Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Tishrei 5760 - October 6, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment

by Chaim Walder

This week someone made a sharp observation: "We all make mistakes in raising our children, but it's always possible to rectify them. Except for one mistake: spoiling our children." He did not mean excessive love or attention. He was referring to establishing clear limits for children.

Sometimes it seems like we were a different breed of child from today's children. If our parents said "no" to us, we accepted their judgment. We were generally unspoiled; we didn't get as many treats, toys, or clothing as our children do.

In reality, it's not the children who are different, but the parents. Our parents knew how to tell us, "No." And not just "no," but a firm, clear, strong, definite, unyielding "No!"

We, on the other hand are, shall we say, a little weak. We don't always know how to say, "no." And after we make a decision, we don't always stand behind it.

There are a lot of foggy areas for our children, wherein they try to judge how much pressure they can put on their parents. Human nature is to first determine one's boundaries, then try to widen them, and finally, if possible, to burst through them. Only when it is clear to someone that his boundary is concrete and immovable is he at peace, knowing that come what may, that is his limit. Beyond this he cannot move. Hence, he does not feel like he's missing out on anything he could have attained.

Family life is much like the work place. In a corporation without a division of authority, mayhem breaks out, with continuous quarrels and power struggles. Everyone tries to wield authority and to bite off as much of the pie as he can.

If authority is defined from the beginning, it's a different story. This person is above you; this one below you. When these matters are clear, no one steps on anyone else's toes. If someone does overstep his boundaries, he is asked for an explanation and appropriate action can be taken.

The family hierarchy must also work this way. When a child knows his limits clearly, he is tranquil. He doesn't feel as if he is always losing out or missing anything. On the other hand, a child without limits always tries to get more and more.

In practical terms this is how it works: A child asks for a certain treat, and his parents have decided not to give it to him for reasons they consider adequate, whether financial or otherwise. He starts to beg. The parents' heart goes out to their suffering son or daughter.

Here is where the distinction is. There are parents who make it clear to the child from the outset that they have decided not to fulfill his request. The "no" is definite and unswerving. They stand by their decision, even if their child cries and stamps his feet. Even if he "drives them crazy." The first few times this is difficult, because the child really doesn't give up, but after a while, the child gets used to the fact that when his parents say "no," it is a concrete wall, and not a shaky fence that can be easily swayed with a little push. If this is done over time, he will stop trying, because it's not worth his time. He'll hear the word "no," make a face -- and go about his business.

But if the parents have pity on their "poor" child, they say the kind of "no" that really means "maybe." They may try to explain the rationale behind their refusal to the child. In doing so, they've left an opening for a debate about the justice of their decision. Throughout the fight, the child cries, begs, and makes the parents feel like they are cruel and unfeeling. The "why yes" argument a child presents is often more convincing than the "why no." Why make a big deal out of it?

During the argument, the child knows that the "no" is not a concrete wall, but a shaky fence that is worth testing. He starts to make a fuss, and his parents say the magic words, "We'll see."

The breach is now there. All he needs to do is give a little push, "So when? You said, `We'll see.'"

A little more tears and stamping. His parents feel they should still get something educational out of all this, so they say, "If you're quiet for five minutes, we'll think about it."

Now the child knows: the breach has widened, the lock is open. A delay mechanism will open the lock in five minutes. He knows his parents won't be able to say no now.

After five minutes he approaches his parents quietly, and they say, "But you promise to be a good boy?" Of course, he promises. He'll promise anything you want now. The main thing is there is no wall, no fence, and not even a lock.

Next time it will be easier for him. As soon as he hears the "no," it's clear that it is just a matter of time until he gets what he wants. He knows that his parents are "wishy- washy" and cannot withstand his pleas and, worse, his tantrums. He won't let up until they break again. The weaker the parents, the shorter the time between the "no" and the changing of their minds. Both sides know it isn't worth the time or energy -- in the end, the child will win anyway.

Then the real campaign has only begun. The child refuses to take his studies, lessons, and household chores seriously. He's not ready to carry out simple tasks, such as taking out the garbage or even picking up a tiny object from the floor. He has turned into a stubborn crybaby. His main effort is to turn on the tears and get as much out of his parents as he can. He has learned that he need not exert himself to get what he wants, and his desires are unlimited. He asks for everything and gives nothing.

This is a child without limits. A child who also ignores all stop signs. He relates to them as if they are merely recommendations -- not obligations. His only obligation is to keep racing through the course of his desires.

Nowadays even the non-religious have come to realize, all too late, that a child like this is really miserable and embittered. He has no happiness and not even a bit of interest in life.

On the other hand, a child who has learned that his parents have the last word, walks through life secure. "Permitted," "forbidden," "yes," "no," "do" and "don't do" are clearly defined to him.

Compare this to a child without limits. He always feels that he only has to shed another tear or two and push his parents a bit more, and they will hand him the whole world on a silver platter. As much as this child without limits has gained, he has really lost.

To a child with limits, everything is clear. If a request was denied, that's that. And everything he did get was rightfully earned. He is happy with his lot. And wonder of wonders -- he loves and values his "callous" parents, while his friend without limits hates his parents.

When Chazal said, "One who spares the rod hates his son," they envisioned this spoiled brat, who has only become that way because his father set no limits for him.

As long as the child is a child, it's not too late to impose limits on the child and to return control to the parents. Once the child becomes a teenager, you can say about him what was stated at the beginning of this article.

A last word of caution: Don't forget also that before you blurt out "no," consider the word carefully. Say it only when there are good reasons not to say "yes."

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