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Parental Paradox

May 25, 2008

One of the reasons that parenting is so difficult is because parents are caught in a paradoxical situation. What every child wants most is to be loved as he is. However, the parent [horeh] is also a teacher [morah], which comes from the word hora'ah, instruction. A teacher's job is to civilize the child, instil values, shape attitudes and correct negative behavior. We can't let our children go out into the world as pampered slobs or short-tempered bullies. We want them to be hard-working, reliable, thrifty, considerate, patient, polite and organized. We know that they need these traits in order to be happy and survive in a tough world. If her room is a mess and she has tantrums over her split ends, what will happen when she has to juggle work and kids and a husband who is less than perfect? If he slams doors when he's upset or torments his little sister, how will he behave when his wife irritates him in any one of the thousands of ways that people can irritate each other?

Inevitably, the parents' drive to improve him is often interpreted by the child as rejection. This is why many children complain bitterly about their parents, "No matter what I do, it's never good enough for them. They're never satisfied. They care about my grades, not about me." Because we see their faults so clearly, they hear a double message, i.e., "I love you - but there's always room for improvement!" This is why they feel so much happier and freer at their friends' homes, where no one is hovering over them and trying to change them.

Parents must be like orthodontists, patiently, with love, exerting just enough pressure to straighten the child, but not so much that we break his spirits. Growth happens very slowly, almost imperceptibly. Either extreme - excessive pressure or pampering and lack of discipline - communicate a lack of true caring. It's hard to get the right balance. While one child might thrive with strict limits and high expectations, another may feel unloved and stifled.

Overly-controlling parents push their child to fit a fantasy, i.e., a brilliant scholar or a tireless homemaker. To achieve this goal, they keep up constant pressure, convinced that, "If I don't wake him up, force him to study and harp on every little fault, he won't wake up, will be a slob and will eat only junk food." They constantly criticize and punish to make him shape up. During the early years, force seems to work. But the over-controlled child may turn into mindless automaton, incapable of independent thought or action, always looking to outside sources to determine what to think, wear, eat or say, always anxious that he is not living up to the ideal and isn't moving fast enough. Or, the child rebels, scorning all authority. He feels, "Since they don't love me, I will hurt them by doing the opposite. I cannot live a lie and pretend to love what I hate." Either way, the child never develops an authentic personality, but simply responds blindly to external forces, overly obedient or overly antagonistic.

Each parent must tread the fine line between respect for the child as he is and the gentle push which will help him move forward.

It's hard to be patient. But just as a toddler will not walk until some inner force tells him it is time to do so, it is impossible to speed the develop of certain traits, especially if they are against a child's inherent personality. Our goal is to arouse his own inner desire to want what is best for him, not due to external coercion. If he is forced to pray, for example, then when the parents or teachers are not present, he may simply not pray and then lie about it, because he has always prayed only to please others or avoid being punished. When prayer does not arise from an inner desire to connect to G‑d, it is empty and meaningless. If a child is forced to study when he feels stupid and unsuccessful, the parents may believe that this will eventually make him better, but will ignore the fact he is becoming more bitter.

The only method which helps instil good values in children is the Victory Method. This means showing enthusiasm for the small victories which the child is already manifesting in the areas we want to see improvement. Then he is more likely to do more of what we want, because he sees that he can be successful. If we constantly complain that he is eating too much, he will eat more, because criticism makes people feel unloved. And they often cope with that pain by eating even more. But if we praise him for his "victories," like eating only two cookies instead of ten, he is more likely to be proud of having self-control.

The key to growth – including our own - is to be happy with the smallest victories. Like the orthodontist, we know we cannot speed things up or change the whole structure. Anger will only create resentment, rebellion and resentment. Each parent must tread the fine line between respect for the child as he is and the gentle push which will help him move forward. Try to make a new or difficult task fun. A child who hates to clean can clean to music. He can be given a 3-minute egg timer and asked to do so for just 3 minutes at a time. If we feel scornful when talking to the child or our advice is met with scorn, this is a signal to back off. Remember, the child is an individual, not a lump of clay that can be molded to fit our dreams. Do not think that this is an easy task – for any parent!

My Children are Overly Shy

May 18, 2008


Dear Bracha,

Both my husband and I are more on the introverted side. We have two children, aged 6 and 3, and I am noticing that they too shy away from social interactions and prefer to play by themselves. Is there anything that I can do now, when my children are young, to help them feel more at ease in group situations?


Yes!! Absolutely! You have hit on a point that slides under the radar for most parents who have introverted children. It is true that being introverted is partly genetic, but a lot of our ability in the area of social skills is learned, and learned very young!

The best thing you can do for your children is be very active at having children over for them to play with and getting them over to friends' houses. Try to do this several times a week. You will quickly note who they are comfortable interacting with—and this is your goal, as those children that they "parallel" play with are not teaching them the skills they need.

In Ethics of our Fathers we are instructed: "Acquire for yourself a good friend." Our friends have great influence on us and this fact can greatly help your children in learning by observing and doing. The younger they start interacting with their peers, the more skills and confidence they will gain. Hopefully this will lead to an increased comfort with others and more success in making friends!

Often, concerned parents ask for specific ideas that they can do—from role playing to particular games—that may be helpful for their introverted children. Thought these are well intentioned strategies, these methods take up precious resources of parents' limited time with very poor results. Your children are far better off with actual practice with their peers, in a safe setting in which they feel secure, such as your home or a friend's house that they are comfortable in.

However, if there is a "bump" in the road, parents are very instrumental in supporting children during these tough times. One of the most powerful ways to help your child deal with his or her emotions is to relate a similar real life situation that you went through. But remember to relate how you felt without globalizing or projecting your feelings on to your child, such as by saying, "everyone who goes through this feels..." or "I'm sure you also feel…" Try to end your story on an up-beat note, leaving your child with a positive and encouraging outlook regarding this experience.

In my experience, shy children are often more aware of the emotional sensitivity of others and feel these emotions more readily themselves. In the context of socializing, they may have more difficulties, but their sensitive nature has a tendency to help them become caring, mature adults.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

Teaching Kids Not to Argue

May 11, 2008

Do you like argumentative people? Probably not; most of us don't. Some kinds of communications just naturally feel good to us - like when someone gives us a smile, delivers a compliment or agrees with us. Some kinds of communications feel naturally unpleasant - like when someone offers a criticism or issues a threat or disagrees with us. When we teach our kids to be pleasant communicators they will reap the benefits of a more successful social life and more satisfying interpersonal relationships. This is one reason why it is so important to teach children not to argue.

However, you may have noticed that some children are "born arguers." We joke that they will make excellent lawyers one day. However, at home, with those we love, peaceful communication strategies take priority. Indeed, in Jewish life, peace is a commodity of such great value that the Talmud urges us to flee from conflict as if we are fleeing from fire! We are further advised to actively pursue peace by every means at our disposal.

This is all fine in theory. It's the practical application that can be so challenging! The trouble begins when your child wants something that you don't want to let him have – a treat, a privilege or an experience of any kind. The child asks and you refuse - for whatever legitimate parental reason you have. However, few children march quietly off, thanking you for your consideration of their request. In fact, most will put up at least a little fuss: "Pleeeeeese? Just this once? I promise I'll never ask you again! Pleeeeeeeese?"

If you reward your child by changing your mind after he has gone on and on for many minutes, hours or days, you are showing him that arguing pays off.

Non-arguers will usually leave it at that. The parent says "no" twice and that's the end of the conversation. Perhaps the disappointed youngster will become sulky for a while but he or she is able to let the conversation go. True arguers, on the other hand, do not let their parents off the hook so easily. Even after the parent has said "no" twice, the arguing youngster will persevere saying something in his own way that translates into: "Why not? I can address all of your concerns. Just give me a chance. Your thinking is mistaken. There really is no difficulty at all. Let me show you how my plan can work out for the best." This child has all the bases covered; he knocks down your defenses one by one. He has an answer for everything until, finally, in the end, when you are just plain worn down by the conversation, you agree to do it his way.

Unfortunately, if you reward the child by changing your mind after he has gone on and on for many minutes (or hours or days) you are only showing him that perseverance (read that as "arguing") pays off. The child learns that, while it may take some effort on his part, he can get his way if he is prepared to argue his case. The problem is that as he becomes more and more expert in getting what he wants, he is also becoming more and more expert in alienating people. Remember: your goal is to teach your child how to be a pleasant person, not how to get what he wants.

To this end, you can teach him the "I Don't Argue With You" Rule. It works like this:

  1. Your child makes a request
  2. You answer "yes" and that ends the conversation. Or, you answer "no" offering just a brief reason. End of Round One.
  3. Your child asks again.
  4. You say, "let me think about this" (for as long as you need to, considering the issue. Make sure you are comfortable with the answer you choose). Then you change your mind if you wish to (this is the ONLY place in the conversation that you can do this) and you now say "yes." Or, you reiterate, "No." You have the option of adding the phrase, "And that's the end of the conversation." End of Round Two and End of Your Part of the Conversation. Start doing something else.
  5. Your child continues to make new, interesting points building his argument for his side. Each sentence is a new Round. He follows you around, dramatically pleading his case. You do not respond to him.

If this routine happens every time your child makes a request, he or she will soon learn that you will give the matter serious attention and thought, come up with an answer, reflect upon it if necessary and THAT's IT. The child will learn that there is no point in harassing you further because it won't make any difference at all. You can leave the debates to interesting topics at the dinner table concerning political, social, religious and philosophical issues. There will be plenty of time for free speech! But your child will learn not to be argumentative when it comes to interpersonal communication. Your home (and your grownup child's home!) will be blessed with peace.

Daughter is a Slob

May 4, 2008

Q. My teenage daughter is a very creative soul who loves creative expression like art and writing. But she is also a real slob. Her room is always a mess. No matter how much I ask her to clean up after herself, the room stays messy. There are papers all over the floors from the many projects she's always in the middle of, and her clothes cover every surface. My husband suggests we take a stronger hand and thinks that she has a real problem, but every time he speaks to her it seems like she gets deflated. How can we help her with her problem while still not destroying her self-esteem?

A. There are some children who are naturally neat and organized and there are others who have to acquire these skills. By gently guiding your daughter in a way that she will be ready to listen and comply, you will be providing her with some valuable tools for life.

As we watch our offspring growing up, it's natural that their actions evoke within us a tangle of emotions and leave us feeling incompetent (What kind of mother am I? Is this how I've raised my daughter?), frustrated (How many times do I have to tell her to clean up after herself?) and even fearful (How will she ever succeed if she can't even hang up her own clothes?).

Talking to your daughter at a time when these emotions are fizzing just beneath the surface will communicate these feelings to her and may indeed leave her feeling deflated. By neutralizing such feelings, you can convey a genuine desire to work together with her on this issue, and you'll be on the path towards remedying the situation; our attitude to the problem is the most important first step in dealing with it.

How do you neutralize such thoughts? Since children have their own free will, we cannot control them or their behavior. It's important to remember that our job as a parent is to teach them lovingly and patiently – but their choice of actions does not necessarily reflect our competence as a parent (even if it may call for a different method of teaching).

If you've come to the conclusion that your daughter is a "slob" and that's what you feel in your heart, your daughter will feel that, too. In Ethics of our Fathers we are taught, "Hevei dan et kol ha'adam lechaf zechut"–judge everyone favorably. The word kol ha'adam (every person) can also imply the whole person, so that we can understand the meaning of the verse as judge the whole person favorably. In other words, rather than allowing her flaws to obscure your vision, view the person as a whole person, her weaknesses and her strengths, and you will perceive a more favorable picture.

If you can externalize the issue at hand and view your daughter as the whole person that she is – a wonderful creative young woman – who happens to have a hard time with orderliness, you will lower the frustration a great deal, maybe even eliminate it altogether. You will then be able to approach your daughter with an understanding and empathetic heart. She in turn will feel your genuine desire to help her with her struggle and may readily accept your guidance.

And finally, acquiring concrete methods to help your daughter will allow you to focus on the present and stop your imagination from predicting the worst. You may have noticed that nagging, criticizing and blaming has not brought you very far, but you may be surprised to see how much your daughter will appreciate some practical advice, not to mention what it can do for her self-esteem.

Incidentally, it may be a good idea to allow her to have one space where she can throw all her stuff in a big heap. Perhaps her bed, or a chair – think of a spot where it will least likely disturb you. This way she can have the freedom she craves and you can have the orderly room you would like. Besides, it will be easier for her to put things away if they are all gathered up in one area.

Good luck!

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