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The Secret Burn

The Secret Burn

Understanding Our Children


I didn’t see Bracha burn her finger on the grilled cheese sandwich. I looked up when she began to cry and scream.

“What happened? Did you bite your finger?”

“No.” Sob. “I burned it.”

“On your sandwich?”


I couldn’t believe the cheese inside her sandwich was so hot, but I showed her how to run her hand under the tap, how to get relief from the cool water. She was crying so hard. Inwardly, I rolled my eyes at the dramatic display. Then I let it go. She hurt herself. This is her reaction. Fine.

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes at the dramatic displayThe afternoon progressed. Bracha found a bakery cookie I was saving for later. She split it with her little brother and they ate it in secret, spreading crumbs over their bedroom. How could one cookie make that many crumbs? Bracha denied involvement. She couldn’t account for how those crumbs got there, or why there was chocolate smeared around her mouth. I sighed loudly and gave the kids the broom and dustpan.

Just before bedtime, my three-year-old son snuck into my bathroom like a ninja and painted on the tile walls with my lipsticks. One of my favorites was broken off completely. I roared like Godzilla.

Bracha’s twin sister came in to assess the situation. “Bracha threw your red lipstick in the toilet,” she informed me.

Again, Bracha got very quiet and said no, she did not have anything she wanted to tell me. That’s when I really got mad. I became fixated on making her admit that she ate the cookie and helped her brother destroy my lipsticks. I said stupid, hurtful things.

She went into her room, sat down on her bed and wept, just fell apart. It shredded my heart up. I sat down next to her.

“My fingers hurt so much,” she sobbed.

“And just think,” I pointed out, unable to stop hectoring, “that was just from hot cheese in your sandwich. Imagine how much it would hurt if you touched the sandwich grill. That’s why I’m always warning you to stay away from it.”

“I burned my fingers on the cheese . . . I didn’t touch the grill.”

I looked closer at her hand and saw two raised white lines where she’d touched the grillShe stopped crying and looked at me. “Did you see how I burned my fingers?”

Suddenly, I understood. “You mean, did I see when you reached over and touched the back of the sandwich grill?”

She began to cry again.

“You didn’t know that part was going to be so hot.”

She sobbed harder. “I thought it was unplugged.”

“I didn’t see you do that. I didn’t know why you were crying so hard.” I looked closer at her hand and saw two raised white lines where she’d touched the grill.

Later, I thought about how little I can really know these small people. Bracha got a serious burn while I was sitting in the same room, and I didn’t even know it. If I’d known, I would have comforted her more. I would have gone easier on her about the cookie and the lipstick. I would have let a lot more slide.

But every day, each of my kids has a whole inner world that is hidden from me. What do I really know about the day’s subtle cruelties and fears? What transpires when they are away from me? How do they feel about themselves? How do they feel about their father and me, about their siblings and their own place in the family?

Do I judge my children favorably? Am I available to listen with compassion when they are ready to talk? Do I remember how fresh on the planet they are, and what their limitations are?

Too often I treat them like makeup-destroying, cookie-swiping tornados who should know what I know and do as I say. And when I approach them that way, I am quick to anger, because they are terrible, terrible robots.

But they are wonderful, complicated people. They are funny and surprising and intelligent and weird. Sometimes they are sweet, sometimes obedient. But I get in trouble when I chase after the sweetness and compliance.

These are not my ducks. They are their own ducksI once heard someone say, “I was always trying to get my ducks in a row. I finally realized they weren’t my ducks.” These are not my ducks. They are their own ducks.

Motherhood is a holy service. When I’m paying attention, I think the opportunity to raise up another person in the world is pretty mind-blowing, pretty awe-inspiring. And I’m raising three little people. The problem is that most of the time, I’m not paying attention.

I’ve noticed that some people put a lot of stock in parenting instinctually, in trusting their natural inclinations. Not me. I am a lizard mother. When I go on maternal instinct, I revert to two basic positions: Do what I tell you to do, and go play quietly and leave me alone.

So Bracha’s hand on the grill woke me up from my lizard stupor a bit. Right now, I want to let go of how well they behave and how much they listen to me. I want to listen to them. I want to know them, as much as possible. I want to value them. I want to parent them consciously, spiritually, not instinctually. And most of all—humbly.

Chaya Houpt lives in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem with her husband and children.
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Anonymous Tucson December 20, 2013

Lovely. What a glimpse of grace. Reply

Anonymous Boca Raton, FL. February 17, 2013

How To Be A Great Parent Even if your own childhood was nothing memorable, think this: 'HOW WOULD I LIKE TO HAVE BEEN RAISED BY MY PARENTS? Now, go, raise your own with that in mind: treat your own as you wished you have been treated. Forget spoiling and other excesses. You know what to do: be the parent you wished you had had. You are now the parent, BE that person you know exactly how to be: it's the one you have wished all your life, TO BE! Reply

Julie Borders Austin, TX February 10, 2013

Five Love Languages for Children The book Five Love Languages for Children by Dr. Gary Chapman may give you some insights. I wish I had read it when my child was young. It's never too late to improve relationships. Reply

F Cowansville, Quebec October 21, 2012

Learning to raise our children is a great job for who can understand this. Learning to love children is a much greater chore which can last a life time. Taking the time with our children is as well loving a whole great family. If one could just stop thinking about this. How important it is to spend all the good time and investments for our children is like to learn to love our family again all over. From generation passing on to generation there is always something new to learn right. To pass it on to a young one is giving our heart a break to the sweetness. I've learned myself how to take care of children and if I'd write my story you would probably laugh, but it is not funny. As much as we expect from our own parents, our children we forget expects as much. I just can not get out of things ever and forever. But with real love it is much better for them sake. Have you thought about it how confusing it gets not to worry, be calm, take a break, rearrange your life towards life and them. Reply

Richard Boca Raton, FL/USA July 17, 2012

Response to anonymous in Brooklyn Naaa-a-a-a. I had such a great time being a father, the greater the distance between my fahter and myself, the better I felt, and continue to feel untill today! My two sons love me; one lives in NYC, the other in Philadelphia. We are always i touch with each other and when I come up to attend services in my old synagogue for the high holidays, my sons come with me to shul. I know that I'm blessed, and I'm grateful to G-d every day of my life!! Reply

Anonymous brkln, NY July 16, 2012

Richard You're a miracle
you did NOT repeat the mistakes of the past
great credit to you
didn't you ever feel yourself slipping into the way you saw as a child? Reply

Richard Boca Raton, FL/USA July 15, 2012

Paying Attention When I was a child, my father wasn't very nice to me. I guess he thought I was some kind ofn interloper though I never required more than the usual love a mother gives to a chid, particularly a first child. The consequence ws that as i grew up realizing his continual anger and suspicion toward me, i resolved to be as loving a father as possible when I became one, myself. To that end, I thought about it constantly, as a teenager. I couldn't wait to be married and with the young woman who became my wife, we raised two beautiful, wonderful sons, who are loving to this day (I'm now 82), going on 17, as my wife laughingly says). I wouldn't have it any other way! Reply

Honi East Northport, NY/USA June 9, 2012

Wise Words This article speaks to me when I need it most. Thank you so much for writing it. Reply

Gilah Evers Amersfoort, Netherlands June 6, 2012

Thank you Itis beautiful how you write that : When I go on maternal instinct, I revert to two basic positions: Do what I tell you to do, and go play quietly and leave me alone.
It helped me to have more undertanding for myself and my children.
Thank you!
May you always be able to learn from live and not fall in dispair.
Gilah Evers Reply

Rochel st paul June 6, 2012

Beautiful this is article is funny, true and inspiring! it touched my heart, thank you~ Reply

Birdie Gloucester, US June 4, 2012

The right stuff "I want to let go of how well they behave and how much they listen to me. I want to listen to them. I want to know them, as much as possible. I want to value them. I want to parent them consciously, spiritually, not instinctually. And most of all—humbly. "

The people who want these things are the good mothers : ) Reply

Rishe Deitsch Brooklyn, New York June 4, 2012

Good work Love your writing, Chaya Houpt! KEEP IT UP Reply

Beth NY, NY June 4, 2012

Life lessons - Chaya, thank you, these are lessons in life's relationships between parent/child, colleagues,friendships...thank you for reminding us. Reply

Mna richler Mullica hill June 4, 2012

Little people You couldnt have said it better, our children are little people, and just as adults have their ups downs, fears and emotions, so do our children- and their reality is as valid as ours. Your children are fortunate to have such an in tune mother! Reply

Nachama Barrie, Ontario June 3, 2012

Chayala listen.... I am a grandmother and perhaps have a bit of wisdom. Your children will grow up, this is a given! When they are taught, with love, values, morals and responsibility to the world and for themselves it is perhaps the best gift you can give them. You will think many many times that you are a failure, but don't give into this. Stand back and really see what is happening. They are learning, and it is very tough! There were times my children hated me, but I stood my ground, with love, and they grew up just fine. My daughter just gave birth to her 4th child, and she is an awesome mom, who occassionally loses her temper, and that is OK. And my special needs son has found the most remarkable woman to spend his life with. It does work out, just hang in there! Reply

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