In a recent column in The New York Times ("Motherlode," August 9, 2012), KJ Dell’Antonia writes: “To the best of my recollection, when I did something wrong as a child, my parents blamed me. When my children do something wrong, I blame myself. A good parent would have taught them better. In our determination to be the very best we can be, we’ve created a catch: when our children fail, we fail.”
The Torah concurs: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (Deuteronomy 24:16) Leaving aside the question of capital punishment, which the Torah most certainly finds legitimate and the rabbis make impossible to exact, the Bible and the Jewish tradition we have inherited teaches that an individual is responsible for his or her own crimes, sins and mistakes.
In the ancient Near East family members were sometimes punished for the crimes of others. In other words if a man harmed another, he was then punished by the same harm being done to a member of his family, often the corresponding member. Occasionally his family might also be punished along with him. The Torah declares that such practices are unjust. Only the individual, found guilty of a crime, is punished. A child is not punished for a parent’s sin. A parent does not suffer because of a child’s mistake.
And yet parents feel great pain when their children err. We struggle and toil so as not to experience this ache. We don’t want to see them fail.
Dell’Antonia concludes: “And yet we still have to let them fail. How egotistical is it to insist that our children’s every action reflects our parenting skills? They’re not trained Labradoodles. They’re children, by nature impulsive and prone to selfishness and other flaws. Smooth their paths and repair their gaffes, and we protect our egos at their expense. It takes a little lousy parenting (or at least the appearance of it) to let a child grow up.”
Each and every individual must take responsibility for his or her own actions. We cannot say, “Everyone is doing it.” Or “It is not me but my addiction.” Or “My parents made me do it.” We cannot offer excuses. Instead we must take direct responsibility for the sin, mistake or failure. Our failures are just as much our own as our successes. I don’t very much like failing. Still it has always been my contention that we learn far more from these mistakes than our many successes.
Parents must let go of children. And children must let go of parents. There might then be more failures (or at least the appearance of them), nonetheless the successes will feel greater because they too will be our own.
Jennifer Finney Boylan writes (“A Freshman All Over Again,” The New York Times, August 22, 2012): “There are times when I want to tell my students that if they want to learn anything at college, their first step should be defriending their parents. Write them a nice letter, on actual paper, once every week or so, but on the whole: let go. Stop living in their shadows, and start casting your own.”
Love is not the same as reliance.