I feel at a distinct disadvantage trying to respond to a question that so clearly emerges from a very specific set of circumstances between a father and son. This is precisely the sort of situation where a flesh and blood rabbi could be helpful in a way that I cannot be. Even if there is no rabbi whom you know and trust, you should understand that you would be made to feel welcome in any rabbi’s office to talk through these types of issues. Additionally, a family therapist could be an extremely valuable resource to talk through, process, and hopefully improve, the family dynamic that you wish to change.
Acknowledging the above, there are a number of mitzvot, details of Jewish law, or Jewish values that could inform your circumstance:
The relationship between a parent and child is fraught with tremendous significance in Jewish law. Children are obligated, according to Jewish understandings of the Torah, to treat their parents with both yirah (awe/reverence/obedience) and kavod (respect/love/care). In the general course of things, younger children will need to emphasize duties of obedience towards their parents, yet are usually too young to provide care. Older children of older parents will need to emphasize the duties of caring for their parents basic needs, even when, at times, doing so entails moments of disobedience (such is tragically the case very often when elderly parents suffer from dementia). This dynamic has been written about by Rabbi Yehuda Brandes in his (Hebrew only for now) book, “Agada leMa’aseh..” Navigating the shifting emphasis of a child’s obligation to a parent is often a challenge.
Likewise, a parent’s relationship to a child also necessarily changes as the child becomes an adult. Parents are obligated, according to Jewish understandings of the Torah, to educate their children in both practical life skills and in moral education. But the Talmud itself already understands that parents who attempt to educate or rebuke their children, beyond a certain age, are likely to be doing more harm than good. Their children could quite reasonably be expected to resent the way their parents have treated them and, according to the Talmud, the parents are partially responsible for whatever the children do as a response in their anger.
As children become adults, parents and children need to learn together how their relationship will function in this new phase. The love and concern that parents properly feel for their children does not change, but it needs to be expressed in different way that respects the evolving autonomy and maturity of the child.
I hope you will seek out whatever guidance you need to repair the relationship with your son. One of the most fundamental Jewish beliefs is faith in the power of teshuvah – or repentance. Teshuvah is not simply a localized repair of a specific transgression against God or another human being, but can signify a more total transformation of a relationship (indeed, a transformation of one’s entire way of being in the world). Belief in the potential for teshuvah should give us the optimism and encouragement that we need to bring the important relationships in our lives to be in line with our hopes and ideals.
Since you are using the words "amends" my assumption is you feel you overstepped and are now trying to make it up to your son. Assuming that to be the case, its worth keeping in mind a few values. Jewish tradition urges parents not to strike their children because one day they will be older and may hit back. This thus violates the commandments against placing a stumbling block before the blind. Ie, we are creating a situation that will invite a child to violate Torah because of the created violent feelings.
This teaching feels more broad than a disapproval of a certain type of discipline. The Torah commands us to honor our parents; this teaching reminds us to reciprocate and honor our children. The Rabbis also teach (M Sandhedrin 3:4) that God created people singly for two reasons. First, to show God's uniqueness. God can use one stamp (Adam) and create many unique individuals. Put another, genetic diversity is a miracle of creation. Second, it comes to teach that we are all descended from the same parents and therefore no one can claim greater descent or heritage. Together, these two teachings are an alert to parents. Our children are unique beings created with an aspect of the divine in them. It is our job as parents to help that self unfold. When our children are young, the job is more defined. As they enter teen and adulthood, our responsibility shifts to listening and coaching, to honoring that aspect of the divine that is unique to them, and different from us.
So my suggestion is to be clear in your own mind about where those boundaries lie. To identfiy your role as coach and listener, to wait for help to be requested. I would tell your child how much you love him and to apologize for overstepping. I would then suggest honoring him by asking him what he wants from you. Is there something you could do together every week that would be fun time shared? When and how does he want you to get involved in helping? How can he ask you for help and feel that is going to be well received?
Our children are a great blessing from God. The transition to adulthood includes a transition into establishing and being their own person. We are sacred witnesses to that process. If you view yourself as providing love, witness, scafolding, listening, I feel your son will feel honored and appreciated.
This question seems complicated, but the solution in Judaism is actually very simple – it is the process of T’shuvah – repentance. This is the same process that we discuss around the High Holy days and our services on Yom Kippur in particular are designed around the idea of repenting with others, with oneself and with God.
In this particular situation, the first step is forgiving oneself for not being a perfect father, and understanding that moving forward you will not be perfect either. Letting go of the self-resentment will go a long way.
The next step is to apologize, to sit with your son and to ask him where you went wrong and to tell him, without excuses, that you are deeply sorry for the hurt you have caused. That will open a conversation, it will allow you to ask question about your son’s expectations so that you can have a very clear definition of the boundary line that he is comfortable with.
The final step is then to follow through with those expectations, quickly apologizing and changing course when you do transgress those expectations. It may take your son some time to fully trust you again, but if you show a true effort to change, even though some inevitable miss-steps, he will forgive and accept the new you.
The process of Teshuvah is a powerful process when carried through in the right way, and you will find that it will not only save your relationship with your son, but it will spill over into your other relationships as well, making your life fuller and richer as a result.
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