More Effective Jewish Parenting
By Miriam Levi
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
We dont like to see our children fighting with each other. As the Psalmist describes it: How good and pleasant it is when siblings dwell together in harmony. Yet, inevitably, children will fight; most commonly because of competition, jealousy, or disputes over the possession of some object or about who must do a particular chore.
The dynamics of a fight are fairly simple. One child does or says something which the other regards as objectionable. The second child then responds with verbal or physical abuse, the first child escalates the hostilities with further responses, and so on.
Parents differ in their reactions to fighting. Some try to settle their childrens fights for them by playing judge. After a lengthy investigation, they decide whos right and whos wrong. Mr. Wrong then gets scolded or punished. What happens then? Mr. Right says to himself, Hah hah! He got it! Mommy says hes wrong! And Mr. Wrong ends up angry, both at his mother and at Mr. Right, thus setting the scene for the next battle! This approach also greatly encourages children to involve the parents in their fights, with each child trying to get the parent to side with him.
Some parents react by preaching to their children. Youre the older one -- you should know better! or You children should love each other and not fight. However, such words are usually wasted. Children who fight are angry and in no mood for sermons.
Another way of handling fighting, generally not too effective, is to send back messages when one of the quarreling children comes to complain:
DANNY: Tzvi wont let me play with the fire truck!
MOTHER: Tell him he has to let you play with it.
RINA: Mommy, Shoshy hit me!
MOTHER: Tell her thats not nice.
Or, the parent may go in to personally reprimand the offending party. For instance, 7-year-old Shifra comes to tell Mother that 5-year-old Yoni wont let her write and keeps pulling away her pencil and paper. Mother goes in to take Yoni to task: Stop bothering your sister -- do you hear? One problem with this approach is that while Yoni really may be bothering Shifra, you never know whether Shifra, the victim, may not have first provoked the aggressive behavior she complains of, perhaps in order to attain the satisfaction of seeing Yoni get it while she glories in her innocence. Also children have old scores to settle; Yoni may well be getting back at Shifra for something she did to him the day before.
But victims arent always treated with kid gloves either. They may be told, when they come to complain, He wouldnt hit you for nothing. Come on -- what did you do to him? Unfortunately, the child thus accused feels bitter and is likely to go back to try to settle the score on his own.
Sometimes parents attempt arbitration. For example, theyll try to persuade one child that the other didnt intend to be mean or to hurt him. But the victim of abuse is usually left unconvinced and parents often end up in an unpleasant argument. Attempts to make peace during a fight are especially unlikely to work.
At times, when they feel they cant take it anymore -- when it seems like theyve heard nothing all day but He hit me! No, she started it! He took my toy away! Mommy, she called me a pest! -- the parents exasperation gives way to anger and screaming: I cant stand another minute of this dreadful fighting! Stop it now -- do you hear?! Often theyll end up spanking both children, yelling, I dont care who started -- youre both getting it! Such reactions of anger and violence may make the parents feel better for the moment, but they hardly encourage the peaceful resolution of conflict which the parents want their children to learn.
To handle this problem effectively, first resolve not to become aggravated over the fighting, nor to let it make you angry. As fervently as you want peace, you had better accept the fact that for the time being at least, theres going to be fighting: an unfortunate reality, certainly unpleasant, but not horrible or unbearable.
Avoid blaming or judging your children (Why is he so mean to her! Why cant she let her have the toy!), even if its only in your thoughts. Think in terms of how best to influence your children to get along better with each other. This calls for an objective and nonjudgmental attitude.
Avoid also blaming yourself for your childrens fighting (What am I doing wrong that they fight so much?). The assumption here seems to be that if you did everything right, your children would never fight. Realize that, even were you to do everything perfectly, your children would still probably fight. Squabbling and quarreling between children is so normal that theres practically no family thats free of it.
When you no longer see yourself as personally responsible for your childrens fights, when you stop viewing each conflict as something you should have prevented, youll find yourself much better able to stay calm enough to handle the problem.
While an unusual amount of fighting may be cause for concern, dwelling on thoughts such as, When will they ever learn to get along? and, How will I be able to continue coping if this keeps up? will only make you anxious; so try to put such thoughts out of your mind completely.
STAYING OUT OF FIGHTS
Next, difficult as this may be, learn to refrain as much as possible from interfering to settle your childrens fights. True, it is your responsibility to teach your children not to fight; but this cannot be accomplished by intervening while any fighting is going on. Find another time for working out with your children ways and means of settling their difficulties peacefully.
But couldnt one child take unfair advantage of another child, when we remove ourselves in this way? Perhaps. But we havent a hope of supervising matters to everyones satisfaction so as to make everything always completely fair; we might as well give up such unrealistic efforts.
In the case of a bigger child actually persecuting a smaller child, we must interfere, for both their sakes, and teach our children that persecution of the weak wont be tolerated. But otherwise we should exercise self-control, and not interfere in normal sibling squabbles and tussles. We have to keep in mind that we cant always be around to protect our children from lifes give and take. Sooner or later, theyre bound to meet up with unfairness and unkindness; exposure to rough and tumble treatment may be necessary and valuable if they are to learn to tolerate lifes difficulties.
If until now youve tried to settle your childrens fights for them, explain that from now on youll no longer interfere because you want them to learn to resolve their own conflicts. Now when you hear the usual agitated voices, resist the urge to run in to see what happened. Instead, calmly go about your business as usual. (How often weve dashed in frantically, only to discover that those ear-piercing screams were nothing more than acts which the child put on for our benefit -- just to get us to come running, and, at the same time, powerfully impress us with how horribly he was being treated so as to get our protection as the victim!)
For instance, when one child comes to complain, Its not fair -- hes always starting up! or when another runs in crying, She called me stupid and said shed tell her friends not to play with me! tell him, Im really sorry that youre fighting. See if you can find a peaceful way to settle it by yourselves, or, I have confidence that you can settle this quietly. The children must not conclude that youve suddenly become indifferent to their fighting. Convey to them that, quite the contrary, you care very much; but for the good of all you no longer mix in. Avoid responses such as, Im not getting into this -- you kids have to settle it by yourselves, as these sound uncaring. If a child does complain that you dont seem to care, you can answer, I do care, but right now its better that you try to settle matters between yourselves. Well talk about it some more later.
Children often come crying because they got hurt by a sibling, when you can see that nothing much really happened. Here too, it would be unfeeling to send the child away with, See if you can settle this peacefully between yourselves. Though its best not to intervene, you can nevertheless show some mild empathy. Avoid making light of the childs pain, telling him that he wasnt really hurt; this may be true, but the child will invariably interpret it as taking sides. This is especially important in cases of everyday minor skirmishes. For example, your daughter suddenly lets out a shriek because her brother accidentally bumped into her. Resist the temptation to say, What are you screaming about -- he didnt do anything. Instead you might say, exaggerating slightly, Oh! -- it looks like you got a bit banged up there. Do you want to show me where it hurts? Your daughter is likely to get the hint and quiet down quickly.
Parents usually experience a great sense of relief when they no longer feel responsible for resolving their childrens conflicts. Dont expect any sudden decrease in the incidence of fighting, but you may find that your children actually begin to settle these conflicts by themselves. Here are several examples:
I was a bit skeptical when our parenting group leader advised us not to mix in when the children fight. But the incident that followed proved to me that she was right. I was lying in my bed hearing my Rivka and Leah, ages 6 and 7, having a fight over a doll. Leah, the older one, was saying nasty words to Rivka. From my bed I listened and got upset, feeling that Leah was wrong and thinking: I have to teach them to be fair and talk nicely to each other. Their words grew louder and I grew angrier. The only thing that stopped me from yelling from my bed was the fact that the baby was sleeping right next to me. Then Leah hit Rivka, and Rivka started crying. I was ready to jump out of my bed but hesitated for a minute, reminding myself that it was better not to interfere. It turned out that my waiting was worthwhile. Hearing her younger sister crying, Leah felt guilty and changed her attitude. She said, Im sorry, to Rivka, gave her back the doll they were fighting over, and behaved just as Id wanted to teach her to behave!
* * *
My 4-year-old was coloring with her markers. She warned her 3-year-old brother not to touch them, threatening that if he did, she would write on him. He ignored her, and as he reached for the markers, she wrote on his arm. My 3-year-old turned to me for help. When he saw that I wasnt getting involved, he got himself a stool and washed his arm off all on his own.
* * *
My teenage daughters Tova and Debby were supposed to be doing the laundry -- but were quarreling instead. I decided to try the approach of not interfering. Girls, can you manage to work this out between yourselves? I asked. But Im doing all the work and Debby is just fooling around! Tova, the younger one, countered. I turned to Debby and repeated myself, Girls, do you think you can work this out on your own? I then left. I was wondering what would happen. Would they stop arguing? Would they do the laundry? A few minutes later I couldnt believe what I heard. Both girls were singing as they worked together!
Fights tend also to resolve themselves more quickly when we stay out. One mother related her experience:
When I manage to keep myself from interfering in the childrens fights, I find that, although there may not be fewer fights, still, the fights blow over more quickly. But most importantly, I have not become involved, upset, angry, and so on. I am not worn out as I tend to be when I do step in and then matters just go on and on.
Still another mother reported a definite decrease in fighting, once shed learned to stop interfering:
I was constantly playing judge with my children, who fought a great deal of the time. Now I have learned to bow out of the fights, saying, Im really sorry youre having a problem -- please try to settle it by yourselves. I find that the fighting has decreased a lot.
If you view your childrens fighting as a never-ending affair, you might try to keep track for one day of the actual number and duration of fights. You may be surprised to find that total fighting time is far below what youd supposed. One mother whod complained about the constant squabbling between her two girls was amazed to find, when she kept a record, that there were only five brief incidents during the day, each lasting no longer than two minutes! Fighting certainly becomes easier to tolerate when we gain a truer picture of its extent.
Of course, if we have a longtime habit of settling our childrens conflicts for them, we may not be able to give this up so quickly. Sometimes, exasperation gets the better of us; at other times we arent strong enough to resist our children, who give us no peace until we settle some quarrel. Staying out of fights is no easy matter. Certainly we shouldnt be upset with ourselves if, in spite of a firm resolve not to intervene, we nevertheless find ourselves getting involved anyway.
WHEN TO INTERVENE
While its strongly recommended that parents allow children to work out their differences by themselves, this doesnt have to become a hard-and-fast rule. For example, your 6-year-old son sits down on his younger brothers bed while hes trying to rest and starts kicking him. You might quietly take the older boy away as you say to him, I dont think he likes being kicked that way. Or, two children are hurling insults at each other. You can tell them firmly, No name calling -- were not allowed to hurt other peoples feelings. When a child comes to ask for help in settling some dispute, you can sometimes offer suggestions such as, Have you tried saying it nicely? or ask him, What do you think you could do?
Giving choices can sometimes be a good way to stop a fight, as the following little incident shows:
My daughters Channa and Devora, ages 6 and 7, were fighting over who would sit next to a friend who was their guest for the Shabbos meal. I said to them, You can choose -- either the two of you settle this between yourselves or you will have to leave the room. Just then my husband began to recite the Kiddush. I waited until he was finished. No sooner did the girls drink their wine than Devora, the older one, suddenly said, Channa can have the place.
There are times, such as on Erev Yom Tov, when tension from being especially busy makes it particularly difficult to tolerate fighting. For example, one child begins to tease the other, quickly running away, and the other one then chases him all over the house trying to catch him. In this case it might be best to simply have the youngsters go into separate rooms for awhile.
Forcing children to share toys and possessions isnt a good idea, but at times we can help them work out a fair system. For example, when one child comes to complain about another who wont share a toy, we might ask, How long does each of you want to have it? and then suggest that the schedule be written down and posted somewhere in the room.
Its difficult to ignore squabbling when it goes on right under your nose. In this case, the best thing to do is to quickly leave the scene and busy yourself elsewhere. Alternatively, you can ask the quarreling children to leave the room. For example, say, Kids, please settle this elsewhere. The children may first be given a choice: Please, either stop the quarreling or leave the room.
You can decide to ignore children who are hitting or kicking in their room, intervening to separate them only when the fighting gets rough. In that case, say to them, I cant let you hurt each other like this; I must separate you. Then put each child in a separate room for a cooling-off period. However, you shouldnt ignore any attacks that take place in your presence (not intervening is tantamount to conveying that this is acceptable behavior). Common sense also dictates that you intervene to protect babies from any onslaughts by an older child. A toddler or young child who attacks a baby shouldnt be scolded but rather removed from the scene as you tell him quietly, I cant let you hurt the baby.
On the other hand, there are parents who feel that since it is wrong to hit, children must never be permitted to do so. Thus whenever there is any physical aggression -- even if the parents didnt see it -- the children are told, Youre not allowed to hit (kick, bite, scratch, pull hair). If they still dont stop, they are separated. This doesnt mean, though, that you must intervene every time a child comes to tell you, (So and so) hit me! If you didnt see exactly what happened, it might be best to respond simply, Im sorry -- Ill talk to him about it later.
Try to be empathic when talking to children about hitting. A statement such as, I know it was hard for you to control yourself but youre not allowed to hit him (her), shows understanding, and at the same time conveys that there are limits to acceptable behavior. A child who hits a lot because the others make me angry can be told, The next time someone makes you angry, dont hit. Come and tell me about it instead.
As for biting, children will often sink their teeth into another childs arm without actually biting down. It doesnt hurt, but the other child comes to you to complain anyway. If you dont see tooth marks, you can be pretty sure that nothing much happened. The same goes for scratching. You can examine the childs arm as you say, Hmm -- it doesnt look too bad, but you can tell your brother (sister) that nails arent for hurting people. However, if you see bad tooth marks or nail marks on anyones arm, you should strongly reprimand the child whos responsible for them.
Dont try to teach a child not to bite, kick, or scratch by doing it to him to show him what it feels like. This sets a poor example for the child, and even if done for educational purposes, is likely only to cause resentment. A better approach is to tell the biting child, calmly, The next time you bite, Ill have to tape your mouth closed. If he then bites again, cover his mouth with a piece of cloth tape one and a half inches wide. Dont leave it on too long -- a minute or two will do. For a very young child, its enough simply to hold his lips closed for a short time.
Scratching can be handled by cutting the childs nails very short, telling him matter-of-factly, Im cutting your nails very short so you wont be able to scratch. If he carries on, tell him, Im sorry if it hurts you, but I cant let you scratch.
Teach children not to kick by taking their shoes off whenever they do it.
Fighting in Public and With Friends
Fighting in public generally cannot be ignored. If your children begin to fight while on a bus, in a store, or in some other public place, warn them that if they dont stop theyll be punished later at home. (Since the punishment is conditional, this doesnt contradict the restriction against deferred punishment mentioned in Chapter 5.) Or you can use logical consequences. For example, anyone who fights while the family is visiting with relatives stays home on the next visit. Another example: If the children quarrel on the bus while youre taking them to buy new shoes, you give them a choice, Either stop quarreling or we go back home without the new shoes. If they start to fight in a store take them out and tell them, Kids, I cant let you disturb the other shoppers this way. Either you keep quiet in the store, or youll have to stay outside. Of course, you must be prepared to follow through.
Before any trip it is a good idea to discuss with your children appropriate behavior. Concerning window seats or sitting next to Mommy or Daddy, you can suggest that they might switch places in the middle of the trip so that everyone gets a turn at these favorite seats.
Fighting during a car trip is easily handled: Pull the car over and refuse to continue until the fighting stops.
When children fight with friends, do your best to stay out of it. Avoid discussions about the fight with the other childs parents, and dont try to defend your child or blame the other child.
When small children have friends come to play, theres often considerable fighting over toys. Its best not to interfere; but you can go in to comfort any child who becomes upset. If the playing get too rough, send the visitor home.
In the park, let your toddler work out his problems with the other children by himself. If he grabs toys away from the other children and then gets hit, it may teach him not to grab toys. But you should definitely intervene if hes getting hurt, or if hes too rough with another child. A good way to stop an attack is simply to tell the aggressor, Hey -- that hurts him!
If your child is constantly being hit by another youngster, it might be advisable to have a talk with the childs parents about the problem. Most parents will be apologetic for their childs behavior and try to cooperate, but there are those who always will take their childs side -- to the point of indignation at the very idea that he ever does anything wrong. Sometimes it can help to teach your child to ward off attacks (see discussion on hitting in the next section); but often, the best solution is to have him leave the scene and come home when aggression begins.
Mothers often find their visits to friends homes spoiled by constant fighting between their respective children. Try to ignore minor squabbles, but whenever the warfare seems to be getting out of hand youll have to intervene, or cut your visit short.
Fighting at Mealtimes
Fighting during meals shouldnt be tolerated; it disturbs the peace of the entire family. The quarreling children should be told, We cant enjoy our food when theres this disturbance at the table. You have a choice to behave pleasantly or to leave the table. If the children leave and then return to the table and behave well, remember to praise them: How nice and pleasant it is at the table now!
Fights Over Toys
With very young children, physical aggression is rarely a serious problem; the swatting, punching, and screeching that go on generally involve disputes over toys. But even very young children can be told that theyre not allowed to hurt others, either physically or by saying things that make others feel bad. Three-year-olds can begin to be encouraged to share. Suggest, Its nice to share our things with others, and praise the child when he does -- How nice the way youre sharing your new truck! If a child is monopolizing a toy, dont try to make him share it but gently suggest, Why dont you give him a turn? Im sure hed like one. When one child comes to complain about anothers unwillingness to share, tell him, I guess he wants to have it to himself for a while. Why dont you wait until hes ready to share?
TORAH LAWS ABOUT FIGHTING
Even 5-year-olds understand enough so that you can begin to have individual talks with them about fighting -- after tempers have cooled and the children are ready to listen. In addition to helping them work out more peaceful solutions to differences, remind your children about the Torah commandments and prohibitions which relate to fighting. Your words will carry more weight if you read the laws together with them from the original Hebrew. For those who prefer English, Love Your Neighbor by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin is a good source.
The following is a brief summary of these laws.
1. Hitting: Children should be taught that hitting others is not allowed. Even merely raising a hand to strike another person is forbidden. But if someone raises his hand to strike us, or is actually hitting us, we may hit him to prevent him from hurting us. Its wrong to hit back in retribution. Since most children find it very hard not to hit back, you might suggest that they can avoid the problem by following this advice: When you see a hit coming, walk away.
If your child asks why youre allowed to hit him, explain that parents are allowed to hit their child to improve his behavior.
2. Causing pain with words or action: Parents should teach their children that it is forbidden to do anything which causes another person to suffer. Thus we must not insult others or call them by derogatory names; this is forbidden even if the other person doesnt mind because hes gotten used to the name. Neither may we speak to others in a harsh or critical manner, embarrass, tease, or annoy them; this includes pestering behavior. Children should be taught the rule of Hillel the Sage: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Have them picture themselves in the other persons position -- Suppose you were Benny and someone said (did) that to you -- how would you feel? But remember always to say this gently.
3. Lashon hara (derogatory speech): Children often come to us complaining bitterly about the way a sibling or friend treated them. We have to point out that, difficult as it is to avoid, relating bad things about others constitutes lashon hara and is forbidden unless it serves some constructive purpose, such as in a situation where action must be taken. Its best to tell the child, I know youre very angry at (so and so) but youre not allowed to tell me any bad things about other people.
If a child complains about his sister because he wants you to admonish her, explain that he should first try to admonish her privately himself, and that only if that doesnt help, or if hes certain she wont listen, is he allowed to tell you.
Since its forbidden to accept as definitely true any derogatory report about another person, tell the child, Thank you for calling this to my attention. Ill talk to your sister about this some time. Later you can explain to him why you dont automatically accept what he says.
But what about the injunction of not placing a stumbling block before the blind, according to which it is forbidden to encourage someone to speak lashon hara? Doesnt this pose a problem for parents? By listening to lashon hara related to us by our child, were encouraging him to speak it. On the other hand, its important to show our children understanding when theyre upset -- if we tell the child, Be quiet -- dont speak lashon hara, when hes angry at a sibling or friend, hell feel that were unsympathetic and uncaring. However, it is permitted to listen to lashon hara for the purpose of calming the speaker by giving him the opportunity to express his feelings. Thus we may hear our child out, with the expectation that well be able to soothe his anger. Still, we can encourage our children, when they want to tell us about verbal or physical abuse by other children, to refrain from mentioning names -- thus removing the derogatory information from the category of lashon hara.
A child who has learned that lashon hara is forbidden may wonder how we allow this. He may also have guilt feelings because he knows that what hes doing is wrong. Therefore, its important to explain that if we listen, its only in order to help him get over his anger.
4. Holding a grudge or seeking revenge: Children should be taught that no matter how badly someone has wronged or insulted us, we shouldnt take revenge or hold a grudge against him. Just as God forgives us when we do wrong, so should we forgive others who have mistreated us.
The story of Joseph and his brothers can be cited as an outstanding illustration of true forgiveness.
5. Judging charitably: We should teach our children to fulfill the Torah obligation to judge others charitably, and to always try to see the good in others. We can explain, You know, we have to love everyone, and always judge their actions favorably no matter what they do. Sometimes its hard -- a person is mean to us and we think hes bad and get angry at him. But thats wrong. It helps us to judge another person charitably if we see him as someone who hasnt yet learned to behave better. Maybe its hard for him to control himself, or maybe he just had a rough day. Even very young children can learn to think this way.
6. The mitzvah of admonishment: Children should be taught that were not to feel hatred toward someone who has treated us badly. We have an obligation to tell him how we feel, but we must do it quietly and pleasantly. If we yell at the other person, we offend him and are then ourselves guilty of wrongdoing. We must not judge another person for his wrong actions, but should only point them out to him -- not while hes angry but when hes calmed down. We must then give him a chance to explain, and if he says hes sorry we must forgive him.
Also, because theres a special obligation of not saying that which wont be heeded, there is no mitzvah to admonish if were sure that the other person wont listen.
7. Asking for forgiveness: Children should be taught that asking forgiveness of those weve hurt is part of doing teshuvah. We can encourage this by suggesting to a child, when we see that a fight has left hard feelings, He feels bad. Go tell him youre sorry.
Fights often start between siblings because one is trying to show that hes better than the other -- by deriding his work, or denigrating his ability. Explain to the child that whatever talents and abilities a person has come from God. Rather than seeing ourselves as better people because of these endowments, we should be quietly thankful that weve been thus blessed.
Often an oldest child insists that because hes the oldest, all the others must do as he says. He bosses them around, sometimes harshly criticizing them, so that they become resentful and noncompliant. Gently explain to him that if he wants the others to listen to him, he must treat them with respect and speak to them in a way which doesnt hurt their feelings; then they will be much more disposed to respect and listen to him. As the Sages teach: Who receives honor? He who honors others. You can ask him to put himself in the others position -- how would he want an older brother or sister to speak to him? Then you might review an incident with the child, perhaps doing some role playing. For example, you can ask, How could you have said that so hed have really listened to you?
HELPING CHILDREN DEVELOP
The main reason for childrens fights is their exaggerated negative evaluation of the other childs behavior. Try to help them see this. You might tell a child, You see, when you think to yourself how awful what the other person did is, or when you tell yourself that its terrible when he doesnt do what you want, what happens? You get angry and then theres a fight. So, what could you tell yourself so you wouldnt get so angry? Try to elicit answers such as, I could think that its not so awful if he doesnt do what I want him to do or, I could tell myself that what he did to me wasnt really so bad. Sometimes, discussions with the child about really terrible experiences can help him develop a better perspective. You can also encourage greater tolerance by asking, I know its not easy, but do you think you can learn to tolerate it when he acts that way?
Many fights develop because of the childs perception of something as unfair. Of course, what the child calls unfair is usually what he doesnt happen to like. Empathize with him at first, but then help him pinpoint the true reason for his distress -- his demand that things always be fair. For example, if he comes to complain, Its not fair! I had the ball and he just grabbed it from me! first respond, Im so sorry. Then go on to point out, softly, Honey, maybe if you didnt insist that everything has to be fair, you wouldnt feel so bad. You see, whenever we say, This isnt fair! we get ourselves upset. Its much better for us if we can just learn to accept it. At another time, you might start a discussion about fairness: Can everything in life be the way we want it to be? And what trouble can it cause us if we insist on it anyway?
Older children sometimes display intolerance toward younger siblings who try to copy everything they do, or bother them with silly questions. Rather than telling the older child, Dont you understand? Hes just a little child -- you shouldnt let it bother you, respond, He looks up to you so much -- he thinks you know everything! So he asks you whatever he wants to know. And he wants to be just like you -- so he copies everything you do. Its really an honor for you. Try to see it that way.
Try at times to show your children how we spoil the present by continuing to mull over some unpleasant event in the past. Ask, gently, How do you feel when youre upset? Not so good, right? Okay, something happened which got you upset. But its over. If you keep on being upset over it, youre suffering twice as much. Okay -- now lets find something else to do.
Helping Children Overcome Their Anger
Though most children express anger all too naturally, some bottle up their feelings, eventually exploding. If your child has this tendency, you need to be aware of it and help him to express his anger without damage to himself or others. At the same time, we can teach him the basic principles of cognitive psychology, along the lines described in this and other chapters. By applying these principles, he, too, can ultimately learn to cope effectively with his anger.
Because of the problem of lashon hara, we should encourage children whenever possible to get over any anger toward others by themselves. If this is difficult for them, then they should be urged to relate the derogatory information without revealing the other persons identity.
However, if you see that the child is very angry and complaining bitterly about the way another child treated him, its probably better not to remind him of lashon hara but to hear him out, with the intention of helping him overcome his anger:
CHILD: Im never gonna be friends with Michael again! Hes a big cheater!
PARENT: I see youre really very upset. Come sit down and tell me everything that happened.
CHILD: Well, Michael had these trading cards and he told me they were very special. So I bought five cards. Then he tells me, Ha ha, I tricked you. Theyre really plain cards -- theyre not even worth half of what you paid! Hes just a no-good cheater and Im gonna beat him up!
PARENT: That was really very wrong of him to do, and he has to learn not to do things like that. But how can you teach him? By getting angry or hitting him? Is that going to make him stop?
CHILD: But he cheated me! Hes disgusting!
PARENT: Wait a minute -- he did a bad thing but that doesnt make him a bad person.
CHILD: Hes a robber, thats what he is!
PARENT: Lets not call him names -- lets stick to describing what he did. He took your money unfairly and that was wrong.
CHILD: I dont care -- Im gonna beat him up and tell him what I think of him!
PARENT: Then youll be doing something wrong too, because were not allowed to scream and yell at people and were not allowed to hit.
CHILD: But I have to get back at him!
PARENT: If he deserves punishment, thats Hashems business, not ours. But you can talk to him and tell him how you feel about what he did -- not screaming or getting angry at him but just telling him -- thats what we should do when people do things to us that arent nice. Then youll have done a mitzvah. You have to let them know that youre upset with them for what they did.
CHILD: But Im so mad -- I dont want to talk to him!
PARENT: Youre mad because youre thinking what a bad person he is. Maybe if you just thought that he hasnt learned to behave better, you wouldnt feel so mad. Okay -- so what could you say to him? (The child may not respond; if so, the parent can suggest some possibilities.) Well, you could say, You really did a wrong thing and Im upset with you about it.
Notice that no efforts were made to get the child to judge his friend favorably. An angry child is generally not receptive to such suggestions. Besides, it would have been difficult to find a favorable judgment in this situation. But we can help a child to look for mitigating circumstances which explain why another child behaved as he did; thus it was suggested to the child that he see his friend as someone who hasnt learned to behave better.
Interestingly, modern research confirms that this is a very effective way to reduce a childs anger. In the past, it was thought beneficial to permit children to talk freely about their angry feelings, on the assumption that only in this way would they be able to get rid of the anger. Now there are experts who believe otherwise.
In one particular study with third-graders, children were frustrated and irritated by a little girl whom the experimenters had secretly enlisted in their cause:
The children were given one of three ways of handling their anger: Some were permitted to talk it out with the adult experimenters, some were allowed to play with toy guns for cathartic release or to get even with the frustrating child, and some were given a reasonable explanation from the adults for the childs annoying behavior. What reduced the childrens anger? Not talking about it. Not playing with guns -- that made them more hostile, and aggressive as well. The most successful way of dispelling their anger was to understand why their classmate had behaved as she did (she was sleepy, upset, not feeling well).
At times, a child may be so overwrought that we cant understand him. In that case its best to say, Id like to hear what youre saying but I cant listen when youre talking like this.
WILLINGNESS TO FORGO
We can encourage children to be willing to forgo -- that is, to let a sibling have what he wants or have his way -- by pointing out that whenever they forgo in this way, they fulfill the mitzvah of doing chesed. Even though they may be giving something up, the good feeling that comes from doing the mitzvah of making someone else happy compensates for the sacrifice.
Even very small children are capable of experiencing such compensatory satisfaction, as we see from this account:
My 2-year-old son received a gift of two small books. His older sister of 5 wanted one and grabbed it from his hands. He began screeching. I told him the noise was hurting my ears and asked him to please talk to his sister instead of screeching. I also pleasantly reminded my daughter that it wasnt right for her to grab her brothers book from him.
My son now quieted down and with a very sad face asked his sister to give him back his book. Rather reluctantly, she handed it back. Now I turned to my son and said, Your sister would really like to look at your book. You dont have to let her but if you do, then you will be doing a beautiful mitzvah. Do you know which one? Its the mitzvah of chesed! Hashem does chesed to us, and He wants us to do it toward each other.
His face brightening up, my son now relinquished the book and held it out to his sister. I had the impression that he felt genuinely pleased with himself, and not the least bit regretful or unhappy over his sacrifice.
Of course, children arent always so receptive to our reminders that by forgoing, theyre doing chesed. In such situations its best to refrain from saying anything and quietly overlook it. Asking, Dont you want to do the mitzvah? is generally not helpful; it usually only causes the child to see himself as bad for not wanting to do a mitzvah.
Some parents like to use a point system to encourage forgoing. Every time the child forgoes, he tells the parent about it and gets a point. When a designated number of points have accumulated (at least five), the child is entitled to some special treat or a small prize.
You can also give points for specific acts of self-control which prevent fights. For instance, a child who starts fights by grabbing things away from others can be given a point whenever he controls himself and doesnt grab. The youngster who stirs up trouble by teasing gets points for controlling the urge to tease. Such incentives can sometimes provide the necessary motivation to make children work harder to prevent fights:
Suppertime was prime time for fighting among my five children, making this a difficult hour for me. Many of the fights revolved around my oldest son, Shimon, and although I had had several private conversations with him about the fighting, it hadnt helped.
One evening as I paid particular attention to what was going on, I noticed that most of the fights occurred between Shimon and his younger sister Yael. For instance, he doesnt like very cold water but she loves it. So he takes the pitcher of cold water to the faucet and adds warmer water while she carries on. Yael, in turn, gets on his nerves with her constant teasing.
I had an idea. That evening, after the younger children were in bed, I made the following proposal to my son: I would make a chart, and for each evening that he would do his best to avoid fights by, for example, ignoring his sisters teasing or forgetting about taking the chill out of the water, he would get a point. For each point, I would pay for development of one picture from the film in the new camera he had just received from his grandfather. The chart was to be a private matter between the two of us.
Shimon liked the idea immediately and the next evening he earned one point. The following evening he forgot about the deal, but I reminded him later and also showed him a specific example of how he could have prevented a fight. The next evening he earned another point. By the time he had earned about 10 points, we began forgetting to keep track. But by then the fighting had substantially decreased, mostly because Yael saw that her teasing was not getting any results.
Several weeks later we received a letter from my father, asking when he could see some pictures from his grandsons new camera. That evening I told Shimon that he could take the last few pictures left on the film and that we would pay for development of the entire roll. I explained that although he had recorded only 10 points, he deserved it since he had really begun to make the effort to avoid fights, not only at suppertime but during the rest of the day too.
Sometimes one child always seems to be giving in to a more demanding sibling. If the youngster has an easy-going nature and doesnt appear to resent always being the one to give in, its probably best not to intervene. True, the other child may be taking advantage of him, but youre unlikely to accomplish much by stepping in. The best you can do is to work to reduce the demanding childs need to have things his way, and to help him develop greater tolerance toward frustration.
But if the child who gives in resents it and comes complaining to you or, worse, finds ways to get back at the other youngster -- then speak to him to help him with his problem. You can say, Its a wonderful character trait to be willing to forgo. But not if you feel bad about it afterwards. Its nice to let others have their way, but you dont have to do it all the time. Make up your mind, before you give in, that you wont resent it afterwards, or else, it might be better not to give in to begin with.
HYPERSENSITIVITY TO INSULTS
Children must be taught that insulting others is forbidden, but they also should be taught not to take it too seriously if anyone does it to them. Some children take offense very quickly, even when only mildly insulted or ridiculed. You can ask, How would you feel if someone said to you, Ha ha, you have three legs! Would that hurt you? Of course not -- because you wouldnt take it seriously. And if you didnt take it so seriously when someone makes fun of you, you wouldnt get into so many fights about it.
Easily offended children generally suffer from hypersensitivity to negative judgment by others. Help your child get over such hypersensitivity by pointing out that just as its not his business to judge others negatively, so is it no one elses business to judge him that way. If people do so anyway, its their mistake, and he doesnt have to feel bad. He must be careful, though, not to judge others poorly for the way they judge him. You might also tell him that our Sages view as real heroes those who are able to quietly bear insults. Who suffer insults without repaying in kind, hear their shame and do not respond.
A good way of handling the problem was presented by this mother:
When one of my children comes crying that her sister called her stupid or bad, I ask her quietly, Is what she said true? As she shakes her head I tell her, So if its not true, you dont have to worry about the wrong things shes saying about you. This seems to help a lot.
Another mother showed her children how the rain rolls off her raincoat. Then she said to them, Be like my raincoat; let all the unpleasant words roll off like rain.
Teasing is a common cause of fights. A child who teases should be quietly reminded that hes not allowed to do this since it makes others feel bad. You can influence children to stop teasing by having them put themselves in the other persons position. For instance, a younger child constantly teases her older sister for thumb-sucking. Tell her quietly, Youre teasing her about her thumb-sucking. Now tell me, you (wet your bed, are overweight). How would you feel if she teased you about that? Youd feel bad, wouldnt you? And so does your sister when you tease her about thumb-sucking.
Of course, teasing would never become much of a problem if the one subjected to it would simply ignore it. But with children who react strongly to being teased, telling them to ignore it generally doesnt help. You can teach such a child that, rather than crying and carrying on, he can talk to a sibling who persists in teasing, letting him know how he feels about it and asking him to stop. He might simply say, I dont like it when you tease me. Please stop it. In the case of an older child whose younger siblings teasing disturbs him during homework or other activities, you can suggest that he tell the younger child, Youre bothering me. I have a lot of work to get done. Please leave me alone. Children need to be made aware that they may have to repeat these messages several times in order to get them across. They should also be reminded that talking quietly is far more likely to get results.
Some children come crying to the parent because they were hit by a sibling, when the hitting was provoked by their own teasing. Here you might initially empathize with the child; later you can call him aside, saying gently, You came crying because your sister hit you. But you know, I heard you teasing her before. Maybe thats why she hit you -- I guess she didnt like it. So if you dont want to get hit by her again, maybe it would be better not to tease her anymore.
Sometimes it helps if you show a child how his excited reactions to being teased merely provide entertainment. Do you know why hes teasing you? Because he likes to see you jump up and down and scream -- he thinks its funny -- he enjoys it. Are you going to give him that pleasure? How about the next time he teases you, thinking to yourself, Im not going to give him a good time. Im just not going to react. Ill just ignore him.
Heres another way of influencing the child, used by one mother with great success:
My 9-year-old Sammy would get very angry when teased by Itzik, his younger brother of 6. One day I said to him, You know, youve made yourself into a puppet and you gave Itzik the strings. Every time you get angry when Itzik teases you, youre giving him the strings.
I told Sammy that this conversation would be a secret between him and me and that his brother wouldnt have to know about it. Then I said to him, Im going to help you to get the strings back for yourself, but I know itll be hard for you to remember. Lets decide on a code word -- whenever you get mad because Itzik is teasing you, Ill say strings. Besides helping him gain control, I think he appreciated the mutuality between us -- the idea of a special relationship. I had to use the code word several times during the next few weeks -- after that, very little. It really helped!
Another mother finds that humor works best for her. Once one of her children was particularly upset over being teased. She ran over, exclaiming with exaggerated anxiety, Wheres the bleeding?! Show me quick! Lets get the bandages! Shall I call an ambulance?! The child, greatly amused, quieted down right away. After doing this a few times, he seemed to realize that being teased wasnt so bad after all and that he could survive it.
PROBLEM SOLVING AS A METHOD
In discussions with your children, you can bring up the problem of their fighting, eliciting their ideas on preventing fights. One mother reports a rather amusing but constructive talk with her two small children:
I decided to call my two sons, Chananel, age 4, and Nathan, age 5, for a little discussion about their frequent fighting. Wed had such talks before on this and other subjects. Heres how our conversation went:
ME: Look here, Chananel and Nathan, your fighting is becoming very unpleasant for all of us. Now do you have any good ideas as to how we could solve this problem?
CHANANEL: I think Nathan should move to a different house -- he always bothers me and doesnt play nicely.
ME Well, thats not a good suggestion because Nathan belongs here -- this is his family and Mommy and Daddy love him very much and will not have him living anywhere else.
NATHAN: (very seriously) Well, maybe Ill just move into the living room! Ill sleep on the couch and play here.
ME: Thats not good because Mommy and Daddy use the living room at night and the lights will be on and therell be noise. You wont be able to sleep.
NATHAN: So maybe Ill just play here and sleep in my room. We dont fight at night -- we sleep!
Both children thought this over for a moment while I just sat quietly. Then the discussion continued.
CHANANEL: I think the best is just to try to be friends and get along because I wont like playing by myself all the time.
NATHAN: That will last exactly one half an hour.
ME: Well, lets see what we could do to make it last for more than half an hour. Lets discuss some of the problems.
NATHAN: Chananel insults me and says things that hurt my feelings.
ME: What could you do?
NATHAN: I could ask him to stop but it wont help.
ME: Well, what do you think would happen if you just walked away?
NATHAN: Good -- Ill try that.
We continued to discuss different tactics which each could use when the trouble started.
Since this talk, I see a certain decrease in the fighting. I remind the kids of our discussion once in a while when things get a little out of hand, and it really helps.
At times you can explore with an individual child ways in which a fight could have been prevented. Tell him that were not concerned with figuring out whose fault it was, but with finding ways to avoid fights in the future. For example, after hes given you the details about a fight, you can ask, Lets think -- what could you do next time when she...? or How could you say it next time so that...? If the child cant think of anything, you can give suggestions.
Here is a story illustrating this approach:
Two days after the workshop session on fighting, the weekly childrens magazine we subscribe to arrived in the mail. My two daughters, Shira, ages 9, and Tali, aged 11, pounced upon it and began fighting over it intensely, pulling at the magazine and yelling.
I got it first -- Mommy, tell her!
Thats not true, I saw it first and Im going to read it before you!
Mommy, shes ripping the magazine!
At this point the two girls came to my bedroom screaming, the magazine torn in half. In the past Id have yelled at them and grabbed the magazine, threatening to cancel the subscription. Instead, I asked my girls to please leave and settle the matter between themselves.
They left. The screaming and shouting continued for another five minutes. Then suddenly there was quiet. I went into their room and found Shira and Tali with angry faces, the magazine torn into shreds. I could see that they were anticipating my reaction, but I said nothing. I merely brought in a plastic bag and asked that they gather the torn bits. Then I left. (I found out later that the torn pieces were picked up by their little sister.)
Several hours later I had a chance to talk to Shira, the younger one. I asked her if she thought the fight over the magazine (that in the end was ripped to pieces) was worth it. She began blaming her sister, but I stopped her and asked that she refrain from discussing what happened and just tell me how the fight could have been avoided. She thought for a moment and then said, Maybe its better to let Tali read the magazine first, and then itll remain in one piece. She suggested donating some money from her savings, and if Tali would contribute her share, they could buy a new magazine at the newstand. It would be a shame to miss this weeks installment of an exciting story.
That evening I discussed the matter with Tali, who at first protested: If thats how she acts, then neither of us will have a magazine. But then when I told her about her sisters idea of sharing the cost of a new magazine, to my amazement she sighed a deep sigh of relief. Okay, she said, Ill give her the money and she can go buy it. After all, she was the one who started tearing it.
A quarrel now developed between the two of them about who would buy the new magazine, but once again, I managed to stay out of it. To my surprise, the two girls left and came back with the magazine, immediately announcing that it didnt matter who got to read it first. And so it was. The older one got the first turn while her sister was at the computer.
I should add that when the fight broke out, I stopped my oldest daughter of 18 from intervening, taking her away from the scene and explaining that I was trying out a new approach. She gave me a doubting look, saying, Your approach wont help this magazine, of which soon nothing will be left. When she saw the new magazine that evening, and two quiet girls, she remarked, I wouldnt have believed it!
Dont expect that your talks will have a sudden dramatic impact. Be patient, demonstrating toward your child the same tolerance you want him to display toward others. Show understanding with statements such as, I know how hard it is not to hit back when he punches you like that or, I know its difficult to take when she starts teasing you. If you need to rebuke your child for aggressive behavior, remember to do it gently.
At the close of your discussion, its a good idea to sum up, So what are some of the things youre going to be working on? In this way your child commits himself to work on self-improvement.
THE CHILD WHO KEEPS HITTING
Sometimes a young child develops a habit of going over to other children and hitting them for no apparent reason. Parents are upset to see their child derive pleasure from such behavior, especially if the child acts this way in the presence of other adults. The parents then worry what others are thinking, not only about the child but also about them.
Make every effort to refrain from negative judgments such as, Why is he so mean to the other children?! These will only lead to angry criticism of the child. Rather, view the behavior as simply a bad habit. In addition to explaining to him that the Torah forbids hitting, tell the child very quietly that he certainly wouldnt like it if others behaved this way toward him; thus he shouldnt do it to them.
Such a child needs to be handled with patience and understanding. Keep in mind that it may not be easy for him to give up his bad habit; this will help you ward off anger-producing thoughts such as, Ive told him so many times not to hit -- why does he keep doing it? Parents should also worry less about what others are thinking about them because of the childs behavior; such worrying often heightens their anger toward the child.
Occasionally, a teacher will report that a youngster is hitting other children at school. Heres how one mother handled the situation:
My 3-year-old Channi, a clever and likable child, enjoyed hitting other children at her kindergarten for no apparent reason. She used to hit her brothers and sisters at home; when she started kindergarten, she began doing the same thing there. The teacher would put her into the corner as punishment, but this hadnt helped much. Since a new baby had arrived, the hitting at kindergarten had gotten much worse.
In a discussion of the problem during our weekly workshop meeting, I became aware that Channi had learned to see herself exactly as I saw her. Questions such as,Why do you like to hit the other children? had served only to reinforce this notion. It was as if a sign reading Im a girl who likes to hit other children had been pinned to her. I realized too that essentially, Id come to resign myself to the situation. As a result, so did Channi. I did some thinking about the problem and the next day, had a good opportunity to try out my ideas.
I came to the kindergarten to pick up my daughter, and found her standing in the corner, looking very dejected. On our way home we had the following conversation:
Why were you in the corner?
Because I hit Yaeli.
Why did you hit her? Did she bother you -- take something away from you?
Then why did you hit her?
Because I wanted her to cry.
Do you like it when Yaeli cries?
And do you like to cry?
Thats right, and I dont think Yaeli likes to cry either.
Now I asked her, Why did God create us with hands? To hit others? She said no. I asked, Why do we have hands? She answered, To color, cut; and I added, And to help Mommy to pick up something which falls. Then I said, You know, next time your hand wants to hit, tell it, Dont hit -- come, lets do something else. And then quickly give it something else to do. At that point we arrived home.
The next morning I reminded Channi of our conversation of the day before. When I came to pick her up later from kindergarten, the teacher told me that she had not hit anyone once that day. I told her what I was doing to rid Channi of the habit, and suggested that she use the same method and stop putting Channi in the corner as punishment for hitting.
By the end of the following week, I learned from the teacher that my daughter had almost completely given up her former habit of hitting children!
Another mother used incentives to motivate her child to change his aggressive behavior at school:
Yehuda brought home a note from his rebbi (teacher) that he was hitting every day in school. I discussed it with the rebbi and asked him to send me a note each day to report on Yehudas behavior. I also asked the rebbi to remind Yehuda that for each good report his mother would give him a star. Ten stars would entitle him to a prize. I explained this arrangement to my son. Over a period of three weeks he improved rapidly to the point where his rebbi said that he never hit anymore!
When I visited the school afterwards, the children greeted me with a chorus of, Yehuda lo marbitz! (Yehuda doesnt hit!). Whereas before he had been proud of his image as a hitter, now he was equally proud of not hitting.
Sometimes, a child who hits at school can be kept home for a day.
Hillel the Sage taught: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it. We should teach our children to pursue peace by encouraging them quickly to make peace with each other after quarrels -- and without involving their parents.
One mother devised a novel incentive system to encourage her children in this:
Ive often heard my kids hassling, but sometimes Ive heard them working out a solution too. So we began giving the Aharon HaKohen Award. If my children made peace with each other without having to resort to a grownup for help, they got the award. An Israeli Rosh Hashanah card with Moshe, Mt. Sinai, and Aharon was pasted onto a square of cardboard; they got to hang this card in their room for a day when they earned it. Although they are now bar- and bas-mitzvah age, they still use the negotiating skills they learned by making peace together when they were little.
Children usually do manage to make peace between themselves after a fight, but sometimes our peacemaking efforts are required.
Aaron the Priest had a peacemaking technique which we can use with our children. Whenever Aaron heard that two people had had a quarrel, he would go to each one and tell him that the other was blaming himself for what had happened and was regretful. Then when the two would meet again, they would embrace one another and be friends.
Naturally. We must wait until the children have completely calmed down before trying this.