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Help! I've got kids...

Each According to His Way

May 26, 2010

If parenting was an easy task, we wouldn't need to read parenting books, take parenting classes or ask professionals and rabbis for parenting help. Everything would just fall into place all by itself. We'd have children who did what they were told to do, happily and speedily. We'd have kids who never argued, talked back or rebelled. In fact, they'd all be perfect from Day One: cooperative, balanced, mature, highly developed human beings.

However, as we all know, that's not exactly how it goes. Oh, we might have one or two really easy children – children who were born sunny side up and barely need guidance from us. But many of us have children on the opposite end of the spectrum – children who are really challenging, moody, defiant, argumentative, and wild; we have kids who have inexplicable fear, incomprehensible rage, unjustifiable sadness; some of our children have serious learning issues, some have mental health issues, some have personality problems. We have kids who don't talk to adults, kids who are always bored, and kids who are insanely jealous, lazy and unmotivated. In fact, we have all kinds of kids with all kinds of issues. Like us, our kids are imperfect. And this bothers us in so many ways.

For one thing, we may feel embarrassed by our children's flaws. It's one thing to have a child who is victimized by the class bully, but another thing altogether when the class bully is your child! When the principal calls home time again about your child, it can feel like you're the one being reprimanded. Your shame and irritation can become the fuel that fires an attack on your child the moment he walks in the front door.

If we're not embarrassed by our child, we might be frightened by her. What will become of her if she never puts the effort into developing a social network? What's wrong with her that she never picks up the phone to invite someone over? How will she function in adulthood? Who will marry her?

Besides embarrassing and alarming us, our children can also cause us great sadness and despair. They sometimes do things that clash with our core values, filling us with guilt and grief. Where did we go wrong? How can our child behave in such reprehensible ways? Or, perhaps the child just fails to function well despite our efforts to help him succeed. We feel burned out, exhausted and depleted. We drown in feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and failure.

And let's not forget our anger! Our children enrage us with their behavior. They make mistakes that are so avoidable – things we clearly warned them about – and they never seem to learn. They test our patience with their impatience. They frustrate us because nothing we try seems to work for them. And after the flash of terror their behavior provokes in us comes a torrent of rage for putting us through all of it. Yes, indeed, parenting drives us mad.

And yet, it needn't be this way. A Jewish perspective can lift us out of our parenting stress and help us maintain the energy and perspective that will allow us to be guiding and healing forces in our children's lives. It starts with recognizing that parenting is not a competitive sport: the goal is not to raise the smartest, most beautiful, successful child. Rather, the goal, as the Torah tells us, is to "raise the child 'according to his way.'" That is, we are to help each child become the best that he or she can be, considering his or her unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.

Thus, our job is to help strengthen the strengths and weaken the weaknesses of each of our children. We accomplish this by following another Torah directive: to allow the right hand to draw the child near while the left hand pushes the child away. The right hand is our stronger hand, the hand of love. Most of our parenting interventions should feel good to our children; they must feel loving. With the power of this love, we help the child identify with us and our goals for them. Love makes the child want to please us, emulate us and avoid our displeasure.

But then we must also use our weaker hand, the left hand, to push away whatever is objectionable in the child. The left hand of discipline, limitations and guidance shows the child that certain actions are unacceptable. In a quiet, undramatic way, we say "no" when we must. The Torah directive parallels something that I call the "80:20 Rule," the magic ratio of parenting; 80% of our communications with our children must be pleasant while 20% can be less so, and this ratio becomes 90:10 for teenagers. Pleasant communications, those that make a child feel loved, include compliments, jokes, gifts, treats, favorite foods, listening, chatting, playing, hugging, greeting, agreeing….the not-so-pleasant communications include every single instruction, threat, punishment, look of displeasure, show of irritation or anger, critical remark, correction, the answer "no" and every other form of disagreement…

Pay attention to desirable behaviors and you'll see more of them. Pay attention to undesirable behaviors and you'll see more of them. Yes, all of our children have weaknesses. But more importantly, they all have strengths. In fact, the flip side of a specific weakness may be a hidden strength: our defiant child has a mind of his own – what an asset! With his confidence, determination and conviction, he may move mountains when he grows up – achieving positive changes in the world that ordinary, compliant people can never achieve. Our reserved and quiet youngster may have few friends but a rich, self-sufficient inner life… who knows what books she'll write one day? Our moody, troubled child who suffers so much and makes our life so hard deals with inner demons all the time. His battles are constant – every moment of self-control is a hard-won victory building enviable inner resources.

I remember reading the biography of a woman who became a wealthy New York real estate investor. She credited her financial success to her mother. Her mother managed to identify the outstanding positive characteristics of each of her thirteen children. The children all had issues of various kinds, but they were of no interest to this mother. In fact, the author of the book had been a dismal student, suffering from learning and behavioral problems throughout her school years. Her mother was not the least bit concerned. "You're special," she'd tell her daughter. "You can't sit in a boring classroom all day. You're going to do great things in this world. You're much too energetic and creative for school. Just wait until you graduate – then we're really going to hear from you!" And, just as her mother predicted, this woman was able to use her creativity, energy and confidence to accomplish feats that far surpassed those of her classmates.

We can all be like that mother, finding and nurturing our children's unique assets. By approaching parenting this way, we will not only bring out the best in our children but also the best in ourselves as well, replacing fear, stress and negativity with love, peace and optimism. May G‑d help us see the light and reflect it back to our children, and may we all go from strength to strength.

Hyperactivity (ADD / ADHD) in Children

May 17, 2010

Q: Dear Shira,

My six-year-old's teacher is frustrated that my son has a hard time sitting still for too long in class. My son is very bright and says that the teacher is boring. I told him that he has to get used to sitting still and paying attention whether the teacher is boring or not. The principal wants to have him tested for hyperactivity, but I don't know what this can accomplish. It's funny, because he can play Nintendo for hours. He's able to concentrate on what he wants to! I'd appreciate any advice that you have.

A: The origin of ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder) is not yet clear, but it is a problem that can definitely be helped by modifying certain behavioral conditions in a child's environment. Some parents find that decreasing a child's intake of sugar is helpful, but this has not always been proven statistically. Testing helps to clarify if your son does have this condition or any other possible learning disability that may be an impediment to your son's learning. By testing and seeing the severity of the disorder, a parent can help judge what seems best for his/her child. If a child's behavior is severely disrupting his classmate's or his own learning, the possibility of using medication may need to be explored.

However, in general, a parent needs to initially work with a child's environment in order to address the child's natural inclination for distraction. Children such as these need much positive reinforcement and structure. As they become so easily distracted and find it difficult to be "down to earth," defined beginnings and ends of activities add a sense of security to the world around them. Enhancing time limits and using timers are other examples of giving structure to children.

Immediate rewards for positive actions are necessary in relation to positive reinforcement. The goals for such children should be small goals, as large goals may seem insurmountable for children who seem to view life as quick, fleeting moments on a screen. These children (as all children) need consequences for their negative behavior. Yet these children generally respond less to punishment than to reward. These children often see punishment as a criticism of their very personality, especially if punishments are inconsistent and unstructured.

If a parent or teacher only punishes a child for disruptive behavior, this punishment is unlikely to have a long-lasting effect on the child. They would accomplish more by complimenting the child's understanding of a topic in front of family members and changing the child's view of him/herself as always being "the problem." This is perhaps the greatest challenge in dealing with such children, the ability of a parent to keep his/her patience after seeing continual disruptive behavior, and constantly redirecting the child to short-term goals with rewards.

ADHD children are often not attuned to social cues, which is obviously no fault of their own. Being easily distracted makes it difficult to know which human interactions are most important to respond to. Thus, teachers do not necessarily find a great emotional connection with these children as they may feel slighted that the "child never listens to me."

Helpful ideas for teachers is the often used "placing the child in front of the teacher" allowing for less distraction. Other often helpful ideas are that of giving ADHD children more active jobs in the classroom, such as being board monitor or going to the school office on errands. In general, the reward system that one uses at home can be similarly implemented at school. A child can be rewarded for behaving properly for one class and see school as segments of times to work with. If, however, a child misbehaves, a teacher needs to withhold remark or write a zero on a star-chart, and not write a berating report on the child's lack of attention. Counseling can be very helpful in helping the child to acclimate to his world.

In relation to your child's ability to concentrate on electronic games for long periods of times – this is not necessarily a sign that your son does not have ADHD. An intensive relaxing activity can be a great release for a sidetracked child – almost a restful island in a fast moving world.

If one were to examine the childhood history of many great "doers" in our world, a sizable portion of this group might easily have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder. What caused them to be successful in their endeavors was a rechanneling of their great energies to admirable pursuits and actions. May this be the direction that your son follows, as well as all the individuals whose potentials need to be uniquely realized.

Relationship-Centered Parenting

Antidote to Teenage At-Risk Behavior

May 12, 2010

Building the relationship is often one of the most overlooked aspects of parenting teenagers; yet, clearly, as the evidence suggests, the relationship is the key to managing a teenager's at-risk behavior and restoring confidence in the family unit.

Similar conclusions were also reached by two other studies: a Columbia University study in September 2002 found that "isolation from parents make affluent students more likely to become depressed, and to smoke, drink and abuse drugs," and a National Institute on Drug Abuse 1999 study showed that "family-focused programs have been found to significantly reduce all the major risk domains and increase protective processes" and that "even those [families] with indicated 'hard-core' problems can benefit from family-strengthening strategies."

To corroborate the findings of these studies, I asked a group of high school juniors and seniors at a well-known Jewish day school what they felt were the most important issues teens face. These were the students' answers according to their own ranking, starting with the most important:

  • Disappointment and anger with parents
  • Dislike of teachers
  • The intense desire to be accepted and fit in with friends
  • The desire to be adults and the fact that they were under parents' control
  • The internal pressures of trying to develop and act on personal values as opposed to those of parents and friends
  • The powerful forces of media encouraging experimentation with sex and alcohol
  • The enormous physical and psychological changes that occur at this time of life

Surprisingly, issues like physical changes, peer pressure, and drug use were placed low on the students' list, whereas the issues of poor relationships with their parents and teachers were ranked highest. In general, these teenagers seemed alienated from their parents and felt that their teachers had somehow let them down.

All this information can help parents realize that the cause of teenagers' problems is not necessarily "out there" in the world. Often the source of conflict exists within the boundaries of the relationships teenagers have with their parents, teachers and friends. Finding ways of deepening the relationship with their teenagers is therefore an important step parents can take to help their teenagers ameliorate their at-risk behavior. The more parents invest in their relationship with their teenager, the greater chance they will have in making a positive and lasting impression in their lives as well.

Investing In Your Relationship

In many ways, investing in an emotional relationship with a teenager is similar to building a solid financial investment. A wise investment is great preparation for your future, and the formula works for teenagers in exactly the same way – the more you put in, the more you can take out. However, any good investment must be carefully planned; time, discipline, and patience are required for you to actually see the fruits of your efforts.

A relationship that has been invested in is one that can endure the many trials and tribulations of adolescence. It's there for you when the going gets tough. So when you need to dig into your investment prematurely, it's waiting for you.

My wife and I try to schedule time alone together with each of our older children at least once a week. Recently, we even started making "dates" with each of our children to go out and have a good time together. Sometimes we go to a restaurant to eat or take a walk. Sometimes we go for a soda at the local convenience store. When life gets hectic and time is limited, I usually spend time reading to or just talking privately with one of my children. Most importantly, during our dates I never talk about homework or behavior problems. We just talk about matters that they think are important.

It really doesn't matter what you do or what you talk about during your private time together. What matters is to give your teenager a feeling that he or she is the most important person in the world. These moments of relationship-building give parents the opportunity to develop the kind of personal connection they need to help their teenagers navigate through the turbulent waters of their adolescence.

Although parents often try to force their teenagers to behave the way they expect them to, in the long run, it's not the pressure that parents exert that makes a difference. It's the overall relationship built on a strong sense of friendship that helps teens develop self-esteem and confidence. Self-esteem then becomes a springboard that can help teenagers solve even the most difficult problems.

Examining Your Parental Values

Imagine a flowing river that is exerting a certain amount of pressure on a levee. Suddenly, without warning, a hurricane brings massive amounts of rain placing 50 percent more pressure on the dam. Without an equal amount of stabilizing force being applied to the dam, it won't be able to withstand the new level of pressure against it, and it faces the risk of breaking apart.

Adolescence, too, can arrive like a hurricane, bringing a "whirlwind" of emotions and putting added stress on a teenager's relationships. To meet the challenge, parents need to examine the way they relate to their teenage hurricane. They need to be able to change their style of parenting to endure the new pressures facing their teenagers.

To strengthen the dam, parents must begin by evaluating the core values that define their role as parents. For example, some parents emphasize that their children should do well in school and work hard to achieve professionally. Others want their children to be honest and maintain higher ethical standards of behavior, whatever their careers. Some parents believe that their children's most important goal is to be independent and not rely on others for assistance, while others are more concerned that their children maintain their religious identity and avoid the temptations of the outside world.

Although these values are all important in raising children, with a teenager at risk they require moderation. Teens at risk may not be able to achieve intellectually, maintain higher ethical standards, or live a religious life without a new kind of support system from their parents. The goals that their parents have set for them may be unrealistic. If so, parents need to shift their emphasis toward developing a relationship with their teenager and away from having the teenager live up to their expectations. Instead of professional success or independence as a primary goal, the new center of their parenting must be the relationship.

If you are having trouble with your teenager, you can use the following diagram to try to identify the central tenets that define your parental values. After seeing what lies at the core of your parenting values, look at the next diagram, which shows the parenting values prescribed for teens at risk.

Your Parenting Goals

Parenting Goals for At-Risk Teenagers

The relationship is at the center because the relationship is the single most important (and often most difficult) factor that parents need to work on with their teenager. The relationship must be of primary concern until teenagers are able to make changes necessary to maintain their own stability and fulfillment.

Teaching Appreciation

May 5, 2010

Question: How do I help my kids to learn to appreciate what they have? At what age are they capable of grasping such concepts?

Answer: What a wonderful question you have asked, and one with tremendous ramifications on how your child will feel and make others feel. When we are appreciative, we feel good. When we let others know that we appreciate what has been done for us, we make them feel good, too. This is one of those win-win situations that have value beyond our own personal wellbeing – a truly positive ripple effect ensues – so the question is vitally important.

The real point of the matter is that we learn what we live, and nowhere is that more evident than in the way we view life. There are a few tricks to passing on this characteristic, the main one being: it has to be observable. In other words, if you have a positive attitude and are grateful for things, wonderful – but how are your children going to pick up on this unless you are able to articulate it or use it in some observable way? Therein lies the difficulty… how do you show appreciation?

Most people show appreciation by saying thank you, but this is just the beginning of an enriching concept; over time, "thank you" can become but an automatic response that doesn't sufficiently express ones gratefulness. While we're on the subject, I would like to say that being truly grateful for what one has leads to a satisfying life. We have all heard of the saying from Ethics of Our Fathers: "Who is happy? He who is satisfied with his lot." And it is so true. Though being satisfied is somewhat different than being grateful, ultimately both refer to appreciation. Because a discussion of all these concepts could be quite prolonged, I will now stick to the original question of appreciation.

There are several types of appreciation: the personal, the interpersonal and the cosmic.

Personal appreciation: Appreciation of what you have, including your abilities and belongings.

Interpersonal: Appreciating those around you for who and what they are, i.e. family, friends, teachers and even the kind stranger who helps you or smiles at you. Appreciate them for their good qualities – this assigns value to it (ipso facto) - as well as appreciating whatever these individuals do for you.

Cosmic appreciation: Appreciation of the beauty of the world and everything in it, to experience the exquisiteness of a blade of grass or the wonder in an outcropping of rock.

So the first thing I would ask you is: how often do you tell your children how much you appreciate these things, not in a general sense, but as they happen, immediately, specifically and in such a concrete way that they will be able to see it for themselves? Whether it's in word or deed, you are the vehicle by which your children first see the world. Talk to your children; let them know how you feel about things – especially how their actions and the actions of others make you happy. Someone did a good thing to you and the first way to appreciate it is to actually "see" it. Acknowledging this "happening" sensitizes us to be aware of these gestures of kindness and consideration, and is a huge step toward appreciation.

As you create this dialogue with your children around the positive aspects of your day, the things you note and/or the kind acts of others will slowly encourage your children to tell you about their day. You will find that they quickly get used to making observations of their own and can get drawn into acknowledging these acts of kindness very easily.

Comment on acts of kindness as they occur ("Did you see that woman help that elderly man? Wasn't she wonderful? I wish I had been able to move so fast."), or on observations ("Have you ever seen such a beautiful sunset? And right in our own backyard! Let's sit here for just a minute and appreciate these fantastic colors.") This is the most effective way to help children develop the characteristic of appreciation, as children need to see and do things concretely. Therefore, commenting on something they are actually able to see has more effect than something simply described, even though the second method is still worthwhile. As to your remaining question – it is never too early to start. Each child will learn what they are capable of at each age and constantly build on that. As far as learning the art of appreciation is concerned: "The earlier the better, the more lessons the merrier!"

As you explore this dialogue of appreciation with your children, I hope you will have affected your own life as well. By heightening your own sense of appreciation, I hope you and those around you will come to know how blessed you truly are. Wishing you and your family all the best!


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