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Help! I've got kids...

Wants Everything His Friends Have

November 30, 2008

Q. Dear Bracha,

My teenage son is always comparing himself to his classmates and telling me about all the material things and privileges that they have that he does not. How should I respond when I feel he is asking for something that we simply cannot afford, or that I don't feel is necessary for a boy this age?

A. This is one of those examples where you are both right. Your son is right in his perception as he, in his teen years, is feeling the real pressure to "fit in"; nothing will fill him with dread more than standing out in the crowd in a negative fashion. You are right in that material things and privileges are decided by the parents and are based on many factors including financial means. You are also very correct in your assessment that he is asking for things that a boy his age does not "need."

What to do?

As they say—the ball is in your court! It is up to you as the parent to decide how you are going to handle the situation. As you analyze the variety of components involved I will offer you these suggestions. First, this is not a yes or no situation, rather it is an opportunity for your son to grow, to learn how to negotiate and take on more responsibilities. A parent's goal in the teen years is to help their child gain the skills to become an independent adult. Guiding your son towards adult responsibilities requires him to have practice making good choices and dealing with the consequences of making a poor choice.

Let me explain, in every category there is probably a line you will not cross. There are things that you do not want your son to do or to have; that is legitimate and it is a parent's duty to protect their child and enforce rules in their child's best interest. Do not give up one inch in this area! However, there are probably areas that are not so clear cut. What would your son have to do to make you feel comfortable, for you to feel he is safe, responsible and not heading off in the wrong direction with regards to these gray areas. Once you have had a discussion with your son and come to an understanding of why you believe certain things are important, then you can start to seek compromise in areas that are negotiable and he will know that your decisions are not arbitrary (P.S. He doesn't have to agree with you, but he does have to respect your decisions). It is up to you and your son to pinpoint areas of concern and itemize how he is going to show responsibility or earn privileges. In these cases where you have an agreement (preferably in writing—to prevent arguments), he is to live up to his agreement or the perk or privilege is removed, and it is the parents job to do so, this must be understood by both sides.

For example: With regards to clothing, you have a budget for him and no doubt a dress code. The dress code is probably non-negotiable, but with regards to the budget where can you compromise? After discussing things over with your son and no doubt pointing out brands that are good quality but may not be the "in" brand, can you reach a compromise? Perhaps you agree on a budget for clothing and he can spend it as he wishes, once the money is gone, no more clothes. If he needs more he will have to use his own money, if he doesn't have money, he will have to get a job to be able to pay for the clothing. If he doesn't have his own money and can't get a job, he will just have to do with out the clothing. Don't bail him out! In the above example your son will learn to negotiate, make decisions, budget and be responsible. If you bail him out, he learns to whine.

For other items, if you can't afford it—don't buy it. He can earn the money if it's that important to him. If it's forbidden for other reasons then discuss the matter with him. If your position is the same, then as long as he is under your roof he must abide by your rules.

I would put in a note of reality here: there are things that can come between a child and the ability to socialize and if he cannot have access to the items needed he will be excluded from his peers. If at all possible, try to determine what these real necessities are and if they are acceptable to you, and the peers are acceptable to you, try to make sure your son has what he needs. An example of this may be a bicycle. Without a bicycle in some communities, a child would be unable to be part of the social scene, literally left to sit on the doorstep while everyone else takes off. Another example: a child may want more allowance, your initial inclination may be no. Try to find out why. It may be that his friends are going out for things like pizza during lunch, if he can't pay for it…immediately he's out.

As it says in Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers): "Who is happy? He who is satisfied with his lot." I think this is what you are trying to teach your son and you are so right to do so. This is one of the greatest challenges of our society, as we see materialism is no substitute for happiness. It will be the greatest gift you can give your son, if you can teach him to lead a balanced life and not be pulled into the endless pit of a materialistic lifestyle.

Wishing you and your family all the best!


November 23, 2008

You know who they are—children who lose everything: homework assignments, library books, mittens, wallets, hats, coats and scarves. "Here today, gone tomorrow" is their motto. An endless source of frustration for parents and teachers, "losers" are the most frustrated of all: they waste their own precious time and lose objects they value.

To add insult to injury, losers also get blamed for having ignoble character traits like "carelessness" or "laziness" when, in fact, they are suffering from a brain glitch. The ability to be organized and to remember where we put things is a process that can be affected only partially by conscious intent. We can certainly learn tricks and tools that will increase our recall, but our natural disposition for these activities is determined by brain functioning. Similarly, we can raise our intelligence scores by exposing ourselves to lots of stimuli – but only a little. Our inherent intelligence remains fairly constant. We can increase other traits by effort also – we can enhance our creativity and encourage certain talents, for instance – but only to some extent. Inherent ways of functioning are, well, inherent. We're born with them. Your organized child never taught himself to be that way; she was just born that way. Your child who suffers from strephosymbolia (reversal of letters and numbers) isn't doing that on purpose either – his brain is doing it for him. Similarly, the child who constantly forgets and loses things is suffering from a brain deficit—it isn't his fault!

What does this mean for you as a parent? Should you just give up trying to help your youngster do something he obviously can't do? No. There are, as I mentioned earlier, some tricks that you can teach your disorganized youngster that will help reduce losses. However, knowledge is power. Now that you know that the brain is responsible for this losing tendency, you won't be surprised when even your best "tricks" fail to produce consistently positive results. A better strategy than trying to outsmart the brain may be to teach your child to compensate for his deficit. He needs to work around it.

For instance, when adult losers have super-organized spouses or secretaries, they function better. Although your child isn't likely to have either of those advantages just yet, he can be taught how to enlist help or create systems to help prevent losses (as opposed to help strengthen memory networks). For instance, let's say a child has trouble getting the homework sheet home and then, if he managed to bring it home, rarely remembers to bring it back to school. It may be possible for the teacher to fax the homework to Mom and for Mom to fax back the completed assignment. Will this help Junior with his memory problem? Of course not! However, it will get his schoolwork done. This is an example of working around the problem. For important things like homework, this approach may be better than trying to cure what might in fact be an incurable brain glitch. However, Mom is free to continue to try, using other common losses like jackets, schoolbags and so on as the subjects of her efforts.

Why does G‑d give us brain glitches in the first place? We'll never know of course, but one reason that we can suggest is that the presence of imperfection can cause us to work on character traits like being judgmental and intolerant. Instead of screaming at our children for something that isn't even their fault, we can learn that G‑d makes different kinds of people with different kinds of strengths and weaknesses. Rather than get all judgmental about how "easy" it is to remember where one puts one's keys, we can work on developing our compassion and empathy for those who find it difficult. And since G‑d judges us midda k'neged midda (exactly the way we judge others), hopefully we will find ourselves experiencing more compassion from those around us for our own, very human, imperfections.

The Buck Stops Here

Who determines the type of parents we become

November 16, 2008

Do your children push you too far? Do you lose your temper and regret it later, but it's too late, and next time it's the same story? Parents can learn to keep their cool even when their children press their buttons. It starts with a decision that who we are as parents is our choice, and not merely a reaction to our children's behavior.

This is the story of how Jennifer took charge of her parenting.

Jennifer would walk in the door after a long day at work, both tired and hungry. By the time dinner was over, she was no longer hungry, but she was completely exhausted. Bedtime often didn't go smoothly, and in the end she threatened "Get into bed right now or you're really going to get it." Of course, such an open ended threat was too enticing to remain untested, and within five minutes, her oldest son came prancing out of bed, apparently intending to dance his way to the bathroom. That was the final straw for Jennifer. She hadn't really anticipated being put to the test, but her son's antics left her no choice but to respond. As she herself put it, "My response wasn't pretty. I was shrieking like a banshee. I way over-reacted. But by then I was just too exhausted to keep my cool."

Yet by the next day, Jennifer had thought things through, and she recognized that as the parent, she was the one who was responsible for making things run smoothly, and she couldn't blame her son "for pushing her buttons". That's when she consulted me to learn a how to keep her cool when the heat was on, and I shared with her the following plan.

Make a Plan:

You just walked in from work, and all you want to do is kick off your shoes and relax. But that's the moment when everything just goes crazy. Don't expect yourself to be able to think clearly or communicate effectively when you are exhausted and spent. Let your children know in advance what types of behavior won't be tolerated, and what the consequences will be. Then all you need to do is stick to your plan, and you won't over-react.

Jennifer didn't expect to be tested. Even her threat was empty and vague, with no pre-determined response. And as she learned the hard way, if you don't decide on the consequences in advance, you'll be forced to decide in the heat of the moment, which is a sure-fire recipe for over-reacting.

Expect to be Tested:

Children are not born with boundaries. Boundaries are integrated into the child's behavioral system through a continual process known colloquially as "testing the limits". Don't be taken off guard. "No" means "no" whether it's the first time they ask you, or the thirty-first time. Don't be afraid to say the conversation is over, and just walk away. They can keep whining, but you are not going to discuss it anymore.

Keep your Focus:

Parenting is not only about discipline. It's also about love. Don't let yourself lose sight of how much you love your children, and don't make your love dependent on their obedience. Regardless of how they acted that day, that week, or even that month, every day is a new opportunity to show them how much you love them. Kisses and cuddles never need to be earned, and especially when you have lost your cool, that's the best time to make sure they know much you care.

Jennifer kept her focus. That night, after she calmed down, and before she went to sleep herself, she wrote a note, and left it on her son's pillow for him to read when he woke up. The note read "Even though I screamed at you last night, I just want you to know how much I love you, and that nothing, not even your dancing to the bathroom, will ever change that."

Jewish teachings emphasize repeatedly that learning to control ourselves when our anger is triggered is a fundamental discipline. Aside for the practical benefits of remaining calm, and the toxic atmosphere created by anger, anger also demonstrates a lack of faith. Whatever situation you may find yourself in, this is where G‑d placed you, and gave you the wherewithal to manage. Anger is the natural reaction to an injustice. But with G‑d in charge, there is no such thing as injustice...

Too Much Homework!

November 9, 2008

Dear Bracha,

Is there a special formula for how much time and effort I should be putting into my daughter's homework? My daughter is eleven and constantly tells me that the other parents help out so much more with projects and extra assignments. Is homework meant for the parent or the child? I don't want to stifle her creativity but at the same time I don't want her to feel that her work is always sub-par because she isn't getting as much adult input.

Homework Mom

Dear Homework Mom,

To give you the short answer to your question: is there a formula on how much time and effort you should put in to your daughter's homework, the answer is – no. Unfortunately homework is one of those things that is as individual as a fingerprint. Some children need more and some need less time. However, finding out the difference between what your child needs and what she wants is the real issue!

An eleven year old is capable of a lot, but not everything. The idea behind a project and assignments is to teach a number of skills including independent study and research, as well as time management and organizational skills. Over and above all these, I believe, is the love of learning. The excitement and discovery is what makes it worthwhile and what makes it fun!

So, to answer the second part of your question, every assignment will vary, but you will have to make an assessment on the basis of her excitement and discovery, with the focus on trying to get your daughter involved and take ownership for her work. If you can get her to become engaged and self-motivated because she finds the challenge interesting, nothing will beat that! Assisting her to put a polish on her work is fine, but you cannot read the information nor do the research for her, though you can guide her.

Going beyond this, even when considering ego and competing with fellow students and their parents, will teach your daughter the wrong things. It must be her work.

As to your first question, on how much time one should be helping one's child with regular home work: As long as your child does not have any learning disabilities then I would suggest approximately half-an-hour a day of one-on-one time. The basic exception to this is for children who have not yet mastered reading. This is such an important and fundamental skill that parents should remain focused on it until proficiency is achieved.

I'm sure that a lot of parents are doing a great deal more than half-an-hour a day with their children, but keep in mind:

1) This half-an-hour is one-on-one, meaning, intense interaction with no interruptions. You should still be available to answer questions from time to time, outside the half-hour allotment.

2) Carefully assess your child's needs. Decide how much of the time that you spent with her on homework, she actually needed and how much has become routine based on keeping you near her and the attention she receives from you.

Children seek attention from their parents as a natural need. Homework is a phenomenal attention getting device. Gain control of the attention-getting aspect of homework or it can lead to what I call "learned helplessness," where a capable child realizes (subconsciously) that if she does things on her own then this decreases the amount of time her parent spends with her. She becomes more and more dependant on her parents because she "just can't do it herself."

If you only decrease contact when she is working well on her own and increase contact when she is having difficulty, then the more difficulty she has, the more contact with you she gets. This is not the type of scenario you want to encourage. Change things around and reward independence. Limit the amount of time she can call on you for assistance and work out some sort of daily reward system, (remember YOU are the reward!) for doing a good job on homework independently.

How you deal with the issue of homework will feed directly into your child's ability to work independently for his/her entire 14 years of schooling and beyond. Though this takes a lot of analytic effort and self-control, I am sure it will pay big dividends in creating a more positive homework situation, and less stress in the home in general.

Enjoy your daughter and these wonderful years of discovery. Wishing you and your family all the best!

Compassionate Parenting

November 2, 2008

Our parenting day is made up of so many tasks, from getting the kids up in the morning to getting them down at night. At first, when we bring a baby home from the hospital, we have only one task: love this little bundle to bits! But somehow, this quickly gives way to the serious business of raising the child, shaping his or her behavior, building skills, teaching values and all the rest. Of course, we continue loving the child all through the days and nights of the parenting journey, but sometimes that is more a feeling in our heart, than a communication the child receives.

How can we be sure that our children will feel our love? We must move it out of our hearts and into our lips and limbs! Rubbing a teenager's back ever so gently, kissing a pre-teen on the nose, hugging a small child with a big bear hug – and other forms of tender tactile communication effectively convey our love. The warmth of our hearts flows through our arms and is literally transferred to our child's body. Babies, needing to be held right on their parents' chests, ask for this love outright but our older children may not; we need to offer it.

Similarly, our lips can transfer loving energy through the power of speech. Speech is the vocalization of the soul – the process of moving what is intangible inside to concrete communication outside. Understanding and acceptance are the qualities of an open heart. Putting those qualities into words, allows loving energy to flow from one open heart into another. The child doesn't like your dinner tonight? You understand. You know that feeling of disappointment and frustration. You sympathize (but offer no alternative menu!). However, your acceptance of the child's feelings, your compassionate permission for her to be human, is a healing balm. Not that she's allowed to rudely reject your offerings – the child also has to learn to express herself in a caring and loving way. However, allowing her to feel what she feels is your great gift to her. It is experienced as love.

The opposite response to feelings – judgment, criticism, attack and blame – are all experienced as rejection. Rejection is the withholding of love. If I don't want to receive your communication ("Don't tell me you don't like dinner after I worked on it for such a long time!), I essentially don't want to receive YOU. After all, your communication is the concretization of your soul – your feelings put into words. Rejecting your feelings, then, is rejecting you. Parents will have to reject their children's behaviors time and time again during the growing up process; these volitional activities can be appropriate or inappropriate. However, parents will never have to reject their children's feelings because these G‑d-given inner senses spring up unconsciously, spontaneously, without volition. They are common to all of us, always normal and always comprehensible – if we just try to understand and relate to them. Anger, fear, sadness, confusion – these take their place alongside happier emotions in a daily soup of experience. Moment to moment it changes. A funny, uplifting joke, a sibling's annoying interruption, an exciting school outing, a maddening broken toy, a hurtful remark from a "friend," a boring load of homework. Feelings abound. Just by tuning in, acknowledging the child's current mood and state, a parent is able to make a profound connection many times a day. This is love.

Naming, welcoming and accepting our children's feelings is the compassionate road to building a lasting bond of love.

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