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Playing With Fire: A Lesson in Mood Regulation

Playing With Fire: A Lesson in Mood Regulation

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Fire. Those blue-and-yellow dancing flames, that wrecking force of nature. All it takes is one match and a slight rub against the white phosphorus, and lo and behold, fire!

My 11-year-old son is absolutely fascinated by fire. So fascinated that he grabs every opportunity to strike a match. It also seems to be contagious, because in a recent series of bush-burning events in our neighborhood, the arsonists were 11-year-olds from his class. The neighborhood bulletin called for all parents to keep a close eye on their children, and toMy 11-year-old son is fascinated by fire specifically check pockets for matches and cigarette lighters. And although my son is too timid to be the initiator of such a crime, he certainly runs out every time he detects a slight whiff of smoke. That’s why, on Motzaei Shabbat (Saturday night), when we lit the havdalah candle to usher in the new week and bless G‑d for creating fire, I kept a close watch on him and announced: “Those matches belong only to me!”

But fire must have stronger power than a mother’s admonishment, because the minute I turned my back, he had lit the candle and was trying to drip the wax in circular designs. I grabbed the candle from him and took away the matches. “Don’t you understand that fire is dangerous? There is no way that I will let you play with matches!” I yelled.

He looked at my face and, realizing I was angry with him, turned around and hit his sister. Then he looked at my face again and, seeing that I was still mad, he tried to break a hook off the wall. I figured I was causing too much damage by being there, so I left the room to think about it. What was it that caused him to hit his sister? Why was my shouting causing him to break the hook?

The issue had been coming up recently. Why is it that when I smile at someone, he turns around and lets the next driver cut him off? Why does a compliment cause a child to actually want to go to bed? I was walking around with the question in my mind when a long-ago physics lesson seemed to bubble up from the cellar of forgotten memories. Oh, kinetic energy. If I take a ball and throw it down with force, I have passed energy into it, which in turn bounces on the floor with force. The floor absorbs the energy and pushes it back up (well, depending on the amount of energy I used to begin with).

So I yelled at my son for playing with matches. It does not matter if I was right or wrong. Regardless, I foisted negative energy on my son. He had to let it out somehow; it was too much for him to contain alone. He, and everyone else, doesn’t have the extra space for negative impact. It fills us with such power that we feel we have to turn around and punch someone else. Or bite into a chocolate bar.

Eating something that you should not be eating or doing something that you should not be doing are ways of letting off negative energy that was recently absorbed, regardless of the perpetrator’s intention. When something is perceived as bad, the human psyche cannot tolerate the negative energy, and it must be exported—through insult, sin or smack.

Now, through yelling at my son, I had stumbled upon an important lesson that he still hadn’t learned: mood regulation—the ability to realize that negative energy has been absorbed, and to find a safe and positive method for diffusing it. We need to teach our son bomb disposal.

Teens and adults walk that world, absorbing shock wave after shock wave of deadly power. And, not knowing how to diffuse it, the waves wreak havoc in their lives, their psyche (both physical and mental) and their future. Food, drug, alcohol and criticism addicts have grown—not because they were negatively impacted (that energy is unfortunately available to all of us), but because they have never been taught how to dispose of negative energy.

I took my son by the hand to his room, and we sat down. We talked about power and matches. About the energy that is everywhere we go and in everything that surrounds us. We talked about how some is positive and some negative, and about how when someone initiates a positive-energy reaction, itWe talked about power and matches generates another such reaction. We talked about how nice it would be if only positive energy would be in the world, and we dreamed of Moshiach, the final redemption, when the world will overflow with positivity.

“So meanwhile, so long as Moshiach has not yet come, we need to do something,” I said. He was puzzled. “Why do we have to do anything? What does the negative energy in the world have to do with me? I didn’t cause any of it!” I preferred to let the discussion remain theoretical, and not remind him about matches and fires.

“What do you think? Can we do anything about the negative kinetic energy roaming the world? Can we change the equation?”

He thought about it and said, “If human beings have the power to cause the negative energy, then they certainly possess the power to generate positive energy. If I say something nice to my sister, she might go and share her doll with her friend. And the friend will listen to her mother and come home right away because she is filled with positive energy. Yes, I can!”

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Adonai's Anointed Pittsburgh July 30, 2016

Great lesson. I will take this to heart. Tx. Reply

J. Hispaniola July 18, 2016

Creative discipline comes in all shapes and sizes my mother was the descendant of a simple farmer whose wife taught in a one room schoolhouse. My mother taught mostly just the 1s and 2s. I adopted many of her methodologies.
I had thought the best problem-solver was my mother's insistence on a 'time out chair'. Kid sit out program. In my suave twenties I sneakily thought i could bid her out of the game by re-naming the exercise. "The time before Time chair" ... but of course this worked better for middle school kids ... the philosophical elements & all. The kindergarten kids still needed coaching in 'how to 'sit still like a frog' ... in a circle.

As kids become adults the admonishments have to 'evolve'. The other day my gf told me she ran a red cord from her husband's computer out the window into the yard to where she stowed his USB ports, and other confiscated items in a black box. Running it free into the yard and up into her son's treehouse. His 'secret stash'. i laughed. She said: 'House of Eternal Rest'. Reply

peter white donegal, Ireland via chabadcyprus.com July 15, 2016

playing with fire Great article thank you - i think the best thing you did was sit down and listen to your son - that in itself is a mitzvah - all boys love fire, my nephew when he was only a nipper used to say in his broken english when i was lighting my house fire "make it da hot" he loved the matches, burning coals. Anyway, well done you, Shabbat Shalom Reply

Sarah Masha West Bloomfield MI USA July 14, 2016

Little 11 year old boy lights paper airplanes and lets them fly into a warehouse. There was also a tanker of ammonia on the property. Thank G-d there was nobody in the building, it was after work hours. The FD was able to stop the tank of ammonia from exploding, it would have had the force of a large bomb. The warehouse burnt to the ground and was not properly insured. Thus ended a family business. This is a very dangerous situation, you must make sure your son understands, and you must keep him under control. Lives and livings depend on it. Reply

Aron Weiss Manalapan, NJ July 14, 2016

It's great that you had this talk with your son but he seems to be angry at something or someone. Playing with matches and being so fascinated with fire is not a healthy thing. He needs professional counseling to deal with his feelings. Reply

Susan Levitsky July 13, 2016

You still have to discipline your child Even if it causes "negative energy" you were right to be angry after telling him several times about the danger of matches and fire. A human is not the floor being hit by a ball. There are mediating factors. His hitting his sister after you scolded him is not a natural reaction. He chose to do it. Fascination with fire is a dangerous problem which may affect many other people outside your family. You don't want to be the parent of a the arsonist who burns down a house and God forbid kills someone or their pets. Your son does need to learn to regulate his mood but you are not dealing with a bad habit like nail biting . You are treading on dangerous territory if you think that not scolding him is going to fix his much larger problem; fascination with fire. Reply

Alan S. Long Island, NY July 13, 2016

Wonderful article. I also hope you made your son apologize to his sister and discussed ways to control his temper in the future. As well as "pay" (via a forfeiture of his allowance) for repairs to the hook. Reply

Reuben Miami beach July 13, 2016

Have a beautiful Day. Thank you for this message that I just received. With love always. Reuben. Reply

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