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Why Are Some Kids so Difficult?

September 29, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

Why are some kids so hard to love, and some just so easy? I wish I could say that as a mother I love all of my kids equally, but no matter how much I lecture myself, or try to pretend, the truth is that with some of them I can relax, and some of them just seem to push all my buttons and put me on edge. With those kids, I breathe a sigh of relief when they are not home.

Unbalanced Mom

Dear Unbalanced Mom,

I believe many mothers are now nodding their heads in agreement as they read your question. You have courageously brought up a very real issue, an issue that strikes at the heart of what our role and responsibility is as parents.

That fact is that we don't choose our kids, and all kids are not created equal. In reality, some kids truly are more high-maintenance than other children and, consequently, parenting them is more exhausting. High-maintenance children require us to grow and expand our capacity for giving in order to fulfill their needs. Giving to them is not an automatic process, as it may sometimes seem to be with their siblings.

Yet it is important not to equate the conveyance of effortless parenting with our actual ability to love our children. In fact, our capacity to love matures as a direct result of our heightened capacity for giving, as pointed out by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his work Strive for Truth. In other words, we grow to love our children through the act of giving to them. When we give more, we grow to love them more.

However, it is not always possible to recognize this deep principle in our day to day interactions with our children. Sometimes our innate love for our children becomes submerged in the power struggles and angry storms that characterize our interactions.

Here are some tools that you can use to clear away the negative baggage and reclaim your love for your "difficult child":

  1. Love is not only about granting favors. Remind yourself that enforcing bedtimes, and maintaining behavioral limits are also acts of love, and not acts of anger or punishment. These limits are what will ultimately allow your child to become a productive member of society. This is true even if your child doesn't recognize this, and actively struggles against submitting to your authority.
  2. Invest extra resources in your relationship with this particular child. Set aside special time to strengthen your bond with them through sharing a game, a slice of pizza, a nature walk, or a visit to the zoo. You need to make an extra effort to reconnect with what is special and loveable about this child, and to help them feel loved. At the same time, make an effort to let your other children know how special they are to you, too, so that no one feels left out.
  3. Make a list of this child's special and unique qualities, and read it daily. Continually expand this list as new examples occur to you. For example, perhaps the same energy which drives you crazy at meal-times is also reflective of a fun-loving nature and a special sense of humor. Perhaps kicking the bar under the table reflects their musical ability—something which needs to be channeled to a more appropriate outlet. Let your child know that you are aware of their specialness by seeking out occasions to compliment them on these qualities.

Remember that G‑d doesn't make mistakes. When G‑d chose you to parent this particular child, He bestowed you with sufficient love for them. Feelings of irritation and frustration can conceal your awareness of this love, but they cannot negate it.

The Teaching Moment

September 21, 2009

In The Ethics of Our Fathers (2:6), it states in the name of the great sage Hillel: "The ill-tempered cannot teach." It is also true the ill–tempered cannot learn. People need to be in the proper frame of mind in order to successfully impart and receive knowledge. In parenting, however, we often find that both teacher and student are in no frame of mind for the lesson that is supposed to be occurring.

Parents often realize that they need to teach their kids something at the moment that the child is doing something wrong. The parent sees the error of the child's ways and wants to correct him on the spot. Not only does the parent objectively see the error, but the parent may also react emotionally to the child's wrongdoing – especially if that wrong-doing is dangerous, morally wrong or otherwise seriously disturbing. The parent's emotional reaction (upset, fear, disgust, terror, hurt, etc.) makes it seem urgent that the child is corrected immediately. Adrenalin fuels this notion.

In fact, almost everything in parenting is "un-urgent." The exceptions lie in life-threatening behaviors of the child that provoke an instinctive parental scream – which is as it should be. If a child is standing in traffic, parental hysteria is appropriate and beneficial. However, 99% of misbehavior is not life-threatening and therefore, does not require an urgent intervention. Parents can take the time they need to slow down, think of an educational plan and implement it. Moreover, as our sages caution, this is the only way that a parent can actually successfully impart a lesson.

The child – the receiver of the lesson – must also be in a learning mode. Upset on the emotional level clouds the brain; thinking rationally becomes impossible. Very often a cycle occurs between a parent and child in which each progressively upsets the other. Let's say, for instance, that Mother discovers her teenage son lying in bed in the morning twenty minutes after his alarm went off. He will now be late for school. This happens frequently enough that Mom is quite upset. Her frustration is evident as soon as she opens her mouth – her tone and words are most unpleasant. The boy, receiving a rather nasty greeting in place of a cheery "good morning" reacts badly. He makes some sarcastic remark. This further enrages his mother who now starts threatening removal of every privilege the boy enjoys. Her out-of-proportion response sends the young man into a full tantrum – which is greeted with yet more threats and punishments by Mom.

Cycles such as this one are common and occur very often due to a timing problem on the parent's part. It.is futile to try to teach a child something unless he is in a learning frame of mind. Making sour comments to a barely awake teen is extremely unlikely to get a favorable response; therefore, don't do it. Put another way, making sour comments to a barely awake teen is extremely likely to provoke an awful response; therefore don't do it! Whichever way we put it, the bottom line is the same: don't try to educate a child unless both you and the child are in a "teaching moment" – a pleasant, calm emotional state. If a parent feels frustrated, it is best for the parent to say nothing at the moment, go away, calm himself or herself down, create a plan and come back to introduce the lesson when the child is in a receptive state.

Remember: there are very few emergencies. We have twenty years to raise a child so we can afford to take a few minutes, a few hours or a few days to wait for the right time to make our point. We can wait for that teaching moment.

The Key to Serenity

September 13, 2009

About twenty-five years ago, when I was experiencing difficulty getting to sleep, the idea came to me to make up a list of thiry-nine "sanity cards" that would help me stay calm during crises of all kinds, both internal and external. I called this set of cards, "A Mishkan (Tabernacle) in my heart." Since there were 39 different types of work which went into building the Mishkan, I chose 39 different types of inner work that would build my spiritual home.

I hung a poster board in each room of the house containing various words, such as Patience, Kindness, Forgiveness and Gratitude or phrases like "G‑d shares my pain" and "It's temporary." One of my favorites was: "G‑d, Your will is my will." Below the words were phrases, gleaned from Ethics of Our Fathers and other holy works, which would remind me that all the difficulties G‑d sent me were meant to be used to spiritualize my life and bring holiness to the world.

During my children's growing years, I would use these phrases whenever we faced a loss or frustration. There were endless opportunities—accidents, terror attacks, items breaking or getting lost, illnesses, the sting of critical remarks—all the discomforts and heartbreaks involved in daily living. I would look up at the cards and mention the ones which helped me stay calm. We used them during the Gulf War, while waiting in hospitals and on trips around the country. Whenever my children were angry, scared or sad, I'd say: "Let's see what G‑d wants from us now." Over and over, when there was no way to change the situation, I'd say: "This is an opportunity to build trust and think, 'G‑d, Your will is my will."

Now fast forward twenty-five years. Last January, a sweet woman named Bonnie Siegel called from New York and asked me to speak on an international teleconference to raise funds for a school she wanted to create for handicapped children. We made the date for March 30 at 6 p.m. Israel time. Advertising went out around New York and someone came to my home to put in a video camera and teach me to use Skype. We had practice runs to prepare to deal with any technical difficulties. My son, Moshe, (my computer wizard) made sure things were working out. When the camera which had been supplied to me suddenly went dead on Sunday morning, Moshe managed to get an even better one.

At 5 p.m., I called Bonnie and we made sure everything was running smoothly between New York and Jerusalem. On my screen, I could see the hall filling with people and at 6 p.m., I began my talk. At 6:05, my screen went blank. I raced outside to check the fuses in my electric box. All the indicators were facing up. I pushed the restart button on my computer again and again. Nothing moved. Frantically, I called my son, Moshe, who is usually in Tel Aviv, and told him what had happened. Miraculously, he said, "I'm just around the corner!" Then I called New York and told them to hang on, that help was on the way. Two minutes later, Moshe walked in and calmly started pulling wires and pushing buttons. The screen was still black. And then suddenly the computer sprang to life and I went on with my lecture. Only ten minutes had been lost.

Later that night, I called Moshe and asked him, "How is it that you were so calm while you pulling all those wires?" "Ima," he replied, "I just kept telling myself over and over – G‑d, Your will is my will."

As parents, we don't always know how our behavior affects our children. One thing is for sure though: the only way to teach them to cope with life's difficulties is by setting a personal example, showing them that we are coping with faith, patience and courage. It isn't always easy, but if we do so—then they'll remind us to do the same.

My Child Has A Difficult Teacher This Year

September 6, 2009


My child is having a very difficult start to the school year. There seems to be a personality conflict between him and his teacher. My child is generally obedient and does not act up, but he is coming home tense and too wired up. When I ask him what's bothering him, he just says that there are so many rules in the classroom, he feels like he is "in prison." I'm getting the feeling that the teacher's style is very rigid, whereas in the past, my child has thrived in a freer, more creative type of atmosphere. How can I help him?


As we have discussed in a previous edition of this column, often our main problem in getting a positive outcome is that other people are needed to effect change, which means the chances for a positive outcome can be poor. Everything in your question rests solely on the personality and good will of your son's teacher. If you feel you can approach his teacher and reach an understanding of how to best serve your son's needs within the framework of her class, great! Problem solved. I have a feeling that if that were an option you would have done it already. Now what do you do?

There are two things to remember:

1. Your son will have new teachers each year, each with differing styles, some more strict and others more liberal.

2. The situation should now be looked at as a test of his resiliency; all comments should be aimed at being supportive and not destructive.

It is point number two that I would like to discuss. There is very little point in putting down your son's teacher, especially in his presence, as this undermines her authority and will lead to conflict. It is also a wrong thing to do to any person. Our Sages take great pains to impress on every person that they should treat all others with dignity and respect. The focus should be on supporting your son by allowing him to verbalize his problems and frustrations in school and helping him understand why it bothers him and how he can best think about these challenges in order to better cope.

We are often given situations that we don't like but still must deal with. For instance, perhaps Mom or Dad could tell him about a boss whose management style is different than what they are use to… Stories from our own life help our children cope and give them a link to us. It also allows for more release of emotion as they feel safer to release based on the common experience. A good one-on-one in this manner may have a very healing effect.

Try getting into his head and together develop strategies for him to cope. Positive thoughts in certain situations, just like the little train who thought he could, you can help your son talk himself though this with positive phrases to use in specific situations. It could be anything that appeals to him. He needs a way to be the free spirit, to have some way of not feeling dominated by his teacher or his environment.

Lastly he needs to be able to release his tension at home in a positive manner. You don't want him hitting his baby brother when he comes home. Look into some extra curricular activities and see what appeals to him and works with your family budget and time.

There is no doubt that you are in a tricky situation, but the bottom line is that your son will be exposed to lots of people and situations that will be difficult for him, and learning how to cope and work with different types of people is a good thing. If he sees this as a challenge that he can surmount, it will lead to him having greater skills and be a better person. It requires effort, but he can handle it—and you will be there to support him every step of the way.

Wishing you and your family all the best!

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