that in that particular situation it was simply not possible for his daughter to handle it alone, and what he had done was absolutely necessary.
So what’s my point with all this? Here is my point (and since I do not have any professional credentials as far as chinuch or child psychology are concerned, feel free to totally ignore what I have to say, but I think it may have some merit): I think most people (or maybe everyone) will agree that the two extremes are not good. It is not good to be a helicopter parent – a parent who is forever hovering over their child, always intervening to protect them from every threat (real or imagined). It is also not good to be a detached parent – a parent who never advocates for their child, or steps in to protect the child even when the child really needs it. So what is the right way? Like the Rambam says, the golden middle. It is about finding the right balance between the two extremes. Granted, that’s no simple endeavor.
What that is going to translate into on the practical plane is a very individualized, case-by-case assessment per the particular child and situation at hand. There is no blanket rule that can be given to address this issue. Sometimes it will be appropriate to empower a child to deal with a certain situation on his or her own, whereas other circumstances will call for heavy parental intervention. Other situations may even demand a mixture of the two. And the only ones who can properly determine which approach is appropriate for any given situation is the parents. Of course, they should consult with teachers and administration. Ditto that for consulting with daas Torah. But, at the end of the day, the child is theirs and no-one knows that child and his or her unique life tapestry and dynamic better than that child’s parents.
Rav Gifter zt”l is quoted (in Rabbi Spero’s Artscroll biography of him) as saying that the most fundamental rule of chinuch is “daati ilaveih” – “my mind is on him”. In other words, to be thinking about your charge all the time. He or she is always on your mind. They occupy a major, ever-present place in your thoughts.
When you do that, you’ll have the siyata d’Shmaya to find the right way.
* Some details of this story have been changed in order to protect the identity of those involved.