I was a rabbi for seven years before my first child was born into the world. Even as a single man without a child, I thought I dispensed pretty solid advice about raising children. After all, I was the known as the “kids rabbi.” I spent half of my time as rabbi of our synagogue’s day school and it all came naturally to me. I didn’t presume what I didn’t know, but I related well to children, knew that they needed to be related to as human beings, as opposed to something small, and intuited that they needed to be heard and seen and affirmed. My perspective was objective because, as much as I sincerely loved and cared for the children of my community, they were not extensions of myself, nor were their achievements a manifestation of my own dreams. Setting strict boundaries, lending generous affection and setting high expectations flowed innately.
Indeed, parents saw in their young rabbi a natural connection to their children and so they sought my counsel. They asked me speak to their kids during difficult times or even talk to them about how they might navigate difficult conversations with their children.
I continued to read more about the spiritual raising of children and children continued to count on me. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t artificial. And yet, the ironic element was that I had not yet had children of my own.
There was a real, but comfortable sense of paradox: I felt completely confident and self-assured in my professional role as guide to children and parents, and yet, now, in retrospect, I know I was able as I was because I had not yet finished growing up myself.
Once I had my own children, there was an entire part of myself that I realized needed cultivating. And interestingly enough, my own advice worked on other parents, but I had no idea how to give it to myself. My own wisdom was suddenly not as clear to me. I couldn’t hear myself as cogently. I didn’t believe in myself in the way that others believed in me. I entered an unknown world, even though I was the one who helped facilitate that same world for hundreds of others.
When I started to have children I realized that I, myself, still needed to grow up. I don’t mean I was immature, but there was a sense of breadth and depth that needed to widen and deepen in order for me to offer the same wisdom to my children that I had offered to so many others. And, counter-intuitive to what we might think, besides the extraordinary guidance I have received from our parents, professionals, books and the like, I realize that my kids (all of our kids actually) help raise us, as we raise them. I don’t mean that they are, or should, play the role of parents. I steadfastly believe that there need to be boundaries between parents and their children. Children should not be forced to be responsible for their parents’ welfare. However, that doesn’t mean that their mere presence and personality and human trajectory don’t serve as absolute signposts for learning, evolution of spirit, and wisdom.
I am now a parent of three, a parent for almost thirteen years……and I have come to the realization that if I pay close enough attention to my children, I don’t just raise them, but they continue to help in raising me up as well.
They are raising me to be more selfless, reflective and patient. They make me realize how fragile life is, that I have so much less control over life than I think I do. They teach me to laugh and to hug and to cry. They remind me that my career impresses, but spending intense time together carries more weight. My children are raising me to remember to be more generous, friendly and watchful. They encourage me to wonder, ask more questions (just not of them) and watch how much I eat and drink. My children have made me spend more time loving my wife and have even reminded me, because of how much they need me, that I need my wife more than I have ever needed her before. They teach me that nothing is simple and the complex is easier than I make it out to be. My children remind me to laugh and cry, to express my anger in doses which are palatable for them and for me. They remind me to spend time doing what I love; and that just eating dinner together is magic, even though it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. They have taught me that days are so darn long, but somehow the years are shorter all of the time. They are raising me up, just as my wife and I do our best to raise them.
All of this crystallized for me as I returned this week from my 9th annual Spring Training trip to Florida with my eldest, 12 ½ year old Jake. Our trip is only for 48 hours or so. We see and play baseball and eat. It is magical. Magical because we are both rabid sports fans, albeit, for opposing New York teams (makes for painful arguments…seriously).
Life, however, as Jake has entered tween-hood is more complex than it used to be. I used to be his hero just because I existed. He would tell and ask me anything. I could make him roar in laughter simply because I made a silly joke. We were always connected on every level imaginable. But, we know how it goes. Kids grow physically and emotionally. Just juggling the physiology of adolescence is a burden. They wonder and worry more. They fight to be acceptable to themselves. They feel like the world is watching. They are half child and half adult, neither here nor there. And, in the midst of it all, they want and need to start to separate from their parents. And so, he and many, although they want to be as connected as they used to be, keep to themselves more, disagree with so much of what their parents say or answer all questions with a grunting, “good” or “okay.” No matter what you ask, the answer is about the same.
So, how was Spring Training going to work with the young man I describe above? Well, I will say again, my son raised me. I decided to follow his lead and not make him talk when he said he didn’t want to. We just drove, watched, played, talked sports and ate. I let him be. And then. almost magically, because I gave him his space, he started to smile and tell me about his life. Mind you, he didn’t start to “spill” until our last meal, an hour before we were to leave to the airport. But in that last hour, he told me more about his life than he had in the last three months. There was no dramatic breakthrough, just open and trusting communication. But, it was magical and connecting and the stuff that makes life worth living.
Twenty years ago, I guided parents to the discussion I needed and wanted to have with my son. All of these years later when I feel somehow less equipped, my son and his sisters are helping to raise my wife and me, even as we dedicate our lives to raising them.
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.