Four experts share their perspective on common parenting scenarios, and let us know when we have to act and when the best action is inaction
Parenting is complicated. When kids misbehave, it can often spiral out of control. When should we crack down? What can we ignore? Four experts share their perspective on common parenting scenarios, and let us know when we have to act and when the best action is inaction
Meet Our Panelists
Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, NY and Lakewood, NJ. He also publishes and lectures extensively on Torah-based parenting.
Perl Abramovitz of Brooklyn, NY, is an international speaker and highly acclaimed parenting educator. Perl has been teaching her unique parenting method to thousands of parents in the United States and abroad for over a decade.
Adina Soclof is a Cleveland, OH-based parent educator and speech pathologist. Adina is the founder of ParentingSimply, an online community that helps parents connect with their children, and learn simple and practical skills to create a peaceful home.
Simi Yellen of Los Angeles, CA, coaches parents through her Raise the Bar parenting program, which empowers parents to teach their children menschlichkeit within the framework of a loving environment.
The Stressed Shedder
Dovi bursts through the door after kindergarten. His snack was no good, his apple juice spilled, Shaya made fun of him, and Morah is so mean.
As Dovi pours out his litany of woes, three-year-old Faigy makes the grievous error of wandering into the kitchen. Dovi immediately turns on her, snatches the princess coloring book from her hands, rips out pages, and scatters fragments around the kitchen.
Faigy begins to wail. You take a deep breath.
“Dovi, that coloring book does not belong to you. We do not damage other people’s property. Please pick up the pieces, and then we can discuss how you will make it up to Faigy,” you say, knowing full well that it’s an exercise in futility.
Dovi’s not buying it. “I won’t!” he shouts, stamping his foot as only a five-year-old can. “I hate her! You can’t make me!”
He stalks out of the room, and you’re left with a hiccupping Faigy, a mess of princess-coloring-book confetti, and a pounding headache.
Even at the ripe old age of five, Dovi’s not too young to start learning coping skills. He’s ready to learn that being upset doesn’t give him free rein to be mean to his sister and chutzpahdig to Mommy.
Many parents coddle their kids and make constant excuses as to why we can’t expect more of them, instead of teaching them how to maintain their middos in difficult situations.
Exactly how Dovi’s mother will address the situation depends on whether Dovi’s behaved similarly before, or whether this is a new behavior. Either way, there’s nothing pressing that Mommy needs to address in the moment. If there were a time crunch, like the family was on their way out the door or in middle of bedtime, she might need to take immediate action, but in this case, she doesn’t need to deal with the infractions immediately. It can wait until Dovi’s in a calmer frame of mind, since in this mood he’s going to tune out any mussar shmuess or direct orders such as, “Clean up that mess!”
Later, she can open up a discussion with him, saying, “Even when you’re upset, there are things you cannot do, such as not listening to a mommy or destroying other people’s things. What could you have done instead?”
Or, if she’s already taught him this many times before and he does it anyway, it may be time for a consequence, like missing out on a treat or going to bed early.
The chutzpah is a biggie — more of a problem than damaging the coloring book. That’s an issue that children don’t just magically grow out of, so it definitely needs to be addressed and corrected. Mom needs to consistently model for Dovi appropriate language that he can use to express himself, and have him practice using the language until it becomes second nature to him.
The mess he left in his wake is the least of the issues, and can be safely overlooked in light of the other considerations.
The biggest problem in this scenario is the mother’s attitude. She clearly has an expectation that if she responds correctly, she can make the issue go away.
The mother goes straight to discipline as if this is an emergency: “Stop, we need to fix this right now!”
Dealing correctly with this very typical scenario requires a shift of her mindset. What does it mean for parenting to “work”? It doesn’t mean the kid will learn his lesson and never misbehave again.
Think of toilet training — we don’t explain the idea once and then assume the child will follow through perfectly. It’s a long process, two steps forward and one step back. No one’s surprised when the kid has another accident three weeks in.
Similarly, it’s unrealistic to expect children to never tease each other. Mommy needs to see Dovi’s behavior as adorable, normal, and healthy. Faigy can handle it just fine.
Mommy can pick just one of the misbehaviors to address — any more than one sentence about one behavior will be counterproductive. It doesn’t really matter which she chooses, but she should say it with confidence, and without expecting that it will create a magical change in his behavior.
Revisiting the incident afterward and attempting to force Dovi to compensate or apologize to Faigy is most likely counterproductive. Just let it go.
The Wheeler Dealer
Chani’s third grade class is obsessed with squishies. Like the rest of her friends, Chani spends hours every day cataloging her collection, trading, and admiring her current favorites. So you don’t think much when she comes home with two new ones on Tuesday. When she brings home another on Wednesday, you’re mildly puzzled, but it’s not until she comes home on Friday with the coveted cupcake one that you begin to grow suspicious.
“Chani, where did you get this awesome squishy?” you ask conversationally.
“Aliza gave it to me,” she says.
A quick phone call on Motzaei Shabbos confirms your worry — Aliza has been missing her cupcake squishy for a few days.
When you gently question Chani, she has a lot of explanations. “Aliza traded with me, but then she forgot. I mean, she remembered, but she changed her mind so she’s saying she didn’t agree.” You’re skeptical, but with nothing more to go on, you let the matter drop.
But the pattern continues, and Chani “finds” things on the playground, in the garbage, and on the sidewalk. Some of the acquisitions seem to be legitimate negotiations, but you’re not convinced the less socially-savvy girls understand exactly what Chani is convincing them to part with.
“She’s a wheeler-dealer,” you tell your husband in frustration. “She manipulates other kids into trades they don’t want, and if she can’t, she simply steals, and then makes up stories to deny it.”
Deceit is a serious problem. The theft and denial need to be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity.
It’s important to note that children will resort to lying when they’re asked by parents, “Who made that mess? Who took the last snack bag?”
The first thing the parent needs to do is make sure there’s no culture of blame in the home, and no opportunities for the child to lie or deny. The toothbrush isn’t wet after the child got ready for bed? Don’t ask, “Did you brush your teeth?” simply say matter-of-factly, “I know you didn’t mean to do this, but the problem is that it’s not emes to tell me you brushed your teeth if you didn’t. Emes is important to our family.”
If she’s actually stealing, parents need to use a similar approach to put a stop to it. “I’m sure you didn’t do this on purpose, but taking something without permission is stealing. I know being emesdig is important to you. You know what you need to do.”
Whenever a child is exhibiting challenging behaviors, I recommend that parents spend more time with the child, just relaxing and talking with her. The manipulation is a tougher call. Generally, I like to handle social situations between kids in a hands-off way. Ideally, her social group will get fed up and stop trading with her. That can be painful, but it’s the best way for her to learn pro-social behavior.
The mother shouldn’t bulldoze in and try to manage the situation, but she could offer some observations and thought-provoking questions: “It seems like you’re taking getting the best of every trade. You might want to think about the fairness. How would you feel if you were on the other side?” What she absolutely shouldn’t say in either situation is, “You are such a liar. No one plays with a thief!” or similarly aggressive remarks. She needs to let Chani figure this one out on her own.
Dr. Meir Wikler
Theft and lying are examples of bad middos, and parents need to take both seriously. Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky shlita once told me that his father, Rav Yaakov zt”l, never made a big deal about children’s misbehavior, unless the children displayed bad middos — then it was serious.
It helps to ask: Are these the kinds of things the child will still be doing when he gets married? Lying and stealing could easily continue, so they require parental intervention.
That said, age is a critical factor. The younger the child, the more common these poor character traits. It’s extremely common to find four-year-olds who take things that don’t belong to them, since they don’t understand the concept of personal property. The same behavior in an eight- or nine-year-old would be significantly more alarming, since most children this age understand the gravity of theft.
No matter the age, though, if the parents have evidence of dishonesty, it should never be ignored, or chalked up to childhood behavior. Even if the parents are uncertain, they need to act. In this example, in which Chani gave a flimsy excuse (that Adina had agreed to a trade, but had forgotten), the parents should bring the two girls together and attempt to get to the bottom of the matter. Parents should ensure that their child pays back or returns whatever he took without permission, and the shame the child experiences will be ample punishment for the misdeed.
Afterward, since this child doesn’t sufficiently consider the impact her actions have on others, parents should work on helping her develop empathy, which is a skill that can be taught. For example, they might discuss what it would feel like if a precious possession were taken away from the child, or similar scenarios.
The manipulation Chani displayed is an even more common problem than dishonesty. Because children are weak, and at the mercy of others, they tend to use the skills at their disposal to try to get what they want from other children. It’s less concerning to me than dishonesty.
I wouldn’t intervene when a child displays manipulative tendencies toward friends, unless it really crosses a line, causing someone to be hurt physically, emotionally, or socially. In those cases, a parent needs to step in to enforce appropriate boundaries, and work with the aggressor on developing empathy and alternate coping strategies to avoid a repeat of the hurtful behavior.
If it’s simply a child who always gets his way because he’s more assertive — not a big deal. He’ll probably grow up to be a successful businessperson.
The Huffy Helper
Over the past few months, Ariella has been perfecting her technique, and by now she’s got the eye-rolling, condescending, sharp-tongued teenage persona down pat.
After dinner, you remind her to do her usual chore, clearing the table, before heading to her room to “study” for hours on the phone with her friends.
Ariella lets out a noisy sigh. “Why can’t I have a normal mother, who lets me do my work and have a social life?” she asks dramatically.
Choosing to avoid a confrontation, you take the high road. “Thanks for helping out,” you say mildly as you begin loading the dishwasher.
“Fine! I’ll be your slave!” she snaps. She begins banging dishes down on the counter and rattling cutlery, just to be sure you’ve noticed her martyrdom. “Happy?” She turns to go.
“Thanks, Ariella. Would you mind bringing the last few things from the dining room?” you call from the kitchen. “My hands are greasy and I’d like to finish up here.”
“Don’t you think I’ve worked hard enough here?” she explodes. “I have stuff to do too, you know.” Ariella storms up the stairs and into her room, slamming the door behind her.
This whole dynamic needs a 180. Ariella’s behavior is unacceptable; being a teenager isn’t a heter for nastiness, breaches of bein adam l’chaveiro, and chutzpah — the final offense trumping all the others.
Since we don’t know much about this girl’s background, for the sake of this scenario, we’ll assume she’s a typical teen, not at-risk or at risk of becoming at-risk. If so, the parents need to let her know in no uncertain terms that her behavior is unacceptable, and that the attitude of martyrdom underlying it is deeply problematic as well.
Right now there’s a huge power struggle, with no foundation of respect. The mother needs to sit down and have a conversation with her daughter about what it takes to run a household, the expectations that come along with being a member of a family, and the give and take that are part of healthy relationships. She should also pay attention to the vibe she’s giving off; it’s possible the mother is inadvertently feeding her daughter’s sense of entitlement by being hesitant and tentative in her requests for help, as if Ariella is doing her a huge favor by pitching in.
This isn’t to say the mother needs to keep her ears pricked to catch every slamming door or exaggerated sigh; the concern isn’t the specifics, but the general lack of kavod and attitude of entitlement.
When do we cut teens some slack? There can be a lot rule-bending for teens, and we can and should allow a lot of input when making decisions that pertain to them.
We can start looking at our teens as mini-adults, because that’s what they are. But chutzpah and entitlement don’t vanish on their own, and should never be given a pass just because of the child’s age.
Dr. Meir Wikler
“When should we notice our teens misdemeanors and when should we look away?” is the wrong question to be asking.
The behavior portrayed here is very typical teenage behavior; it shouldn’t be the focus. Instead, the parent needs to reflect on what might be underlying that behavior.
This teen’s got an attitude, yes, and a sharp tongue, but her “acting out” is not particularly egregious, as teens go. The parent needs to consider: Is this just her personality? Does she act like this with friends? Has she always behaved like this toward her parents, or only recently? Is it getting worse?
The main concern should be that the chutzpah may be hinting at an underlying conflict between parent and child. Adolescents have more confidence than young children, but lack the ability to articulate their concerns like an adult, so repressed feelings of resentment can surface in their behavior.
If this is the case, the parent needs to address the child’s feelings about the relationship in general instead of focusing on the specific inappropriate behaviors. The parent may discover unaddressed resentment that’s bubbling over into this interaction about chores, unrelated though it may be.
If the parent has explored the relationship with Ariella and hasn’t found any particular cause for the hostility, it’s fine to look away and not notice growing pains. Parents who come down hard on minor infractions are parents who will face more serious infractions later on. It may feel counterintuitive, but the urgent feeling of, “We have to nip this in the bud!” plants seeds for much more serious issues later on.
One of my colleagues, Dr. Bentzion Sorotzkin, wisely says that when parents choose not to address minor misbehavior, that’s not called “doing nothing”; it’s called making a deliberate decision to invest in the long-term development of their child and their relationship with him or her.
The Bitter Bickerers
It’s the fourth time this morning, and it’s only 8:30 a.m. You feel like tearing your hair out — Shani and Moshe are at each other’s throats again.
She can’t stand how he breathes with his mouth open, he insists she talks too much, and it sometimes seems neither can move a muscle without the other finding fault.
Eavesdropping outside the playroom door, you hear Moshe: “Can you get your stupid dolls out of my way? I’m trying to build here.”
“Chavi and Chevi aren’t stupid. Your Lego looks like something the two-year-old built, anyway. I’ll push it over so I won’t have to look at it,” says Shani, giving as good as she gets.
“I’m gonna knock over the dollhouse if you do that.”
“I hate you! I’m telling Mommy! I’m asking her to kick you out of the family.”
You’ve talked until you were blue in the face about how family stands by each other, and about speaking with respect to everyone, but Shani and Moshe still can’t seem to find a civil word to say to each other.
If you policed them, it would be a full-time job. But you can’t let them talk like this, can you?
This behavior is not okay — but it’s normal and healthy. Orthodontists don’t expect to remove braces a week after putting them on; long-term change takes time, so this mother needs to relax and stop feeling like a failure.
If the children are safe, Mommy doesn’t need to come running from the next room to get involved in every altercation.
If she’s right there, though, and can’t plausibly not notice the fight, it’s a different story. As Chazal say, “Shtikah k’hodaah.” We can’t give tacit approval to our kids’ fights.
Rather than stopping the fight, the mother’s main focus here should be to avoid feeding the behavior. The kids’ catty behavior is contagious; it’s common for adults to catch it from them, and get agitated and snappish in their haste to extinguish the behavior. It’s important to resist that temptation, because attempting to police and lecture only adds fuel to the fire and turns the mother into a third party in the fight.
If one child is consistently the aggressor, though, and is more powerful than the other, the mother should make sure to hear every incident, express firm disapproval, and be present until the aggression ends. What she shouldn’t do is assume the aggressor will apologize or refrain from starting up again tomorrow.
Her attempts to build family feeling through talking about it seem pretty pointless. Children rarely learn from speeches that include the phrase, “I’ve said it so many times…”
If a parent is respectful, these fights will pass. Respectful parents have respectful children. Loyal parents have loyal children.
Parenting is a dance. This behavior shouldn’t be ignored, but it also shouldn’t be actively managed. In my parenting classes, I teach parents to develop an assortment of stock phrases to use over and over again. Such as, “Teasing hurts,” “Hands to yourself.”
That doesn’t mean there will be no teasing or hitting, but it’s like water on a rock. When you state your values repeatedly, it makes an impression. Hopefully by the time they’re 18 and leave the house, they’ll remember.
I recommend handling these situations without decisive action. The mother should employ empathy, which is a great way to be there without getting involved. I’d tell the victim, “Teasing hurts, but I know you can handle it,” and I’d tell the other kid, “Words can be so hurtful. No shaming.”
Problem-solving is also important. “There are two children here playing. Everyone has different imaginations and different ways they like to play. How can you work this out?” Then move away.
If it does escalate, you can say, “It looks like you guys need to separate to calm down. Let’s try playing in the same room together a little bit later on.”
No assigning blame, lecturing, or handing out consequences; simply a firm statement of expectations, coupled with problem-solving language. Not responding to provocation is also an important skill to teach children.
The only actions this scenario needs are the triple tools of empathy, stating values, and modeling problem-solving.
At every stage of child development, there are priorities no attentive parent should ignore.
What developmental milestones should a parent monitor?
At the earliest ages, a parent’s main job is keeping an eye on things like weight gain and appropriate developmental milestones, says Dr. Wikler. Is the infant crawling, walking, and talking when age appropriate? In addition, emotional responsiveness should also be monitored. Does the toddler respond appropriately to smiles and other nonverbal communication?
In terms of middos, this is the age to emphasize the skills of listening to parents and respecting authority, says Mrs. Yellen. Many chinuch problems down the line can be avoided if parents lay the groundwork during early childhood.
School-age children should be learning, says Dr. Wikler. They don’t need to bring home honor-roll grades, but keep an eye out that they’re not struggling or falling behind their peers.
Aside from their academic progress, Mrs. Yellen says that these are the years to pay close attention to the child’s developing sense of responsibility. By the end of this stage, he should have mastered the art of taking ownership of his own schoolwork and chores, as well as his hygiene.
Keep an eye on your child’s ability to make and keep friends. If a child’s basic social skills are adequate, says Dr. Wikler, he’ll be able to weather different stresses and problems intact.
Parents should take particular note of any abnormal or excessive anxieties their children display.
During the teen years, parents can expect a turbulent ride, but should take particular note of any excessive secretiveness. Also noteworthy are unusual eating patterns, obsession with weight or body image, or irresponsible alcohol consumption.
Recurrent mood swings and depression that doesn’t lift are also a cause for concern.
Teenagers who have been properly guided during the earlier years will often skip a lot of stereotypically obnoxious teen behavior, emphasizes Mrs. Yellen, but even so, these are the years when a new self-centeredness will take hold. Discussing it and making selflessness a part of daily conversation will help them mature sooner and in a more balanced way.
Originally featured in Family First, Issue 661)