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Family Life: Are You a Buttinsky? – A Discussion Guide
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer's interview with Dr. Dale Atkins and Rabbi Edythe Mencher prompts introspection about our relationships with our spouse, parents, grandparents, and adult children. Is it OK for us to meddle in their affairs? The Jewish guidelines they suggest may help us decide when to intervene and when to hold our tongues.

  1. Dr. Atkins and Rabbi Mencher agree that meddling can be particularly destructive:
  2. when a child plans to marry a non-Jew, or anyone parents deem to be inappropriate;
  3. when grandchildren receive a non-Jewish upbringing;
  4. when aged parents require protection or lifestyle changes.

At the same time, intervention may be essential when a family member engages in life-threatening behavior.

To clarify your own position so that you can discuss these important issues with family members and friends, consider the following questions:

1. What constitutes meddling?

  1. Dr. Atkins and the dictionary define meddling as giving unsolicited advice. Why do they think unsolicited advice constitutes meddling or butting in-–both pejorative terms-–when you might be able to reinforce important family values?
  2. Rabbi Mencher says that meddling means to give advice that might come across as criticism. Why is intervention that implies criticism a bad thing?

2. Do good intentions justify meddling?

Dr. Atkins says that meddling exceeds the bounds of acceptable behavior even with the best of intentions.

  1. Why does she think that good intentions that reflect serious concerns about a family member’s welfare do not justify meddling?
  2. Why does she include in this definition unsolicited advice that might in fact help to head off a bad decision?
  3. Does fulfilling a parent's responsibility to transmit values justify or not justify correcting the ones you love?
  4. Have you ever justified offering unsolicited advice based on well-meaning intentions? How can you be sure that the meddling was purely well meaning, and not also serving some other personal purpose?

3. Don't parents have a right to speak up?

The Fifth Commandment tells us to honor parents.

  1. Under what circumstances might adult children ignore their parents’ wishes?
  2. When have you been successful in conveying values and hopes to your children? What can you learn from those experiences?
  3. Our tradition says that the commandment to honor parents implies that they have earned such respect. Why should the commandment be, or not be, conditional?
  4. How might parents earn honor from children?

4. Is it unwarranted meddling to try to avert an adult child's dangerously destructive behavior?

  1. Dr. Atkins says that intervening in such cases is valid—and, in fact, that not getting involved might even jeopardize the relationship with your child. Under what circumstances might keeping hands off harm a parent-child relationship?
  2. Rabbi Mencher says that the idea of pikuach nefesh-–saving a soul--justifies intervention if self-harm is imminent. How would you decide if the circumstances truly warrant intervention?
  3. How might you intervene in such a situation?

5. Is it okay to ask married children to do something just because it's important to you?

  1. Rabbi Mencher cites Genesis to emphasize that parental authority is absent after children marry. How did you feel about relinquishing influence over married children?
  2. Have you ever tried to retain influence? What were the consequences?

6. How can you help aged parents enter a new life style without meddling?

  1. Dr. Atkins suggests that if your parents meddled in your life, you're more likely to meddle in theirs. How did your parents' attempts to influence you after your marriage affect how you intervene in their lives now?
  2. Dr. Atkins maintains that mentally competent, frail parents are entitled to make and live with their own decisions. Why do you agree or not agree?
  3. How might you refrain from meddling in your elderly parents’ decision-making, however they might have treated you?
  4. How might you help them without meddling?

7. Is it meddling to share with your children your hopes for them?

  1. Rabbi Mencher says that so-called constructive criticism, such as suggesting to children that they can do better, engenders discord and may impede these children from reaching their potential. How might well-intentioned constructive criticism have the opposite effect?
  2. How can you help children do their best in school, work, and throughout life?

8. How might you convey ideas to family members and still protect shalom bayit, family harmony?

We are taught that there is "a time for silence and a time for speaking" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). What guidelines might help you decide whether to be silent or to speak up?

9. What would you say? (This telephone exchange-–between a non-believing, fifty-something-year-old son whose children have no knowledge of Jewish belief or practice, and his temple-going, Jewishly-involved, former-religious-school-teacher father-–occurred as this guide was being prepared – A.D.B.)

Son: I'd like to go to the temple with you.

Father: Why?

Son:I have fond memories growing up there.

Father: What took you so long to come back and why didn't you fulfill your responsibility to us to raise your children as Jews?

  1. What motivated the father's reply?
  2. Presume that the father's acceptance of the B'rit-–God's covenant with the Jewish people-–impelled him to believe that children have a responsibility to raise their children as Jews. How do you feel about that belief? How does the belief justify, or not justify, the father's reply?
  3. Deuteronomy 29:13 says: "I make this covenant…both with those who are standing here with us (at Sinai) this day and those who are not here with us this day." How can you resolve the paradox between a timeless B'rit and the limits of parental authority discussed in 5, above?
  4. How would you have responded to the son's request? Why?

10. What about giving advice to non-family?

Under what circumstances might the caveats on meddling apply-–or not apply-–to friends?


Union for Reform Judaism.