Am I Giving Enough?

Q: I have a very hectic schedule. I help take care of my elderly mother, I have a job where I put in 30 hours a week, and I have, bli ayin hara, a large family. And I do sometimes need some time for myself as well. (When my children see me going to exercise at the gym, they make an issue out of it.)

With all this going on, I know that I don’t always spend enough time with my children, or listen to them as attentively as I should. When the day is over, I often ask myself, “Did I give enough? Was I too distracted? Have I been selfish?”

Some of my children, baruch Hashem, not all, have this need for our family to be just like the “Schwartzes” and desperately want certain material items that we just can’t afford, and I feel guilty about this as well. (I realize that just because I don’t feel this need to acquire things, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t allowed to have their own wants and desires.)

I know that my guilt is not productive, but I haven’t been able to stop the feelings. Any thoughts?

A: Parents’ views of what it means to be “giving” to their children vary greatly and are often influenced by culture. Whether it is giving of one’s time, of one’s patience or of one’s finances, most parents have a general idea of what is appropriate to give to their children. In some families, parents feel guilty when closing children out of their bedroom, and others feel guilty when they cannot give them an allowance. Some parents are very apologetic if they cannot spend a lot of time talking to their children due to scheduling difficulties. On the other hand, some parents never feel guilty about anything they do, and should perhaps be more honest in evaluating what their parenting responsibilities are!

In reality, our society today tends to be overindulgent when it comes to giving to children. One child desires an expensive electronic gadget — “Why not? It will help him relax,” a parent might say. Another child might want expensive toys that his family finds very difficult to afford. One child might want to talk to her mother for a half an hour every night, and this may be close to impossible in light of her mother’s schedule. But the guilt that many parents experience in such circumstances needs to be scrutinized.

When children receive all that they presently desire from their parents, it can surely be a set-up for disaster. They will be continually disappointed throughout life because they will feel that unconditional love is equivalent to getting all one’s desires fulfilled. No human being can ever truly fulfill all our desires; it is only Hashem who is capable of such complete giving. In fact, this capacity for ultimate chessed is not revealed in our finite world as we experience it (as explained in the sefer Chovos Halevavos).

Unfortunately, many people become depressed in their adult lives because no one is giving to them as their parents once did. The boss at work has definite expectations, and a worker suffers consequences for not living up to those expectations. A spouse similarly has certain expectations and is disappointed when the wife’s or husband’s behavior is not as desired. Thus, the child-like desire of always “getting what you want” can really never be satiated (even as a child).

This is especially true when one enters adult life. Although many parents might say: “I want my children to get everything now. The world is so cruel,” this thinking is faulty. A child needs to acclimate to this world by seeing the limitations of every human being now, so he won’t be continually disappointed by others in the years to come. If parents do experience guilt, perhaps it should be from the fact that they didn’t teach their children appropriate coping mechanisms, rather than because they did not give their children everything they wanted.

The best way of truly giving to one’s child is to be a balanced and well-adjusted parent who loves his child. But parents too have individual needs, which can’t be viewed as being secondary in relation to the family unit and which should be met. The joy of having a happy parent cannot be overestimated.