In My Own Write: Those tender lives in our care

So much of the bad news we've been getting recently has been about children.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
When a matriarch I was introduced to at a recent Friday night dinner, something of a grande dame, expostulated loudly and indignantly and without any social preamble: "Why is it that newspapers always have to report bad news? It's really terrible that they do that - all the time," I tried to explain that the task of newspapers, The Jerusalem Post included, is to report the news; and that the world being the way it is, much of that news is bad. Good news gets a mention too, I insisted. She remained unmollified. And the last few weeks have, I am certain, done nothing to cool her indignation. Israel's good news - reports of a successful Maccabiah celebrating Jewish pride and athletic excellence; of 120 South African and 220 French Jews making aliya; of scientific breakthroughs and imaginative volunteer projects - has received due press attention. But it has been edged out by some exceptionally shocking headlines, the most recent of which blared out from the front pages of our Friday paper, as it did from front pages worldwide: "5 US rabbis nabbed in vast corruption scam." I can only imagine how my vehement fellow dinner guest responded to that one. Many of these nightmarish recent headlines have involved children. Over just a few days: "Elem warns of rise in teen prostitution" (July 22). "Little girl dies after falling into Jerusalem manhole filled with toxic gas" (July 23). "Psychiatrists at odds over child abuse suspect (July 24). "Father confesses to strangling three-year-old daughter to death (July 26). AN accident, however awful, one can understand. We do everything we can to protect our kids; sometimes, tragically, it isn't enough. But the abuse of children - merciless and continuing over a period of years, as has emerged in more than one case here - is almost impossible for the average person to fathom. Killing any child, let alone one who is flesh of our flesh, numbs the mind, defying comprehension even when we categorize the perpetrator as "sick." The ghastly stories that have turned our stomachs weren't played out on the moon. They were incubated and took on perverted lives of their own in neighborhoods where ordinary people like you and me live. "It's ironic," my brother commented, "that you need a license to own a dog. But virtually anyone can go ahead and have a child, or several, without anyone interfering." DARKNESS, by definition, conjures up its opposite - light. And these well-publicized instances of hellish parenting might well prompt the question: How do we "normal" parents rate as guardians of the tender lives in our care? That most of us love our children and want them to grow up as healthy, well-balanced and independent as possible goes without saying. Jewish family life has been celebrated over the ages, which makes any horror story in our country involving children particularly appalling. But the path to hell (or part of the way along it) can, sadly, be paved with good intentions as well as evil ones. Those adolescents who go off the rails and venture into dangerous territory are almost certainly not only the children of sick, mentally deluded or simply atrocious parents. Lazy, misguided, selfish or indifferent ones, maybe. A poster showing a cute little boy at the seashore faces me every time I sit in my dentist's chair. The text underneath the photo reads: "In raising your children, spend half as much money, and twice as much time." There's no question that financial straits make it harder to give children everything they need - and today's kids do seem to need an awful lot of things; but I am suddenly put in mind of James McBride's wonderful book The Color of Water, in which he tells of his white Jewish mother, who grew up in the Southern US, ran away to Harlem, married a black man - and put 12 children through college despite having no skills and almost no money; only love, an eagle eye and a fierce determination for her kids to succeed. Good parenting could, I guess, be roughly summed up as: Pay loving attention to detail - and set limits. LARRY Derfner wrote a 1999 Post magazine cover story about Israeli kids of 10, 11 and 12 who dress like young adults and haunt our malls well into the early hours of the morning. "They move in and out of the throng of adults and adolescents... They spend loads of money. They lean over the escalator railing and watch for friends coming in downstairs. They eye each other walking by," he wrote. "What are they looking for? How is their evening going to end up? How are they getting home? Do their parents know what's going on with these kids? Do they approve? Do they collaborate? Do they take much of an interest?" My feeling is that too many parents don't. Some would like to, even try to, but they're worn out from the rat race, from supporting their families, and don't have the energy to challenge their kids. Others who have enough money see their lives going by, are greedy for their own fun and only too happy for their children to grow up as fast as possible. What's easier than throwing some cash at them, accompanied by the obligatory and increasingly meaningless "Don't stay out too late"? CHILDREN grow up very quickly. The progression from baby to toddler to preschooler to preteen to adolescent is like one of those nature films where the director has speeded up the opening of a flower and you can watch its petals unfolding. It's a beautiful thing to see. So is the physical and mental unfolding of a child - at least some of the time. A lot of the time, it's like mud-wrestling. You have to get down there in the dirt, and it's messy. Because along with your child's growth comes an irrepressible will and a powerful urge to independent action. That's manageable at age four; then you're in control. But what about 14, when your child may be bigger, heavier and louder than you? When your teenager calls you at work and says: "The hevre are going down south, we're staying overnight, and we're leaving in five minutes... ok?" it takes energy to counter with: "Who exactly is going? Where are you going to stay?" and even more energy, if the answers aren't satisfactory, to say: "I'm sorry, but you can't go." When William Congreve wrote "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," one suspects that he never had to deal with a frustrated teenager. It's rough. Some parents only "discover" their child at around age 16, when they say in bewilderment: "I don't understand why we can't communicate." But communication needs to be nurtured from birth onwards. It's a work in progress. Later - often much later - children might thank their parents for keeping tabs on them and setting boundaries, all those tempestuous arguments notwithstanding. A LOT of human problems, I suspect, can be traced to feelings of inferiority. It's a widespread affliction: In our heart of hearts, most of us - even the most gifted and talented - feel we don't measure up in some essential way. We so crave to be important and special and admired, and we sometimes go to ridiculous lengths to try and achieve it. But here's the amazing thing, so obvious that we don't even reflect on how wonderful it is: We mothers and fathers are already unbelievably important and special - in fact, we're unique. We're one of a kind to our children, who chiefly have us as their models for how to live in the world and behave toward other people. If more parents internalized the extraordinary privilege inherent in being the template for a worthwhile human being - and acted accordingly - we might see fewer headlines like those that have so shocked Israelis over the last several weeks.