My formative years took place in the 1990s. It was a different time. A different century, to be exact. Back then, children would make eye contact with one another. Parents played board games with their teenaged kids on weeknights without the relentless buzzing of Whatsapp messages and Instagram likes. Hopscotch was still a thing, and going to the library was a treat, not a chore. Birthday “goody bags” would consist of bubbles and colored pencils—which were more than enough for us. Simple, yet meaningful, moments from my childhood are ingrained in my memory, from making up funny songs with my sister at bedtime to having deep conversations with my dad on road trips. Those were purer times.
Fast forward to 2018, a time when meaningful social interaction has become a lost art. Technology has changed the way humans interact, for better and for worse. Surely, one could argue that in many ways, our lives have become easier because of it. It is indeed a powerful tool. But as the old adage goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Are the distractions created by technology too much to bear?
As a mother, I personally find myself struggling between the intoxicating pull of consumer culture and the grounded world of Torah values. On the one hand, I am often pulled in a direction that promises instant gratification when I buy or do certain things for my children. If I purchase the latest trending item for them, or if I throw the picture-perfect birthday party, it elicits comments such as “you’re amazing” from online peers. There’s an unspoken competition to “win” the super-mommy game.
On the other hand, I also question if this obsession with social and product consumption is stunting my ability to connect with my children. More than ever before, the endless pursuit of Keeping up with the Goldsteins is reaching unhealthy levels. The traditional parent-child relationship of yesteryear is in danger of being replaced by what I refer to as “PDM” (Public Displays of Motherhood).
I, for one, am constantly being pulled away from experiencing and enjoying the present, which severely affects the way I relate to my children. Being “connected” to everyone else for a big portion of my waking hours slowly takes its toll on the relationships with those who matter most. Do I really need to know what another mom bought for her child or how she spent her day? Well, not if it makes me feel resentful toward myself. More FOMO (fear of missing out) breeds more anxiety. So when is enough enough? I believe the answer is apparent when our kids start yelling, “You’re not listening, Mommy! Did you even hear what I said?!”
The new-age brand of parenting, with an emphasis on making sure our kids like us, is futile. Its focus is more self-serving, where we do things not necessarily for our children’s benefit, but for feeling good about ourselves. We want them to open up to us, to be our best friends, or at the very least, accept us as the “good cop” authority figures. We even try to appear cool and hip in order to gain favor in their eyes. We want them to have everything we missed out on as kids and don’t want them to “suffer” through the same ups and downs we experienced at the same age. After all, we just want what’s best for them, right? When our sole focus is to make our kids happy by constantly buying them things or making sure they are never bored, we are actually leading them on a path of entitlement and failure.
The Torah provides us with the parenting blueprint, starting with how to bless our children. Nowadays, we bless our kids to find their zivug, to be successful, healthy, intelligent, and so on (and these are all great things to do). Our ancestors earned their children’s respect by embodying respectable characteristics and challenging them to go against the grain. One powerful example is learned from Yaakov Avinu when he blessed his sons at the end of his life. Strikingly, his blessings sound nothing like the ones we bestow upon our children today. At times, Yaakov’s blessings even seem like curses to the modern reader, like when he harshly criticizes Reuven for his failures in leadership or Shimon for his hot-headed ways.
As it turns out, true blessings are not magic tricks or a series of positive mantras. The Torah prescribes the opposite method. Yaakov is in fact teaching us the truest form of blessing our children. Yaakov isn’t mincing words or sugar-coating anything. Instead, he is giving his sons an insight into their own character, providing them with the tools for self-knowledge so they can effectively navigate through their strengths and weaknesses and reach their highest potential. When we give our children what they need, even if it means we must sometimes sacrifice what they want, we are rewarding ourselves with the ultimate blessing: raising good parents.