Parenting without a guidebook

By Rabbi Reuvi Cooper

"I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most of all from my students."

Through my work with youth in our community, I have experienced firsthand how true this Talmudic saying is. Here are my three key learnings about parenting. I hope you find something within to help you in your own parenting journey.

1. Follow my lead

I was visiting a six-year-old child on his Jewish birthday. After handing him a certificate and cupcake, the birthday’s boy’s mother asked her son: “What do you say to the Rabbi for his visit?” After no answer was forthcoming, she prompted him and said: “To...?”, hoping he would finish the Hebrew word Todah, meaning to give thanks. Instead, he burst into his favourite Chabad Malvern creche song: Torah Torah Torah, torah tzivah lanu Moshe! It wasn’t the response either of us expected, but it was the perfect show of gratitude!

Impressions, the things we do, the things children hear and participate in, will remain with them for years. It’s not about lectures and rules. When they see and do something, that’s what will remain etched in their hearts and minds. As the famous saying goes: “Don’t worry that your children don’t listen to you, worry they are always watching you.”

When I meet university students, they always say: Remember when you helped put Teffilin on me? Or, remember when you visited me on my Jewish birthday? Or, remember when we were in camp and every morning you woke us up wearing your Tallit and Teffilin? Hardly anyone has ever stopped me to say: Remember when you lectured about so-and-so or spoke about such-and-such?

Yes, we need to teach! But when we teach, the best thing to do is back it up with action, that’s when it will be remembered. I’ll never forget a ten-year-old boy telling me that he thought it was strange meeting his Jewish studies teacher in Macca’s, just after they had learnt about kashrut! We need to make sure that when we tell our kids not to be glued to phones, to speak nicely, to clean up, to volunteer — that we are actually doing all these things ourselves. Before every holiday program, I tell my staff that children are like seedlings in the ground. They need to be nurtured with care. Any mark that is made on their tiny beings will grow with them throughout their life.

2. Parents not friends

We want to foster a close relationship with our kids so that they can open up to us, but how do we get there in a healthy way? Many parents try and become their child’s best friend. But they don’t need us to be friends, that is something we can leave to their peers. Children need parents.

This isn’t just a recent issue. As Anne Frank wrote in her diary on January 6, 1944:

As you know, I’ve frequently complained about Mother and then tried my best to be nice. I’ve suddenly realised what’s wrong with her. Mother has said that she sees us more as friends than as daughters. That’s all very nice, of course, except that a friend can’t take the place of a mother. I need my mother to set a good example and be a person I can respect.

The Talmud taught us this lesson centuries ago with the saying: Yemin mekareves and smoll docheh, meaning that your right hand needs to bring the child close, shower them with love and compliment them, but at the same time, your left hand needs to discipline, teach and stand a foot higher. This is why we have laws of honouring parents, which include not calling parents by their first name, not sitting in their specified seat and always serving them first.

Getting the balance between right and left is key to having a harmonious parent child relationship. And if we do our job right as a parent, hopefully when our child becomes an adult, they are someone we want to be friends with.

3. love + respect = quality time

I had put together a teen committee to help run our teen programs. We called our first meeting. I had made a letterhead and had the teens names printed with their titles – president, secretary and treasurer. We were in this meeting and my phone went off. I picked up to answer it, and then decided against it, hitting the ‘do not disturb’ button. Later, a father who happened to be a CEO of a large company and probably had many meetings that day, walked in and smiled. He then pulled up a chair and sat down next to me to start some small talk. At this moment, his child said: “Dad, you are disturbing an important meeting. Rabbi Reuvi didn’t even answer his phone when it went off!”

We need to believe in our children and mean it. We need to treat them with respect, to believe in them and to help their dreams become a reality.

This is especially true when it comes to time. Research shows that it is not quantity but quality that counts and time is no different. We are all busy. But be in the moment with your child, listen, focus without distraction and you will see the positive impact almost instantly. Teens sometimes think they are too cool, but trust me, they want your quality time.

Although children and youth are only 20% of the population, they are 100% of our future, so take them seriously, and take your role as a parent and role model just as seriously.


Rabbi Reuvi Cooper is a Committee Member of Twelve Batmi and Thirteen Barmi and Youth Director at Chabad Malvern

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