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The Spirituality of Setting Limits: Reflections on Parenting and Discipline

Photo of a newborn baby, content, close-up, hands wearing surgical gloves holding child.

“A Melodious Two-Note Sigh”

Photo of the same newborn baby crying, face scrunched, fists clenched.

Original Angst

"Spirituality" and "setting limits" aren't usually thought of as going together. Yet in my experience as a parent of young children, the two have often come together. The challenges posed by my children have caused my faith to be tested, but in the end, strengthened.

As Woody Guthrie wrote in the voice of every young child, "I want my milk and I want it NOW." The art of affirming our children and setting limits for them is the relentless and saintly task of all parents. It is important to validate their needs. But it is also important help them to delay gratification. The enormity and unremitting nature of the task causes fatigue in all parents. Some parents wave the white flag and let the child make the rules. Others respond with a harshness that is neither educative nor understanding of the child's developmental stage. A good parenting training program would probably require the equivalent of a Ph.D. in hours. Yet most of us dabble in the self-help books at best. Whether we tend toward over-validating children's intensity or being easily exasperated by the illogic of their behavior, parents can benefit from seeing their parenting as an integral part of their own spiritual growth.

Discipline by parents toward children is most effective when parents are disciplined themselves. Parents need to be disciplined about creating a stable and routine environment for kids. We need to make sure to spend unrushed time with them when we can follow their lead. We need to be as consistent as possible. We need to understand child development so that we comprehend their irrationality, though we may not like it.

We also need to be able to say "No." Bearing with equanimity a child's outrage in response to a "no" is instructive to the child. It communicates the faith of the parent in his or her own discipline and in the growing self-control and tolerance of frustration of the child. It also expresses faith in the Power of the Universe that brings tears and growth in the same package. When I experience that setting limits will benefit my own spiritual development as well as my child's, I gain the fortitude to take on limit-setting with more joy and love and less oppression and avoidance.

My daughter Sophia's first utterance, at less then one minute of age, was a melodious two-note sigh which my wife Sarah and I interpreted as wonder, curiosity, and even joy. Then the crying followed. Sophia's first two sentiments expressed the basic reality of our existence: wonder and angst. As a parent, my instinct is to hope that my child will experience only joy. However, living here outside the Garden of Eden, that hope is unrealistic. What will be most important for me as a parent is to model coping with adversity.

The kabbalistic concepts of chesed and din are helpful here. Chesed means love and compassion; din means justice, judgment, and limitation. These are understood to be aspects of God that must be kept in balance. Love without limits and justice without compassion both bring about imbalance.

When a child is born, the parent relates to the child exclusively from the place of chesed—love. Every need for the child is basic: food, sucking, and sleep. Each complaint of the child communicates one of these needs. It is the obligation of the parent to decipher and satisfy the need. A child whose parents did not sufficiently respond to her cries when a small infant will be stifled in her drive to communicate. These first cries and parental responses are the basic building blocks for language.

But somewhere between two and six months the child's survival is secured and his needs become more complicated. Used to waking up every two hours during the night for feeding, the child has developed an emotional attachment to the middle-of-the-night rendezvous. It is not self-evident for many new parents to realize that appropriate parenting includes withholding as well as giving. It's so much easier to work on the assumption that each cry of my child necessitates an active intervention on my part.

My wife and I knew we had to do something to address our daughter's middle of the night desire for food when we realized we were about to collapse from five straight months of sleep deprivation. After we ruled out medical reasons for her post-midnight wakings, we decided to let her cry instead of coming to her. It is a horrible experience to lay in bed listening to your child scream. Our bones called to us to pick her up. Thirty minutes later (which seemed like an eternity) Sophia was asleep. In the morning she seemed to wake up with more than her normal level of enthusiasm. This was the first major step our daughter had taken to move away from us! I sensed a leap of self-esteem in my infant daughter and felt for myself that I had crossed a milestone as a parent. Even if my sense of her joy at autonomous sleeping was purely my own projection, it was still beneficial for me to equate setting limits with growth. By tolerating our discomfort in hearing her cry, we expressed our faith in her as an independent human being.

Terrible Twos

From the perspective of parenting a two-year-old, it's amazing that the problem of child abuse isn't more severe! Toddlers are irrational beasts, challenging the patience of even the best educated. Just as our son Gabriel was first verbalizing "I love you" to us, he was also starting to hit us and be very aggressive. My wife is a child psychiatrist and advised: "He's learning now that he both loves and hates us. He is right on schedule." What do other people do who aren't married to a child development expert?

Parenting demands that we see from the point of view of the child. That itself is a spiritual discipline that fits in with the idea that there are "70 faces to the Torah." What is completely irrational from my perspective is perfectly logical from someone else's. As much as I understand my child, however, it doesn't change the fact that his hitting me is not okay, ever (just as my hitting him is not okay, ever). The follow-up to the "no" is an attempt on my part to put words to his feelings: "I know it's hard when I don't do what you want me to do."

I can only parent in the world that is, not in the world that I wish could be for my child. Being able to balance rich choices and real limits is what I want for my children. I hope my daughter will take herself seriously, but not too seriously. I hope she'll go after her dreams at the same time that she learns to cope well with not always getting what she wants. I hope that my son will learn that shrugging off disappointments is one of the best adaptive mechanisms we humans have to cope with our often-frustrating world. Trying to prevent my daughter's frustration is pointless and harmful. Helping her through them, even challenging her with new difficulties is an exciting task of parenthood.

Type: Article

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