My 16-year-old daughter recently participated in her Hebrew School confirmation service. This is a modern ritual designed to keep Jewish kids involved in their religious education for a few years after their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs — those big, festive, coming-of-age ceremonies that happen when they’re 13.
As part of being confirmed, my daughter made a speech focusing on her commitment to Judaism and reflecting on her spiritual journey. She got up in front of the congregation and started off by saying, “I’m here today because my dad made me do this for all these years when I didn’t want to.”
Honestly, I was beaming. She looked so grown up and self-possessed, standing in front of all these people and telling the truth — that she had no choice in the matter. There were lots of times she argued and fought and disagreed about going to Hebrew School, but to no effect, which bugged her even more.
She’s used to having a say in many decisions, like which sports to play and activities to participate in. I remember when she was 3 years old, asking if she wanted to do toddler music programs like Music Together or Music for Aardvarks. When she wanted to try ice skating, we started schlepping up to Chelsea Piers for a few lessons.
Her younger sister, too, was given a lot of input in the activities of her life — what sports to play, what instrument to learn, even (I’m embarrassed to say) what day camp to go to.
At some point, I went overboard, communicating to my children that they had a voice in almost every part of their lives. And then it hit me — that’s crazy. Kids often don’t know enough to make good choices. They can’t anticipate the consequences of their selections, and even when they can, they will still make the wrong decision.
My older daughter knows that if she stays up too late, she’ll be tired for school. So does she go to bed at a reasonable time? No. Even if I remind her, she still can’t resist the lure of texting, or watching something on her computer, or even a good book. And without fail, she’s miserable in the morning.
My children aren’t equipped to cast the final votes for so many things that happen in their daily lives, though I have certainly asked them to. Other parents I know do the same: enlisting their children in the process of making weekly menus, planning vacations, choosing which school to attend. But how can a 7, 10 or 14 year old understand all the implications of selecting a school?
I admit, it is easier to do anything when my girls are excited and committed to doing it. And I like giving them choices so they can learn how to weigh options and see the consequences. When they wanted to have a stoop sale, I went along. It was much more work than they expected, and it took a whole Saturday away from their lives, but they really liked having some money in their hands when it was over. Good process, good lesson, just right for kids.
There is a line, somewhere, that I crossed in giving my girls too much control over their lives and teaching them that everything is negotiable. That’s just not true — not in our home, not in their school and not in the bigger world. I have clawed my way back over that line, arguing, fighting, exerting control over curfews and bedtimes, for example. I’ve given up on some issues — texting after 10 pm and their clothing choices. And as they age, more and more judgments will be theirs to make.
But making decisions is what being a parent is all about. I can help my girls understand the options I choose, and I can listen to their opinions, but with many things it is really up to me, and they just have to live with that.
So when she stood up there and blamed me for her religious education, she was right. I am responsible for her religion, as well as her school and so many of her life experiences up to this day. Those are the things I decided for my daughters, what I’ve given them because I’m their parent. That’s what parents do.