Dear Rachel,

I was widowed two years ago and have been left to bring up my two beautiful daughters alone. One is 9 and one is 7. They are both doing well at school, they have friends and their reports are always that they are confident, kind, helpful girls who are proud to be Jewish. The problem I have is when they get home. They won't do chores around the house, and I've tried bribery, yelling, pleading, praise, and I'm at the end of my tether. It hurts that they seem to save all of their really *good* behavior for everyone but me. I'm trying my best to bring them up properly, with no family from either side nearby, but I'm just not sure how best to go about it anymore. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

I am very sorry to hear of your loss. A tragedy like that takes its toll on the whole family. No one is immune to the void left by losing a husband and father.

I am sure that has been a lot of shifting and adjusting in these past few years.

Raising children is a colossal undertaking. Raising children as a single parent without family support is downright daunting. It is wonderful that your girls have been receiving rave reviews outside of the house. This demonstrates their natural ability to behave and perform well. You are clearly working with very fine material, albeit a bit rough around the edges at home as of late.

A child who is recognized for good character traits is a child in harmony with her essence. Our Sages say “one who finds favor in another’s eyes, find’s favor in G‑d’s eyes.” Take a moment to pause and think about the role you have had in this positive behavior.

To address the issue of their lack of good behavior at home, I have a few thoughts to share. It is true that your girls have been dealt a very painful reality. The loss of a father is tragic, especially at such young and formative ages. I hope that they have a continual outlet for their feelings. Be it a therapist, or teacher or rabbi, the girls need a safe, objective place to turn when they need to emote. Additionally, keeping communication open at home is a must for all of you.

There are some families who actually schedule times for “family meetings,” where each member of he household can air their feelings and communicate openly about what’s going on in their lives. Others prefer a more informal emotive process. However, I think that it is important for you find a time where you can sit quietly and calmly with your girls and express your feelings of disappointment with their behavior.

There is often a tendency to ease up on discipline on children who have suffered trauma in their lives. There are many valid reasons why a parent may choose such a route. However, it must be understood that the instruction your girls receive from you at this pivotal time in their lives will impact their futures as mothers and as teachers of their children. There is no excuse to speak or behave disrespectfully to a parent. Period. The only way a child will learn this if we show them.

Kids do not have a limited amount of “good behavior” allotted per day. Good behavior is a choice. And it is your choice as a parent to enforce the Commandment that is incumbent on every child, to“Honor and Revere Your Parents.” When we allow our children to behave inappropriately without consequence, we send them a very clear message: “It’s okay to do that, I don’t need so much respect.”

What we need to do as parents is decide which behaviors are permissible and which are not, and teach them to our children. That is one very compelling way we teach them to honor us. Those behaviors that we have deemed inappropriate are simply not allowed. If the behavior continues then there is a natural consequence that follows. (Notice the word “consequence” and not “punishment.”)

For example, a child that refuses to put her clothes in the laundry basket will not have clean clothes to wear to school. That is the natural consequence that occurs when you don’t take responsibility for your clothes. She can go to school, uncomfortable, in dirty clothes or find another way to remedy the situation, but she will have to deal with the consequences of her actions. Children need to be made accountable for their behavior and take responsibility for the choices they make. There is no set formula to providing natural consequences; it just has to follow the basic principles of cause and effect.

Once we as parents make the decision about what is allowed and what is not, our kids will hear it in our voices. Every child knows when there is room for negotiating, just as keenly as they know when there is not. Coming on strong with discipline, by the way, does not necessitate raising your voice, yelling, or bribery, it simply involves saying what you mean and following through with it. If we are going to take the time to instruct and guide our children, then, we owe it to them to follow through 100% with what we’ve said.

As this process unfolds, and your girls begin, G‑d willing, to show a better side at home, it is important to let them know when you see behavior that you like. Offer meaningful praise. For example, when your daughter cleans her plate from the table, you could respond with something like “I see we’ve got a responsible girl here.” As opposed to the standard, “good job or I’m proud of you for doing that.” That kind of praise looses its meaning after awhile; we want your daughters to understand what kind of women they are becoming. So don’t be afraid to tell them. They need to know that they are kind and confident, responsible and mature. They need to hear it from you.

Additionally, it can be a wonderful experience to share some special “alone” time with each of your daughters. Making time to spend with your child can be so valuable. Whether that means picking one up an hour early from school to go have an ice cream, or arranging a play date for one of your daughters, while you have a picnic with the other. Sharing this special time might very well provide a healthy and lighthearted venue to share some feelings – for the both of you.

One final point I’d like to emphasis is that you find some “special alone” time for yourself. Every mother needs a break here and there. I hope you will make the time to assure that your needs are being met as well. Whether it’s getting together with a girlfriend, a walk in the park, a long, hot bubble bath (with the door locked!), or treating yourself to fancy meal out…take care of yourself.

I wish you much success with your girls and I will look forward to hearing good things.

Rachel