On Raising Children

On Raising Children


Howard Adelman

One of the great joys of feast days is that your children, children’s spouses and grandchildren return home from near and far if feasible. The greatest joy this Passover was that all six kids, their spouses (in one case an ex-spouse) and all my grandchildren came home for Passover – two from Israel, five from Princeton, one from New York, one from Boston, two from Victoria. Seven are still in Toronto. My wife Nancy pulled it off – as well as preparing all the great meals, including the Passover feast.

Passover is about telling a tragic tale of oppression, threatened (and, in the case of the Egyptian children) actual death of children and then the march from slavery into freedom. The story as formally told is in great contrast to the comedic stories the children tell of their own father. The stories make you wonder why they come home at all. For they delight in telling each other how idiosyncratic and incompetent their father was.


Last night at dinner – there were still 10 of us left of the original 20 plus friends for a total of 33 – my two youngest sons regaled my grandchildren with stories of how they negotiated their allowances. The stories were instigated by one of my teenage grandchildren telling me he was broke and could he get some money from me since he was no longer eligible to win the money for finding the Afikomen according to the rule that teenagers become ineligible for a reward just because they are teens. I asked him why he did not ask for a job rather than for money – a not unexpected question from me. This triggered Daniel and Gabriel asking the grandchildren how much allowance they received and how they themselves, when they were even little kids, had to negotiate their allowances for the coming year on their birthdays. They would enter my study with a proposal for how much they needed and why they needed a raise. But most of all the negotiations were not so much over the amount of money – since they had a pretty reasonable idea of what they could get – but over the list of duties they were required to perform for those allowances. They knew in entering the negotiations that the list would never be long enough so they left off a number of duties and, inevitably, I usually forgot to include some of them. They described to my grandchildren the ritual of writing up the contract, signing it and having it witnessed. They were surprised in retrospect about how seriously they took the task since I had become by then such a poor enforcer.


When out of earshot of the grandchildren, they would tell stories of their drug taking and my total obliviousness to their behaviour when they came home stoned. I was viewed – rightly – as an absolutist when it came to forbidding drugs, especially cigarettes, but surprisingly not alcohol even though I did not drink – but a total incompetent in detection and hence enforcement.


They all flirted with the idea of getting tattoos but they also all knew that tattoos were totally and absolutely verboten at the peril, accepted as fully realistic, that I would cut off contact if they got a tattoo while dependent on my largesse.  Only the oldest ever got a tattoo – it was a very small one – long after he had moved out of the house and he regretted doing so. They all knew the story and the threatened consequence and it was the one and perhaps the only one they took seriously, though not one of them accepted the arguments I proffered – if I bothered to give any at all for this absolute taboo – as being at all rational.

Physical Wrestling

The occasion was one of my grandchildren – a fifteen year old – inviting me to wrestle with him. He is now a six footer and very heftily built. I declined. I told him I had an absolute rule – I only wrestled with my children and grandchildren when I could still beat them. As soon as I detected that they could beat me, pacifism became the order of the day.  When he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze to incapacitate him and explained that the rule was applicable except if and when I could get away with breaking it.

A Wife’s Despair

Because my relationship with my children and grandchildren was so physical, my wife complained that I only instigated their rambunctiousness and bad behaviour. I never taught them to be polite and well-mannered or how to behave in adult company since I became such a child myself.


Yet  one of my younger children described how afraid he was of me when I became angry and threatened to whip him. I said I thought I gave up such threats with the younger two. He insisted that I really gave up because I could no longer catch them and how exhilarated and powerful he felt at a relatively young age when he learned he could outrun me.

A Lawyer for Hire

Since I was a total failure at enforcement or even consistency or perhaps even more importantly noticing, the enforcement of infractions was totally arbitrary since most of the time I never seemed to attend sufficiently to whether the behaviour conformed with their actual practice. But if they got in trouble with their mother, I was available to be hired – at a very modest fee – to serve as their defence attorney – not to actually come to their defence, but to help them prepare their case. The fees, very modest to begin with – never kept up with inflation.


My youngest grandchild told me how much I had upset her very recently. I have a practice of bringing my grandchildren who live in Toronto bagels, cream cheese and lox on Sunday mornings. Since most of the boys slept in, I suggested changing the practice to taking them out to eat individually. My granddaughter who did not sleep in said she missed the bagels. I promised to resume the practice the Sunday before Passover. Only I forgot. Not about bringing the bagels, but that I had promised her. I planned to bring the bagels as a surprise but with the chaos of all the returning children and grandchildren and the big breakfast to get on the table for all the returnees, I thought I had better skip the surprise – again, totally forgetting I had promised. She was evidently so upset that I had not kept my promise and cried uncontrollably. My apologies to her did not seem to ease my guilt even though she seemed to dismiss my failure with a wave and a laugh. Parents and grandparents are not permitted to break promises and deals – only children can.

Telling and Reading Stories

I am somehow incapable of reading a story or a lecture for that matter. I don’t recall ever having read a paper at the hundreds of conferences I have attended. I would speak to the paper but never read it. When I read stories to my children, they would giggle and laugh at all the times I fell asleep, which they could tell when I started to read a sentence like a broken record repeating one word over and over again. Then they would know I had successfully put myself to sleep and they could fall asleep contentedly. But they would regale each other with the small repertoire of stories that I acted out orally, especially the tales of Uncle Remus.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Pirsig’s book and no book has ever infuriated me more. It was not simply the stupidity of the philosophical ideas he was proffering, or the large number of errors he made in interpreting philosophers. What so upset me was how he treated his child. His young son rode behind him as the journeyed each day westward towards California, clinging to him and unable to experience the world in front of them. It seems Pirsig never learned why in All nomadic and even primitive settled societies mothers carry their children in slings facing forward. When Pirsig stopped traveling for the day, he was totally obsessed with the proper maintenance of his motorbike. And he could not understand why his child had such a stomach upset at the end of the trip.


I have often told my children the story of how, during my sabbatical in Israel when I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor there, our first apartment was on a ground floor and my study faced a gan, a pre-kindergarten day care. I would watch as the children were being dropped off and the care givers sat on a log smoking (the dangers of second hand smoke had not yet penetrated Israeli public consciousness) and chatting. Children would have small incidents, fall, and cry but they were simply allowed to pick themselves up and get on with it. The care givers rarely interfered, except if the hurt was serious or if there was real danger. I, however, regarded their conduct as extremely negligent and finally went to the university authorities to ask what could and should be done. They explained to me that this was the official doctrine for raising children, including very young ones, because it taught those children independence and self-reliance at a young age and NOT to be risk-averse. While startled at this account of a semi-official policy of socialization, I too generally preferred to raise my children and let them cry and discover how to get around their problems, interfering as little as possible. Though not nearly as extreme as evidently semi-official Israeli child-rearing practices, and, as a Canadian, much more risk-averse, I too never did learn that there is no evidence that letting children cry and learn from their mistakes made them more self-reliant and less dependent as adults. I am always surprised that in the most important responsibility I ever took on or accepted – raising children – how much ignorance and bias went into my child-rearing practices.


I am supposed to be a philosopher steeped in rationality but the taboos, the modes of punishment and the methods of discipline I used with my own children seemed to have little thought and less rationale behind them.


I do not think I was a very good parent or grandparent in advising and guiding my children and grandchildren. They turned out to be terrific in spite of me. I was never good at talking to them about their various forms of misbehaviour. But I was a vey good listener when they came to me – whether as children or grown adults. Except for my moments of irrational excitability, I was generally laid back. Though often inconsistent, I was always consistent in providing for them, in contrast to m y own father. I always treated them as mini-adults with some unfortunate decisions in exposing them – or wanting to expose them – to material inappropriate for their age, such as wanting to take them to see Schindler’s List when the youngest two were not even near their teens – prevented only by my wife determined to protect her children’s sensitivities from the bizarre notions of her husband.

Physical Health

Surprisingly, given my terrible eating and sleeping practices and my absence of any regular exercise program until I started with the heart rehabilitation unit this last Thursday, not one of my six children is an ounce overweight. They all exercise regularly and they generally eat healthily. I do joke and say I taught them by offering a bad example. The children certainly learned the lessons of a healthy lifestyle and good eating habits in spite of my example.

Religion and Regret

I have only one child who has a sense of the value of organized religion and especially of Judaism and who appreciates the impact of institutionalized religious practices. The rest are indifferent or quasi-antagonistic while they agreeably participate in the Passover seders. I suppose they have learned from my own ambivalence – my strong attraction to religion and my suspicion and wariness of its institutional practices.

Surprise and Delight

With all my accumulation of faulty parenting skills, I remain absolutely delighted and how they all turned out – each very different than any of the others. I honestly believe they like me and enjoy spending time with me in spite of all my failures.

I am a very lucky and blessed father and grandfather.