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The Family Meal--Is It Really So Beneficial?

July 27, 2008

The family meal, once a cornerstone of family life, has in recent years fallen by the wayside. This is unfortunate, as research points to family meals as a way of preventing both behavior and eating problems. But even for those who understand the benefits, scheduling a regular family meal can be most difficult. Enter the Shabbat meal.

In Judaism, the concept of Shabbat is an essential tenet. It is a time to take a break from the world around us and focus on those things which are truly important. Shabbat is not merely a day of rest, but also a time to reconnect – to G‑d, our families, and our spiritual selves.

A Shabbat meal or any family meal can be a time for reconnecting as a family. These dinners can be inspirational, a chance to see families sitting down as a unit to eat, talk, learn, and share. Every family member is involved and everyone's participation is valued. Meals may be long and relaxed. There is nowhere to rush off to and nothing more important to be done.

Turns out, this is exactly what we all need. Research has shown that children who eat meals with their parents on a regular basis are at lower risk for developing addictive behaviors such as smoking and drug and alcohol use. Children are also more likely to eat fruit and vegetables and are at lower risk for eating disorders.

In today's rushed and hectic environment, family meals are especially important as they create a time when children and parents can share quality time. Family meals present an opportunity for meaningful conversation, dealing with family issues, catching up on everyone's life, and passing down family stories and traditions. It is also a chance for parents to observe their children and track growth and development.

While it would be ideal to sit down as a family every night, the reality is that many families may not be able to do this. But even having this consistent weekly time as a family has benefits that can last far beyond childhood. The sense of stability and connectedness that shared meals create, give children an emotional advantage they will take with them into adulthood.

These are just some extra benefits to the beauty of a family Shabbat meal.

Teaching Children Honesty

July 20, 2008

Q. I have younger children and would like to pick up on the question of honesty. How do you teach such an abstract idea to a young child?

A. I assume you were following the discussion on lying (see My Child is Lying). There were quite a few comments from readers who pointed out that children cannot believe that honesty has any value if those around them are lying, specifically their parents. Even "little white lies" destroy all credibility. To a child a lie is a lie, you cannot teach him by saying, "do as I say not as I do." It won't work, nor should it. If you, the parent don't place any real value on this, then why should the child?

So the first thing you have to ask yourself in teaching honesty to children is how honest am I. No more little lies in order to get out of a tight spot. (Obviously, you don't have to be insulting or hurtful to another person in order to be honest, but there must be other ways to work around these problematic situations.) How honest are you—do you call in sick at work, when you are healthy and well? Do you write an excuse for your child's uncompleted homework that is fabricated? If a cashier were to give you too much change, would you tell her and return it?

So the first step is your example.

The next step is how important it is to you that a person is honest. When you read the paper and someone has been untruthful, what do you say? What if it was a politician that you believed in and it was well known in your family that you admired him, would you now be excusing his conduct? Honesty is linked to trust, so how can you trust a person who has proven himself to be dishonest. The Torah cautions us: "Distance yourself from falsehood." Will it be apparent to your children that this person whom you once admired has now lost respect in your eyes? Will they understand that you believe it is a horrible thing to be untrustworthy? These are concepts that help explain the importance of honesty to a child.

The most important factor is your reaction:

At some point one sibling in your family will accuse another of lying. Your reaction to such an accusation is extremely significant.

Lying is a premeditated action that is based on deceit. Unless you were aware that the situation is otherwise, most children are not lying. They may be mistaken; they may have forgotten or confused their facts; or they may be reacting impulsively, but they are not lying.

Your reaction is being closely watched. Suppose you would come down on the accuser insisting that it was a horrible thing to say about his brother, by reprimanding him, "Your brother may be mistaken, but he would never lie!" Emote here and mean it, children know when you are faking. Your words and reaction will send a strong statement to your family.

You would still be able to handle the situation and deal with it in terms of a "mistake." But meanwhile, you have also conveyed a very important message to all your children about how essential truthfulness is to you and how deplorable you view dishonesty.

If a child does take up lying you will have to deal with it openly, but until you have no other option, you emotional reaction to such an accusation speaks volumes. Sincerity comes across; what is felt in the heart leaves impressions on the soul.

Wishing you and your young family all the best!

Dealing with Children's Fears

July 13, 2008

Q. My ten year old is afraid of everything. She spends sleepless nights thinking about scary thoughts. She's afraid of fires and kidnappers. She's afraid of the dark and she's afraid of being left alone. On some nights she comes hurtling out of her room and leaping into my bed, as a result of a nightmare she had. Is this normal? What can I do to help her deal with her fears?

A. Fear is a common experience to many children. In fact, most children go through a period in their lives when fears disturb their peace of mind. This happens when their imagination begins to develop, while they don't yet have the tools with which to neutralize and distinguish between reality and imagination.

Children may also begin having frightening thoughts after experiencing or even hearing about a shocking event such as a kidnapping in the neighborhood. Those kinds of fears are a normal reaction to something real that has happened. It may take some children longer than others to feel safe again and to rebuild a sense of safety, but it does happen. More often than not, as children grow older, their fears gradually decrease and eventually disappear. There are many ways that parents can help their child to overcome their fears:

Facing the fear. The big power of fear is that it tries to influence you not to go into it, to push it away, and to fight it. Explain to your child that the best way to calm down a fear is to do the exact thing that the fear tells you not to do: think about it. When children do face their fears, the fear loses its grip on them.

Listen to your child. Having your child talk about her fears is a good way to face the fear. Often, just by exploring their fears, without anyone looking for a solution, it will allow the fear to evaporate into nothingness. Talking also helps to bring the hidden fears out of the darkness and into the open which enables the child to deal with them better.

Draw the fear. Sit down with your child and ask her to draw her fear on a piece of paper. Giving the fear a shape and color removes the mystique and helps the child get a handle on them.

Talk about G‑d. Communicate to your child that G‑d is with her and protects her at all times. A very comforting verse is this one: Hinei lo yanum velo yishon Shomer Yisrael, Behold, the Guardian of Israel does not sleep nor slumber.

Use relaxation techniques. Teach your child to relax her body as she relaxes her mind. She can gradually tighten and loosen her muscles from head to toe promoting a relaxed state. Show her as well, how she can use the same imagination that makes her scared, to make her relaxed. Help her imagine vivid visions of happy occasions, such as her birthday party, and to peacefully allow those images to pass over her as though she were watching a movie. She can also focus her mind on specific scenes that she finds relaxing, like twinkling stars or a peaceful pond – perhaps graced by a beautiful swan; gushing waterfalls, the sound of the water streaming down a slope, the warmth of the sun on her face, as she takes a deep breath and allows herself to relax.

Night lamp and tape recorder. At night when it is dark, switching on a night light can help your child avoid added scary images. During the day, when alone, a tape recorder with some music or story telling, may help serve as a companion of sorts.

Monitor input content. Keep your child from watching or reading frightening shows and story books with a lot of terror or violence. Choose books with inspirational, uplifting stories and stories about children conquering their fears.

Have the child repeat a calming sentence or verse over and over again. Any sentence could work, for instance, "I am safe at all times." Or, "He will command His angels to guard you in all your ways." (Psalms 91:11) You can have your child think about the words and their meaning while saying them.

On the same note. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, writes that when we clear our minds of all other thoughts and focus only on the words ein oid milvado, there is none other than G‑d, then all dangers disappear.

If your child's fears persist and interfere with his daily activities you might like to seek professional help from a child psychologist.

My Child Hits Me

July 6, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

My four year old has started hitting me. I have explained to him that this behavior is completely unacceptable, and that we need to say what we want with words, and not with hitting. His response to "Tell me what you want" was "I want to give you a smack!" He knows it is wrong, but that hasn't stopped him. What more can I do?

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

It sounds like you are responding in appropriate ways by being very clear that this is an unacceptable behavior and encouraging your son to express himself in words rather than with hitting. Yet it is still not working. Rather than becoming resigned to an entirely unacceptable behavior, your question "what more can I do?" is the right one to be asking at this point. The Torah absolutely forbids children to hit their parents, because it erodes the whole foundation of parental authority.

Sometimes children, especially young children, cannot actually identify their feelings and express them in words. In such a case, we need to help them out by naming their feelings for them. Tell your four-year old "It looks like you are angry at me right now. You are allowed to be angry at me, but you are never allowed to hit me. Let's talk about what you can do when you are angry to help you calm down."

Such a response helps your child to connect the sensations he is feeling with their proper interpretation. Anger is a difficult emotion for all of us, and it is never too early to begin teaching your children anger management skills and appropriate responses.

Activities that may help a four year old calm down are coloring, riding his tricycle or bike, looking at books, or having you read him a story. Make a list together, and write his ideas down for him on a chart that you can hang in his room. You can even leave room to put stickers next to the appropriate behaviors, and each time he utilizes one of these behaviors instead of hitting, you acknowledge his growth by putting a sticker on his chart.

When he has calmed down and regained control of himself, you can encourage him to tell you what triggered his anger as well. Were you working on the computer, or talking on the phone, and didn't respond to his repeated attempts to get your attention? Did something deeper trigger his anger, like a new baby, or a new project which has made you less available to him? It wasn't clear from your letter whether this hitting behavior is directed primarily at you, or directed at everyone equally. This is a question that is important to explore for yourself.

In either case, these suggestions should help you to redirect his anger and help him manage it appropriately. We all get angry. The goal is not to forbid your child to get angry, but rather to help him control himself when he does.

Learning a new skill, especially one that involves self-mastery, is hard. In the meantime, whenever he loses control of himself, firmly remind him that he has crossed a line, and now needs to go to his room for a time-out. Continue to refuse any request that is accompanied by hitting.

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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