Parenting at 30,000 Feet

It was like something out of a bad sitcom – or the beginning of a romcom in which the protagonists end up loving each other after they spend the first ninety minutes yelling and smirking at each other.

It turns out that it was neither – there was no laugh-track, and the mother of the offending Little Angel sitting behind me on American Airlines 520 from Dallas to Phoenix was evidently meeting the father of the LA (who no doubt was enjoying a respite from his family). Notwithstanding that he wasn’t out of elementary school, this high-altitude perpetrator had the power of a veteran place kicker, and proceeded to place-kick my seat about every twenty seconds, like clockwork. Ignoring it didn’t help, turning around and asking nicely didn’t help, glaring certainly didn’t help; politely inquiring of LA’s mother if she might instruct her darling to cease and desist didn’t go over too well either.

Silver linings: it was only a two-hour flight, and I’ve heard that chiropractors don’t charge that much in Arizona. What occurred to me though wasn’t that my tormentor was Chucky or Damien – he was just a typical, bored eight or nine year old, and I was a handy target. Mom however was another story. Harried – have you ever flown with a bored eight or nine year old? – and exasperated, with who-knows-what anecdotes from the last few hours or days before the flight (cancellations, impromptu hotels stays), she wasn’t exactly bringing her ‘A’ game to 30,000 feet.

But while I can be sympathetic to any traveling parent (to any parent, period), the onus for good behavior and positive choices does fall to Mom and Dad when their child is that young. Nearly two millennia ago, the Talmud offered a few obligatory responsibilities of a Jewish parent (the original text uses “father”), which I’ve slightly reinterpreted for our time. Parents and Guardians:

  • Celebrate bringing the child into the Covenant with Gd and with the Jewish People;
  • Take on the obligation to teach the child our national narrative and our core values;
  • Prepare the child – at the appropriate moment – to build a life and a family with a partner who will share these values;
  • Ensure that s/he will be a contributing member of society;
  • Teach the child how to swim.

[For those interested in the original text, written from the context of the fourth or fifth century, Kiddushin 29a is the proof text.]

While I took a few linguistic liberties with the first four responsibilities, the fifth – teaching the child to swim – is intact (other than the neutral gender; I figured that our Sages wouldn’t be in favor of our daughters drowning). It’s that last bullet point that is the most intriguing, and offers some wonderful lessons for those of us who are fortunate to be parents. (Aside within an aside: these admonishments are for everyone, be they parent, uncle, aunt or friendly neighbor. True, the parents/guardians have a special responsibility, but we all have a role to play in the raising of ethical, moral, contributing young people in our society. Note: this is a very, very Jewish concept.)

The rabbis of the Talmud added that fifth thought – that we are to teach our children how to swim – as a metaphor for… for pretty much everything. We are to teach them how to be resilient, how to literally survive.

I’d add that our responsibility is to also help them ensure that our People survives – and more than that, that we thrive. The choices we make for our children when they’re two and three and five and ten will bear fruit when they’re sixteen and twenty-one and forty. When we say ‘no’ – and when we say ‘yes’ – when we’re tough about boundaries and when we’re open-minded about soaring possibilities.

שבת שלום – Shabbat shalom,


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