Parenting is complicated. I remember how naive I was as a younger parent and less-experienced educator, thinking that it was simple—wondering how parents could do this or their children behave like that. Over time, though, I’ve grown to appreciate how nuanced parenting is and how many variables are at play. The typical complexity of parenting is only compounded further when there is disability at play. In general, it is acutely difficult to generalize good parenting advice, all the more so to share meaningful suggestions for parents of children with special needs.
With very rare exceptions, parents do not choose to have a child with a disability. Yet, how they react to that reality really shapes how the child will come to view him or herself, and will set the tone for how others will treat that child. Regarding the laws of tzara’at of garments, the Torah says that “the kohen shall look after the affliction has been washed and, behold, the affliction has not changed its appearance (hanega lo hafach et eyno) and the affliction has not spread, it is contaminated…” (Vayikra 12:55). The Chidushei Harim explains that the words “hanega lo hafach et eyno” could be translated to mean that the affliction did not change its “ayin.” He explains that there is a unique relationship between the word nega (affliction), which is spelled nun, gimel, ayin, and the word oneg (pleasure), which is spelled ayin, nun, gimel. Both words are composed of the identical letters, the only difference being the placement of the ayin at the beginning (as in oneg) or end (as in nega) of the word. Whether something is an affliction or is a pleasure, a burden or a gift, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, all depends on the placement of one’s ayin (eye), one’s perspective.
When a child presents differently than his siblings or peers, human nature is to focus on the challenges and differences. Deficits are often inevitably highlighted while the child’s strengths and gifts are overlooked. Shifting the orientation of one’s “ayin” can spur a powerful jumpstart of both inner peace and success. Children with special needs usually are aware of their disabilities (despite not always being able to articulate so). Challenges are hard to escape and often highlighted by the way others, most often inadvertently, treat them. Children deserve both the opportunity to be perceived by others, and to view themselves, with a lens that focuses on their strengths and talents. When parents challenge themselves to reorient their perspective, their relationship with their child can be profoundly impacted.
As a special educator, I have worked with many parents of children whose academic, social and/or emotional profiles are complex. Often, the children have experienced failure in school and challenges at home. Most parents can easily articulate their child’s challenges. Fewer parents, however, have trained themselves to take a step back and reorient their “ayin,” to look at their child not as having a nega, but rather as oneg. To those parents’ credit, in viewing their children through this lens, they have helped them find an inner peace: pride in who they are and confidence in what they can accomplish. This change in perspective impacts parent and child alike, freeing both from preconceived expectations and empowering them to embrace their own positive future. A change in one’s “ayin” is all that needs to happen to bring one from affliction to pleasure, from challenge to opportunity and from disability to ability.
By Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs
Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is the dean of SINAI Schools.