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Help! I've got kids...

Children and Passover Cleaning

March 29, 2009

Dear Bracha,

I am trying to prepare my home for the holiday of Passover but find time to be so scarce! I have three very young children who constantly need and want my attention and begin to act up when they sense that I am busy working on other things. Do you have any practical suggestions on how I can include my children in my holiday preparations?


You have asked a very timely question, and, on behalf of the many parents preparing for the Passover holidays, I thank you.

In preparation for my answer I would like you to keep in mind several concepts that are important ethical and personality traits that you wish to foster in your children, first and foremost being kibud av va'em, or respecting one's parents. The next trait a parent should keep in mind is helping the children acquire and master skills, versus helplessness.

What are you teaching your children if everything has to be done for them? Either that they are incapable or incompetent to do these things or that they are too important to do such work—but their parents aren't and should do it for them. Both these messages should be avoided at all costs.

To bring young children into cleaning for Passover or any other time requires your effort and patience. What you will get out of your effort is competent children!

How is this done? Children learn by doing; there is no other way, no short cut that will impress upon them or teach them what is necessary. They must do. And, at first, they must do it with you. They best way to teach children of a young age is to make things as concrete as possible for them. tarting off by having them help you clean their toys. All cleaning jobs must be done well enough to satisfy your needs. Do not waste their efforts as this devalues them, even if you think they will never know. Every human being is of worth and their efforts have worth.

Young children can help you shake off or vacuum plush toys. They can wipe down plastic or wood toys carefully under your guidance. Even though they are working with you to see your example and learn from you, you are not the major doer—you're the supervisor in this scenario. Put on music; know that things will take time. Make supper something simple and spend the extra time cleaning with your children.

With you helping your children to wipe, vacuum and clean, there is very little they cannot do. Your help should be as minimal as possible, mostly verbal instruction or helping to hold things while they clean. Give examples and assist them where necessary but only as necessary, just don't believe in any independence until they're older and have proven themselves. This avoids frustration or thinking that something will be done when it's not.

As your children get older, age 8 to 10, they should be cleaning their rooms as well. This detailed cleaning might involve a heavy vacuuming and dusting or a total disassembling of their room. Whatever your standards are, that is what they should do. You would break up the task into job portions that they will be able to accomplish, with your guidance. The first time they do their room, just like the first time they helped clean their toys, they will do it together with you, with them doing most of the work. Working side by side allows them to see your example and practice with instant feedback. Justifiable and specific praise is a must, as well as letting them have natural consequences. If their bed is not finished they may have to sleep in the hall or on the floor of their room. If time is growing short they may not have time to play with friends or play on the computer.

Keep the music going and things as positive as possible. Accentuate team work as the whole family is getting the house ready for Passover!

By the time your children are in their early teens they should be able to help out with any task that needs doing and as part of the family team, be assisting in the "common family" areas of the house. The only things that stand in the way of successes is a time schedule for when tasks are to be done by and consequences if not done on time. Your consistency is all that matters; never let a child wiggle out of a consequence or you will be enjoying cleaning your home by yourself, while they sit around with their feet up.

Very young children under the age of four will have to be entertained during the process of cleaning. They should be in the same room, if not napping. Sometimes one of the older siblings can play with them while another helps Mom clean, everyone taking turns between cleaning and play.

I recommend enjoying the successful completion of major goals by celebrating success together. A trip to the local candy store for a dollar or two worth of goodies is more than enough for a young child. When the entire house is done the family should celebrate together, with something everyone would enjoy such as going out for pizza.

Divide your tasks up and start early. You will be amazed at what your children are capable of!

Wishing you and your family a happy and Kosher Passover!

My Child Has No Friends

March 22, 2009


My 11 year old son is very bright—he's been assessed as gifted. I don't know if this makes it hard for him to identify with his classmates, but he can't seem to make any friends. The other kids tease him because he always gets perfect scores and he's like a walking encyclopedia. We're proud of him for being so smart, but we're sad for him that he is so alone. It's been pretty much the same from the time he was in nursery school. When he was little I arranged as many play dates as I could but he's too old for that now. Is there anything I can do for him?


There are a number of things you can do. A lot of kids don't have natural social skills. Being intellectually bright is not the same thing as being emotionally intelligent. In fact, quite a number of people with high I.Q. happen to have very low E.Q. (emotional intelligence). However, E.Q. can be raised. Your son may need to improve a number of social skills. Ask yourself (and him!) these questions:

  • Does he like his peers, or does he find them to be "beneath" him, immature, or otherwise deficient? People who like people are people-magnets. Their warm and accepting thoughts and feelings are communicated loudly and clearly to everyone around. Since everyone enjoys being swaddled in the warm embrace of positive regard, they enjoy being around people-lovers. If your son feels disdain or any other rejecting attitude toward his peers, give him some books about Jewish sages like the Baal Shem Tov, who sincerely and deeply loved every simple Jew. In the Baal Shem Tov's generation, intellectual genius was highly regarded and those who were illiterate, uneducated or unable to learn were held in very low esteem. The Baal Shem Tov made every person aware of his or her greatness as a child of G‑d, and, because of his loving attitude, became the beloved leader of the masses.
  • Is he on the same page as his peers, or is he on a different plane? People spend time with others with whom they have things in common. Are his classmates into sports, certain books, games or other pastimes? If he can join them on the playing field, he becomes a "team player"—one of the guys. Otherwise, he's out in left field alone. It may be worth it to hire a "sports tutor" or whatever is needed in order for your son to be able to join the party. Similarly, he should study how his peers are dressing and grooming themselves and do the same (whether or not he likes the prevalent style). He should be sure to be clean and fresh as far as his appearance goes. Kids who are unkempt or look different are often shunned.
  • Does your son know how to join a conversation, joke around, make people feel relaxed? Does he know how to pick up the phone and invite someone over? Let him use his brains to study the behavior of his peers. The popular business coach Tony Robbins was an overweight, unaccomplished, lonely man who wanted more in his life. He started to study – really study – the behavior of successful people. When he wanted to know what enabled someone to have friends, he would carefully analyze the behavior of popular people. He wanted to know how they stood, how they spoke, what they said, what they did. He would then copy what he saw and he discovered it worked just as well for him as it worked for these other people. Your son can use his advanced brain to make a scientific study of the behavior of the kids around him to see how they interact with each other and how they build and maintain friendships. He can then apply what he learns to his own behavior.
  • Is your son likeable? Much has been written in the business world about "people skills." Being likeable is an important key to success in the world—in fact, it is a more powerful determinant of success than being smart. You might be able to find some appropriate reading materials in the self-help business section of your library or bookstore.
  • Is your son willing to learn? There are social skills board games. These have been designed by professionals to help young people break down the skills they will need in order to be able to make a few good friends.
  • Is your son willing to try everything? A mental health professional specializing in child and adolescent psychology might be able to provide assessment and counseling that can help your son build practical skills and emotional resilience.

Although it may turn out that your son never becomes super popular, by taking advantage of some of the strategies above, he should be able to make a friend or two. This can make an important positive difference to his life.

When Trauma Adds Up--Ten Steps to Helping

March 15, 2009

The Five Towns/Far Rockaway, New York, Jewish community where I live lays bereft as two deaths hit the area within a week. First, a venerable principal and educator. Then, the young son of a dedicated rabbi.

That's in addition to the local traumas of recent weeks and months. We just watched as our neighboring Latino community buried three children and a mother a few days ago. Some still suffer in silence from residual effects stemming from the accident that occurred during the Chanukah Wonderland event.

On a more global level, the Jewish nation just marked the first yahrtzeit of the Mercaz HaRav carnage, while many are still reeling from the Mumbai massacre.

A few years ago, the entire world focused on the massive trauma triggered by the Asian tsunami. Now, we sometimes feel like we've been hit by a tsunami of trauma. How do we help children who are impacted by so much, so soon?

While situations should always be dealt with on an individualized basis, it's important to discuss a few general steps that can be taken. Please note that some of these points were discussed briefly following the Chanukah Wonderland accident.

1. Keep G‑d and Judaism in the picture. Following the sudden death of a young girl, a local synagogue held a program to help congregants deal with the loss. The rabbi kicked off the evening by saying, "For tonight's presentation, we are going to take G‑d out of the picture and focus solely on how you are coping emotionally." Some assumed that his concern was that a philosophic discussion might hinder sincere expression of emotions. But many community members were looking to the rabbi for spiritual guidance and support at this critical time, and left feeling worse than when they came in.

Utilize some of the "teachable moments" that result from a traumatic event (serious illness, injury or death). For example, you can accentuate the outpouring of kindness and prayer surrounding the incident.

In the rush to help children focus on the positive, be careful not to inadvertently ignore or trample their feelings. Make sure that they have the opportunity to give vent to their feelings. Assure them that their responses are normal, even if you see that they have not yet become spiritually "moved" by the moment.

2. Trying to change someone's mind at all, let alone following a traumatic incident, can be a difficult task. One paradigm shift that can be quickly implemented, however, was highlighted in a chabad.org piece last week. "Grieving Community Transforms Dinner into Joyous Honoring of Boy's Life" read the headline describing the Annual Five Towns Chabad Dinner which took place as scheduled a day after Rabbi Wolowik's son's unexpected death. The caption says it all: while sincerely and painfully acknowledging the "grieving," try to balance it with a focus on "community," "joyous honoring," and "life."

"Our community has been hit with another tragedy" translates into "Oy, this is dreadful. How can we cope with yet another incident?" The same words, with a slightly different inflection, become, "Our community has been hit with another tragedy"—yes, our closeness intensifies our hurt right now, but ultimately, unity will carry us through these trying times."

3. Compartmentalize. When I grew up, one of my favorite comic strips was Lil' Abner by cartoonist Al Capp. One of the characters was Joe Btfsplk, a young man with a small, dark rain cloud perpetually hovering overhead.

When traumas accumulate for a person, he or she may feel like hapless Joe, with everything gathering together to form this impenetrable personal cloud that refuses to go away.

Years ago, a number of schools and communities were hit with illnesses and losses within a relatively short period of time. Many perceived these incidents to be occurring on a monthly basis. When I went to a yeshiva for a crisis intervention on the last week of the school year, the deceased's classmates could hardly talk about him. Many were too overwhelmed by the veritable whirlwind of cumulative trauma that they were experiencing. "Who's next?" was the recurring theme.

Help children to gain perspective. The sky is not falling. "Everyone" is not getting sick or dying. Validate the emotional fear while simultaneously appealing to the intellect. Yes, tragedies do seem to be occurring with inordinate frequency, yet the incredible majority of people are healthy and well. Philosophically and statistically, you have every right to assume that it is not going to happen to you or your family.

Please note: that does not mean that you can minimize any of the pain experienced by those impacted, or that philosophic implications for self-improvement should be ignored.

Also, the battle between intellect and emotion can be a tough one. This approach can often prove easier said than done.

4. Normalize and universalize children's reactions. Children may fear that they are weird or crazy due to their reactions to trauma. Assure them that their experiences are normal and shared by many (while being careful not to minimize the uniqueness of what they are going through). As the psychiatrist/author Dr. Viktor Frankl (a Holocaust survivor who wrote the seminal work, Man's Search for Meaning) observed: "An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal."

Dr. David Pelcovitz, an internationally renowned expert in trauma and loss, often discusses the coping traits of "attenders" and "distracters."

Recently, one of my sons had some blood drawn at the pediatrician's office. He made sure to watch the hypodermic needle the whole time. When I asked him about this, he responded, "Of course I looked. It's my arm and my blood, so I wanted to see what was going on!"

An attender feels more in control by observing and talking about the circumstances. On the other hand, distracters will discuss sports, the weather, the number of tiles on the ceiling. They will do crossword puzzles or play Sudoku—basically, anything that keeps their minds off of the situation at hand.

Studies show that trying to change a child's coping style can actually trigger the opposite of the desired effect, causing them to handle the situation worse than they normally would have.

5. No man is an island. Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "I am a rock, I am an island." Not only does that not ring true for most people, the mere idea of "going it alone" is downright scary for children.

One reason that younger children often repeat their questions is to "wrap their minds" around what has happened. They may also be craving assurance that they will be okay. Explain to them that, "Our family shares together in all important things that go on. You are okay now, and will always be cared for."

In addition to sincere verbal assurances, provide hugs or supportively put your arm around their shoulders. Point out the concrete measures that are being taken to ensure health and safety. "Doctors/EMTs/Police are doing x, y, and z. Now we will be going to this place. Tomorrow we will do this."

Be careful not to make blanket promises that nothing bad will ever happen (now or in the future), but do not expound upon dire possibilities.

Getting Kids to Help More

March 8, 2009


How can I get my kids to help out more around the house? The usual pattern in our home is I ask them to do something and they ignore me the first few times until they finally reluctantly do a half-hearted job. It's almost not worth the asking and I hate nagging them, but they just don't listen otherwise.


Have I been waiting for a question like this! You have just hit my specialty. As you can imagine, as a mother of triplets and twins I was inundated with housework and as soon as my children could talk, they could help. So let me see if I can compress a lifetime of experience into a few paragraphs...

There are a few major concepts that rule parent-child interactions; I am going to limit myself to the two most relevant for this case.

The first is that family's lives are made so much easier by routines. Remember when your children were young and you had a bedtime routine that helped simplify bedtimes and make things go easier (I hope)? Well everything else, including housework, responds to the same principles. Routines are easier to establish and regulate.

Let's look at cleaning the house. If having chores is something you believe your children should do but aren't, the easiest time to get chores done is after supper. Create a new routine that makes after-supper into chore time, with inspection in 20 minutes.

Why will this work better?

  1. Doing this every day allows children to get into a pattern.
  2. Making the time involved short, 20 minutes max, makes it manageable for all.
  3. Doing after-supper incorporates a natural break in the day so you do not have to gain their attention or drag them from something they are already doing.
  4. Inspection: when they shout "ready" you come, check, comment, when it passes you give them the all clear and they are free to go. By being obliged to stay at their appointed task until officially freed in this manner saves you from chasing them down repeatedly until things are done well.

Routines do work. Make your instructions to your children very clear, even writing them down, so that everyone understands what is expected of them. It also helps to avoid a lot of arguments of the "you said this, no I didn't say that" variety.

The next thing I am going to talk about is something you have already heard before, it's called consequences. Yes I know you've tried them and they haven't worked…but from now on they will.

There are two secrets in giving consequences; the first is that you must establish your reputation. This means that you must be known as a person who will not be moved when it comes to carrying out a consequence. Once you've said it they've got it and no amount of whining, pleading or promises will change your mind! I cannot impress upon you how important this is—give in just once and they will assume it will always work, so they just try harder whining next time and also ignore you because they feel they will be able to wiggle out of any consequence.

The second secret is to give tasks a time limit followed up by a consequence. For instance if you want your son to fold the laundry, ask him how long it will take him to finish, if he feels it will take 20 minutes then tell him he has 30 minutes from now to have it all done. Look at the clock and say, "The time is now 6:30, so I will check with you at 7, okay? If it's not done you'll get to clean the kitchen sink too." Once children realize you mean what you say they will be able to see there is a consequence to their actions and it is not okay for them to make you ask them several times to do something.

Whenever you change or add a new rule or routine to your family system I suggest having a family meeting first to explain what you expect from your children, how the new system works and why you felt it was necessary to change.

Once they have been allowed to discuss this with you, you should able to tell them how you truly feel when you are forced to ask them repeatedly to do the same thing over and over again. When children understand that doing a job for their parents in a timely matter shows love and appreciation and allows for more harmony in the home, they can get a better perspective on the importance of their actions.

I hope you will be able to build on these ideas to create a more cooperative and harmonious family environment.

Learning to Control Your Instincts

March 1, 2009

When my children were small and I would hear of another terror attack, it would remind me of how precious each minute of life is and how careful we must be. I would think, "If I were to killed, G‑d forbid, in an attack, how would my children remember me?" If, G‑d forbid, one of them were to die, I would not want to feel guilty for having screamed, criticized or hit them! I would want to know that I had done my best to be the most loving mother possible.

While this may sound macabre to some, it often prevented me from giving in to my primitive reflexes. Did I always want to get up with a cheery face each morning, especially after a sleepless night with a sick baby? Did I want to act calm and patient when children were whining, fighting, badgering and bickering? Obviously not! But I wanted to be an example of refinement; so I did my best to avoid hurting them, even when I felt hurt and helpless.

Each of us has many disappointments, frustrations and losses. In order to avoid sinking into despair, we must learn to be spiritual warriors. Our forefather Abraham showed us the way. He was commanded by G‑d to, "Go," lech lecha – literally, go to your true self. This meant leaving "his birthplace, his social milieu and his father's home" (Genesis 12:1). Perhaps it can be said that these three "leavings" are metaphors for the three major brain centers which fight each other for dominance:

REPTILIAN BRAIN: Put your hand on the back of your head. In Hebrew, this area is called the oref, it is where our reptilian brain resides. Fully functional at six months in utero, it is responsible for satisfying our physical needs, such as food, touch, stimulation and material comforts. However, the Hebrew word oref has the same letters as the name Pharaoh, and also as the word for "wild," paruah. When our Pharaoh-brain dominates, we cannot bear discomfort or deprivation and insist on getting our desires satisfied now, at all costs, even if it means hurting others or indulging in addictive substances or behaviors.

LIMBIC SYSTEM: Hold your hands over your ears. Between the two hands, embedded in mid-brain, is a plum-sized mechanism known as the limbic system. It is responsible for getting our emotional needs satisfied; i.e., to feel loved, validated, understood and important. By the age of five, our basic emotional patterns are firmly in place, telling us whether we are lovable or unworthy, capable or incompetent, and whether we can trust people or must be fearful of contact. If we were disciplined severely and criticized, we became "addicted" to negative mood states, such as anxiety, jealousy, sadness or anger. The limbic system is loyal to childhood beliefs. Some are good, such as "brush teeth after meals," and some are destructive, like, "I must be perfect," or "I need constant attention and praise."

Together, the reptilian brain and the limbic system make up the lower brain. In this realm, there is no free will—only automatic, instinctive responses based on genetic destiny and socio-cultural conditioning. This is where children – and many adults – spend most of their thinking time! This is why we are told, "Every emotional thought of man is evil from his youth" (Genesis 8:2 and 6:5), for the lower brain imprisons us with its primitive impulses and fears. Thankfully, we also have another area of the brain, called the cortex.

CORTEX: Put your hand on your forehead. This is where the cortex, our executive center, is located. It is our choice center, which allows us to liberate ourselves from the primitive responses of the lower brain. While the lower brain develops on its own, it takes discipline to develop the cortex. A disciplined mind allows us to respond with logic, delay gratification, anticipate the consequences of our behavior, focus on long-range goals and empowers us to bring holiness into the world.

The cortex does not reach maximum cellular growth until age twenty! Thus, the lower brain has a huge head start and has determined most of our habits and beliefs long before we had any choice in the matter. This is why our addictions and prejudices persist so tenaciously despite our efforts to free ourselves from their grip. This fact also explains why Torah law does not hold us responsible in certain areas until age twenty.

Thus, the brain is a war zone, with different voices fighting for dominance.

Children are totally dominated by their lower brain. It is up to teachers and parents to patiently teach them to develop their cortex so that they will want to be disciplined, respectful and kind-hearted. If parents hit, scream or criticize, they actually strengthen the lower brain. To train children to behave in a refined manner, we must sometimes be "hypocritical," i.e., we must hide our "natural" responses and use our soul powers to stay loving and find creative solutions.

One of the best ways to do this is to use the "brain dance" when a child misbehaves. To play, take four index cards and number them from one to four. Place these cards between you and the child. Then hold the child's hand firmly while the cards are between you.

Stand at Number One and say, "This was the trigger that caused you to feel upset." (E.g., He may have seen something a sibling had and wanted to grab it, or he wanted to go to a friend and you told him he had to do his homework, or he wanted another piece of candy and you said that one was enough.)

Stand at Number Two and say, "This is what your primitive brain told you to do." (E.g., hit, scream, call names, pinch, grab, hit, throw things, etc.)

Stand at Number Three and say, "This is your 'cortical response.' Tell me how you can solve the problem in a mature manner?" Keep holding the child's hand as you think together of a possible solution or compromise.

Stand at Number Four and hug the child. Say, "G‑d is so proud of you for not giving in to your animal brain."

If you want, you can also use yourself at an example. While holding the child's hand, stand at Number One and say, "When I saw you pinch your little sister, I went to Number Two and I wanted to pinch you back!" Stand at Number Three and say, "But I decided to choose a more mature response and teach you this 'brain dance.'" Then move to Number Four and say, "G‑d is so proud of me for having self-control!"

Each act of self-discipline raises us to a holier level and actually strengthens the cortex. Parents and teachers who indulge in their primitive whims are doing terrible damage to their children and students, who are likely to copy them. Each time you practice self-discipline, take a few seconds to feel the glow of having been victorious.

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