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Family Life: Are You a Buttinsky?

Psychologist, author, TV commentator, and Temple Israel, Westport and Temple Sholom, Greenwich member Dr. Dale Atkins and clinical social worker Rabbi Edythe Mencher speak with RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer on the dangers of meddling to family harmony—and how to express concerns that may elicit the very response you hope for.

Traditionally, Jews have been known to enjoy close family ties to the point where everyone feels entitled to express his/her opinions about everything, especially when it concerns who one marries and how the children or grandchildren are being raised. At times, though, the opinionated approach can backfire, creating tension in the family. How do we relate to adult kids—or to our elderly parents—in ways that make them want to take our advice seriously?

Dale: You have to guard against meddling.


Reform Judaism magazine can help you and your congregation engage in discussions relating to meddling and family harmony. Access our complimentary "Are You a Buttinsky?" Discussion Guide, offering thoughtful questions for conversation.

How would you define meddling?

Dale: If you give advice to an adult family member without being asked for your opinion, then you are meddling. That said, families function differently; in some, where it’s an open season everyday for everyone to give his/her opinion, there’s no breach of family harmony.

Edie: Given this diversity of perceptions, I would define meddling as giving advice that is likely to be perceived as criticism rather than support and encouragement.

Where does Judaism stand on this?

Edie: Judaism does not encourage this meddling kind of “support.” While there is a Jewish imperative to offer constructive criticism when it may help a loved one stay on an ethical and life-affirming path, our tradition also stresses the importance of taking actions that promote ethical and harmonious relationships. Telling people how to live their lives or holding them up to unrealistic standards of achievement—the hidden message behind much “constructive criticism”—are surefire ways to stir up discord. If we ask people to make choices that are more comfortable for us than for them, we may inadvertently hinder them from becoming the people they have the potential to become. This teaching is captured in the words of the talmudic sage Rabbi Zusya: “In the world to come they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

Dale: Exactly. Meddling can result in unfulfilled lives. So many people marry or don’t marry someone they love because their parents disapprove. Unfortunately, their parents believe that because their intentions may be good, they are not meddling. In fact, they are stepping over the boundary lines.

Can you give us an example?

Dale: Take the case of parents who protest their adult child’s decision to marry someone who’s not Jewish. Mom and Dad feel they have a right to express their beliefs and remind their child of his/her obligations to parents, religion, and ancestry. They’ve forgotten that the time is long past to be teaching fundamental Jewish values. If a son or daughter comes home with a non-Jew and says, “I want your blessing, I want you to meet this person, I love him/her,” I think parents have an obligation to give the person a chance—to see him/her through their child’s eyes, not just to say he/she’s “not good enough” or “that’s not going to work in this family.”

Edie: Expressing negative opinions about a person based on his/her religious or ethnic background unfairly diminishes this human being by denying his/her unique value and dignity. It is a form of lashon ha’ra, evil gossip, which Judaism forbids.

How can you tell whether you are meddling or acting responsibly when you have a serious concern about your son’s or daughter’s choices?

Dale: First, check yourself to make sure you aren’t inadvertently meddling by asking yourself four questions: 1. Am I getting involved for my child or for myself? 2. Is the person in question happy, even though what he/she is doing would not make me happy? 3. Will getting involved put our relationship at risk (and am I willing to take that risk)? 4. Can I really have this conversation without being judgmental? If the answers are: 1. my child, 2. yes, 3. no, and 4. yes, then you can take the next step, which is asking your child: “Would you be interested in hearing my thoughts, ideas, or feelings on the subject?” If the person says no, then let it go. If your child doesn’t want to hear your opinion, he/she will either erect a barrier to listening to you, or respond to your every point with a defensive counterpoint. In the end you will not be heard. But if the answer is yes, you can express your concerns and, odds are, you will be heard.

How can parents communicate such natural concerns as the religion of the intended spouse to an adult child without meddling?

Dale: It’s important to know what not to do when communicating your concerns. First, avoid criticizing an adult child’s judgment with comments such as “You don’t know what you’re doing,” or “Your head’s in the sand.” Second, make sure that you are not putting your needs ahead of your child’s, saying “I only want you to be happy; I want what’s best for you,” when the truth is, you’re embarrassed and worried about how your friendship circle will respond to the news. Third, be careful not to accuse your child of being disrespectful to you, your heritage, or your family values. In my experience, it is exceedingly rare for an adult child to make a decision such as marrying an individual who’s not Jewish in order to dishonor his/her family. Almost all of the time, the choice is not about the parents or about rejecting what the family stands for. The very fact that your child wants to bring the person home demonstrates the wish that the intended will become part of the family on some level. After all, your child doesn’t have to bring his/her loved one home; the couple could run away and get married.

In short, trying to impose our rules of life on adults who make their own decisions is not in anyone’s best interest. If your child makes a wrong decision, he/she will have to deal with it.

Edie: Even if an adult child’s choice defies Jewish tradition, our sages counsel us to remain silent if we know that our advice will not be heeded. The better path is to maintain an atmosphere of shalom bayit (peace, harmony, and acceptance in the home) so that the child will feel free to raise his/her own questions and doubts without fearing that his/her parents will seize upon this with a triumphant “We told you so!” The ideal is to create family relationships in which members might be more inclined to have a change of heart or admit errors because they feel supported and do not fear being shamed.

How can you express your doubts without alienating your child?

Edie: You need to be very careful. In biblical stories great hardship and pain ensue between parents and children when the parents meddle in their children’s love relationships. When Laban refuses to allow Rachel to marry her beloved Jacob and instead offers Rachel’s sister Leah as a bride, the meddling leads to years of shared hurt and the ultimate estrangement of father, daughters, and son-in-law.

Dale: The ability to express your doubts without triggering a backlash really depends on your relationship. First, I think you owe it to your child to try to see this person through your child’s eyes. What is it about this human being that so enamors your son or daughter? What are his/her positive attributes? Why might this couple be a good match? Then, hopefully, you can express what you honestly feel and believe, without being judgmental, and say something that won’t be perceived as critical.

What can you say?

Dale: “You know, when I held you as a baby and imagined your wedding, I pictured you getting married under a chuppah. I always thought you’d marry someone who was Jewish. This is not what I had expected, so I have to come to terms with embracing this wonderful person who isn’t Jewish.”

Might your even asking a child for permission to comment on the situation trigger a negative reaction?

Dale: Oh yes. Even good intentions can often be perceived as meddling because the recipient interprets the question itself as critical of his or her decisions. If your child thinks you’re really saying, “I know better than you,” then the message he/she is getting is “my perspective is not valued,” and you’ve just undermined your ability to reach your child.

How do you get past this?

Dale: By taking responsibility for what you are saying as your concerns and by acknowledging that it can be difficult to even engage in such a discussion. Try to offer yourself as a listener in this process instead of someone with a mission to accomplish.

How can you be a listener?

Dale: Let’s say your concern is the religion of your grandchildren. Rather than trying to dictate your will with critical and judgmental statements such as, “The kids need to be raised as Jews. I will not have it any other way,” you can ask questions such as, “Have you thought about how your children will be raised?” or say something like, “I have noticed plenty of books and programs about interfaith couples raising children,” and then listen respectfully to your child’s response.

In short, I think our role as parents is to be supportive and accepting of our adult children’s choices, regardless of whether we agree with them. The exception to the rule is when he or she engages in destructive behavior such as alcohol or drug abuse, at which point we need to ask ourselves, “Will not getting involved put our relationship at risk?”

Edie: Though it’s not always clear, we need to try to distinguish between a meddling response and an intervention in the interest of pikuach nefesh (the Jewish value of saving a life). A good evaluative tool in such cases derives from the Divine directive: “I put before you life and death, therefore choose life.” We can ask ourselves: “Is this situation truly life-threatening?” While, of course, we can convince ourselves that nagging our son-in-law to lose weight or our daughter not to take the subway late at night is of life consequence, the immediacy of the threat needs to be the determining factor.

As for those times when we do need to act in order to preserve health and safety, we are taught to offer our counsel in a non-confrontational or accusatory manner. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 81a notes: “If a father unwittingly transgresses a Torah law, his child should not say to him, ‘Father, you have transgressed a Torah law.’ He should say, ‘Father, the Torah says such and such’ and let the father draw his own conclusions.” In other words, it’s wise to provide information about the abusive behavior and wait for the child to draw his/her own conclusions.

Let’s say you become the grandparent of a newborn baby boy and learn that to your dismay the parents have decided against circumcision. You’re saying that you have to respect their decision.

Dale: Yes. Because he is their child.

But he’s your grandson!

Dale: Yes, and as such you have the right to try to communicate your feelings about their decision in a respectful way, something like, “I have some thoughts about this, and I’d like to share them with you; would you like to hear them?” The parents might say, “Okay, but we’ve decided that we’re not going to have a bris.” Then, in a non-judgmental way, you might remind them how important this ritual is as part of the family’s heritage. You might also say, softly and from the heart, “This is important to me.” Sometimes people make a choice because it is important to somebody else, someone he or she loves. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as one does not do it out of guilt, but as an act of love.

Edie: Once a child is married, the relationship with parents changes. In Genesis 2, verse 24 we read, “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh”—a beautiful evocation of the depth and power of the marital bond that also acknowledges the need to make the new relationship primary. Interestingly, in the Torah this directive follows the description of Eve as fashioned from one of Adam’s ribs, suggesting that, in some primordial way, the connection between a married couple even transcends the biological and emotional ties between parents and children. When parents try to reassert their former authority and primacy over adult children who are forging new, loving, committed partnerships, tension often arises. On the other hand, when parents follow Jewish teachings in respecting and supporting the boundaries of the new relationship, the bonds between the new couple can be firmly established and the bonds between the generations strengthened.

The relationship between parents and children changes once again when parents become frail and need their own children’s assistance.

Dale: Yes. And at such times, unresolved issues between children and parents tend to rise to the surface, with the roles reversed. If meddling has been a theme in the relationship, the very sons and daughters who resented their parents’ intrusions into their lives now often ignore their parents’ wishes and make unilateral, meddling decisions, such as taking away their parents’ car keys or pressuring them to move into an assisted-living facility.

What would be a non-meddling approach?

Dale: A more respectful way would be to discuss issues associated with aging as they emerge, especially since, with the exception of stroke patients and others afflicted with a quickly debilitating disease, most people decline over time and do not need a complete overhaul of familiar patterns and environments. That said, competency may be an issue. It is important to discuss openly what is not and what is possible for the older parent to do. Through dialogue, you can hear what your parent thinks about the problems and try, together, to find less drastic solutions. For example, maybe for now he/she can agree to stop driving at night, and perhaps someone can be hired to help with meals and other daily needs at home.

It must be especially difficult to take care of meddling parents when they’re no longer able to care for themselves.

Dale: Yes. In order to take good care of someone who didn’t take such good care of you, it’s important to look carefully at your own motives to make sure that your choices for your parents’ well-being are not driven by your own feelings of superiority (“I know what they need better than they do”) or inferiority (“at the age of 60 I’m finally going to prove to him/her that I really am capable and competent”). An older, ailing parent who is mentally capable of making his/her own decisions is entitled to make them, right or wrong, just as you have long been entitled to make yours.

My mother always said, “You don’t have to do what I think you should do. All I ask is that you allow me to give you my opinion, and whatever you do I will support.” And she has.

Dale: Well, that’s a very loving message. She has the kind of relationship with you that allows you to listen to her, because you know that she may have something valuable to say which bears consideration in your decision, and regardless of your choice, she will be there for you.

Edie: This is very much in keeping with Jewish tradition, where even God encourages Abraham to express his opinion when God is considering the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not meddling does not mean never saying what we think, particularly when a person’s life is at stake—it means respecting the autonomy, dignity, and authority of the other.

I use my mother’s example both as the principle upon which I’ve raised my own children and the principle I’ve given back to her. When she asks me for my input, I say, “This is my advice. Whatever you do is your decision and I will support it.”

Dale: Exactly. Gentleness and acceptance go a long way in demonstrating love and respect of children for their parents. There’s nothing more Jewish than that.


Union for Reform Judaism.