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Help! I've got kids...

Teaching Self-Control

October 26, 2008


My ten-year-old is a sweet boy who is usually pleasant and polite. However, he has a habit that is driving me, my husband, and my nine-year-old daughter up the wall.

My son loves calling my daughter names even though he is aware how sensitive she is, and sometimes, when he gets excited, he will grab her around the neck and squeeze her a little too hard.

I know my son loves his sister. When I catch them playing nicely together, I always praise them. I always show affection to my son with hugs and kisses. I have tried negative and positive reinforcement, but nothing seems to work.

Help! I need advice.


It sounds like you are on the right track using positive and negative reinforcement. But it is never easy to troubleshoot for parenting problems based on a few lines of explanation. Interactions between people are full of nuance that means so much...

You say that your son has a "habit that is driving you up a wall." Do you mean that this habit is occurring frequently, possibly several times a day? He "loves" to call her names—are you referring to derogatory names? When he is "excited"(=upset?) he will grab her around the neck and squeeze her a little too hard—he chokes her?

Allow me, however, suggest a few things to look at.

My first guess, and I admit it is just a guess, is that your son is having some difficulty controlling himself in certain situations. What is the common denominator in these situations? Was he angry? Was he too hyped up? Did he want something someone else had? Was he being teased?

It is easy to act nice and be pleasant when things are going your way and you are having a good day. But the real measure of a person is how he reacts and handles himself when things aren't going his way. Even though a person may be disappointed or frustrated, this is not a good excuse for lashing out or not being able to control himself. So first, if you have not done so already, teach your son about controlling himself and responsibility. Explain to him that the only thing a person truly controls in this world is how he reacts and what he does; if you give up this control then you truly control nothing!

Your son is ten, tell him clearly what you expect of him, no excuses, and then enforce it with consequences. PERIOD.

Never again be drawn into explaining why there is a consequence for his behavior, as discussion acts as a reward for negative behavior. Five short words should suffice. No doubt he is a smart boy and knows these actions are wrong, so if he tells you he forgot, no need to go over everything again, the consequence will help him remember.

Anything that causes a parent to "jump into the fray" is a successful attention-getting device. Even though you may feel that your son would not perpetuate a situation that gives him a negative response that is not true in the world of child behavior. Children are "hard wired" to seek out attention from their parents, and it's so much easier to gain it negatively than positively. Talking to him or interacting even with touch or eye contact acts as reward for behavior. You must make sure he gains no reward for his actions – in terms of attention – as well as giving him consequences.

For example, let's say your son has just squeezed your daughter "a little too hard"—a totally unacceptable act, which no excuse could justify and none should be allowed to be voiced (another attention getting device, one-on-one time while he explains). Immediately you say "No choking!" and give a consequence, such as he immediately folds all the towels in the laundry. Consequences should be immediate, appropriate and short; something that makes him work for ten minutes is usually enough.

I think I have given you something to think about, but there is one more thing. The need for attention is a legitimate need and as such must be fulfilled. If your children are showing a need for more attention from you at certain times of the day (when they exhibit poor behavior) then I suggest giving it to them on your terms. Before they behave poorly bring them into your circle, get them to help you or do things with you such as help prepare supper. See if you can head off some of this negative behavior. With that – and the redirection of attention and the consequences – you should be able to make headway on these issues.

Your ability to take a step back and analyze the situation will lead to a greater understanding of what is really going on between you and your children. Your love and concern for them is very evident and will lead to the close knit family you are aiming for.

Wishing you all the best!

Teaching Children Responsibility

October 19, 2008

Q. I'm a single, working mom who works very hard trying to juggle all my responsibilities. My two children, aged nine and eleven, don't do anything to help out at home and this frustrates me to no end. How do I get them to do something?

A. As parents we are so crammed with our own workload, we may fail to take the time to delegate chores and teach our children responsibility. Many of us find it a whole lot easier to do the job ourselves than to cajole our children into doing tasks themselves, even their own. We go about making their beds, preparing their lunch bags, writing notes to their teachers excusing their lateness until we feel that we've had it. Waiting until we're pushed to the wall, when we're rushing around during tense moments when our nerves are high strung, such as right before important guests are due to arrive, can backfire. We end up barking out the order and demanding they do things NOW.

Responsibility is not an inborn character trait that some have and others lack. Taking the energy and time – quiet time – to teach our children to help with household chores is an important foundation in chinuch (Jewish education - which is defined in the Torah as "inauguration" and "initiation"). It is also a great investment.

Training children to contribute to household tasks gives them a wonderful sense of belonging; it makes them feel like important members of the home. It provides them with a taste of the joy of giving. As children learn to take care of themselves, they learn to show concern for others. While they learn to be responsible for their own lives, they learn to be responsible for their own happiness.

Teaching children responsibility is the greatest gift you can give them. The trust you have in them to accomplish various tasks, does wonders to their self image. It gives them the confidence to acquire new skills and to strive for achievement. They also gain a greater measure of independence. Children who are given responsibilities learn to become independent and can confidently deal with challenges that come their way.

The first step in teaching responsibility is to give your child responsibilities, such as washing the dishes, setting the table, sweeping the floor. This conveys the message to your child that you trust in his ability to live up to your expectation and that you believe in him. It also gives your child the confidence and the courage to carry out his new tasks. It's a wonderful opportunity for him to prove how capable he really is, both to you and to himself.

Unlike forcing, demanding or insisting that your child do what you ask right away, teaching responsibility is a process that takes time, patience and restraint, but it accomplishes a lot more than merely getting the job done.

It's the attitude that counts:

  • Speak to your child lovingly. Explain that you notice that he's capable of vacuuming or cleaning his drawers, or folding the laundry.
  • See the tasks you give him to do as the privilege that it is, rather than a burden you just want to get rid of.
  • Make him feel it's an important and respectable job.

Have a plan of action:

  • Keep a schedule. Have a regular time each day to do chores – routine is the critical thing.
  • Be specific. Does "take out the trash" refer to every wastebasket in the house or just the one in the kitchen? Does it include lining the basket with a new bag?
  • Demonstrate. Show him how to sweep the floor. Watch him doing it himself the first few times.
  • Respect him even when he makes mistakes (don't we all?). Trust that he's capable of rectifying his mistakes.
  • Do not redo children's work. Resist the temptation to smooth out the wrinkles on your child's bed after he made it.
  • Offer your help if necessary.
  • Teach efficiency. Show him how he can make one trip to the bedroom carrying four items instead of four trips carrying one item each time.
  • Shower him with encouragement. Children need lots of positive strokes. Encouragement for even their smallest accomplishment will go a long way in helping him perfect his skills.

Holiday Wars

October 10, 2008

"The holiday passed in a haze of bickering. By all accounts, my children play beautifully together when I am not around. However, they seem to save this secret ability to relate to each other well for those precious mommy-free moments. As soon as I enter the scene, the 'Who's going to win Mommy's attention' game continues in full-swing. Their constant bickering is driving me crazy, and making the holiday season into a nightmare. I can't wait for them to go back to school."

Don't despair if the above scene describes your typical holiday experience. This article is intended to address the psychological challenges of spending time as a family, and provide practical advice to safeguard the positive quality of your family interactions while taking steps to prevent the situation from deteriorating into an all-out struggle for parental attention.

While a sibling relationship has the potential to be a treasured and beautiful relationship, it is not a given that all sibling relationships will achieve this potential. Most do not, because the unique stresses involved in sharing both parents and living space, and the competition for limited family resources can turn the sibling relationship into a fierce rivalry.

If this is the pattern you have been observing in your home until now, relax. First of all, this situation is a natural one, and it is present in every family at certain times. However, when sibling rivalry begins to interfere with the family's ability to spend time together as a complete unit during holidays and family gatherings, it is advisable for parents not to let nature take its course, but rather to employ the following tactical strategies designed to enhance family togetherness.

1. Reserve family time for bonding with the family as a whole:

Parents need to be careful not to single anyone out for special attention, whether by sitting someone on their lap, tickling them, or even by throwing them in the air. This type of parental behavior can inadvertently set the stage for a new round of conflict, by giving them an incentive to start competing for your attention. Family-time, such as time around the table during drawn-out holiday meals, and relaxing in the living room after the meal, is not the time to bond with individual children. Reserve family time for bonding with the family as a whole. If your family enjoys singing, select songs that everyone can sing. Choose games that the family can play as a whole.

While it is important to strengthen individual relationships within the family system, save that for a time when you can be alone with an individual child, for example at bedtime or while taking a walk. Many religious communities offer parent-child learning opportunities in neighborhood synagogues, which is a wonderful opportunity to focus on individual children. Every child can have some time alone in this setting. Even a young and newly literate child can spend ten minutes sitting with his father in shul.

2. Don't be a Judge or a Policeman:

As long as nobody is being physically or psychologically injured by someone else give them the space to work out their conflicts alone. Don't get more involved than you need to be. I often say to my older daughter, "Your brother is crying. What can you do to make him feel better?" Such a question is a way of empowering her and emphasizing her responsibility to find a solution. Instead of focusing on the issue of who started it or the details of what is going on, it maintains the focus on how to end the negative interaction.

3. Focus on the Long-Term Goal:

Living in Israel, I frequently observe Israeli-born children of native English-speaking parents speak to their parents in English, and then immediately switch into Hebrew when they address their sibling. This is a very tangible an example of how the sibling relationship is a distinctly separate one from the parent-child relationship, with its own set of rules and interactions, even its own language.

Parents who make the mistake of always being the middleman in their children's interactions may find that even after their children reach adulthood, they still do not relate to each other directly. If you want your children to be close to each other as adults, take yourself out of the picture now.

Let your children use this time to get to know each other, and create the bond that will accompany them for the next hundred years. This is a chance for them to interact in new ways, and deepen their connection, away from the distractions provided by school classes and friends. Their relationship is not about you, and they don't need to relate to each other the way they relate to you. While you may not want your boys wrestling with you, it is fine if they wrestle together if that is something they both enjoy. Don't worry. By the time they become adults, they will probably find a new way of relating to each other in place of wrestling, but they will still hold onto the bond that wrestling helped them to develop.

Dealing with Attitude

October 1, 2008

"My eight-year-old acts like a teenager: she does what SHE wants to do, talks back to me and generally just has attitude." "My teenager is a teenager and I can't get him to respond to me at all; everything is just a shrug of the shoulders and, if I'm lucky, some sort of mumble. I don't know what happened to my sweet little boy, but I'm certainly not enjoying this taller version of him!"

Parenting can be very frustrating – from the first toddler rebellions to the teenage upheavals and everything in between. It's certainly not just one smooth ride. Parents can try their best to create a pleasant and loving home atmosphere but kids have to do what they have to do to break out of their shells. They are on a mission to discover their unique selves and this involves separating their will from their parents' wills. "I can't be me if I'm you," would be the motto of the journey. "If I do everything your way, then I'm you, not me," would be a similar sentiment. In other words, it's not that kids want to be non-compliant so much as they have to be at times in order to find themselves. Enter "attitude." Attitude says, "No way! That's not my idea of what to do!"

Of course, there is one little problem with "attitude." It is not acceptable for a Jewish child to show his or her parents disrespect. Attitude is the embodiment of disrespect. It carries the wrong tone of voice, the wrong body posture and often, the wrong verbal communication." It's wrong, wrong, wrong! How, then, can Jewish parents help their kids individuate – find themselves and their unique place in this universe – while still teaching them the 5th commandment of the Torah where it states, "Honor your father and mother?"

A child who acts respectfully toward his or her parents does not have to agree with the parents on every issue or even do exactly what the parents want done. For instance, a child is allowed to choose a particular person as a spouse, even if the parents don't approve of that person. However, the child is NOT allowed to verbally abuse the parents in the process! Similarly, parents and kids may disagree about what's good to eat for dinner. Yet, the child cannot show "attitude" while expressing his own opinion. ("Mom, is it possible for you to make hamburgers once in a while instead of broccoli pie?" versus "No way! I'm not eating that disgusting food!")

Parents can certainly encourage independent activity and thinking without encouraging poor social skills. Nor is it necessary to squash the child in the process of teaching him the skills of polite and courteous interpersonal communication. Rather, the two goals can be pursued simultaneously: to raise a "mentsch" means to raise a person (someone with his own mind) and a gentleman (someone who is pleasant to be around).

So let's keep our eyes on two balls at once. Don't accept attitude. Do encourage personality!

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