I was a child until several weeks ago. We are all children until our parents are gone. Last month, my father died suddenly, yet peacefully, after a long life filled with happiness and good work. He was surrounded by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who closely shared all his days.
The parent-child relationship is natural and fundamental. It can be loving, warm, secure, nurturing, validating and supportive. It can also be demanding, distant, conflicting and abusive. And it can be in a combination or to a degree of any or all of them. It is the only human relationship which is truly ’til death do you part.
This relationship is also unique in the inevitability of its role reversal in which the “parent becomes the child.” Most societies require parents to be legally responsible for the actions of their children and give primacy to the parent-child relationship through laws of inheritance and property.
Notwithstanding the nature vs. nurture debate, modern science has made clear that most of who we are is determined by nature — our parents’ DNA. But the impact of parents’ nurturing is obvious and significant, particularly in the pre-school years, but continuing throughout life.
The parent-child relationship is critical to the future of our species. Offered here are some thoughts about this relationship from someone whose sole expertise derives primarily from being both a child and a parent:
• The primary purpose of parenting is preparing a child to leave. This means ensuring that he/she has the skills, behaviors and sense of responsibility necessary to survive and thrive in life. It does not require that his childhood be free from hurt, failure, rejection or pain. Rather, he must be taught — by deed, example and experience — how to deal with such difficulties. Good parenting mandates that she be empowered and encouraged to do things for herself at a time no later than when she is able to do so. It is not about doing her homework so she can get a better grade. A child must be expected, from early toddlerhood, to look at and respond audibly to adults speaking to them.
And a smile with a firm handshake should be a child’s first instinct. The best adults we know are those that started to practice being one when they were young children.
• Your child is not your friend. Pursuing friendship with a child undermines the discipline, which is a prerequisite to a stable and productive life, and limits and skews the inculcation of values in succeeding generations. Parents who want to be liked rather than respected do a disservice to their child as well as his future educators, employers, colleagues and neighbors. A parent must be the voice of authority on rules and values. This will provide comfort to a child who will face authority throughout life and give her the confidence to know if, when and how authority can or should be challenged for a greater good. Perhaps we should re-incorporate into our parenting lexicon the idea that sometimes the best response to a child’s question of “why?” will be “because I said so and I am the parent and you are the child.”
Negotiating with a child should seldom last longer than a sentence or two.
• A child must know that learning and a strong work ethic are the essential building blocks of a productive and satisfying work life. Whatever one’s job or career may be, knowledge and hard work together produce success. Parents should exemplify and instill the importance of education, whether it be through a trade school, training program, apprenticeship, self-study or college. In this era of work/life balance, hard work and a “get the job done” attitude remain characteristics prized by educators and employers. These values are most effectively taught at home.
• Producing a contented and accomplished human being requires that child rearing be a priority. However, that need not translate into a childcentric universe in your home. Within a family, a child is not an equal among peers. For a successful parent, it is simply a matter of spending quality and quantity time with your apprentice person. This goal is achievable regardless of whether one or both parents work outside of the home. Teaching a child to find the balance between individuality and the promotion of family/community welfare is principally a parental responsibility. The transition to adulthood works best when a child’s sense of identity comes within the context of interacting with and caring about others.
• It is often a fine line separating a parent’s beliefs or perceptions about people from prejudice and intolerance. As parents, we must always be sensitive to and promote our child’s understanding of this distinction. If we do not affirmatively teach our children to accept and embrace people’s differences, bigotry will live on unabated.
My parents taught me these things by their words and, more importantly, by the way they lived their lives. I received these precious gifts along with the obligation to pay them forward. While parenting is no guarantee of personal or professional success in life, ask yourself, when you see an undisciplined or rude child, what he or she is going be like in adulthood. Or when you encounter an adult who is dishonest, obnoxious or lazy, it is not mere speculation to conclude that there must have been something missing or wrong in the way he was raised. To some extent, we all credit good parenting with having contributed to the success of a person we admire. Or we observe an aware and well-behaved child and predict future greatness.
It has become cliché to say that children are our greatest resource. But sustaining the commitment, patience, diligence and fortitude necessary to enable our children to achieve their own greatness is the most difficult, yet rewarding challenge any parent can meet. The future of our families, our community and our world depends on us meeting that challenge.
Alan Rosenthal, a native Miamian, is a business litigation attorney whose community activities have included 11 years on the Miami-Dade Public Health Trust with 4 years as Chairman and Vice-Chairman, and more than 30 years as a Coach and Commissioner of the Temple Beth Am Basketball League. Alan’s father, Herschel Rosenthal, whose family moved to Key West in 1908, passed away in November at the age of 87 after being President of Flagler Federal Savings & Loan and supporting many community organizations, including service as President of the Dave & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center and Beth David Congregation.