IF a child cannot trust her parent to care for and protect her, then a fundamental basis of our civilisation will have been destroyed.”
So said Chief Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert, SC, arguing for a life sentence to be imposed on Arthur Freeman, convicted of murdering his own daughter. The lawyer had pinpointed the source of much of our shock and revulsion at this tragic and terrible case; not just that a little child had been killed, but that her horrific death was at her father’s hands.
Indeed, as evolutionary psychologists will argue, family structure is hardwired into human consciousness. A significant factor in the human race’s success in evolutionary terms is that, unlike other species, we nurture our young for approximately a quarter of their life span, ensuring that by the time they take their place as adults they have been protected and watched over by parents who have a unique responsibility to ensure their safety. A failure by a parent to fulfil that responsibility, or even to cause danger to their own child, is judged to to be a rebellion against nature itself.
But the uniqueness in our child-rearing is not just its duration; the parent’s obligation is to do more than merely ensure that their children survive. Indeed the primary task, and the greatest challenge, of parenthood is to prepare children for their future and their contribution to the world around them. Civilisation flourishes because one generation – the parents – passes to the next – the children – those attributes and values that enable them to contribute to society. Civilisation suffers when that process is interrupted.
Yet today there are worrying signs that this aspect of parenting is changing – and not for the better. At one extreme, some parents believe that the enlightenment creed of moral autonomy – that everyone is entitled to their own definition of right and wrong – applies to their own children as well. Setting boundaries is condemned as “judgmental”; saying “no” is an unfair imposition.
This matters. Society works when its members share a framework of rights and responsibilities and if these are not learnt in the home then they may not be learnt at all.
In the particular case of the Jewish community, our future is predicated on children inheriting from their parents the sense of beauty and benefit of engaging with Jewish life, and valid reasons for rejecting alternatives. A values-neutral upbringing jeopardises Jewish commitment and hence Jewish continuity.
But while parents committed to non-intervention in their childrens’ behaviour as a principle are rare; many more abdicate by default their responsibility to provide direction, confusing what their children need with what they want; striving to be their child’s friend instead of their parent.
Schools increasingly observe children who lack social skills and who are untrained to function as part of a community; unable to understand the needs of others and, at times, to stand back so that someone else can “have a go”. Sometimes these are the children who have not been set boundaries at home, and whose parents aspire only for their child to be “happy”. Sadly, short-term happiness can come at the expense of long-term social development.
And at the same time schools are expected to act as parents when no-one else will. Values that were once taught at home are now obligatory parts of a school curriculum. Thankfully, most parents understand that children learn best when school and home work in partnership, sharing the teaching process and reinforcing each other’s message. But for some, schools alone are expected to teach children to avoid alcohol and drugs; how to behave at bar mitzvahs; how to use Facebook, even (as a parent once demanded of me at a previous school) what to wear to parties.
And there is another extreme; parents who watch over their children too closely, who deny them opportunities to take risks and to learn about success or failure for themselves. Similarly, parents who intervene at the first sign of a dispute with a child’s friend, or an issue with a teacher, implicitly teach a child that they do not have to deal with their own problems but can rely on a parent to come running. Those children are the ones who are shocked when they subsequently find themselves lacking the resilience and skills to overcome a difficulty at work or in a relationship.
Parenting is undoubtedly the hardest and most complicated task that we undertake. It’s also the one for which we receive the least training, which explains why we make so many mistakes. But nurturing our children and enabling them to function and contribute as adults is our most consequential and vital job that we have to do. The next generation – of our families, our community and our world – have no-one to protect, care for and raise them but us.