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The Nuances of the Sabra Parent

Elissa Strauss had a great post in the Forward about the Sabra Parent* — the Israeli parenting norm to join the pantheon of other culture’s parenting norms such as the Tiger Mom and the Parisian Mom.  There are two differences though between all those other parenting norms and the Sabra Parent.  (1) This form of parenting is not confined to mothers, hence why it is a Sabra Parent vs. a Sabra Mom.  The expectations for men and women are the same.  (2) You do not need to actually have children to be a Sabra Parent.  There is a role in Sabra Parenting for every aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin, and friend that comes in contact with the child.  Because you don’t just Sabra Parent your own children; you Sabra Parent other people’s children.  Hence why you do not need to actually be parenting in order to participate.  This is how I was able to test my parenting skills and enjoy some of the perks of parenting while we were going through infertility treatments.

When I read her post, I knew exactly what she meant, having observed it and practiced it myself.  It’s that sense of dual belonging prevalent inside Jewish communities.  You watch your kid, but you also watch everyone else’s kid.  You interact with your kid, but you also interact with everyone else’s kid.  You belong with your family, but you also belong to a larger whole.  You teach your kids to be responsible adults by bringing them everywhere with you, seeing them simply as a family member who can and should go — within reason — everywhere with the rest of the family members.  You teach them to listen to all adults, knowing that the more eyes on your kid, the better.  Exposing them to many people and ideas, since asking questions and seeking answers holds utmost importance in Jewish culture.

With Sabra Parenting, anyone can step in and help out in protecting and raising children.  You don’t need to be a parent.  My kids know that my brother’s words weigh just as heavily as my own, and they need to listen to his advice as much as they need to listen to mine.  Friends without children, teachers, family members, friends’ parents — they all get lumped together in one pot of supervisional soup, and children are taught to depend, engage, and listen to each adult that comes into their life.

But what I think separates Sabra Parenting from other forms of parenting is the lack of apologies.  When I’m around other people who have a sabra attitude, I don’t apologize for my kids acting like kids, nor do I expect apologies from other parents.  I’m not phased by kid-appropriate behaviour.  I apologize for rudeness.  I apologize for bad decisions.  But I never apologize for a child acting like a child, since other Sabra Parents realize that expecting kids to act like adults is ridiculous.  We intuitively know that adults do not act like children, and we even deem some adult behaviour “childish.”  We don’t expect elderly people to want to act like preschoolers, but we expect preschoolers to comport themselves like elderly people.  Sabra Parents allow kids to be kids while simultaneously not viewing kids as a separate species from adults that should quarantined away from the public or barred from certain places.  It’s about not setting your child up for failure, but also not seeing every child-like behaviour as “failing.”  See, it’s a fine balancing act.

And make no mistake: Sabra Parenting is not a lack of parenting.  It is not okay to allow your child to run around unchecked like a vilde chaya — it’s parenting on steroids.  It’s uber-parenting; panoramic-parenting.  You are never “off-duty.”  It’s watching out for my kids and helping mold them, and watching out for other people’s kids and helping mold them.  Not by yelling at them or snapping at them or lecturing them.  But by carefully modeling the behaviour I’d like them to follow, talking through errors, and providing the tools necessarily to do it better the next time, especially in the form of knowledge and understanding hows and whys.

The only place I disagree with Strauss is the idea of encouraging other people to try their hand in this style of parenting.  I don’t think it crosses cultures, and with that culture clash, what you’re going to find is that it’s like eating sushi prepared in an Italian restaurant — I just would be a little bit wary of that raw fish.  Because Sabra Parenting is not about allowing others to do the work of parenting for you, nor is Sabra Parenting about foisting your worldview and how you think children should behave on someone else’s child.  It’s about collectively and intuitively enriching and molding the lives of the children around us — not just the ones that live in our house — and I think the separation that exists in American culture, this “mine” and “yours” attitude, isn’t conducive to creating this type of parenting situation.

You need to be willing to get on the floor with kids, ask them questions, treat their ideas as interesting, get your hands messy, give up a lot of your time and share whatever snacks you have lurking in your bag.  The motto of a Sabra Parent is “pitch in.”

You have to be willing to give as much as you take with Sabra Parenting.

* Sabra is a term for an Israeli, much like New Zealanders are called kiwis.  Sabra is a cactus fruit (I think in America, it’s called a Prickly Pear) that defines the stereotypical Israeli personality — prickly on the outside with a sweet “heart of gold” on the inside.


1 Orodemniades { 04.22.13 at 8:19 am }

Funny, this is exactly how it is my rural New England town. Maybe that’s because it is rural, with many pitfalls for many little kids. Personally, I think we could use more of that type of parenting in this country – Jewish or not.

2 A.M.S. { 04.22.13 at 8:20 am }

You just described the way my family (that is, my immediate family…my extended family is a whole other story) behave with children. I went everywhere my parents did and was expected to behave appropriately for my age (and for years my parents only went to places that were appropriate for my age) and we do the same with Olivia Moonpie. And, I think, it’s why it drives me crazy when Olivia Moonpie and I go to places like the Children’s Museum and all the other moms are sitting to the side, chatting and letting their kids run wild while I’m playing with Miss Moonpie and ensuring that EVERYONE shares and gets a turn. I used to just remove Moonpie from situations where other kids were being “feral” but then I realized, in the long run, I was punishing her for other’s behaviour. I just started adopting what I call my mother’s kindergarten teacher voice and quietly and calmly redirecting the offender. I’m more than happy to defend my actions if anyone ever notices or complains. So far, in over two years since I started doing so, none of the other mothers have so much as looked up from their cell phones/coffee/gossip klatch to notice that I stopped Junior from shoving past my kid on the slide for the third time.

It’s also why I anticipate a knock on the door any day from a parent demanding to know why I politely asked their two young daughters to please stop running around on the hill behind our apartment building in their panties since that wasn’t very safe behavior. I debated saying anything for a long time, debated asking where they lived to talk to their parents (then ruled that out because speaking to the girls directly (and they are probably 8 and 10 or 12 years old) seemed less creepy than asking which apartment they lived in), considered just telling the apartment management next time I went to get mail and let them deal with it, then realized that if my daughter was running around in a public place in nothing but her underwear without my immediate supervision, I would hope that some other mother would firmly but calmly suggest that she was making a poor decision and she should either put her pants back on and not do that again or she should perhaps return home for the evening. I still anticipate a confrontation in the parking lot any day now, but at least I slept well. Had I not said something and later found out that we were living next to “the neighbor who seemed so nice and quiet” I would have had a terrible time getting over that.

Sorry for the long reply!

3 Kate { 04.22.13 at 8:39 am }

I live in Israel, and this rings very true. Some of it is fantastic – you will never get a rude glance for a kid’s meltdown, it’s totally acceptable to hand your baby off if you have to pee or whatever. But the American in me balks at the expectation that hosting a play date (arranged that day, always) involves feeding the other kid dinner and that these engagements can stretch to hours. My Hebrew still isn’t that good, and even if it were I don’t have the chops to discipline kids beyond niece/nephew closeness.

4 Ellen { 04.22.13 at 8:53 am }

That’s fascinating. I love to read about other cultural models of parenting. I’ve long noticed that your approach is quite different from mine — the anti-ageism, for example.

There are lots of benefits to this Sabra model, but I definitely share your skepticism about cross-cultural transmission. You’re right, American parenting culture is generally very much “mine” and “yours,” and people are watchful of how they address other people’s children. I don’t talk to my nieces or nephews the same way that I talk to my daughters. Also there is a deep-seated idea that children are the parents’ responsibility and even property (strongly reinforced by religious mandates [Proverbs, Epiphesians] as well as labor laws; I can’t find absolute proof on a quick Google search, but I’ve occasionally read that in the mid-19th century, a young man’s labor legally belonged to his father until age 21). Geography and historical migration across the U.S. have strongly reinforced this idea. It’s a huge country, and moving away/moving on is an equally huge part of the American idea/ideal. That’s all well and good for a can-do spirit, but it’s extremely isolating. “You’re on your own, mom and dad.” I must have heard that, or felt that it was implied, dozens of times in the girls’ first few months alone. Even trends such as rooming-in after childbirth, ostensibly to promote bonding, serve to reinforce the expectation that new parents need to lower their expectations of help from others. I remember it as a very terrifying, isolating time. Sometimes it still is!

So I would say that, yes, you need to be willing to get on the floor with kids and share a lot, but for other people’s children, you also have to be nearby — physically present enough to pitch in, to watch, to share those snacks.

5 Denver Laura { 04.22.13 at 10:13 am }

After reading Sabra, I think we’re more into the Parisian style. My kid doesn’t tend to trust other adults much less listen to them. But she knows what we say goes. My in-laws call us too strict, we call ourselves “traditionalist.” I keep telling them that when the gradkid they’re raising is still living at home and my kid is their boss, we’ll know whose style was better.

6 Carla { 04.22.13 at 10:51 am }

I think this can cross cultures—I grew up in a small southern town, and it was exactly like this. We were expected to obey and respect all adults, not just our parents, and we knew that other adults were looking out for us. Everyone knew everyone else, and I knew that if I disobeyed my friend’s mom, my mom was going to find out about it! Of course, this was 30 years ago. Sadly, I don’t think it works that well today. People aren’t so trusting anymore (with good reason), and small towns aren’t so small anymore. But I’m very glad that I got to grow up that way.

7 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 04.22.13 at 11:06 am }

Western culture is almost peculiarly individualistic (it seems to a non-anthropologist like me) and no less so when it comes to parenting. Here there is much more community about it (like what you describe) and it’s tricky across cultures because the thing the well-intentioned aunty in the supermarket is trying to teach my child is not anything we teach at home (and may be the opposite) and I spend a lot of time trying to explain when and how we respond to differences in rules. But really the cultural barriers are not a problem per se, apart from the barrier between individualistic and more communal cultures.

I was raised in a more communal fashion to my peers, who complain bitterly about their run ins with the aunties/uncles (but here mainly aunties) who try to parent their kids in the supermarket. To me they ignore an enormous set of pros that come with what I’ll admit are some cons. Later you’ll hear them complain about the lack of said pros in their circle and the truth is you can’t have it both ways.

I think we should be more communal in our parenting. Sure, we will have to negotiate some differences along the way, but that in itself is an opportunity. For me, I prefer to live in the type of society where people are willing to try to work together including tasks like raising the next generation vs a society where people keep to themselves for fear of causing offense.

8 Shana { 04.22.13 at 12:32 pm }

This is so interesting, especially how this type of parenting does not cross cultures well. My Jewish sister, who has no children of her own, is very much a ‘Sabra parent’ to the chldren of her friends and family. My non-Jewish sister-in-law is the opposite, and is extremely sensistive to other people trying to ‘parent’ her children. (Even my husband has been yelled at multiple times for “telling her children what to do”.) It is to the extent that my sister got herself permanently not welcome in my SIL’s house, because my SIL felt like my sister was out of line ad overstepped her bounds inappropriately. (Granted, my sister does have a judgemental streak a thousand miles long, and gives me the impression that she thinks everyone is an awful parent and it’s up to her to “fix” everyone else’s children from their horrible parenting, but that’s a rant for another day).

9 Justine { 04.22.13 at 1:14 pm }

Actually, I have been Sabra parented. But I’m not a very good Sabra parent. I do often look out for other people’s children, even people I don’t know, when they’re around me … I respond to them when they talk with me … but sometimes I fall short of my own aspirations in my own house, not being on the floor enough and not treating my children’s ideas as interesting often enough. I do, however, always share snacks. Can I aspire?

Or is this like my almost-mother-in-law said, that I would never have the “Sabbath spice,” and would therefore never really be able to make challah as well as she did? 😉 (She really did say that to me. I’m still licking my wounds over that one.)

10 Tiara { 04.22.13 at 2:41 pm }

Very interesting. I really like the idea of it.

11 a { 04.22.13 at 3:00 pm }

Ha! I totally tell my nieces and nephews what to do! I’m always ordering them around, telling them when they’re misbehaving, suggesting they might want to try something different before they get in trouble. I do that with my friends kids (somewhat) too. I guess it depends on how well I know their parents’ philosophies. Do I do it at the park? Not so much, but if it’s necessary, I will. The kids always look a little surprised when I do it, though.

My in-laws kind of take it to the extreme – they come over to my MILs house and set the kids free and let them entertain themselves. I am of the opinion that someone should be supervising them, so I’ve usually followed them to make sure no one’s complaining or being unfair or whatever. However, I don’t stop them from much, unless I think someone’s going to get hurt.

12 Esperanza { 04.22.13 at 3:08 pm }

As a teacher I am very comfortable parenting other people’s kids and I do find myself in situations where I’m not sure their parents would think it were appropriate for me to “step in.” But sometimes I find it necessary. Once at my climbing gym a party of 8-10 year olds had been let loose in the bouldering room (where you don’t need a harness to climb) and they were being so unsafe I finally corralled them into the middle of the room, taught them the rules and then supervised them while they started to climb. A mom finally came in and apologized and thanked me. I explained I was doing it for their safety and she understood. I think as a teacher (and retired babysitter) I don’t balk much at dealing with other people kids or the behavior or other kids. It’s just a part of my life.

13 Betty M { 04.22.13 at 3:38 pm }

I think I operate a free range variety of this style of parenting. It definitely reflects my early childhood in the Middle East ( not Israel) and in parts of Europe so I think it can definitely cross cultures although they may describe what they do a bit differently.

14 Alexicographer { 04.22.13 at 3:52 pm }

My sense is that this model does exist in other cultures (as commenters above me have noted) and please count me among those believing in its many virtues.

At the same time, I puzzle over two things (not exclusively in regard to Sabra parenting, but here’s as good as anywhere). One is how one balances community involvement and “all adults are equal” with giving kids recourse against, well, bad adults. I’m thinking here of abusers, though the question might apply in other realms. Relatedly, but (somewhat) flipped, what when one doesn’t buy into the community’s values if, e.g., it doesn’t believe in education for girls? So in example one, the community as a whole believes child abuse (or sexual abuse) is bad but may turn a blind eye or be genuinely unaware; in example 2, the community as a whole believes e.g. that girls should be denied access to resources or opportunities provided to boys, but a given parent disagrees. Then what?

And how much of childlike behavior is appropriate for, well, children, and how much needs to be discouraged? I remember as a small (?) child lying under the pews of our Quaker meeting during worship services and thinking how the adults just didn’t get it because — duh. Why sit in the pews when you could lie underneath them (my behavior was accepted but not adopted by the adults)? At what point and in what context(s) do I (or does anyone) have to tell my son to get up off the floor versus just letting him be there (can he lie under the pews but not on the floor of the grocery store)? It’s a serious question (as an e.g.). Will he outgrow this? Or does it have to be introduced as a rule/requirement and if so when? Chewing with his mouth closed? Using a fork? I’m being (mildly) dense-on-purpose with the intent of fostering discussion, but my puzzlement is genuine.

15 GeekChic { 04.22.13 at 7:35 pm }

My Dad got on the floor with me and took me places but he definitely did not agree with the notion of other people “parenting” me. I was taught to be civil but that my respect (and thus, whether I listened to someone) had to be earned. Just because someone was older or my teacher or a relative – doesn’t mean they deserved respect. This was especially true in foreign countries (I lived in 5 countries as a child) where different cultural notions were at play.

I was always polite – but I rarely listened to (and almost never obeyed) other adults who tried to give me orders. Not unless I respected them – and that took a while.

This philosophy sometimes got both my Dad and I in trouble but I value his style of parenting very much. As an adult, he explained that part of this parenting style was his own philosophy (respect has to be earned, it’s not a right) and part was a reaction to the abuse I suffered at the hands of my mother.

16 LC { 04.22.13 at 7:58 pm }

I’m fine with this for family and close friends. But I don’t know how I’d feel about random strangers being able to discipline my daughter. I know I’m much more open to strangers interacting with her (in a controlled environment) than my husband is, but the only time I’ve gotten “parenting advice” from a stranger it was way too far on the judgey side for me to be willing to open her up that way. (Gee, lady, ever think that the reason she’s not wearing pants, even though she’s got on a long sleeved shirt and socks, might be because we had a diaper “incident” and not because we should have social services called on us? maybe?)

Anyway, I’m definitely not shy about saying things to kids that are acting up and interacting with kids even without the “parental nod of approval” mentioned in the article. It’s all about treating them like small people instead of like parts of their parents.

17 Mali { 04.22.13 at 11:40 pm }

I love this, not just for your first paragraph that emphasises there’s a role for all of us, including the aunts and people without children. It reminds me of my childhood – being raised in a small rural community, where we all knew everyone, and they knew us, and no-one would have hesitated to tell us if we were misbehaving. I think the difference though was that whilst kids were free to be just kids (perhaps it’s easier to do that when there’s lots of space), there was also the aspect of “being seen and not heard.” And I sense that is very definitely not part of Sabra. I also see this type of community in my sisters-in-law’s family (yes, that’s right, two of them from one family) – they’re Chinese, and very definitely have that large community, everyone cares for the children, not just the parents.

I love the article, and the link to Mary Elizabeth Williams’ article too.
It’s one of my sadnesses I think – that life in the city means that most people are transplanted, and so their communities grow up around specific things – like schools, or (less so in NZ) churches, etc. I think that urbanisation and population movement has been a big contributor to the growth of the focus on the nuclear family, rather than on the extended family and community. And as a result of this, it means that I don’t play a role in a child’s life (other than nieces/nephews, who all live a long way away).

But more importantly – what a richness of diversity children who are parented this way are exposed to. How wonderful to be able to learn and play with and be inspired by many adults. How that would teach you to really think about what you believe, to understand that you can still love people with different views, and to feel comfortable with difference. Rather than being taught as a child that ONLY Mum and Dad should be listened to, and that their opinions are the only ones that count, that other people can’t have a valued impact on your life. I look at one of my niece’s in particular – she is so used to having only “one” way of doing things that she gets shocked if someone makes a toasted cheese sandwich differently to the way her dad does it! What a gift to your children.

18 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 04.24.13 at 9:53 am }

I want to respond to Alexicographer in particular, and just a few extra thoughts, with my observations/experiences/viewpoints on this.

So first of all, I also tell other people’s children off in the playground all the time. Tactfully, of course. Often I take the approach of calmly questioning them about their behaviour instead of lecturing them more prescriptively. I’ve never had any problems from anyone. I think people are more accepting of communal parenting than we realise – as long as we use the same sort of tact we would use with an adult. (If I feel as if the time for tact is over I will usually invoke the more indirect technique of explaining to my own child why and how the other kid is out of line but in front of the other kid and loudly enough so that they can hear. If the parent in question ever complains that I am interfering I am prepared to archly point out that actually they are the ones interfering in my own lesson to my own child. But I can be passive aggressive like that, although I’ve never had to be because, see point one above. And truly I don’t blame parents for being sometimes inattentive because, honestly, who can pay attention to everything that every one of their children does all the time? so that attitude causes less arguments than the more accusatory tone, I think, too.)

But to get back to Alexicographer – a big part of what I try to get across (not just in parenting) is that no person is all wise or all knowing, and that facts must be assessed within their proper context. Therefore, it is always important to question your sources and check and think about your facts (this is really the scientist in me). If an adult says something that sounds funny, you should think about why they might have said that, where they’re getting their info from (what their background/situation is etc) and then you should discuss it with someone you trust for reference and to put it in its proper perspective (maybe even two or more people you trust). In the meantime, you can use a range of polite stalling responses which allow the situation to blow over for now and allow the needed reflection. (A lot of this involves smiling and nodding and being interested in what you’re being told and perhaps asking for clarification or more information on the subject and generally saying oh wow, that’s a totally new instruction for me, let me take it seriously and stuff, and trying not to display overt disobedience or unwillingness to consider the viewpoint and then processing it elsewhere in the fullness of time.)

If an adult orders you to do something dodgy hopefully then this kicks in and you don’t automatically obey but instead withdraw yourself tactfully from the situation and go talk to your mum or dad. Of course, talking openly about things that are dodgy is likely to make this response more likely to kick in. So the rule is not obey all adults no matter what but obey adults who are not telling you to do dodgy things, *for example this list*.

As for the age at which things become not appropriate any more, my own take is to use the two months leading up to each birthday to discuss what sorts of behaviours are appropriate for the next age. There are privileges and also responsibilities, pros and cons (and presents/parties tend to soften the cons). Exactly what is expected is decided by me, based on how things seem to be coming along, and our biggest problem is that many people think my taller-than-average boy is at least one or perhaps two years older than he really is. (He’s also quite sensitive about certain things compared to his peers – this is probably where we struggle most – with outsider’s inappropriate expectations – and negotiations can get tricky especially if there are language barriers involved. I get away with a lot by trying to model culturally-sensitive behaviour in response which seems to give people the hope or impression that somebody responsible has the situation in hand, even though the person dealing with the situation is actually me and I am highly irresponsible and very rarely have anything in hand.)

I have to admit that part of my criteria for what is age-appropriate is feedback from those around me. And even that can vary. PB will openly talk about how in some places/contexts we have to act like this and elsewhere we are allowed to do that. And this introduces another rule (other than “think about what you’re being told”) and it’s that sometimes it’s appropriate to modify your behaviour just because others don’t think it’s appropriate. And of course this shouldn’t change your core values (whether girls are worth educating) – there is a time to agitate (and PB has seen me flagrantly break the rules a couple of times, or openly question them in conversation, even though I risk causing offense).

But if someone will take offense because you handed them something with one hand instead of two, you make sure you hand the thing over with both hands. You don’t just stand there and insist that they shouldn’t take offense because you didn’t mean any (although an explanation can help everyone understand each other). (And then you have to get into the complications of how much give and how much take is reasonable to expect, and when/how/why… but I have gone on long enough.)

I should post about this.

19 LN { 04.24.13 at 11:03 am }

I’ve been thinking about this post a lot, and I think I disagree with you. Sure, it sounds great to have a village of caring, smart adults watching out for my child, but what if their parenting styles differ from mine? I am still scarred from all of the unsolicited advice I got about breast feeding/bottle feeding. Seriously. I really wanted everyone to keep their (perhaps well intended) opinions to themselves. I realize that they wanted what was best (as they saw it) for my child. I don’t care. The buck stops here. My son wasn’t potty trained till after he had turned four. You can’t even imagine the number of suggestions I got on how to train him. Since everyone who has parented a child has probably potty trained that child, everyone had a system that worked. But my son’s physical therapist said he lacked the muscle strength to train him yet. She said it would be cruel to ask a child to do something that he couldn’t physically do. As his mother and his advocate, I waited. But I was constantly dealing with other people and their opinions. I would get furious when the occasional person would say something directly to Ethan. Other people don’t know Ethan’s issues. I don’t like it when other adults correct his behavior when they don’t know the whole story. Something I have decided I’m not going to bother with shouldn’t keep coming up just because other people see it as a problem. (What if all of these neighbors/other parents/villagers were always correcting your kids because they thought they were overly picky eaters? You don’t care about that issue. You are letting them avoid foods they don’t want. What if the entire community felt free all the time about expressing their opinions about parenting decisions. What a nightmare.)

My mom always talks about taking my sister (who was a baby) out for a walk in Pittsburgh.Random people were crossing the street to tell her the baby sould be wearing a hat. Is that really what we want?

20 Billy { 04.27.13 at 4:56 pm }

LN, just referring to the question at the end..
I think it’s all negative 🙂
My daughter doesn’t like wearing shoes and will always at some point [when we’re out, we don’t really wear shoes at home..] take her shoes off. I’m more than okay with that. Do you know how many remarks I get? All the time! And yes, it is kind of annoying, but you know, on the other hand it is nice to know that total strangers care and want to be helpful. And when my daughter was having a meltdown outdoors and I was situated where I wasn’t seen, it was nice to hear people coming up to her asking if she lost her mummy, why is she crying etc. It was a bit annoying as every time I had to pop up my head and tell them I’m there, but then again, nice that people care.

21 Billy { 04.27.13 at 4:56 pm }

hmm, I think it NOT all negative….

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