Their instructor, I explain to my class of undergraduates, will not entertain
“Do you really have seven children? How do you
remember their names?”
Israelis students are mostly unmoved by rules. “I
remember your names, and there are 25 of you,” I reply.
seven” sounds like an oxymoron, and admittedly, to my former upper-middle class
Long Island sensibility, seven kids does seem like a lot.
“Every parent has a favorite,” another student chimes in.
in the Bible, and the stories that they’ve been reading the past weeks – the
favored son of the patriarchs, Abraham favoring Isaac, the latter favoring Esau.
Rebecca favoring Esau’s brother Jacob, and Jacob favoring Joseph.
are all my favorites,” I say, a reply which is met by some eye-rolling and
audible expressions of dissatisfaction. But I meant it, and still
Parents sometimes have favorites: the smartest, the most athletic,
the most beautiful. Children who fit parents’ expectations; a doctor like me; a
lawyer like me; or, in my case, a scholar like me.
BUT MY thoughts on the
subject changed after the birth of my son Shmuel, now nine years old, who has
Shmuel did not meet any one’s expectations – especially in
a world of fantasies of perfection: our children have to be superlative, the
Bringing up Shmuel, I now better realize how easy it is to burden
our children with expectations of perfection, our fantasies of what we imagine
they should be. There was an even greater irony for me, unappreciated when
Shmuel was born. First as a graduate student, reading about literary theory at
Columbia University and later as a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan
here in Israel, I had devoted so much time, read so many books and written so
many articles about diversity and difference.
But being faced with a
really “different” child, not just the theoretical difference espoused
enthusiastically around large oak tables by my colleagues and students, was
altogether different. For all my academic attempts to understand difference, to
celebrate the values of diversity and pluralism, to talk about the virtues of
the unexpected, I was not prepared for Shmuel and the genuine challenge that he
But now I can say that Shmuel – even though he will not be
writing an article on John Milton’s Paradise Lost
any time soon – is my favorite
child. He’s my favorite for his joyful innocence, the way he sings and dances
with utter abandon, the way he wakes in the morning, puts his arm around my
thigh, kisses me and declares loudly, “Abba, I like you!”
I once thought that
some of my children make it easier to see that quality about them that makes
them my favorite. But since Shmuel’s birth, I understand it is not that children
make it easier – why should they have to work hard to be a favorite?
it’s the willingness of a parent to drop their expectations of who their
children should be.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott writes of
the “good enough parent,” knowing that, as far as parenting goes, enough may not
be everything, but enough is enough. When we give up expectations of perfection
for ourselves – it is an achievement to be just good enough– we give our
children the chance to surprise us, as they become themselves.
So being a
good enough parent also means allowing our children to be “good enough”; each –
if we only let them – perfect in their own way.
So my youngest son is
also my favorite – his entrepreneurial curiosity, expressed in his plans, as he
told me while waiting for the bus the other day, to open a store to help people
undo their inside out clothing. Or my eldest son, my favorite, who
sometimes seems more like a brother, helping recently to navigate the utterly
foreign social conventions of his oldest sister’s – my daughter’s – Israeli
Or any of my girls, all four of them my very favorite – all for
different reasons. My youngest daughter, thoughtful and quiet, who navigates the
world with quiet elegance, her balletic grace and ease – where did she get that
from? – so wonderful to behold. So of course, she’s my favorite.
Bible shows the dangers of picking favorites. Favoring one child over
another often leads to disaster: ask Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. So I try not to
play favorites. But each of my children knows, I hope, that they are my favorite
The writer is a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan
University and the author of books about English poet John Milton (Cambridge
1997) and British protofeminist Mary Astell (Ashgate 2008). His latest book is
Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011).