Word to parents: go forth with fire in the belly

An Orthodox rabbi with eight children and his own television show, Shmuley Boteach is a man with much to say.

In his recently published book “Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Family with Passion and Inspiration,” Boteach offers the PLANT parenting program for raising healthy, happy kids.

The way to raise kids well, he tells parents, is through Protection, Love, Activity, Novelty, and Tradition. The tool for achieving this is inspiration.

Parents, he writes, should actively involve themselves in the lives of their kids, shaping their opinions and passions. They should parent, he says, “with fire.”

The best, and most original, piece of advice he gives is the following warning: “Perhaps we should be protecting our children from our concern.” By this he means that if parents are not so anxious around their kids, kids will want to spend more time with their family and less time getting into trouble.

Other bits of advice, however, are mere platitudes, printed in bold to announce themselves to anyone not reading carefully enough. “An inner emptiness is the motor force of insatiability,” one says.

To parse, Boteach is talking about what he calls the “dark side of curiosity.” He connects this, as he does other sections, to Adam and Eve and their run-in with the forbidden fruit. “Adam and Eve were infected by this toxic, adult insatiability; it poisoned their childlike innocence,” he writes. “Now, our children face the same threat.”

Boteach assumes children should be protected from all dangers. Indeed, protection is the most important part of his PLANT plan. And he is right — parents do need to protect their children. But when parents shelter children too much, they run the risk of raising someone wholly unprepared for — and possibly precariously vulnerable to —the real world.

But it is at the broader sociological level that Boteach’s book begins to unravel. He seems to think that all Americans spend their time and money on frivolous, soulless, selfish pursuits. “We think we’re unlovable, so we buy designer handbags and chase youth by going under the plastic surgeon’s knife, but it’s all to no avail,” Boteach says.

Who is he talking about here? Surely he is not talking to all American parents, who are hardly a monolithic group.

He tells parents not to spend more time at the gym than with their kids, which seems like good advice. But he offers no solutions or advice for parents who must work long hours to support their families. Indeed, they don’t seem to factor into his worldview at all.

Where, we should ask, is the advice for low-income parents? For parents of color? For parents who must work two jobs?

It is as if Boteach is stuck on an image of America in which everyone is wholly free from worry, endangered only by television and underage sex and video games. Not all families have the luxury to take his advice.

There are serious problems with growing up — and with our world — that are being ignored here. Given our highly mixed, fast-paced, oftentimes confusing world, this is troubling.

At its best, “Parenting with Fire” is a fortune-cookie tutorial in parenting. At its worst, it is disturbingly forgetful.

“Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Family With Passion and Inspiration” by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (240 pages, NAL Trade, $14).

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz
Penina Eilberg-Schwartz

Penina Eilberg-Schwartz is a member of IfNotNow and a former intern at J. She grew up in Palo Alto and is currently working on a book about the life of Palestinian peace activist Sulaiman Khatib.