“Anyone who has the capability to protest the sinful conduct of his household and does not protest, he is himself liable for the sins of the members of his household.”
—Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54a
By now many of you have read the explosive missive of retired Royal Navy officer Nick Crews to his children, which one daughter publicized to get attention for her book. Good luck to her. Crews complained bitterly of his disappointment with his children and how their failures are a source of deep embarrassment for him and his wife.
“I wonder if you realize how we feel—we have nothing to say which reflects any credit on you or us,” Crews said. His adult children, in his mind, cannot support their families, finance their homes or provide pensions for themselves. “Each of you has contrived to avoid even moderate achievement,” he said.
None of the children has consulted the parents for advice. The Crews parents do not want to hear from their children again until they have good news to report, news of which parents can be proud.
David Brooks in the New York Times contended that with adult children Crews’ approach is essentially hopeless. “Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.” He noted the pointlessness of the tirade to achieve the ends this parent wants from his kids: “Don’t try to bludgeon bad behavior. Change the underlying context. Change the behavior triggers. Displace bad behavior with different good behavior. Be oblique. Redirect.”
I’d like to offer a different view, one that comes from a page in this week’s daily Talmud study, the quote above. If you have the ability to protest and influence the behavior in your house, you must. If you don’t, count yourself as part of the problem. The Talmud actually takes this one step farther: “If he could have protested the sins of the people of his town but did not, he is held liable for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sins of the whole world and does not do so, he is liable for the sins of the whole world.” On some level, the entire world is our moral jurisdiction, starting at home.
In the first chapter of Job, when our main character’s children made feasts, Job would offer a sacrifice on their behalf lest they committed any wrongdoing: “Perhaps my children have sinned…” The text sees this as a hallmark of his wisdom: “This is what Job always used to do.” Contrast this to Eli, a high priest in the days of Samuel, who had two sons who abused their position and exploited the masses. Eli did not learn of this until his old age. He protested long into their crimes: “Why do you do such things? I get evil reports about you from the people…” But it is too late. God tells Eli that his household will fall. You cannot turn a blind eye to your children for a lifetime and suddenly chastise them when they are adults.
Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his book Informed Heart says: “Blaming others or outside conditions for one’s own misbehavior may be the child’s privilege; if an adult denies responsibility for his actions, it is another step towards personal disintegration.” We cannot take the blame for every mistake that our children make, but we can be reflective about the parenting lapses that may have contributed to who they are and understand that failure to take responsibility for our own actions or lack of them contributes to the collapse of the moral and spiritual self.
In the words of my friend Paul Taskier, this letter is about the “complete abdication of responsibility as a parent, not teaching responsibility, morality, honesty, hard work, duty—and then exploding in anger when the children don’t show the attributes you never taught them. Our religion/culture maintains itself through the endless emphasis on teaching values, modeling values, explaining values, to our children. And living those values ourselves.”
And there is another lesson here. Highly dysfunctional families should stay off e-mail.
Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.