What to Expect When You’re Expecting was our dog-eared bible for the first few years of child-rearing. Soon thereafter, my wife Shira and I let the instinct developed from our own upbringing take over, many thanks to the great role models we had in our own parents. When our kids started speaking after about a year, they told us what they needed and we no longer had to run back to the book with every crying jag. We seem to have done all right. Our kids are in good physical and emotional shape, get along well with others and make schoolwork a priority, thank G-d. We had to learn about tough love to get them to sleep through the night and to survive trips to the store where they wanted everything in sight. But most of the time, we’ve had overwhelming nachas. Bringing up our children has been the most fulfilling, awe-inspiring part of our lives.
I practice telescope parenting. When my kids were younger, I loved watching them run around in public and got great amusement observing their antics. I let them pick the agenda on the outing, interact with whomever they fancied and climb or explore at will. This worked great on hikes, at the beach, visiting museums or shopping malls, where they could safely wander and express themselves. It was always interesting to see who was charmed by their personalities, who would initiate conversation, and who would look around for the irresponsible guardian who set the kids loose.
I wanted my kids to feel the world was safe so they would develop a sense of confidence and learn to make good judgment calls. Of course, I could only be anonymous until they would run back into my arms or if there was a need to intercede. In the meantime, I could witness their innocence and exuberance, something improbable had I imposed claustrophobic supervision like the shrill overhead rotors of a typical helicopter parent.
Telescope parenting requires giving children the spiritual space to make their own decisions. All parents engage in such activities as toilet, hygiene, and manners training, but most importantly, we are teaching our kids to make good choices. Shira and I discovered it was better for both parties to offer a choice rather than a command - for example, “Would you like to go to bed now or in ten minutes?” As human beings with free choice, kids crave the opportunity to make their own decisions. By offering a few alternatives, we keep the response in the realm of our preference. Allowing children to make choices also requires that they live with the consequences of bad decisions. “Are you sure you won’t put on sunscreen for our day at the beach? I don’t want to see you get sunburned!” When they couldn’t sleep that night because their shoulders were fried, they put up much less of a fight the next time. (We called it “sunscream” because that is what our kids usually did when we applied it.) With our teens, we used cash flow to make our point: They paid for their own luxuries and they knew they had to cover any damage to our property. Of course, there are times when offering kids options isn’t going to work and one must lay down the law. Hopefully, they intuit the difference since they usually do get a choice; when none is presented, there must be a good reason.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, parenting expert and one of the luminaries of the musar movement, describes the importance of helping a child develop independence. Chinuch (education) is the root of the word Chanukah. Light is a metaphor for wisdom and understanding - think of the “lightbulb” going off in one’s head. Just like Chanukah is the festival of lights, so, too, is education the process of lighting up the world of a child. Once children achieve a modicum of understanding, the parent must withdraw their own flame, the heat of smothering supervision. This gives children the chance to initiate their own momentum, eventually becoming lifelong seekers of knowledge.
A telescope parent empowers children to take on graduated levels of responsibility. They must be allowed to fail, to try out their own wings and deal with the consequences. But then their accomplishments are their own, they can relish in personal victories and the inevitable confidence boost. Telescope parents treat their children as adults-in-training. Shira and I raised our children with adult-level conversation since they could talk. No baby language or silly accents. We appreciated the power of words and were precise with the phrasing of admonitions. We avoided warnings like, “Wear a jacket or you’ll catch a cold,” or, “Don’t go that way or you’ll fall.” We chose our words carefully to avoid unconsciously placing a curse on their heads.
Helicopter parenting typically results in parents transmitting their own fear and anxiety to their unwitting progeny. Parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa reports that the very consequences such parents are trying to prevent are the best teachers of life lessons - lessons that could have made the overprotected kid into a mensch. Children accustomed to having needs micromanaged expect to always get their way and develop a sense of entitlement. By “protecting” their children’s self esteem, helicopter parents send the message my mom doesn’t trust me to do this on my own and therefore the child’s confidence actually plummets. Such kids may graduate high school with undeveloped life skills since their parents are compelled to do everything for them.
My parents were quite the opposite of helicopter parents. My brothers and I are amazed we survived our childhood. We were on the longest leash imaginable. The bus would drop us off from public school a block away and we would go right home - or not. We had a plethora of friends throughout the neighborhood; we considered the nearby Santa Monica Mountains our personal playground, and had an undeveloped gully to explore right across the street. Somehow we survived without cell phones, computers, or parents curating our play dates.
As a teen, board-om was my antidote to boredom - skateboards, surfboards, bodyboards, and in the winter, my greatest thrill, strapping a pair of boards underneath a pair of trusted ski boots. I never excelled at team sports, preferring the individual expression and blissful speed offered by boards and bikes of all shapes and sizes. I was emphatic that my children graduate from riding Razor scooters to real skateboards. I pushed them, literally and figuratively, into the waves at our local Santa Monica beaches. I taught them to ski between my legs. Part of any action sport is the calculated risk of injury, and there were several times I incurred Shira’s wrath when I’d bring a kid home with scraped up knees. But my children grew up learning to “go for it,” a lesson I hope they took to heart.
There are caveats to telescope parenting. Kids fall down and must learn how to get back up. They get muddy, wet, and sticky. They may wander too far for comfort and must be chased down. From time to time, I inadvertently exposed our precious offspring to troubled individuals. Our best outings included learning about fishing from those who fish for their supper on the Santa Monica pier or discovering how things work from construction workers. My kids witnessed the ills of drug abuse by riding bikes amongst the homeless on the Venice boardwalk and negotiating with heroin-damaged hippies selling homemade jewelry. Our adult children have had fender benders, parking tickets, F’s on report cards, and shattered expectations. We live in a homogenous neighborhood and they attended schools where every last kid was Jewish. I felt compelled to expose them to the melting pot of society so that they would fall in love with humanity and become open-hearted to differences.
I choose to live in a world of honesty and security. That doesn’t mean I leave my wallet out at the shopping mall or my car unlocked in funky neighborhoods. Acting with cavalier naiveté can backfire of course. But I’d rather take a hit once in a while than live in a state of paranoia. I want my kids to feel they are off the leash, making their own (age-appropriate) decisions and trusting their fellow man. I also taught my children to be aware of danger, to trust their sixth sense and act on it. In the made-up bedtime tales I spun nearly every night, I included sagas of surviving natural disasters, stampedes at crowded sporting events, and finding out that the person you thought you could beat up had a concealed weapon. Having a sense of openness and wonderment need not include being a sucker. By exposing them to occasional unsavory types, I gave them a taste of what that sixth sense might feel like.
Parents never stop influencing their children. They watch our every move and store the data in a seldom seen, long-term databank, accessed periodically over the course of their lifetimes. They may profess indifference to our demands but care very much what we think. We had billboards in our neighborhood stating: “Parents, the Anti-Drug.” This campaign implores moms and dads to have heart-to-heart conversations about life matters, even if they believe their children will ignore them. Even as a middle-age dad, I care about what my parents think! In a subconscious way, I still want to please them. Parental guidance is crucial to support the natural development of conscience in the child, especially when they are teenagers. Dennis Prager states that children are born selfish and narcissistic and it’s up to parents to teach them goodness and ethical behavior.
Shira and I believe we are constantly modeling how to treat one’s spouse and hope these unspoken lessons result in successful relationships for our offspring. We are candid with our unabashed love for one another. Our weekly date nights demonstrate that people who love each other make time for each other. We attempt to resolve conflicts peacefully and don’t let sharp word exchanges escalate. Telescope parents recognize there is no sense in trying to shield children from the vicissitudes of life. Shira and I didn’t hesitate to involve the family in discussing adult matters. Our kids were aware when cash flow was tight but they also observed that it didn’t vanquish our shalom bayit (peace in the home). Tough subjects like mortality, divorce, reproduction, and business ethics were openly discussed.
A final thought: Practicing telescope parenting better prepares parents for the inevitable empty nest syndrome. Such parents have created a strategic distance from their children and have given them confidence to stand on their own. Parents must nurture their own individuality, avoiding the trap of defining themselves solely as mom or dad. Helicopter parents describe empty nest separation as excruciating and feel a sense of abandonment. Telescope parents certainly miss their kids but are thrilled they are functioning on their own and will eventually be off the payroll. Such parents may suggest career options but don’t impose their own bias or try to shoehorn the kids into a mold. They offer a sturdy set of life tools and allow their offspring to discover themselves.
Our children are gifts from the Creator, on loan, entrusted to our care for only a few short years. We do our best to endow them with all the wisdom and blessings we can muster so they can formulate and pursue their unique paths. Until, of course, they have too much laundry, and then they can come running home.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer, and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his compositions, travels the world in concert, produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio, and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller.