| Family First Feature |

Against the Stream  

       Three women share the unconventional parenting approach that fits their family


A Gentle Touch

Blimie Heller, Toms River


What I do

I don’t really like labels for the way I parent, but some people would call it gentle parenting or respectful parenting. I give parenting classes on the ideas I’ve developed through my research, but I don’t call it a method; it’s more of a consciousness. I always tell parents, “Only take what resonates with you.”


Why I do it

I remember feeling oppressed by rules as a kid and wondering if it really has to be this way. I didn’t always think it was fair when I was punished.

But then I had my first child, and I didn’t know how to deal with her “disobedience.” (I put this in quotes because I no longer think in these terms when it comes to my children. I prefer to think in terms of what gives me the sense that my children and I are on the same team — that they are not against me.) When my daughter was four years old, she had a very strong personality, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was struggling, feeling a distance between us that I knew I didn’t want to be there.

I’ve always loved reading, and I got a ton of books on parenting. I’ve also taken lots of classes on attachment theory and the science of child development. One thing I knew going in was that I didn’t want anything about behaviorism — that’s how we train animals. I wanted something different.

The books that stand out in my mind right now are Hold On to Your Kids by Drs. Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld; Mona Delahooke’s Beyond Behaviors; and Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. While Rosenberg’s book isn’t specifically about parenting, it shifted my view of my role as a parent. (In fact, Rosenberg said he regretted choosing Nonviolent Communication as the title of his book because it doesn’t accurately portray what the book is about.)

As I delved into this, I realized a lot of the more common ways of dealing with kids’ behavior weren’t really effective. If you punish a kid for hitting, for example, you’re not teaching him how to communicate. You’re policing him.

I also learned how a child’s brain develops over time, and I came to understand that harsh parenting is a result of a common lack of understanding of child development. For example, younger children don’t have much impulse control; they develop it as they grow. If parents realized that the child will outgrow many behaviors, they would be more patient and less punishing.

In action

When I see a child do something like tease his sibling, the first thing I try to do is figure out what he is trying to communicate. Children don’t have many strategies for getting their needs met. When we figure out what need the child is trying to meet, we can address that need. Rather than punish the child for expressing his need in a way we don’t like, we can teach him how to meet his needs appropriately.

I try to find the message behind their words. If a child says, “I hate you,” I may say, “Are you really angry because I didn’t give you a candy?” I find that the more I do that, the less they speak that way. By offering understanding and empathy, I am giving them the language to express their experience.

Later, when they’re calm, I’ll tell them that it isn’t okay to talk that way. We talk about how they can express their strong feelings differently.

It’s not about any specific method or parenting approach being right or wrong; it’s a way of looking at things. It’s important for parents to find strategies that meet both the child’s needs and their own. For example, if I’m too tired to read my kids a book, I tell them that.

Also, just because something is developmentally normal doesn’t mean that other people have to suffer. In general, I don’t believe in punishments, but that doesn’t mean that a protective use of force isn’t sometimes necessary. If a child is hitting, I whisk him away from the child he is hurting. I buckle my child into a stroller if I find him running into the street.


What people misunderstand

I don’t force my children to share or apologize. I don’t force them to eat or sleep at a certain time. So some people think it’s about letting a child do whatever he wants. But if I force a child to do something, he isn’t really learning anything. I want a child to develop the empathy to want to share and think about others. That takes time.

It’s important to me to teach kids to listen to their bodies, to learn when they’re hungry, or when they’re tired. I still set boundaries around mealtimes and bedtimes. I make supper and serve it at a certain time, and I set bedtime in my house, but it’s up to them to eat, and to decide when to stop reading and lie down.

Bringing the child into the process makes it much more real and long-lasting. If there’s resistance or conflict, I often use a three-step strategy I call “You, Me, We” (a term I borrowed from Rochie Levin) to bring the kids on board.

Let’s say I want a child to clear the table, and he’s reluctant.

  1. You: I take the time to really understand why my child doesn’t want to clear the table.
  2. Me: I share why I want him to clear the table. “I want your help,” or “I believe it’s beneficial for you to learn.”
  3. We: Together we come up with ideas to solve the problem together.

They’re much more willing to work with me when I do that.


Why it’s worth it

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk says that the parent-child relationship is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind. Multiple studies have shown that kids with secure attachment have higher self-esteem, better self-reliance, tend to be more independent, and have lower reported instances of anxiety and depression.

But the biggest benefit in maintaining a respectful attitude in parenting is the relationships children develop with their parents. And not only with their parents! When children are raised to feel understood, with their feelings and opinions considered, they learn to treat others that way.


Is this for everyone?

Because the concepts are so broad, I believe it can work for anyone.

If someone is attracted to these ideas but doesn’t feel she can take it all on at once (which none of us can!), I’d suggest considering the following:

Recognize that it’s not your job to manage your children’s feelings. When kids express emotions, welcome them (rather than getting defensive). Try to discover the child’s underlying need. (You can download a list of needs on the CNVC website.) Empathize with what your child is feeling. You can understand how your child feels even if you don’t give him everything he wants.


Skipping Preschool

Chaya Cohen, a mother of six ke’h


What I do
I keep my kids home until they’re four, even though preschool for three-year-olds is free in Israel, where I live.

I don’t just stay home with my kids. I find things to do that I’ll enjoy as well. We go to the zoo or explore the many different parks Eretz Yisrael has to offer. Whatever I need to do, I take the kids along — to the grocery store, to the butcher. They learn a lot and have fun.

Kids are never too young to get excited and enjoy activities. Even a one-year-old will get excited at the zoo or whatever adventure you offer him — and I get to be a part of that excitement. There are so many years that they’re going to be in school. I want to use this time to enjoy them. I feel like the ultimate giver when I’m mothering my children.


How I got into this

Before I made aliyah, my mother used to watch my kids when I had to work. My son was three years old when we moved to Israel, and when I brought him to school on the first day, he started crying. He didn’t want me to leave him. I wasn’t working, and I decided there was no reason to put him through what he thought was torture. I brought him home.

Many people would say he would’ve gotten used to it. And it’s true. But I think that just because he would’ve gotten used to it doesn’t mean that by staying home he’d be losing anything. Developmentally, a four-year-old is ready for school in a way that a three-year-old isn’t.


Why it’s worth it

My mother stopped working so she could raise me and my siblings, and I saw that it was a joy for her and not a burden.

In addition to having my own mother as a role model, I’ve done a lot of reading on child development. There are huge leaps that are made in a child’s brain the first three years of life, and there are many behaviors that kids grow out of on their own as they develop. But they need the time. When we put extremely young children in an environment where they need to compete with several other children for the toys and morah’s attention, we don’t give them that time. I’m convinced that if more mothers waited to put their kids into a group setting, we could avoid many of the problems we see emerge later, like low self-confidence and lack of self-awareness, which can lead to all kinds of difficult relationship issues.

Research on attachment shows that children who are securely attached to their mothers at age three function better in all their future relationships. If we could delay putting young kids into school, maybe we would see fewer behavioral and learning issues on an individual level, and better relationships with others on a communal level. Maybe we could avoid a lot of the dysfunction that plagues our society.

The only negative I see is that it takes my kids longer to learn Hebrew; they start gan as four-year-olds who do not know the language. But that’s okay — they catch up.

On the flipside, I understand that it’s important not to make mothers feel unnecessarily guilty. Some mothers really do need to work; they don’t have the option of staying home with their kids. I’m only speaking to mothers who could make it work financially.


What people misunderstand

This isn’t for everyone, but I think mothers who could do it should give it a more serious look. People dumb down motherhood. So many people tell me they wouldn’t be able to stay home with their kids, so they send them to the babysitter and work at a job that is more stimulating. As if being a sheitelmacher or an accountant requires more intellect than being a mother. Being a mother needs as much intellect as any other job, if not more. When you’re a mother, every aspect of the day requires you to think in the present (like how to make the day meaningful for yourself and your children) and anticipate the future (like bringing riding toys to the park to make it more exciting, or library books that will be enjoyable to read on a park bench.) Simple activities like using chalk can be raised a notch if you involve conversation about parshas hashavua. You don’t need to leave it all for the morah!


What you can do

(If you’re attracted to the concept in theory, here’s how you can make it your own.)

I feel a little bit alone in this. I find that as a society, mothers don’t see keeping their kids home as a value. If you have the financial blessings to do this, don’t be afraid to make it work for you. Go out and experience something, meet new people. Go out of your area to give yourself and even your child opportunities to interact with different types of people; join mommy-and-me classes, make things like the zoo interactive by reading signs that explain about the animals you’re seeing. You can find intellectual and creative fulfillment!

I would never be able to do this if I just stayed home all day, every day. I take my kids out at least a few times a week, whether on an outing or just to the park. I’m never bored. Eretz Yisrael is the best place to raise kids. Having fun with my kids makes my week exciting.

For parents who aren’t ready to take this on, I’d still recommend taking kids out of school occasionally. They’ll gain much more being with you than the material that they’re missing, especially at younger ages. If the opportunity arises to have fun with your kids, grab it.


The Dynamic Dynamic

Hadassa Gurkevich 


What I do

I practice the Shefer approach to parenting, which is based on the belief that a child’s behavior is always goal-oriented, and that his goal is always to connect with his parents. Sometimes, the connection is healthy, like a hug or the parent believing in the child’s ability, but other times, the child might try to achieve his goal using less than healthy behaviors, like attention-getting behaviors or through a power struggle. I learned that whenever I’m thinking of my child, I create a connection. That means that when I worry about him, I’m connecting — but it’s a negative form of connection. We want to find ways to connect positively with our children.

There is an ongoing dynamic between parent and child. If the parent changes the dynamic between him and his child, the child’s behavior will have to change. This approach is based on Alfred Adler’s approach to psychology, as taught by Yael Elitzur of the Shefer Institute.

In practice, let’s say your child is complaining that other children in school are hitting him. Your first instinct may be to intervene on his behalf in some way — to call the teacher or even just to feel worried that your child is suffering. Before you do that, though, find out if he’s really having a hard time, or if he’s projecting. It’s easy to discover what’s really happening. If when you stop worrying the child stops complaining, you’ll know that he was looking for your attention all along.

We look at behavior as the person trying to achieve a goal. It’s important to remember these goals are subconscious — the child isn’t aware of them — but when a child misbehaves, he is looking for something from his parent. Maybe it’s his parent’s attention or control, or maybe he’s looking for the parent to solve his problem.


Why I do it

I’ve always been interested in learning everything about parenting that I could. Seventeen years ago, just before the Gush Katif expulsion, I went to visit my sister who was living there, and to be mechazek the people. My sister’s children had always been very wild, but they were so well-behaved during that visit. I asked her what she was doing. She told me she’d learned a new parenting approach and that I had to try it. It took me a few years before I went and learned the Shefer approach, but when I did, it was like I’d discovered a new world. I liked it so much that I got certified to teach classes to other parents.


What people misunderstand

Sometimes people see a child “misbehaving” and the parent ignoring it. They often conclude that Shefer is about abandoning parental responsibility to educate a child. It’s not.

The problem with punishments is that they won’t stop the behavior. For example, if my child is acting out to get my attention and I punish him, then the next time he wants my attention, he’ll act out again.

Also, the Shefer approach is not about a parent abandoning responsibility, but about realizing that the solution to every problem is within the child. The parent can’t solve the problem even if she wants to. When the child sees his behavior isn’t getting him what he wants, he’ll learn to solve his problem on his own by finding a way to develop whatever skill he needs for that moment.

Just like you can’t control your spouse, your neighbor, or your coworker, you can’t control your child. You can only make sure you and he have the best relationship possible. By focusing on his good points, you remove negativity from the relationship. For example, I may not be able to stop my daughter from doing something I don’t want her to, like wearing a short skirt, but I can keep it from being a power struggle by dropping out — ignoring the behavior and thinking positively about her. “She’s a good girl who has the tools to make the right choice.” In this way, our relationship remains positive (and she will im yirtzeh Hashem decide on her own to give up her skirt).

But that doesn’t mean that a parent can’t influence her child’s behavior. Remember — it’s a dynamic between the parent and child, and the parent can always change the dynamic! You do this through controlling yourself.

To do this, ask yourself, “How do I feel about my daughter wearing that skirt? What’s bothering me? Am I frustrated or worried?” Then, tell yourself that it’s okay to feel this way, while reminding yourself that your child has all the tools she needs to make the right choice in this situation. If you find yourself thinking something negative about the child, stop. Think positive — recall a positive quality the child possesses or something positive the child has done. Remember: The more you believe in your child, the more your child will show you that he’s worthy of that belief.

Think of something you are confident your child will do. For example, you know he will fast on Yom Kippur. Pay attention to the certainty you feel as you contemplate that. The next time you want your child to behave a certain way, access that feeling. If you’re totally confident your children will do what you want them to, they will.

In the secular world, there is no absolute truth — everything is okay. But our kids want us to take a stand. When we’re really clear about what’s right, our kids do what we expect. If a child asks us for meat and milk together, we trust ourselves when we say no. We need to convey all of our expectations with that same level of confidence.


Why it’s worth it

The Shefer approach believes in children and their innate ability to be good. Every child knows how his parents want him to behave. If we believe in him, he will take that responsibility and do what we expect him to. Just like us, children have bechirah and are capable of changing on their own. We don’t want to take that away from them.


What you can do

(If you’re attracted to the concept in theory, here’s how you can make it your own.)

It’s amazing how many problems go away when you remove anything negative from the relationship. It’s a lot of very deep work. It’s hard to see your child struggling and avoid worrying about them or fighting with them. But when you give them the space to do it on their own, the rewards are like magic.

Even if you’re not ready to take on the entire method at once, take on positive thinking. Every time you believe in your child’s ability to do the right thing, you’re taking a step in the right direction.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 817)

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