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Should Parents Apologize to their Children?

October 25, 2009

We are all wrong. At least, we are all wrong some of the time. Still, we're all right. That's because we're all right a lot of the time as well. No one is all wrong all of the time, nor is anyone always right.

Confused? I'll say it more simply: every single one of us makes mistakes sometimes. Every single one of us is imperfect. Every single one of us needs to improve in some way.

You'd think this was obvious, but it is not. There are many parents who present themselves to their kids as if perfect. Such parents never apologize for anything because, in their opinion, they are never wrong. At the same time, they may be very hard on their children – quick to identify mistakes and deficiencies and intent on hearing apologies for wrongdoings. When children are young, they have no choice but to absorb the criticism and complaints. But when they become adolescents, they may take to talking back and challenging the parent.

"You're always screaming at me!" a teen might complain. "That's because you never listen!" retorts the parent. The parent actually teaches the child, through his or her model, that defensive remarks are appropriate ways to respond to criticism. Unfortunately, such a lesson will handicap the child later on in his or her adult relationships. Defensiveness doesn't work! It pushes people apart instead of bringing them closer together. Moreover, it indicates a haughty attitude, the kind of attitude that is loathed by G‑d. The Talmud is replete with condemnations of haughtiness and similarly replete with praise for those who are humble. This Talmudic statement sums it up powerfully: "Someone haughty in spirit, it is as though he were an idolater" (Sotah 4b). He worships himself! Humility allows people to apologize. Arrogance holds them back. What works is acknowledgement. Hearing, accepting and validating a complaint really works in marriage, parenting and professional situations. But children need to experience this process first hand. They need to learn it from their parents.

So what should a parent say when accused of screaming too much? The parent might respond: "You're right, I do scream a lot. I'm sorry. I shouldn't be doing that. I need to handle my frustration better." This attention, acknowledgement and validation amounts to a very nice apology. It will help the child learn to formulate similar responses to attacks. In addition, it will help the child acknowledge his or her own role in the current dispute. An older child is much more likely to say something like, "I know you're frustrated – I didn't do what I said I would. It's not your fault. I'm really sorry. I'll get to it today." A younger one might say, "That's okay, Mommy. I'm sorry, too." When the parent leads the way by apologizing, children find it easier and more natural to follow suit.

A good apology is much more than "I'm sorry." Unless the person states what he or she is sorry about, the words can feel empty and cold. This is where the acknowledgment part comes in: acknowledgment is a summary of the wrongdoing as it affects the other person. When arriving late, for example, a person would say something like, "I'm sorry I'm late. I've kept you waiting." This short, simple-but-complete message names the mistake and its ramifications. Here are a few more examples:

  • "I'm sorry I called you 'immature.' I know that hurt your feelings."
  • "I'm sorry I forgot to buy you the cookies I promised to pick up. I know you must be very disappointed."
  • "I'm sorry I bumped into you. Are you alright?"

Simple and sincere apologies are powerful. They heal relationship wounds. Showing kids how it is done gives them a skill that will truly enhance their lives.

Daughter is Selfish

October 18, 2009

Dear Bracha,

As my daughter entered into her teen years, she became so consumed with her wants and needs! For instance, every year I volunteer at her school, something I love to do. But this year, following the birth of my son, I asked her if she'd babysit her brother while I volunteered. She refused to babysit and claimed that I was ruining her time. I felt her plans were not very important and a terrible feud ensued. I know I shouldn't feel the way I do toward her. It hurts me to have such feelings. I do everything for her, act as chauffer, and buy her what she needs. We are constantly giving to her, but she refuses to contribute. She will only assist if there is something in it for her! Please help!

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

With regard to your daughter's selfishness, I suggest a reorientation. It seems that she has become disconnected from the family unit. The family is all important, but today's fast-paced, materialistic society washes the mind with needs and wants, and as the saying goes, "what the eye sees, the heart wants." This holds true for attitudes and ideas of "how life should be" gleaned directly from television, movies, novels and other mass media. Combine these influences with peer pressure, and it's not hard to see how your wonderful daughter could become self-centered.

I said "wonderful," and I mean "wonderful." I note that you make no reference to problems before her teens. I infer from this that your relationship was running fairly smoothly until recently. All that goodness you experienced is still inside your daughter, and under the right circumstances will emerge.

Your daughter is trying to find "herself" – that is the main task of teenage-hood – and as a result, struggling to fit in. Organizing her social life is a huge part of this process. Your "intrusion" on her time presses a huge button, and this is the essence of the matter. She sees this as "her time" that you have no inherent right to and is the only thing she truly owns. What is needed is reorientation and negotiation.

Reorientation: Every member of a family has set duties. Only the very youngest are excused from this because they lack the skills and, in fact, need assistance. A family is successful when they all pull together to improve their lives. There is no reason why a healthy, capable person should not be helping. Pick a calm moment to have a private talk with your daughter. You should have ready a clear list of what you feel is fair for your daughter to do as part of her chores and responsibilities, and discuss the list with her. Reach an understanding and have her sign it (this proves invaluable later if there is a dispute), then stick to this list. She is probably a fair-minded person and showing her the imbalance that now exists will hopefully elicit a sympathetic response.

Negotiation: One aspect of parental duty, especially mom's, is that of primary responder to all things needed or wanted. Your daughter has enjoyed this convenience, and has had her needs met, sometimes on a moments notice, be it a lift to the mall or help with an overdue assignment. Therefore, as a maturing person, she needs to learn to pull her weight in times when her family needs her. However, aside for the time she completes her regular duties, she is right that having her schedule respected is very important. Her time should not be interfered with without her consent. Aside from times of true emergency (G‑d forbid), there should be no assumption of her availability and she should be given notice on any extra significant demands on her time. This is a very important aspect of fostering mutual respect, respect that she deserves. The door swings both ways; parents should give advanced notice if they need help at a time that might conflict with her schedule, and you daughter should grant any reasonable requests by remembering your commitment to her wellbeing. Work together, and support each other as much as you can. That is the measure of a family. Your daughter will learn to see it, and understand how she measures up. I remember one saying: "When it's time to move the piano, don't be the one carrying the stool – pull your weight!"

Seeing who she is and what is really important in life is a huge ongoing process that takes time. With your help, your daughter will grow to become a responsible, giving person. Wishing you and your family all the best!


Winning Attitudes

Dealing with a problem-prone child

October 12, 2009


I have a nine year old son who's always coming home with an assortment of problems. In school, at home, at the playground, on his soccer team - wherever - he's just a problem-prone kid. He's the one who will spill the milk, spoil the game, and if nothing else, will manage to find something to complain about. Sometimes, I just cannot deal with the constant chaos that surrounds him. Do you have any advice for me?


The fact is, we can't always influence how things turn out. A person, even a parent, can only be held responsible for what is under his or her control. But one thing that is certainly in every parent's power to control is attitude. Much of our world, and our experience in it, is a direct result of the attitude we choose.

The belief that "I can" is an attitude. It's a choice we make. Once inserted, the input of this message on our brain harnesses our energies and abilities to achieve the desired and inspired outcome. Whether you achieve it all, or just some of it, you will accomplish more than if your message to yourself was "I can't."

Here are some more winning attitudes that can help you deal with your son's complaints. These attitudes can not only transform your life, but will trickle down to you son who will learn from your example.

1. Conflicts or problems are inevitable – they are bound to happen. All of us make mistakes in our actions, judgments and conclusions. When we see problems as a normal aspect of human experience, as occurrences simply to be expected, we avoid the element of surprise that throws us off kilter. This enables us to address these occurrences from a logical standpoint rather than from an emotional one.

2. Problems are okay! Creative people don't see obstacles as unacceptable parts of life, but as natural and normal. Many fantastic ideas were born from people experiencing a challenge. Problems are an integral part of life. If we are prepared for them, they will not disturb us as much or throw us off balance. No challenge is too big to overcome and every problem can be solved, with G‑d's help. King Solomon writes, "The heart knows the bitterness of the soul and no stranger shares its joy" (Proverbs 14:10). The soul understands the bitterness of difficulty, and celebrates the joy and sweetness when challenges are overcome.

3. Separate between who you inherently are and what you do. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that the soul is inherently pure. When a person is aware that one's goodness is immutable, it prevents despair and helps him calm down more easily.

4. Problem solving is a process. Like anything worthwhile, finding the right solution often takes time. And a short path may turn out to be the longer route whilst the longer route may, in fact, lead you along the shorter path. The need to eliminate a problem immediately creates a lot of undue tension. Realizing that a problem isn't going to disappear quickly is an important step in minimizing frustration.

5. Approach problems technically, not emotionally. An emotional reaction might be, "Look at what you did! You spilled all that milk on the counter!" Remaining technical allows for a cool response such as, "Look at all that milk, let's grab a rag to wipe it down."

6. Along the same lines, before reacting, take a moment to ask yourself: is this a tragedy or a triviality? A simple shift of perspective can go a long way in helping you calm down.

7. All beginnings are difficult.

8. Take pleasure from small changes. No personal triumph is too trivial to be disregarded. Small stones have built many a lofty edifice. As Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote in Duties of the Heart: Think of your smallest victory over the evil inclination as a major achievement so that this small victory may serve you like a stepping-stone toward greater triumphs (Chovot HaLevavot; Shaar Yichud HaMa'aseh).

9. Cultivate gratitude and record your bursts of gratitude in a gratitude journal. It's a simple and effective way to increase your overall emotional wellbeing. That treasure may be found in the resplendent color of a butterfly, in a poignant thought, and in the melodious laughter of a child. It can be found in a smiling countenance, a listening ear, and in another person's delightful company. Awareness and appreciation of every infinitesimal gift or gesture will greatly enhance the tapestry of our lives.

10. Keep your sense of humor as you cope with life's challenges.

These positive attitudes lead to positive, constructive and creative thinking. Aside for keeping us motivated and inspired, it helps us expect, and achieve success. You will radiate joy and serenity and hopefully it'll be very contagious!

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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