The Home and Family section has raised the issue of natural parenting by instinct - and staying home to practice it - or attending lectures, workshops etc. to improve one's parenting.
We will let D.S. (Jerusalem) present her case FOR workshops, as her response to a letter we printed asking for more hands- on advice on Chinuch.
The quest for guidance is echoed in the mouths of many mothers who find themselves struggling with the phenomenal challenge of raising the next generation. Despite the wonderful, loving intentions and dedication to the task, unimagined difficulties arise and they are crying out, "Help me! Tell me what to do!"
These heartfelt pleas raise two questions: firstly, is it possible to provide useful, detailed solutions to deal with the countless variations of scenarios that occur within every family? Secondly, if it were possible, would it be desirable?
I would like to suggest that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding "No" and would like to present an alternative approach.
There is a common misconception that somewhere, lurking in the mind of some expert or within the pages of the latest chinuch manual is THE answer. Like the recipe for a perfect no-fail sponge cake, one just has to follow the instructions and perfect children will result, time after time. Of course, it's not quite so simple. Human relationships with all their complexities cannot be worked out through preconceived formulae. When a mother finds herself in a challenging situation with one of her children, there are so many factors to take into account. Who is she?
What are her unique strengths and individual ways of relating to people? It may sound like a great line in print, but if it's not MY way of talking, the kid won't buy it! Who is the child? How does he function and react? Where is his place in the family? Who is the family? What are their values and the particular home atmosphere? These and many other questions need to be addressed for they are all part of both the problem and its resolution.
However, let us suppose we could somehow enter our family with all its complexities into a master computer, or bring it to an exceptionally wise expert to be sorted out. Would this be the answer? It seems not, for any superimposed solution from the outside may help in the short term, but leaves the mother in a state of dependence, without confidence in her own ability to bring up her children, and without tools to face the next situation. However, when a mother looks inside herself and develops her own unique pattern, she simultaneously finds the strength and understanding needed to carry through.
This is not to imply that there are no absolutes in chinuch. There are plenty of mistakes which, repeated continually, may cause harm. Excessive criticism, rejection, a lack of clear limits, to name but a few. On the positive side, there are certain guidelines which are invaluable aids to every mother. For example, the art of encouragement, how to express love effectively and how to set and enforce appropriate limits.
These are topics that are dealt with in the many books on chinuch on the market. However, even the best of these have a certain limitation. Each mother still needs to find her own way of applying the concepts in a way that she and her family can live with. This is where the crux of the problem lies, since despite all the books and articles, women are still looking for help.
One viable alternative that is becoming increasingly available in the Orthodox world is that of the parenting workshop. Here in Jerusalem, for example, there is the chareidi institute set up by the renowned Yaffa Bar Zakkai which specifically trains religious women to lead parenting groups in accordance with a Torah outlook. These workshops have proven to be an effective forum for enabling mothers to make the transition from understanding general ideas on paper to applying them in their own lives.
Through weekly meetings in a small closed group, new skills and perspectives are built up in a structured manner. The process of learning might be slower than reading a book, but it is a true solid one of personal growth. At each session, opportunity is given through roleplay, lively interraction and discussion for each mother to examine how she can best use the new tools and concepts presented. Time is spent at the beginning of each meeting in reflecting on the week that has passed, learning from mistakes as well as successes, and receiving support and encouragement to continue.
The advantages of groupwork are well appreciated by those in the caring professions. Being part of a supportive group that is growing together provides a power and impetus to change that is hard to duplicate. Most problems are brought within normal range and much of the level of fear and shame is reduced when a mother discovers that her child is not exceptionally `impossible.'
The primary aim of the group is not problem solving. In fact, much of the need for solving problems dissipates after a few months of structured working on positive aspects of chinuch. Each participant gradually starts to feel changes in her ability to understand and communicate with her children. The focus shifts from a desperate, futile search for answers to a responsible confidence in her own motherly strengths. She is then able to utilize her energy for the real business of motherhood - taking pleasure in her children and in every stage of their development and, with siyata dishmaya, reaping Yiddishe nachas along the way.