Last week, in honor of Parshat Noach, I wrote here about the positive power of habits: When our judgement abandons us (or our kids) under temptation or pressure, good habits can kick in and save the day.
But sometimes, the habits themselves are the problem.
“Yes yes,” you might be thinking, “we all know about drinking and procrastinating and picking one’s nose, that’s old news.” But I’m actually not referring to overtly problematic practices. I’m referring to good habits, even excellent habits, that somehow lead us astray.
I developed my own good-but-destructive parenting habit after dealing with a particularly argumentative period in my toddler’s life. “I don’t know what to do anymore,” I used to complain to my friends, googling ‘the strong willed child’ and ‘standoffs with toddlers’ at the same time. “I tried reasoning with her. I tried telling her that the argument is over and refusing to respond to further demands. And nothing worked!”
One day, quite by chance, I discovered the strategy that solved my problems. One day, during a particularly exasperating argument over prohibited sweets, I just couldn’t take it anymore,and retreated into a safe space within my mind. Physically, I was still in the room, but mentally and emotionally I was miles away.
And my daughter dropped the argument, just like that.
At first I was incredulous. That’s it? That’s the big secret? Then, as emotional withdrawal did the trick time and time again, I grew excited. And before long I was sharing my amazing discovery with anyone and everyone who’d listen. “It’s all about emotionally disengaging from the argument!” I gushed, alight with the fervent zealotry of the newly-converted. “You should really try it! It’s not enough to say you are done with the argument – you need to feel it, too!”
I still stand by my advice. Emotional disengagement works well. But after months of using it as my go-to strategy, I realized that something went wrong.
It wasn’t anything obvious. I didn’t neglect my children, nor did I abuse them in any way. In between our occasional standoffs and the (temporary) emotional withdrawals that put a stop to them, we still enjoyed our cuddles and bed time chats and tickling wars.
But I was no longer as attuned to them as I used to be. I was no longer as attuned to them as I want to be.
My brilliant strategy solved a real parenting problem, but it created another. The more I used it, the more it turned into a habit, a knee-jerk reaction to every argument. I stopped asking myself whether this was the best strategy in every given situation. I simply acted, falling into what I like to call the Auto-Parent Mode.
And boy, did this Auto-Parenting time in my life have costs.
I missed some of the underlying tensions and worries that led to the arguments, because I was so quick to quit the scene (metaphorically) whenever they began.
I missed out on opportunities to teach my kids valuable life skills by helping them to verbalize their emotions and work through them.
I missed out on opportunities to bond with my kids in their times of need and showing them that I will be there for them no matter what.
When I realized what was happening, I stopped withdrawing immediately. But the realization left me with an uncomfortable feeling and an open question: If the Auto-Parent Mode is bad, how can we ever make it as parents? How are we supposed to be mindful and thoughtful in every given situation, smack in the middle of diaper changes and homework and dinner time and “just one story” times, without losing our mind all together?
Can we balance the mindfulness that allows us to be good parents, with the habits that allow us to survive? For one depressing, frantic moment, I found myself wondering if that’s even possible. Are the choices really only automatic parenting – or constant, maddening, reflection?
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech-Lecha, answers the last question with a resounding “no”.
When Abraham heeded God’s command to “go,” leaving everything he knew behind, he smashed the Auto-Person Mode which he was raised to follow. His family’s expectations, the cultural norms that surrounded him, the idolatry of his time, the habits of his peers – all were abandoned. Shattered.
But Abraham didn’t become a professional revolutionary, a preacher at the gate, or a knight errant chasing adventures. Somehow, despite his unique independence and commitment to change, he went on to live a life full of normal routines. He had a wife, and like many affluent men of his time, a concubine as well. He engaged in wars when necessary. He dug wells and cooked meals. He managed his herds and his servants. He went about the business of living his life.
Abraham may have smashed the Auto-Person Mode of his time, but he still developed routines and habits of his own. And if we look closely, we can see something truly remarkable: Abraham’s “normal” actions weren’t mindless, gray areas between his moments of iconoclastic greatness. They weren’t a new form of automatic being. They were rather another expression of the same values and the same principles that shone so brightly through his revolutionary acts.
Abraham’s family relationships were geared towards spreading God’s worship and serving His commands. Abraham’s wars weren’t mindless: He refused to enjoy the spoils of war since the victory, he says in this week’s Parsha, was God’s. Abraham’s business practices followed the same principled approach: According to the classic biblical commentators, Abraham and Lot parted ways because Lot refused to stop his herds from grazing in other people’s fields. As we will see in a week, even Abraham’s most mundane actions, like sitting by his tent, were motivated by his values, the value of hospitality in particular.
Somehow, Abraham’s ideals informed his routine activities as well as his groundbreaking moves, and he didn’t descend into a mindless Auto-Person Mode. But how did he do it? And as a daughter of Abraham, and as someone who wants to be a good mother but can’t afford deep reflection all the time, how can I follow in his footsteps?
The answer, I suspect, is the project of a lifetime. But one clue came me in the form of Daniel J. Siegel’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out, and particularly his ideas about “flexibility of response”.
Parents can’t, Siegel writes, come up with several possible strategies in the midst of a crisis, asses them coolly and fully, and choose the best one. But parents can invest time in considering and practicing various possible responses in their moments of leisure. Once they have more than one option in their arsenal of go-to strategies, they will be able to respond to specific situations with flexibility, by choosing the most fitting tool in their arsenal instead of one knee-jerk reaction.
According to Siegel’s model, my problem wasn’t that I had an habit. My problem was that I had one habit, one go-to response to (not) fit all cases.
By developing several strategies and using them fairly regularly, I was able to expand my range of habitual responses, introduce more mindfulness into the way I employed them, and avoid losing my mind altogether by having to come up with a brand new solution in every situation.
In other words, I was able to emulate Abraham’s ability to follow routines without becoming mindless. I learned to rely on habits without turning my Auto-Parent Mode on.