One morning, Kim Brooks made a split-second decision to leave her 4-year-old son in the car while she ran into a store.

She returned minutes later and drove off with her son safe in the backseat.

What she did not know was that a bystander had videoed her and called the police. Before she knew it, she was a wanted criminal with an arrest warrant under her name.

The ensuing drama spurred her to investigate the broader role America’s culture of fear plays in parenthood, culminating in a bestselling book called Small Animals.

One of the basic questions Brooks asks is, of all the emotions inherent in parenting, is there any more universal or profound than fear? Working from this assumption, she argues that we’re caught in somewhat of a “backlash to a backlash”: parents were once over-protective of their children and guided them too stiffly, so society pushed back and produced the hands-off parenting of the mid-twentieth century.

Today, there’s backlash to that, too, and parents are handcuffing their children more than ever, terrified of what could happen if they don’t.

So where do we go from here? A backlash to the backlash to the backlash? And then another backlash in 30 years from now?

Samuel the Nazirite

One of the larger topics discussed in Parshat Nasso is the Nazirite, a person aspiring for added holiness who vows to abstain from wine, is not allowed to cut his or her hair, and must avoid coming into contact with a dead body:

Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: A man or woman who sets himself apart by making a Nazirite vow to abstain for the sake of G‑d...1

There aren’t very many recorded Nazirites in Jewish history, but there are some famous ones. Coming in with the biggest celebrity status is probably Samson, the Jewish judge who was the impossibly strong nemesis to the Philistines in his day.

Another, perhaps lesser-known but even more important Nazirite is the Prophet Samuel. The origins lie in the prayer of his tormented mother, Chanah, who was barren for many years. After suffering in silence for too long, this pious woman made her way to the Tabernacle and begged G‑d to bless her with offspring:

And she vowed a vow, and said: to the L‑rd of Hosts, if . . . You will remember me, and . . . You will give Your servant a child, and I shall give him to G‑d all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.2

“No razor” is a reference to the law that a Nazirite is not allowed to cut his hair. Effectively, Chanah conferred Nazirite status on her yet-to-be-born son, such that when he emerged, he was already in the club.

But that doesn’t really work. How can a mother take such a vow on her son’s behalf? Beside the fact that it’s halachically questionable,3 the real question is, what right did Chanah have to so rigidly determine her son’s destiny?4 What if the child grew up and didn’t want to be a Nazirite? What if he wanted to go to Harvard instead, or put out an album? What right did she have to deny him that?

We all appreciate a mother’s wish for her son to walk in the ways of piety—but surely Chanah was aware that parents’ values don’t always trickle down to the children. On what basis did she take the liberty to swear her son’s life to her idea of “the proper path”?

Parenting: Transmit Your Values

The short answer is that Chanah understood arguably the most critical part of parenting, the definition of parenting itself: transmitting values.

Parents must do all sorts of things, but so much of what they do falls under the category of “providing” something: physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Whether it’s giving the children supper, waking them up in the morning, paying for college, or listening to them talk about their daily woes, it involves a lot or providing.

So when do we get a chance to, you know, parent (the verb)?

Every day—by transmitting values to our children.

You can shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the best private schools, spend time with your child every weekend in Disneyland, but if you’re not going to teach them what they’re supposed to care about, they’ll learn it somewhere else. And if whatever is important to you, what you care about, is really important to you, it will be important to your child as well.

So while Judaism understands that people have free choice, it’s emphatically against the “let the universe raise the children” approach. Like Chanah, parents are supposed to have a vision of their own values and then transmit them to their children. Parenting is an awesome responsibility, and to absolve ourselves saying, “My child can make his or her own decisions” is nothing less than tragic.

No Guarantees, Focus on the Process

No one can guarantee that if you do “x” in your parenting, the result will be “y.” There’s always a great deal of uncertainty, and sometimes kids turn out very differently from how we expect. After all, it’s really entirely in the hands of G‑d.

But one clear lesson we can take from the story of Chanah, Samuel, and the Nazirite vow is this: Chanah wasn’t delusional. She knew that she could not, on her own, make Samuel a Nazir by her vow. She also knew that ultimately, when Samuel grew up, he would only be a Nazir by the force of his own choice. Yet she still prayed to G‑d, and made her vow: G‑d, if you give me this child, a razor will not come upon his head. I make a vow to do everything in my power to train him as a Nazir.

In anything we do, we can only control our efforts, not the results. This applies to parenting perhaps more than anything else. Chanah teaches us that the Torah expects us to put in that effort! We can’t make decisions for our children, but we have significant influence on the decisions they make for themselves. At the end of the day, we can—and must!—influence our children’s eventual decision-making.

Backlashes will continue to circle around, but the Torah’s truth remains: Parenting is a responsibility to teach values to your children. Try your best, and pray to G‑d that He makes it work.5