| Adviceline |

Adviceline: Issue 289

Do we show our children how to struggle? Do we share our own personal stories, victories, and defeats, with them, showing them how to deal with being human?


I grew up in a kollel family with very little money. I was often the only one in my class not to have a particular item, be it new clothing or fancy school supplies, and it wasn’t easy. Despite it, my parents imparted the value of Torah well, and I married a learning boy.

It’s 11 years later, and my husband is still in kollel. My own children are getting older and I don’t want them to have the same experience I did. However, I’m facing the same situation my parents must have faced — we don’t have much money and many of the items in style are prohibitively expensive. And it’s not just the money that bothers me, I’m disturbed by what has become the norm, it often seems over the top.

How can we keep living a kollel life without our children feeling a lack? And is there anything we can do to combat the impossibly high standards that society has set for what kids need, or are we stuck complying to those standards if we don't want our kids to be deprived?

Mrs. Batya Weinberg

When a couple wants to be in kollel for a year or two, they can usually wing it. Even four years, many couples can manage. But if you’re husband is learning in kollel for 11 years, it means you’ve opted for kollel as your “real life.” This needs a different kind of commitment and plan. Your family needs a healthy, stable structure, which will set you up for success in the long term. Here are some general guidelines you may find helpful:

  • Because peer pressure so often dictates the needs of children, choose a community, block, and school that are less materialistic and have less social pressure.
  • Give your children the things that don’t cost money but mean more (as the sign on my sister’s fridge in Lakewood says, “The greatest things in life are not things.”) You may not be able to go to expensive theme parks, but you can enjoy great family road trips. You may not have the newest games, but you can join your kids playing the games you do have.
  • Be prepared to stretch for your children’s needs. And “needs” has to be defined broadly; don’t be dismissive of what kids say they need. Many needs are defined by the community, and sometimes they’re defined by a child’s personality; some children are more materialistic and you may need to sacrifice and be resourceful to ensure that they have what other kids have, when you establish it as a need.
  • Think of the homes where kids tend to congregate. Some have fancy couches and spacious playrooms — many don’t. Kids are looking for atmosphere — they want to spend time in places that are upbeat and accepting. Ensure that your house has a fun, welcoming atmosphere. If your children are popular in their social circle, they’ll be less likely to feel deprived. You may not be able to give your children everything their friends have. But if your home is upbeat, and you have a strong, open relationship with your children, they’ll be happy.

In fact, it sounds like this is what happens to you. Even though you didn’t have the things you wanted, you signed up for the same lifestyle as your parents. Children don’t perpetuate a lifestyle that they found miserable. You must have absorbed the message that there’s something more important than the nice clothes.

I’m the oldest of 11 children and my father was in kollel, and now in chinuch and rabbanus all his life. My siblings have all chosen to follow a lifestyle similar to our parents. I think this is in no small part due to being proud of what our parents accomplished.

This doesn’t mean that we never noticed what we didn’t have; we noticed and we cared. I remember having the simpler pencils, and wanting the nicer ones. When we got older, and were able to babysit, we spent the money on the silly things teens think they need.

But we learned from my parents that these things are just things, and they’re just not that important. It was clear to them that the values that they had, the role that they were playing in the community, were so critical, that they were more important than any item we desired. Would I have wanted my father not to teach Torah so I could have a nice watch?! I knew that was not a good trade off.

This brings me to some popular kollel myths.

People believe that those who are in kollel long term will be less able to have a second generation in kollel because they can’t give them much financial help. In fact, the people most likely to be in long-term kollel are those who saw a model of living for ideals rather than for things while growing up.

Another myth is that the longer your parents can support you, the longer you’ll remain in kollel. Kollel has a lot less to do with support than it does with personal commitment and a couple’s financial independence. It’s not material comforts that make a kollel life viable.

Last, we think that living among kollel people will make it easier to be in kollel. Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it sharpens a person’s identity and strengthens their commitment if they live in a heterogeneous society Often, if you are one of the few kollel families in your area, your children will be filled with pride in the special role you play.

The subtle messages we give to our children are very powerful. Do you constantly notice what other people have? Or are you secure that what you have is worth far more than whatever item the neighbors just got? If you’re concerned about creating an atmosphere in which your children don’t feel deprived, then it’s important not to feel deprived yourself. Try to work on getting past a focus on things. And if something is very important to you, see how you can give that to yourself.

It’s also good to keep in mind that nearly everyone out there is struggling to give their children all they want them to have. What that list included differs depending on lifestyle, but not being able to give your children everything you want makes you part of the 95 percent of the population struggling to live within a budget (the other 5 percent has their own problems).

Sometimes, when people are trying to give their children everything, they start falling into bad habits and spending money they don’t have. The small problem of your child not having a fancy loose-leaf, should never be exchanged for the bigger problems of living with accumulated debt, which leads to terrible pressure and affect your children far more greatly. The better your budgeting skills the more likely you’ll be to have everything you need and some of what you want.

So live within your budget, and show your children by example that you are rich in the ways that count.

Mrs. Batya Weinberg is a Jerusalem-based educator who teaches, counsels, and lectures widely. She’s been involved in adult education for over 20 years.


Rabbi Dovid Hochberg

Your question opens the door to an insight I’ve wanted to share for a long time. It may not address your specific question at the moment, but it is a thought-provoking idea that will become more and more useful as your children get older.

You mentioned that although it wasn’t easy for you to grow up with little money, your parents imparted a strong value of Torah. It sounds like you struggled with feeling a lack when you were a child and successfully overcame it.

Are we comfortable with the process of struggling?

I’ve noticed something interesting. Many people are afraid to explore their children’s struggles, much less their own. Instead, as soon as they become aware that their children are having a difficult time, they quickly focus on the solutions rather than on the struggle. It is almost as though it’s taboo to admit that we can have powerful struggles. And it is even more taboo for the children to know that their parents may be struggling with the exact same nisayon!

Yet, the entire Tanach is replete with stories of our ancestors struggling with the nisyonos and temptations of this world.

Let me give an example to explain this idea. If we see a child struggling with jealousy, we may be quick to point out that it’s wrong to be jealous. We may share inspiring stories with her and try to help her quickly remove the jealous thoughts from her mind. Although this may be helpful, what messages does she hear? Does she believe there’s something wrong with her because she is jealous? Does she ask herself, “If I struggle with jealousy, and my parents want me to quickly get rid of the thoughts, what kind of person am I if I can’t?” Does she pretend to minimize her jealousy, too afraid to admit that it’s extraordinarily difficult for her? And worse, if she sees that her parents are also jealous sometimes but don’t acknowledge it, will she then see them as hypocritical, possibly damaging their parental influence on her?

Do we show our children how to struggle? Do we share our own personal stories, victories, and defeats, with them, showing them how to deal with being human? Imagine the impact if we say to this child, “Jealousy is such a difficult challenge — I often struggle with it myself. In fact, it happened to me this week. Let me share with you what happened and what I did to deal with it.…”

Acknowledging our own struggles to our children (age appropriately, of course) provides them with very powerful messages. It validates their struggles and removes the shame and guilt they may be feeling. It provides important chizuk and encouragement as they see their parents working hard to overcome difficult challenges. It can give them practical ideas and suggestions as they hear what others have done. It prevents them from seeing their parents as hypocritical because they learn that the most important people in their world — their parents — also struggle.

The Vilna Gaon ztz”l summed up the proper approach to struggles in a unique way. He writes that the yetzer hara will distract us during the first brachah in Shemoneh Esrei and we must work hard to concentrate during the second brachah. He will distract us in the third and we must try to concentrate during the fourth. The Gaon’s message is simple: everyone struggles. It’s guaranteed to happen, and sometimes we are successful and sometimes we are not. Our job is to keep picking ourselves up when we fall.

Imagine the power of that message when your children learn it from hearing your stories and watching how you face your own struggles!

May Hashem help you raise your children with the siyata d’Shmaya and strength to overcome any struggles they encounter, and may each successive victory propel them even further in their lives.

Rabbi Dovid Hochberg LCSW-C, is the director of the Maryland Counseling Network and a sought-after psychotherapist. He has published and lectured extensively on mental health, marriage, parenting, and relationship issues and is the author of The Jewish Teen’s Survival Guide.


Dr. Shula Wittenstein

Your question is one that many people grapple with. You want to provide for your children, particularly the things you didn’t have. Keep in mind however, that you don’t’ want to inadvertently shortchange them of the things that you did have — dedication to a life committed to Torah, a dedication that is still fueling your life’s choices.

You sound like you feel trapped in an all-or-nothing situation — either your children will have all their needs meet, or they’ll be deprived. It’s a rare parent who can give a child everything; all families make a hierarchy of needs that match their financial ability and their value system. However, beyond what parents can provide financially, it’s crucial that they give children personal resources. Not being able to give all material items will not necessarily leave a gaping hole. Love and security can fill children in a way that no item can — it’s about who I am and not what I have.

In addition, realize that simply because something is out there, doesn’t mean your children necessarily crave it. Society gives us the message that we’re deprived if we don’t have it all, but before feeling anxious about what your children don’t have, take an objective look at what they do or don’t feel they’re missing. You may be projecting some of your childhood discomfort on your children. You don’t describe your children as symptomatic and that shows that you’ve already found a workable balance in providing for them in your life circumstances.

You speak about changing society, which clearly is an impossibility. Perhaps what you are asking is: How can I remove the perceived threat that societal norms pose to my family and value system? The threat is only a problem inasmuch as what others have creates a feeling of lack in you. As long as you create a culture of genuine gratitude and satisfaction within your home, that intrinsically combats any perceived sense of lack.

Noncompliance to societal norms may be driven by two motives. One in principle, i.e., I believe this is over the top and don’t want my children exposed to so much materialism, the other a practical calculation, this is something we can not afford.

Be clear within yourself which motive is driving your refusal to purchase a particular item, and then give that over to your children. If you feel like an item is fine, but it’s out of your budget, then don’t refuse your kids on the grounds that it’s wrong to have. Let them know that it’s fine to have it, but practically, it’s not possible at this point. Do not corner them into feeling that they need to choose between the object they want and a lofty ideal which they are not mature enough to appreciate. If you sense that a particular item is very important to your child, consider stretching your resources to find a way to provide it.

On the other hand, if you feel that something is not in synch with your value system, and you wouldn’t want your kids to have it whatever your budget, then let that be the defining factor in your conversation.

As your children grow older, these issues may become more challenging. Setting a positive tone from the outset, and nurturing them in intangible ways, will help them to embrace your Torah values and life choices.

Dr. Shula Wittenstein Psy.D is psychologist specializing in couple therapy as well as work with trauma survivors, anxiety, and depression.  She is an expert in CBT and EMDR. She has a private practice in Jerusalem.


 (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 289)

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