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Help! I've got kids...

A Bad Scene

June 29, 2008

No one is perfect. I guess that's one of the reasons that 17 year old Ethan got so hot under the collar that particular Shabbat afternoon. The family was sitting at their Shabbat table along with Cousin Carol and her new husband and also a young friend of 10 year old Leah. In other words, the table was full. The family itself consisted of Miriam and Yehuda (the parents), Ethan and his four younger brothers. No one saw it coming. It seemed like a normal discussion between Ethan and his brother, Avi. But all of a sudden, Ethan was shouting and pounding his fist as he called Avi a few choice names. His face red and his words biting, Ethan then stomped furiously out of the room and out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. Everyone sat still in their seats, stunned.

For times like these, a parent needs an action plan. Fortunately, Miriam and Yehuda knew just what to do. In the olden days, it wasn't that way. If this sort of scene had happened back then, Miriam would have excused herself from the table to chase her son down the road. If she caught up with him, she would have screamed at him right there on the street. She would have berated him for his atrocious behavior at the table and let him know that he now lost every privilege he ever had and wouldn't be getting them back for at least a year! And she probably would finish up by letting him know how disgusted she was with his awful behavior.

Like many parents, Miriam would have acted that way because she would have let herself be a victim of her own adrenaline. A child can do all sorts of things that trigger an adrenaline (fight or flight) response in a parent's body. When adrenaline is running, a person feels an urgent need to do something right now. The parent cannot stop to think; he or she must take immediate action. Adrenaline is part of the body's emergency response system. It is there to ensure our physical survival. However, it is very poorly suited to solving our relationship issues, planning our careers or raising our children! Therefore, unless a child is truly in a physically dangerous situation, parents must wait until their adrenalin stops running, before dealing with a child. Parents can also help their adrenalin to stop running by staying seated, breathing slowly and picturing themselves on a nice beach far, far away from their children!

This is a lesson that Miriam and Yehuda had learned when they attended a parenting course offered in their community. Both parents knew that there was no point in pursuing their son and that there was, in fact, no urgent reason to do so. There was no emergency. They knew that they needed to come up with an appropriate parenting intervention and this would take calm emotions and a bit of time. Therefore, they apologized to those at the table for their son's behavior and the upset it caused and then they continued to serve the meal.

Some time in the afternoon, Ethan returned home. Miriam was waiting up for him while the rest of the family was napping. She invited her son to sit down and began her conversation with emotional coaching – the technique of naming feelings empathically. "Something must have upset you tremendously for you to have reacted like that at the Shabbat table," she began. "Do you want to tell me about it?"

Her soft, unthreatening manner made it easy for Ethan to explain himself. He knew she was listening in order to understand and he knew that she wasn't there to attack or belittle him. Miriam knew that there was no "reason" that could justify her son's poor behavior but that people sometimes make mistakes. She acknowledged his feelings, validated his perceptions and then offered her guidance. This was the order she learned in her parenting class: always make sure that you and your child are connected before you try to get him to make a change. If there is a good connection, chances are good that that the child will accept the parental guidance.

Miriam put into place the rest of her action plan that she and Yehuda had constructed. Ethan had to learn that such behavior could not happen even if he felt upset, frustrated, provoked or otherwise emotionally triggered. It was not enough for Miriam to listen and understand - -she also had to teach and set behavioral limits. However, doing all this is only possible when parents are calm and in control of themselves. Taming the adrenalin tiger not only empowers parents to teach effectively but equally important, it also helps to preserve loving parent-child relationships for a lifetime.

My Teenager Won't Go to Sleep (at night)!

June 22, 2008

Q. My teenage daughter seems to have her own sleeping patterns. During her vacations or on the weekends, she'll go to sleep at outrageously late hours and will sleep in until mid-afternoon. Obviously, this conflicts with any schedule of family outings. But even during school nights, she'll often have a difficult time waking up in the morning, due to her late hours. She gets herself into a pattern of going to sleep late and waking up so tired and ill-equipped to function at her optimal level. Other than nagging which hasn't worked, is there any way I can knock some sense—or sleep—into her? Or should I just accept that teens have their own hours?

A. As you suggest, the teenage years are a combination of many things and require constant compromise. However key points based on family values and rules should never be compromised in any way.

The most important thing to remember is that as a teenager, her main developmental goal is one of responsibility. As it says in Proverbs, "Teach a child according to his way." With this in mind, you are correct in surmising that your daughter should keep her own hours, as long as she bears the responsibility for this choice! In other words, the choice is hers to stay up late or not, (so no more nagging), but she still must get to school on time and keep up her marks, she still must come on family outings even if she is tired and she must certainly get up on her own, in time for school. These are her responsibilities and we do not help our children by sheltering them from the consequences of their actions.

I say again: if she stayed up late, that was her choice, she still has to go on the family outing. She was aware of it in advance and should have taken this into account and planned her schedule accordingly.

This maturity takes time and practice. That's what you are about to give her, practice.

Sit down and have a talk with her and set the rules that you both can live by. She gets no more nagging, (or at least a lot less), and you get to trust her and plan that she will be with you on family outings, responsible for her own schedule and keeping up at school. If she needs help in getting up in the morning, get her a better alarm clock, but it is not the responsibility of a parent to wake her up! If she is late for school because she slept in, you can have all the sympathy for her in the world, but you will not disrupt your schedule to drive her to school.

Responsibility for her own decisions and actions = respect.

Let her show responsibility and earn the respect; let her grow.

Praise Versus Encouragement

June 15, 2008

Q. My eight year old son is exhibiting strange symptoms lately and I can't make him out. Each morning before he leaves to school, he complains of either a headache or a stomachache. On the days that he has a test scheduled, he puts up a terrible fuss until I finally manage to convince him to go. I have a sneaking suspicion that he feels stressed in school. However, I cannot figure out why that is so. He's a great boy who does excellent work. In fact, I've never seen him bring home a test paper without a perfect grade. I always tell him that he's a great boy. All his teachers praise him highly and claim that he's the top boy in his class. What do you think can be the problem here?

A. School should be an exciting and enjoyable place for your child. However, it seems that your son is under a lot of pressure in school. I would be surprised if this tension is not connected to the overabundance of praise he's been getting.

To come to school and constantly be on the receiving end of platitudes such as, "you're a great boy", "you do excellent work" does evoke a lot of anxiety. Such words may tingle with excitement the moment that the child hears it, but it doesn't last very long. As soon as its effect wears down, the child may feel desperately hungry for more. With time greater and greater doses are needed in order to satisfy his desire for that "euphoric" feeling. You might want to consider discussing this with your son's teacher.

Although praise expresses approval and admiration, it fosters dependency on outside approval. If your son can measure his worth only by the barometer of praise he receives from others, he may very well feel worthless when he doesn't receive this sort of compliment. In other words, the message he's picking up is that "I must meet their approval in order to feel good about myself".

There's another danger to this kind of praise in that it focuses primarily on achievement and success. This means that if his grades are anything less than perfect, he may feel that his essential value is less than perfect.

Consider as well that if your son's work is seen in absolutist, perfectionistic terms, "the top boy in the class." He might be weighed down by a lot of apprehension: What if he doesn't live up to everyone's expectation of him? What if he makes one mistake, will his precarious tower topple? And if "G‑d forbid" another boy in the class gets a compliment, is he ruined?

Furthermore, when your son is told that he's great, he learns that he's great when he's told he is. He has no understanding why he's great unless he's told why.

On the other hand, your son would feel safer and gain more if you can tell him about the steps he took that led him to do the job right. For instance, rather than telling him, "You're great," try telling him, "I see that you take the time and effort to study for your test." Or, "I see that you make sure to go to sleep on time. When we get enough sleep we can concentrate better in class." Your son can then see that his effort to study and to go to sleep on time has been noticed. Your son would then feel great. What's more, he learns that every time he studies and puts in effort or goes to sleep on time, he can feel great whether or not his mother or his teacher tells him so.

"Cherished is man for he was created in the image of the Almighty" (Etyhics of the Fathers 3:18). No one is perfect. Our weaknesses and limitations constitute part of the perfect world G‑d created. Regardless of our actions or successes, our essence is precious. The story about the talmudic sage Reish Lakish is a powerful example.

When Rabbi Yochanan met Reish Lakish, who was then the head of a gang of robbers, he saw the light of his essence. Noticing his unusual strength, he said to Reish Lakish: "Your strength should be used for studying Torah." Sensing his greatness, Rabbi Yochanan also agreed to arrange a marriage between his own sister and Reish Lakish. This conveyed a powerful message of trust and total acceptance, motivating Reish Lakish to become a great Torah scholar and, indeed, a great light for the Jewish people.

A sincere and specific compliment is a gift that every child deserves. Encouraging words raise awareness rather than apply pressure because it emphasizes what the child did right. With that awareness the child can recreate success whenever he so chooses. And he can feel secure in the knowledge that he'll know just what he needs to do the next time around.

Do I Have to Explain Myself to My Child?

June 8, 2008


I have a very inquisitive 6 year old son. He asks a lot of questions and I'm generally patient with him. However, I find that I get irritated with him when he asks me personal questions like where I am going or what I am doing there. (If I tell him I am going to a meeting, he asks me "with whom?" and I don't feel this is something he needs to know). He also questions my motives – particularly when it comes to his care. For instance, if I tell him that I want him to turn the computer off now, he asks "why?" If my answer isn't satisfactory to him, he starts a whole debate. I like that Jordy is a clever little guy but I don't like having to explain myself or defend myself all day. And I really dislike arguments. Can you help me?


It's great that Jordy is curious and clever. You can encourage those traits by discussing all sorts of interesting topics with him, exploring ideas that you and he encounter in books, on-line and in the world at large. There are plenty of opportunities for debate and discussion – so don't worry about stunting his intellectual development if you have to sometimes limit a discussion. In particular, you may want to limit some discussions about your personal activities and motives.

A child needs information about the world, but he also needs information about how people get along. He needs to learn about boundaries, for example. A parent can tell a child "I'm going out and I'll be back in an hour" without having to explain to the child where he or she is off to. Some parents may not mind giving all the details, but it is certainly fine to want to keep that information to oneself as well. Adults don't have to explain to children what they are doing and why. If, after you've given your answer, your son asks you for more details, you can politely say "I've told you everything you need to know, Sweetheart. The details aren't important for you to know." Soon he'll learn that there are some questions (personal ones!) that you will not respond to and, being bright, he'll stop asking them! Teaching personal boundaries to kids helps prevent them from becoming intrusive. There are some adults who ask too many questions. They annoy their friends and acquaintances with inappropriate interrogations. Judaism values interpersonal sensitivity and communication skill. The dictum "do not do unto others that which you do not want done unto you" covers so many principles of communication. If you don't enjoy being interrogated by others, you can rest assured they don't enjoy being interrogated by you. Following the teachings of our sages, you can help your son to understand interpersonal boundaries and respect them, thereby helping him to enjoy better relationships throughout his life.

As for Jordy's tendency to question your motives, this too is a boundary setting opportunity. You can, for the sake of being polite and reasonable, give him one brief explanation for any request that you make. For instance, you can say "Please turn off the computer now because I want you to start getting ready for bed." However, if your son doesn't like that particular reason, you can then say, "Then turn it off because I asked you to." The second reason simply invokes parental authority. Instead of trying to come up with a reason for your request that meets your six year old's standards, you simply let him know that you are in charge. This sets the boundary that this relationship is not a democratic one in which each party gets a vote. If Mom asks you to do something, she has her reasons for doing that and you comply. The authoritative stance in which fair, reasonable, loving and firm parents take the lead in the household has been shown in psychological research to be the position that offers the best developmental outcome for youngsters. Our source of wisdom, the Torah, has directed us to the use of authoritative parenting for thousands of years. Laws embedded within the 5th commandment urge parents to take a confident and respectful leadership role vis a vis their children.

As a parent, you love your child and you will make the best decisions you can on his or her behalf – and that is what you are supposed to do. You don't have to be able to explain everything or justify everything to your child, or even to yourself. Sometimes your "gut" instinct (parental intuition) is guiding you. So do what you feel is best and answer only those questions you feel comfortable answering. You're on the right track.

Scared of Motherhood

June 1, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

I am pregnant with my first child. My husband is so excited, but I am just terrified. I don't have a lot of experience with babies, but it is not just the babyhood that scares me. It is the fact that I will be responsible for this little person forever, and it just seems like there are so many ways I could accidentally mess the kid up. What can I do to make sure that I am going to be a good mother?

Simply Terrified

Dear Simply Terrified,

It should comfort you to know that the feeling you are describing is not an uncommon one. Many mothers experience this over-whelming and sometimes paralyzing sense of too-much responsibility, usually after birth when they confront their newborn's utter helplessness and dependency on them. This feeling is in no way indicative of the future quality of your parenting.

The truth is it is scary to suddenly become responsible for another human being, and that is why it is important to graciously accept as much help and support as you can access. Your husband's excitement is a good sign because it means that he will want to be helpful and involved. You are not in this alone, and there is no reason for you to accept more responsibility than you need to. Your mother and his mother are also valuable resources and wellsprings of parenting knowledge. If they live close by, they make great babysitters too.

It is a good idea to join a mothering group after your baby is born so you can meet other new moms going through the same transitions and experiences. These groups allow you to learn from each other and trade parenting tips. But mostly importantly, they break through the sense of isolation many new mothers experience. Mothers and fathers do not necessarily experience the transition to parenthood in the same way. Because the truth is that mothers and fathers do not necessarily experience the transition to parenthood in the same way, as you may have already realized based on your different reactions to the pregnancy.

Motherhood is something you learn on the job. We all have bad days, and a bad day does not mess up a kid for life. As long as you remain open and willing to keep learning and refining your parenting technique, there is no reason to assume you will be a bad parent. In fact, your anxiety might just push you to learn and grow in ways that will make you an exceptional parent.

It is a mitzvah to have children, and the Torah tells us to begin having children as soon as we can, rather than waiting until we reach a mythical plateau when we are older, experienced, financially set, or otherwise have it all figured out, because ultimately successful parenting is not dependent upon any of these things. G‑d Himself is the unseen partner in the creation and raising of every child.

So trust yourself that you will learn what you need to know as you go along, and prepare for the onset of motherhood to be overwhelming and scary yes, but also exciting and intensely rewarding.

Just about every career requires prior course training, and often some work-related experience.

Becoming a parent can be one of the most responsible positions we undertake, yet most of us do so unprepared and without any prior knowledge.

What makes your child tick? How can you learn to communicate better so your child will listen? Dealing with bedtime fights? Teaching gentleness? Arranging allowances and chores?

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