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Embarassed by My Children's Behavior

April 25, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My children embarrass me in public. They get very wild and rowdy, and there is nothing I can do to calm them down. I get so humiliated. People must think I am such a bad parent. I am afraid to accept invitations to people's houses because I am afraid of how my children will act while we are there. Sometimes I am even afraid to take them to the playground, although I know they would benefit from getting out a bit. Please help me.


Dear Embarrassed,

It sounds like there are two issues here. Your personal reaction to your children's behavior, and dealing with the behavior.

(First though, I'd like to point out that it is difficult to tell from your letter whether your children's antics are particularly wild and unruly, or whether they are merely high strung and easily excited, but otherwise normally rambunctious children. It is important to find out how your children act when you are not around, for instance in school, or in the presence of another adult. Is their behavior better on these occasions than it is when you are present, or is their behavior unacceptable in the presence of other adults as well? Perhaps you should find out how other adults who are accustomed to being around children view your children's behavior while you are with them? Your expectations might be too high, or might be unreasonable for your children's developmental stage.)

It is clear that your reaction to their antics is causing you considerable pain, shame, and social isolation. Your assumption is that, as their parent, you should be able to control their behavior and prevent them from acting out. This is a fallacy.

Parents do not have absolute control over their children's behavior. As children grow, they become, or should become, increasingly accountable for their own behavior. Our job as parents is to teach them what desirable behavior is, and try to motivate them to act properly.

At this stage, your children are works in progress, and a work in progress is never as polished as a finished product. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

As for controlling their behavior – to the best of our abilities – we need to teach our children that undesirable behavior brings unpleasant consequences. An example of this would be as losing out on a privilege, e.g. "You can't go to the park today with the rest of us. You will be staying home with Daddy/with a babysitter." Or "You won't be getting a treat when we get home from the park if you fight with other children in the park today." This sends a clear message that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated.

Maimonides, a medieval Jewish scholar, taught that children are primarily motivated by reward and punishment (commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Sanhedrin, chapter 10). This is an important insight into the psychology of a child. Children are not born with an instinctive sense of appropriate behavior. They need to be shown continually what behavior is appropriate so that they will grow into well mannered and civilized adults.

Boosting Self-Esteem

April 19, 2009


My twelve year old daughter often tells me that no one likes her, that she feels like she's not worth anything and that nobody cares about her. She's uncomfortable going out with friends and agonizes hours over the things she said or didn't say and what her friends now think about her because of what she did or didn't do. How can I boost her self-esteem?


It's very painful for anyone to feel unloved. Sometimes, when children have a hard time respecting and appreciating themselves, they will, perhaps wrongly, surmise that their peers don't either respect or appreciate them. Since their own appraisal of themselves may not be realistic, their feelings about the way others perceive them are very possibly based on their imagination.

Other People's Judgment

It would be helpful for you to explain to your daughter that since we cannot control what other people think about us, we could only control what we say, she should learn to rely on her judgment. If at the moment of the conversation she felt, that what she said was the right thing to say, it was probably the right thing to have said. Help her put a stop to prophesizing. What the person is thinking, she'll never know. She's not living in another person's head, how could she know? More importantly, what difference does it make what she thinks? No one's thoughts determine your daughter's worth as a person.

Worthy of Love

Your daughter, like every human being, has tremendous value. She is a unique individual created by G‑d. Her ability to recognize her intrinsic, indisputable goodness based on the fact that she has a G‑dly soul and that she is forever tied to the source of all goodness will build her self-esteem. We say in the morning prayers, "the soul that You have placed in me is pure." This purity is based neither on your daughter's evaluation of herself, nor on other people's evaluation of her. We are innately good, we are children of G‑d and His love for us is eternal.

A child feels loved by others and by G‑d only if he or she truly believes that she is intrinsically worthy of love. Building our children's self-image is vital. Our children must feel good about who they are and the ideals that they stand for. Only this will enable them to stand strong and withstand the pressures of society which threatens to consume them and frustrate their ability to build future happy lives, both in this world and the next.

Modeling Self-Esteem

For children and teens to exhibit self-esteem, parents need to model self-esteem. They too need to feel competent and capable in their own lives, or the teen will sense otherwise and have trouble generating self-esteem. Parents can develop self-esteem by remembering their innate self worth and by finding their G‑d given talents and strengths, developing them, setting goals and accomplishing those goals.

Children look outside themselves for a model on which to pattern their behavior and attitudes. They look around and start behaving like everybody else. They have amazing antennas which are highly alert to your feelings. That's why they're also so susceptible to putdowns and criticism of their abilities. If an adult tells a child that he or she is lazy, the child will believe them and as a result will behave that way in a self-fulfilling prophesy (labeling is disabling).

However, self-esteem is not built merely by showering them with effusive statements like, "you're terrific" or "you're the best." Not only do these platitudes fail to pin-point the child's specific strengths or successes, which by the way, we ourselves must be aware of and appreciate, they also lose their value through overuse. A parent who feels good about herself will convey her positive self-image to her child which in itself has a tremendous influence on the way the child values herself. Furthermore, a parent who recognizes her strengths and talents will be able to recognize them in her children as well.

Nevertheless, those who are truly strong are those who recognize that their strength is not dependant on their own limited abilities but in their connectedness to G‑d. No matter how great we may feel about ourselves, we are in essence limited. The more we can instill in our children the knowledge that G‑d is constantly with us, and that He loves us with an infinite love, the more solid, stable and enduring will be their self-esteem and their ability to withstand societal pressures and disapproval.

In a few blog I will point out some practical tips on enhancing self-esteem in children.

The Magic of the Four Questions

April 5, 2009

One of the more famous aspects of the Passover holidays is the asking of the "Four Questions" on the Seder night. These questions are formulated to spark interest and curiosity, and serve as a catalyst for the main mitzvah of telling over the story of the Exodus from one generation to another.

Our forefathers understood so well the value of a question. During the formative years of our children's lives, we teach, preach, lecture, command, demand, and order around. This is, of course, necessary in order to educate our children. But often it is carried to an extreme, with the result that the child does not develop the ability to think for himself and to make his own independent decisions.

Indeed, it is a wise parent or teacher who will learn to focus on questions as the key to helping a child develop his "brain power." The well-known book How to Talk So Kids (Teens) Will Listen and Listen So Kids (Teens) Will Talk (by Faber & Mazlish) is based on one's willingness to step back from the "automatic teaching mode" that we so often find ourselves in, and, instead, chart a new, more challenging course that can help develop a child's growing mind.

The educational power of questioning works in the reverse too; not only by encouraging children to ask and explore, but also by training ourselves to ask productive questions of them.

Why is questioning considered such an art? Because it goes against our initial response, which is often quicker and easier; i.e. that of teaching or preaching. A well-formed question is one that requires greater respect for the other person's ability to think. It elicits conversation and connection which build a relationship through mutual give-and-take. A "good" question is one which cannot be answered with "I don't know," or a "yes" or "no" response. It is asked in a respectful manner and with a sincere desire to avoid the pitfalls of demeaning or arousing resistance or rebellion.

Following are examples of non-productive questions and their responses:

1) Couldn't you see I needed help? (yes/no)

2) Do you expect me to do everything around here? (yes/no)

3) How could you have done that without checking with me? (I don't know)

4) Why do you insist on…? (I don't know)

5) Did you know that you're late again for…? (yes/no)

6) Didn't you remember to…? (yes/no)

Consider, instead, using these thought-provoking questions. Even in reading them, you can immediately sense greater care and respect for the listener:

1) What's hard about this?

2) What do you want to happen, when…?

3) What if he/she could be right?

4) When would be a good time to talk this over?

5) What would make you feel better? More protected?

6) Where did those decisions lead you in the past?

7) How do think you could handle this differently?

8) How do you see your strengths? Your weaknesses?

9) What will you be proud of later on?

10) How could we solve this in a more respectful way?

As you read through these questions you may notice a softening in your original response to the problem. Instead of: "This isn't fair!" "How could he/she…?" "I can't stand what's happening" – you now have choices of how to respond. By opening the door to questions you can experience a different perception that helps you calm down and perhaps begin to ask yourself some questions:

1) Is my demand a want or a need?

2) Do I need to react in the same old way or can I exercise other choices?

3) What will happen if I overlook/let go/stop taking responsibility?

Wishing you all a happy and Kosher Passover!

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