Parenting By Parsha: Sh’lach

Have you ever tried to get a toddler to sit still during mealtime? I’ve heard that there are kids who sit at the table and eat what they’re given, but given my recent mealtime experiences, that sounds like fake news to me. 

I’ve mentioned in the past that our kiddo has opinions, and this extends to his meal preferences as well. Not just about food, either. No, our kid needs to voice his views on fork colors, bib colors, and chair choices. In recent weeks, meals have gone from fun family laughing times to a nightmare of trying to set boundary after boundary. 

“We’re not changing chairs,” I say, “Look — Mama is sitting in her seat, and Ima is sitting in her seat, and you’re sitting in your seat.”

“Down down DOWN,” he insists, sliding off the chair. 

In an attempt to keep our sanity, we’ve started to implement a new approach. My wife and I often debrief our parenting strategies in the evenings and look for guidance from professionals, podcasts, and online articles to share with one another. One suggestion had been to shift to ‘family-style’ serving; all the food is in the center of the table and we all engage (vigorously) with the dinner. I’m cautiously optimistic about this. We’ve been doing it for a few days and it seems that he’s eating more and bargaining less. 

The other part of this approach has to do with trust. Specifically, trusting our kid to know when he is full and to end the meal when he feels ready to do so. This part feels like both the most important part — teaching him to be in tune with his body and recognize how to fulfill that most basic need in a healthy way — and the most difficult. The innate Jewish mother in me wants to make sure he isn’t hungry ever. “Are you sure you don’t want more?” I want to ask, just like my mother and grandmother did when I was a kid. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that way of mothering, but it doesn’t train a person to have a keen sense of their own body. When are we full, and when are we stuffing ourselves? Everyone has a different capacity for eating and different nutritional needs. Just like I’m encouraging him to eat healthy foods, I need to encourage him to have agency over his bodily needs. Beginning a pattern of dependence on me or anyone else to tell him what his body needs will only go bad places. 

Of course, we’re talking about a 22-month-old impish little one. He doesn’t know about agency, and dependence patterns, and all the rest. 

I need to trust, however, that he does know when he’s hungry and when he’s full — even if it’s subconscious knowledge. I need to trust that, with some guidance, we can help that become a conscious effort. 

This week’s portion is all about trust — confidence broken and confidence gained. It begins with a commandment to “send men to scout the land of Canaan.” (Numbers 13:2) They’ve arrived, and God is asking that they check out the Promised Land before heading in to claim what’s theirs. 

It doesn’t work out that way, though. The Israelites send in twelve scouts (one for each tribe) and they return with both good and bad news. “[The land] does indeed flow with milk and honey,” they say in Numbers 13:27. Unfortunately, it’s not empty. “the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large,” they go on to say, listing all the nations they saw. 

Chaos and panic break out; Israelites scream at Moses that they’d be better off returning to Egypt than dying at the hands of these giants. Two of the spies, Caleb ben-Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin-Nun, implore the Israelites to trust in God. No dice. They can’t take that leap of faith and, in that moment, they’ve gone too far. 

By declining to trust in God’s ability to protect them, they broke His trust in their ability to be the people He’d thought they could be. Even the best family therapist couldn’t work out a relationship so marred by a lack of trust and goodwill. 

God goes on to curse the Israelites, promising that they would never enter the Promised Land. Instead they would wander the desert until the last of that generation of doubters had perished. “You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days—forty days—that you scouted the land: a year for each day,” God declares in Numbers 14:34.

Trust can be pushed, but not too far, and once shattered it’s near impossible to repair. That’s what I keep thinking of when I consider how hard it is for me to trust my kid to handle difficult situations. Recognizing his needs, dealing with frustration or anger, feeling sad — these are all things that we can (and should) guide him through. Ultimately, our goal should be to help our kid develop a trusting relationship with himself, first, and with us as well. 

Having confidence in your own capacity to recognize and care for yourself is a skill to be encouraged and honed. This portion shows us the absolute devastation that can occur when faith is broken — the same applies for all types of faith. By showing our toddler that we have faith in him, maybe we can encourage him to have faith in his own capabilities in every realm, from food, to learning, to friendship, and all the rest.