Parenting Fundamentals

May 9, 2009

9 min read


Four key points every parent needs to keep in mind.

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

It seems that most of my friends and I grew up in dysfunctional homes. I am now married with four children ages 4 months to 6 years old, who all end up screaming at me if I don't do what they want right away. I think they learned the screaming from me. This is how they communicate because this was how I was communicated to as a child. I would like to have a healthy relationship with my children and want to stop this cycle of screaming. I would appreciate receiving some pointers from you on how to deal properly with my children. I tell myself not to get angry and in the meantime a bubble of anger and impatience slowly boils inside until I blow up. I know I'm doing something wrong and would love some advice.


Dysfunction has been defined as the state of affairs when there is a group of more than one person.

For starters, it is important to note that we are not doomed to perpetuate dysfunction or negative ways of interacting. We can, decisively, with the requisite effort, choose to break the cycle.

There is a wonderful comment by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh on the Almighty's marching orders to Abraham upon his initiation as the first patriarch of the Jewish people. He was commanded to "go, leave your land, your birthplace and your father's home." Rabbi Hirsh posits that in order to build a Jewish world, it was necessary for Abraham to:

1) Leave his land, his country, his society and its decadent culture.
2) His birthplace, its cultural assumption of being locked into genetics and heredity.

The Jewish view is that while we may have predispositions, we also have the wherewithal and the free choice to get beyond them and make our own decisions.

And finally,

3) His father's home refers to the way he was raised in his family of origin. Abraham was instructed that it was imperative to abandon the destructive approaches of his own upbringing and to cultivate in their stead constructive modalities to raise his own offspring. The Torah records this roadmap as a guide for all of us, the descendants of Abraham.

If you and your family can make it through the day intact, you're doing great.

Dealing with four little ones under the age of six can be a daunting task under the best of circumstances. I would recommend that you, my dear reader, not be so quick to judge yourself harshly. If you and your family can make it through the day intact, you're doing great.

As for bruised egos and the concern of scarring and mangling children for life, my rule of thumb (perhaps it was rationalization for survival's sake) was balance. Simultaneous with the goal to constantly upgrade my coping skills, I deliberately tried to offset my negative outbursts and overreactions by compensating for them with equally passionate expressions of love and positive affects such as compliments and boundless hugs and kisses. The good news is, thank God, despite my many mistakes, my children, for the most part, turned out great.

A helpful tool is to imagine a higher power dispatching an angel to videotape our response to the given situation. This tool can shape our attitude and moderate our reaction. Whether it's sliding on the kitchen floor courtesy of the spilled juice, the scattered Cheerios or the many little hands tugging at us all at once, a paradigm shift takes place when we become aware and conscious that we are not alone and are being observed. Instead of "blowing it," we can, with a bit [maybe a lot!] of self-control, make it a moment of "profiles in courage."

Another tool is to disengage oneself (perhaps with just the infant in hand) and spending a brief few moments alone in another room. This might help to gain perspective, compose oneself and avoid a major eruption (variations of the counting to 10 approach).

While there are many wonderful books on the subject of parenting, I believe every parent needs to keep the following four fundamental in mind:

1. We are always the models for our children. They are constantly watching and observing us very carefully. They register our every behavior and response -- especially when we are under stress. The Mishna teaches that there are three ways to really know the truth about a person's character:

a. What does one do when he is angry?
b. How does one relate to spending money?
c. How does one behave when under the influence of alcohol, or what, in fact, intoxicates and thrills a person?

We transmit values to our children by what registers high on the emotional Richter scale.

We transmit values to our children by what registers high on the emotional Richter scale. Is it a bad mark on the report card or being mean to another child? Is it crayon marks on the wall or beating up a sibling?

What intoxicates and exhilarates us? Is it the joy of a friend or a beautiful dress? What are we willing to dish out money for? Charity to the poor or redecorating the house? A new car? Designer clothes?

At a lecture a woman once asked me how she could transmit the skills to cope with the inevitable challenges in life to her children. The obvious response was that by the way we move through our own life's issues when we are stressed and overwhelmed conveys the message loud and clear. There was a wonderful poem entitled "When you thought I wasn't looking, I looked."

2. Don't underestimate the value of staying home and doing your own parenting, regardless of the times you fall short of the excellence you would like to bring to this sacred trust. My most precious memories of childhood centered on the knowledge that my mother could always be found in the kitchen. It made us feel that there was nothing more important in my mother's life than caring for us.

Parenthetically, my mother didn't sit on the floor and play games with us or give us endless undivided attention, but she was there if we needed her and we knew where we could find her.

Of course in today's world not every woman can stay home. I have advised women who go to work to be very vigilant about the excitement they exhibit when coming home to their children. The message needs to be that they work in order to come home and not that they need to discharge their responsibilities at home in order to go to work. Implicitly and explicitly, home has to resound as the clear and unchallenged priority.

3. We need to be on a constant lookout to catch our children doing something right. The tendency is to take appropriate behavior for granted and comment only on the negative. Training ourselves to notice the positive and to give positive feedback on those occasions can be a behavior altering experience for them. We can go a step further and not only compliment them but let them hear us tell a friend about it.

To this day, I recall overhearing my father, of blessed memory, talking late at night to his best friend. He extolled my virtues and spoke about how special I was to him. That moment gave me a wonderful, positive sense of self and strength that I have drawn on until this very day. There is no motivation more powerful than being treasured, respected and held in high esteem. We are loath to disappoint the good opinion others have of us, most especially those of our parents who know us best.

Jewish tradition teaches that the centerpiece of the home must be the husband and wife.

4. Finally, a great rabbi once said that the key factors in raising good children are 50% prayers for strength and heavenly assistance and 50% "shalom bayit"-- peace in the home between husband and wife. A psychologist recently noted that in his practice, teenagers are commonly brought in to his office by their parents to deal with their acting out, their chutzpah and lack of respect towards their parents, siblings and others. Invariably, he commented, that teenagers say to him, "Ask our parents how they interact with each other."

He concluded that in his experience, lack of respect of the children is most often a mirror image of what is happening in the home. Too many of the couples I counsel are so consumed by the demands of their children that the need to work on the spousal relationship is all but forgotten. Jewish tradition teaches that the centerpiece of the home must be the husband and wife -- mommy and daddy. Children should be taught from the very start, that as important as they are, attention to one's spouse comes first. Knowing that mommy and daddy are there for each other, first and foremost, with respect, love and caring infuses the children with a wonderful sense of well-being and confidence, as well as setting the example for the entire family.

I would encourage you, my dear reader, to network with friends who are experiencing this stage in life. There is no "one size fits all" solution but shared insights and tidbits can, at times, be helpful.

From my vantage point, looking back, my urging to you, dear reader, is that even as you struggle to do your best, don't miss out on the beauty. Even though you may not believe it, this stage goes by real fast and is no more than a memory all too soon. Sneak into your children's room at night when they are asleep and angelic looking, and thank God for the blessing even as you pray for the strength to do right by them.

Cookie and Baila, our oldest daughters, were born 14 months apart. I remember tiptoeing into their room one night, turning to my husband and saying, "Can you imagine that someday they will talk to each other and be good friends?" We blinked twice and today both are grandmothers!

Hang in there -- the best is yet to come. Good luck!

Rebbetzin Twerski's son-in-law, Rabbi Elimelech Eliezer Geldzahler, has been critically wounded in a bus accident in Israel. We ask all readers to pray on his behalf. His Hebrew name is Elimelech Eliezer ben Henna Freidel.

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