For our parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents who first came to this country, America offered opportunity, the possibility of wealth, and the reality of hard work. As our immigrant parents worked hard in the sweat-shops, or peddled their goods miles and miles each day, one thing kept them going. One vision helped them arise early in the morning and work until late at night: the hope that their children could have a better life than they did. This is a part of the American Dream, that any immigrant can come, work hard, and lay the groundwork for his or her children to have a better life.
Parents hope that their children do well in life, that they do not have to face as many hardships, that their way is cushioned. But what happens when the hopes turn into expectations? What happens when the desire to see children excel in life becomes an expectation, a burden, a weight?
In the Torah, the twin brothers Jacob and Esau were saddled with expectations that were bound to harm them. Esau was the first born. His father Isaac expected Esau to be the next link in the chain of Jewish tradition, to carry on God’s covenant with the Jewish people. However, Rebecca, the mother, favored the younger son Jacob. She expected him to be the chosen son. Two sons, only one birth right.
To nobody’s surprise, things got really ugly. At his mother Rebecca’s prompting, Jacob dresses up in a sheep skin and tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing. Jacob steals his father’s blessing from his brother Esau. When Esau finds out, he is enraged and threatens to kill Jacob. Jacob has to flee. The family is broken apart.
Even today, parental expectations can be harmful. For some reason, parental expectations seem to come to the forefront in little league, in team sports for kids. Perhaps it is because the parents want to live vicariously through their children, or perhaps they want to protect their children from harm, but in youth sports the expectations of parents upon their children can spiral out of control.
In 2002, Thomas Junta was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for beating another man to death. While any violent death such as this is a heinous crime, this case was particularly dreadful: Junta beat up and killed a father of another boy at a little league hockey game. Junta claimed that he did not like the way the other father was serving as the referee. Junta was angry and felt that his own son was being hurt. So he grabbed the other father, and beat him to death. He was later called “the national symbol of parental rage.” Imagine how Junta’s son must have felt, watching him beat up that other father, just so that he could play hockey. Imagine the pressure and the weight of the expectations that the son must have felt.
Parental expectations are not always bad. In fact they are required. Positive expectations of children can help them grow up into the kind of people we want them to be. So what kind of expectations should parents have for their children? Parents should expect their children to be moral and ethical. In fact that is exactly what God expects of all of us. The prophet Micah said: “God has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” And Jewish tradition can shape children into good people. Judaism teaches children to value tzedakah, charity, over profit, compassion over materialism, and God over the idols of money, power and ego.
Along with morality and ethics, parents should expect their children to be who they are. This is the antidote to the hockey father who acted so brutally. When we let our children be who they are, even if it violates our ideas for them, even if they choose a path that seems so foreign, then our expectations are on target. One of my professors at Hebrew Union College, my rabbinical school, is a brilliant scholar. He is a rabbi, has a PhD and is very well respected in his field. His daughter decided to pursue a totally different path: she is a starving artist. But the way he talks about her and the obvious pride he feels in her accomplishments and her artistry, cannot be missed.
Another man that I know went to Yale Law School and is a respected lawyer. He is brilliant and makes an excellent living. He has a daughter who found her passion as a ballet dancer. She lives at home and has an office job while trying to get a break. But this father has not missed a show that his daughter performed in since she was a small girl, and he glows when he talks about her accomplishments.
When parents expect a child to be what the parents want, know that unhappiness lies ahead. But when parents expect their children to grow up to be decent human beings and to be who they are, then they help their children blossom into mature, responsible and fulfilled adults.