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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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."