In the past weeks, I have been following the college admissions bribery scandal in the US with astonishment, and I don’t just mean the incidents of illegal actions taken by parents.
It seems we have stepped into a new era of parenting, in which many parents act in the name of their children, or even completely assume their responsibilities, believing it is in their kids’ best interest.
The wish to help our kids along is understandable. But should we as parents act as a snowplow, clearing all obstacles out of the way? Is it our responsibility to turn their lives’ journey into a walk in the park? Or is it enough to spread some salt along their paths and let them find their way through the snow?
I live in Tel Aviv, and I’m a mom to three boys aged 16, 13 and 9. Soon, my oldest son will join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), where my influence on his role or success in it will be minimal to non-existent. Despite being his parent, when it comes to the selection process, my hands are tied.
I love my kids dearly, and I wish to give them all the best that life has to offer. I have high hopes for and perhaps even higher expectations of them. In that sense, I’m no different than the average American parent.
But once they turn 18 and join the IDF, as an Israeli mom there’s very little I can do to get them where they want to be.
Special forces in the IDF are, in many respects, the equivalent of Ivy League schools in the US. Graduating from such units or schools is like being accepted into an exclusive career club.
Serving in, for example, the Intelligence Unit 8200, the equivalent of the NSA, like I did, can open many doors later on. Where IDF elite units and Ivy League schools differ, however, is the screening processes.
No parents permitted
Israeli teenage boys and girls usually receive their first letter (Tzav Rishon, or First Order) from the military at the age of 16½, telling them to come for a basic mandatory screening at an army induction facility.
All enlistees are interviewed, go through a procedure to assess their ability to read and write, and provide a summary of their latest school reports. The IDF is interested in knowing about any technological background and education that the enlistee might have. Their parents? Not allowed in the facility. Not that any Israeli youth would want them to be present.
The second notification soon arrives, inviting the young enlistees to a medical examination, a critical criterion for some units. Parents have no access to anyone on the screening team; they do not know their names or contact information. Nor do they have access to the app to which kids are asked to upload their documents and records.
The enlistees then go on to an interview with a soldier — only a year or two older than the inductee — specially trained in evaluation techniques. The primary purpose is to chart the personality traits of the recruit: motivation, ability to withstand stress or social or anti-social behavior patterns and assess suitability for specific roles in the IDF. Their parents? Again, not allowed in the facility.
Armed with the results, the IDF is now ready to consider the candidates for the different units of the army. For special units, intel or combat, the process continues, without any parental involvement of any sort.
Structurally, the process seems impossible. The more elite and exclusive the position or unit, the more its screening process is geared toward identifying soft skills, such as mental endurance, teamwork and cooperation, and the less it relies on past accomplishments from high school.
Independence and self-reliance
Essentially, our sons’ and daughters’ future in the IDF depends solely on them. They have to prove that they are a good fit for the positions they want to hold. They must be motivated and proactive. And no mom or dad could stand in for them.
But they’re not born 18, are they? They have come a long way before reaching that crucial moment in time when they are tested for their potential and abilities.
Stressful as that moment might be, there is comfort in knowing that we have 18 years to teach them independence and self-reliance. Many parents invest tremendous resources in preparing their kids for these critical life junctures.
The question is where to draw the line between preparation and monopolizing their lives.
I do my best to prepare my three boys for this moment, starting as early as you can imagine. Is there one way for a toddler to use a slide? Should we only teach them to climb up the ladder and slide down, or could we let them figure out for themselves how they want to use it?
In a typical Israeli playground, you’ll find kids climbing the slide and jumping from the ladder. Rarely will an adult comment or correct them. It’s a way for them to play and interact that is just as good as the “standard” way of climbing the ladder and sliding down the slide.
Natural curiosity, which all kids have, reinforced with the expectation to ask questions, challenge authority, mine information and actively react to anybody anywhere, is encouraged in Israeli schools, families, playgrounds – everywhere.
Chaotic as it might seem, the outcome is active-thinking kids ready to act on their ideas, interests and imagination.
Such kids are determined. They develop an inner confidence in themselves, a sense of resilience, risk profile, energy and motivation to figure things out and get them done, never letting any obstacle deter them.
Is the price worth it?
Raising kids this way is hard and comes with a price: quite a big mess in your house. Tears. Frustration. Loss of control. Chaotic situations. Is it worth the outcome?
I suggest considering it as a long-term investment in our kids, in the adults they will be, in our immediate ecosystem, and ultimately in the society of which we are a part.
This long-term investment eventually pays off: They learn, by practice, who they are and what’s right for them; they deal with risks and challenges; develop their independence and autonomy.
Sure, they make mistakes, but they also learn from them. They are motivated to succeed on their own. They develop all these soft skills from a very young age, so when they receive that First Order from the IDF they face it head on with confidence.
Serial entrepreneur Inbal Arieli was an officer in the elite IDF intelligence 8200 unit and later took leading roles in the Israeli high-tech sector. Currently founder and co-CEO of leadership assessment and development company Synthesis, she is the author of the forthcoming book Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HarperBusiness, August 20, 2019).