Ethics in Parenting and the Sanctity of small moments
Jennifer Naparstek Klein, Psy.D
Presented at the Educational Luncheon, 2/7/06
An interesting challenge to all of us who are parents, and one that can be positively confounding to many of us is how to raise children with a good ethical sensibility.
Can we raise our children to feel good about themselves, be good at things, and also be good people? For example, if a child asks to buy an expensive toy in a store (an all too common occurrence) a parent is suddenly put on the spot, and thrown into a paralyzing parenting crisis.
“Well, this is an enriching toy and made for his area of interest (let’s say dinosaurs, for the sake of specificity).” One might think, “but, he just received an elaborate dinosaur toy from his grandparents,” and then “I can afford it, and he wants it, plus getting him out of this store will be a nightmare if I refuse.” Then, finally, “how can getting everything he asks for be good for him?” All of these conflicting deliberations occur in the space of a minute, as you are either on your way to the register, or scooping your screaming child in your arms as you exit the store, ashamed that your child is the one causing such a ruckus. These small moments pose large questions about raising children effectively, and these same moments often make us wonder if we are on the right track as parents.
Wendy Mogel, in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee , suggests a style of parenting that incorporates religious ideals, or commandments, in order to tackle such dilemmas as the one presented above, with the intended result of rearing ethical children. One idea she poses that seems, on the surface, counterintuitive, yet in a deeper sense quite profound, is her idea of “sanctifying the mundane.” The suggestion is to not only pay attention to the greatness that our children can achieve, but to realize the importance of everyday efforts and moments. This is quite a valuable idea for the many parents hurrying their children throughout the week from activity to activity, seeking signs of excellence and a promise of success for the future.
Most parents probably agree that the most precious moments with their children are mundane, when you are all piled into bed together, or playing games together, or perhaps a moment when you share a joke, a good family chortle. Yet, do we think of these moments as the building blocks for success, or as helping our children advance in the world? The irony is that these moments are probably more formative, and more predictive of life happiness than the participation in any lesson. They prepare our children for loving relationships, for expressing kindness to others, and these moments give them a radar for the really good stuff available to them in the world.
Dr. Mogel also coins a term that is quite useful in describing an ill in American culture, that she calls “specialitis.” It is the frequent insistence that our lives, our children, and thus, we, are special. Again, she poses an interpretation of ordinary as sacred. It seems that the American dream sets us up for the affliction of specialitis. We are encouraged by society to strive for success, to better our positions in life, always aiming higher. In terms of parenting, the American dream translates into affording all the opportunities that could potentially enrich our children.
It is a challenge for parents with means to help their children find the path to a life of humility and generosity. Often members of affluent communities are faced with a pressure akin to keeping up with the Jones’, yet that pressure transforms into keeping up with little Billy Jones, who may join the Olympic swim team, or tiny Susie Jones, who excels in recognizing all her letters, and is already fluent in four languages. When waiting for excellence to emerge, we are sometimes guilty of overlooking the wonderful ordinary things about our children. The focus on specialness can lead us to feel more demanding, more frustrated when things are not so special, or on occasion more focused on appearances. The same parents would like their children to develop humility and generosity, yet there is a clear disconnect.
So the hunt begins for minor miracles, the smallest of moments with seismic meaning. Ethics are in the details, the ways we address others, and each other. Ethics are in how we handle the toy store tantrum, and how we communicate to our children that we see their ordinariness and find it beautiful.
A licensed child and family psychologist practicing at The Counseling Center. She specializes in treatment with children ages 4-18, and young adults. Dr. Klein works with families struggling with specific mental health disorders such as depression, behavior disorders, learning disorders, or those families facing challenging life circumstances. Dr. Klein received a bachelors degree from Duke University, and a doctorate from Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology.