The Puzzles of Parenting

The Puzzles of Parenting


I would imagine that one of the most life-changing sights for any woman is actually a very tiny image: the plus sign that emerges on a home pregnancy test. The simple blue symbol leads to countless emotions, among them excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation.

Rachel LaVictoire
Rachel LaVictoire

That little plus sign quickly brings other images to mind: Tiny socks for tiny feet, loosely-fitting onesies for pudgy legs and pinch-able tushies.

But wait, there’s also panic – after all, after the years of baby talk, there’s a lifetime of oops and yikes because parenting is, well, hard!

Obviously, my lack of experience means I could be entirely off-base, but something tells me I’m not. In that moment that you learn you will have a child, you involuntarily take on the responsibility of another life. Whatever you choose to do affects this new life, and even things you don’t have control over affect it.

How will you instill a balance of love and discipline, work and leisure, strength and sensitivity?

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Such questions are passing through my mind because of a psychology class I’m taking this semester. As an introductory course, and we’ve raced through eight chapters in nine weeks, lightly touching on major topics like biology and behavior, consciousness, learning, thinking and intelligence. It was the chapter on learning that served as the inspiration for this article.

The field of psychology recognizes two major learning types: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is fairly simple and can be expressed with one example: You pull out a red leash, your dog jumps with excitement.

This is because your dog gets excited by walks, and each time you’ve pulled out the leash to this point, the two of you have gone for a walk. Now, the dog equates the leash with walks and therefore gets excited just by the sight of the leash.

Operant conditioning also plays on past experiences, but in a slightly different way. While classical conditioning focuses more on reactions, the operant variant addresses action and consequence. It’s the basis of superstition, role models, reward, punishment and many other things.

For instance, you wear the same blue tie to a successful sales pitch and meeting with your boss. For this reason, it becomes your “lucky tie” because the choice to wear it “resulted” in positive consequences.

But anyway…for those less interested in psychology, I’ll cut to the chase.

On the topic of punishment, our textbook, “Psychological Science,” says the following:

“Considerable potential exists for confusion… One thing people learn from punishment is how to avoid it. Rather than learning how to behave appropriately, they may learn not to get caught. [It] can also lead to negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety… These emotions may become associated with the person who administers the punishment… [Punishment also] often fails to offset the reinforcing aspects of the undesired behavior.”

It’s these sorts of claims that lead me to the complexities of parenting. So, your third grader pouts at the dinner table when you tell her she can’t be excused yet; you’re at a holiday gathering, and you’re somewhat embarrassed by your child’s impatience.

Do you bribe her with extra dessert now and scold her later? Do you cause a scene and argue with her now? Do you give in and just let her leave? How will your decision in this moment affect future tantrums and her overall feelings about you?

Before I get into a biblical discussion of this issue, I need to make it clear that I view G-d as a parental figure. So, with that in mind, we have now finished the book of Exodus, and this week we begin reading Leviticus, or Vayikra.

The Hebrew title means “and Ge called,” which is fitting because of the book’s focus on law. In this week’s parsha portion, G-d details the instructions for sacrifices. The reading begins with generalities:

“When a man from among you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice (Leviticus 1:2).”

The next five chapters outline specifics: what to do for a burnt offering of cattle versus a burnt offering of sheep versus a burnt offering of doves.

What are the differences between a meal offering in a pan, an oven or a deep pot? What if it’s a peace offering or a sin offering? Was the man aware of his sin? Was it a sin of robbery or deceit?

Each offering is different in some way. The laws may seem arbitrary. Why does one offering require a female cow, while another demands fine flour?

I like to think the laws are a result of G-d’s aversion to punishment. Yes, it’s true that G-d is often portrayed as a frightening being; we are supposed to be intimidated, fearful even. But like a parent, I see G-d as having unconditional love for His children. For this reason, I think He tries to avoid punishment.

You may see these sin offerings as punishments. The man bringing an offering is forced to kill a member of his herd or flock; clearly, he’s being punished. However, the terminology in and of itself clouds the idea of punishment – it’s an offering, a gift to G-d.

Another passage reads, “He shall bring [the sacrifice] to the kohen, and the kohen shall scoop out a fistful as its reminder, and cause it to go up in smoke on the altar, upon the fires of the Lord. It is a sin offering (Leviticus 5:12).”

G-d doesn’t want to hurt us. G-d hopes for us to learn, not to suffer. In the process of making an offering, the sinner is never threatened, embarrassed or disapproved of. He sins, he brings his offering, and he is forgiven.

Obviously, it’s a thin line that G-d’s walking between what is and is not “punishment,” and I find the whole concept to be extremely intriguing. I willingly sacrifice food in order to receive forgiveness from G-d but would certainly feel differently if I were forced to sacrifice my weekend (otherwise known as being grounded) in order to appease my parents.

Is it the way in which G-d teaches, or is it just the fact that it’s G-d that makes me so willing? Or is it a combination of the two?

Rachel LaVictoire ( is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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