I used to hate cliches. Now I love them. Sometimes there’s just no better way to neatly say what you’re trying to express than to catch a ride on the back of a well-worn aphorism. It’s as if an entire corpus of wisdom on a particular topic has been distilled into its essential components, bottled into a compelling and memorable phrase, and served up for our convenience in no more than a few excellently picked words. A linguistic work of art.
Here’s one of my favorites: The quickest way to happiness is to choose what you already have. What a beauty. We all want to be happy, yet rarely does it occur to us that we can control our level of joy via a conscious decision to accept and appreciate what we have today. This useful saying goes well with its cousin, the one reminding us not to be duped by the appearance of greener grass on the other side. Yet somehow, despite these truisms, we instinctively look over the fence, forgetting that longing for what our neighbor has is a far less effective strategy for satisfaction than to excavate our own backyard.
The advice to search for happiness at home generally pertains to our material possessions. And rightly so – we need help combating the incessant drip of cultural messaging about how happy we could be if only we had something other than what we’ve got. Ours is a society obsessed with notifying us of what we’re missing by showing us how delighted everyone else seems to be online. So pertinent is the teaching of Chazal, perhaps now more than ever: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Yet nowhere is this kernel of wisdom more important than in parenting, where wishing that our kids were more like the children next door can leave lasting scars on their basic sense of self-worth. We don’t want our kids growing up feeling like we would have preferred a better version than the children that they are.
We need to find a way not only to have kids, but to want the kids we have. How do we do this? After all, what choice is there really?
Parenting as an active decision
None of us choose the children we are given. They are gifted to us by Hashem to be loved and cared for as best we can. We, the appointed caretakers, are entrusted with raising these precious souls and setting them on the path for which they were sent into this world. While kids don’t come with post-it notes explaining the match between their specific nature and our particular brand of parenting, we understand that each child is a blessing designed uniquely for us, and we do our best to seize the opportunity we have to raise them.
Yet this description falls short of what it means to be a parent. We are not only child recipients, as if we were placed in this position and now must make the best of it. Parenting entails more than figuring out how to assemble the delivery that has been dropped off at our door. While this may be how it feels sometimes, especially when it seems like we’re spending a significant portion of each day trying to figure out what on earth we’re doing (my package was missing an instruction manual), this model of parenting-as-acquiescence fails to fully encompass what we’re aiming for: to choose and embrace our kids as the children we actively want.
Wanting the kids we have
Kids need to feel wanted. They need to sense that we provide for them not only because we must, but because we want to invest in their wellbeing. They pick up on this difference through how we look at and respond to them – do we broadcast an attitude of begrudging obligation, as if we’d rather be doing something else but understand that helping them is our duty? Or does our presence convey a desire to be involved in their lives because we are interested in them and welcome their process?
To illustrate this point, try the following exercise: Take out a picture of one of your children, perhaps one that particularly challenges you. Go to a place where no one is around, look at the picture, take a deep breath, and say the following: “You are the child I want. You come with gifts and struggles, beautiful elements and rough edges, times that are easier and some that are much harder. I embrace you entirely, exactly the way you are. I want what you bring into my life. I pledge to treat you like your own unique person and not to compare you to anyone else. I promise to see you as the child you are and to let go of the child I wish you were. I choose you.”
While you do this, try to notice the feelings that well up inside you. It can feel awkward to verbalize some of the above statements. That’s ok, and it’s fine to use your own words if that’s easier. But you also may find internal resistance, something inside you that pushes back against these sentiments. See if you can become aware of that. You’ve just located the part of yourself that wishes your child were different. This part of you doesn’t want to let go and embrace the child Hashem has given you. Stay with this feeling for a moment. Identifying this part of yourself is the first step towards learning to choose your child. With time and practice (and repeating the above exercise regularly), you can start to look at your child – warts and all – as the one you really want.
The Torah provides an example of a mother who chose her child. In the first book of Shmuel (1:26-27), when Chana comes back to Shiloh to dedicate her son, Shmuel, to lifelong service in the Mishkan, she explains to Eli, the Cohen Gadol, that she is the woman who had been standing here several years prior, praying to Hashem to grant her a son. “This is the child that I prayed for,” she says to him. The word “this” (“zeh”) often denotes specification, as if the speaker is pointing to the object of reference (see Rashi on Shemot 15:2 citing the Mechilta; Midrash Tanchuma on Ekev 3:1). With this statement, Chana is making a declaration. She isn’t only telling Eli that she has been given a son. She is telling him that she has been given this specific son. This is the son she wanted. Not a different one. Not the same one in a different version. She wanted Shmuel, exactly how he was.
Chana’s example is the second stage of developing a healthy parental attitude towards our children: after we choose to have kids, we must ensure that we don’t view them as burdens. When we realize that we’re looking at our kids as impediments to our agenda – our peace of mind, our financial success, our personal religious goals, our standing in the community – we know that our priorities are off. Kids are not obstacles to our agenda; kids are our agenda.
The reason for our joy
Dr. David Leiberman points out that children must not feel like they are getting in the way of our happiness. They need to feel like they are the reason for our happiness. They should feel like we are glad to see them, that we light up when they enter the room, and that we are ready to be in the trenches of their lives alongside them, with no preconditions. This can be exceedingly hard at times, especially when they push buttons in us that we didn’t even know we had.
The key to actively choosing our kids is to find meaning and purpose in being their parents. Hashem pairs kids and parents in such a way that they need what only we can give, and we can only grow to our fullest selves through being their caregivers. There is no more challenging, no more meaningful, and ultimately no more growth-producing activity than engaging with the developing young people who are taking shape under our roof.
If a cliche is our ticket to stumbling upon the truth, so be it. Because the truth is that happy kids are those who know that despite their flaws and imperfections, their parents feel privileged to be their parents. Our kids – these kids – are the greatest blessings we will ever have. Let’s try to choose them exactly as they are. Because they’re each beautiful, and they’re ours through it all.