...to middle-age mothers of large families—mothers who are emotionally & physically depleted.
Despite a lot of very sincere effort, most have at least one child (if not more) who isn't doing well spiritually/religiously.
And all the:
- running around to different experts to find solutions & a school that is just the right fit
- leaping through the hoops of protekzia to meet whatever the parents or experts think are the child's needs
- extra doses of love, encouragement, and praise (even to the point of neglecting the other, less problematic children — who somehow do fine without all these seeming extras AND dealing with results of their problematic sibling & parents stretched thin)...
- either do not improve at all...
- ...or they worsen
- or they look eternally okay, but behind the scenes, they are propped up by:
These kids aren't so connected.
And this is DESPITE how much their parents & schools invested & continue to invest in them, to bolster the child's self-esteem, to make frumkeit enjoyable, etc.
Again, it's important to emphasize that this topic address kids whose parents DID invest in them with incredible flexibility, and who DID attend alternative schools catering to these kids & their issues, and who DID receive outside help/treatment via therapists, chonchim (Big Brother programs), and so on.
The efforts usually did not reap the expected fruits. Not even close.
Upside-Down Parenting Produces Upside-Down Results
This is sometimes true.
At one point, I believed this too.
After all, experts detail this theory in a convincing manner.
And proofs of this theory abound as we observe seriously warped teenagers & adults who suffered an abusive upbringing.
But as time went on, it surprised me to see that so many times, the problematic teens were davka the child that the parents (especially the mother) invested in MOST.
This isn't true all the time. But many times it is.
For example, I happened to be visiting a friend with her many children around us.
Suddenly, her teenage boy pulled a mattress into the living room & started somersaulting on it.
His mother responded by oohing and ahhing over his antics.
Knowing her very well over several years, I understood she responded like this to give him positive attention, and not because she felt so enthralled by his somersaulting. (And yes, this is one of two kids in the family with problematic behavior—they have a lot more than 2 kids, but only 2 behave very problematically.)
Look, if a sixteen-year-old boy wants to somersault on a mattress, what's the problem?
They need to blow off steam (especially the super-energetic ones) & somersaults can be a fine way to do this.
But why did he also need his mother's praise and adulation for doing it?
After all, his need was why she was cooing at his antics; she felt compelled for the sake of his "self-esteem."
She was not actually so wowed by a teenage boy somersaulting on a mattress.
And why should she be?
It's understandable behavior, but it's not mature behavior. And it's odd that at his age, he wasn't embarrassed to be doing it in front of someone from outside the family.
But his mother put on a convincing act in the hope that by feeling good about himself (including this silly accomplishment), he'll behave better. (She told me this outright.)
And she felt desperate for him to behave better.
At that point in his life, he regularly ruined Shabbos meals, bullied his younger siblings (including much younger siblings, like his 3-year-old sister), and his father started taking sedatives whenever he knew he needed to be in the same room as this son.
The boy's older sister—an exceptionally emotionally healthy person—quietly removed herself to her bedroom during Shabbos meals because she found her brother's behavior intolerable.
This happened every single Shabbos.
This sister did so quietly because she saw her parents struggling & didn't want them to feel blamed or stressed out more than they already were.
(Isn't it intriguing how this teenage sister found the emotional maturity & sensitivity to handle the situation thoughtfully, but her brother, who was almost the same age & raised by the same wonderful parents, could not bring himself to behave with minimum decency despite copious investment by his parents, therapist, and those who help youth-at-risk?)
At one point, the mother confided that when she read articles on emotional/verbal abuse & signs of abuse, she felt both startled & dismayed to realize that she identified so strongly with the victim, including the signs of co-dependent behavior toward the abuser.
She said these articles exactly describe her situation with her and her son; she felt abused verbally, mentally, and emotionally...by her own son.
And having known them all for so long & having seen this boy in action, I wholeheartedly agreed with her assessment.
Despite all the psychobabble to the contrary, I couldn't deny the stark reality in front of my face: The mother was being victimized by her teenage son.
And his behavior was NOT in response to an abusive upbringing.
As already stated, the parents went out of their way to give their children a calm, loving upbringing.
It was also odd because these parents possessed exemplary middot & enjoyed wonderful shalom bayis. They both genuinely liked & appreciated each other, and both took pleasure in being mevater to each other.
In other words, the parents presented the ideal example of a healthy relationship.
Together, they cultivated a consistent atmosphere of calm & security.
Furthermore, she & I attended the same chinuch class when our children were little and she continued long after I dropped out from despair.
Note: My experience with both books & classes indicate most chinuch teaching does NOT offer effective methods for parenting strong-willed, adventurous, bright, innovative, energetic boys. Not on purpose, but they simply have no clue, nor are they necessarily sympathetic to the very real challenges these otherwise wonderful children present. That's a huge part of the problem. Yes, you can find competent chinuch people—they definitely exist!—but you need to really dig around for them.
Back then, the chinuch teacher continued with her usual thing of giving them both wrong advice & right advice, while not realizing the harm caused by a school all wrong for the child. But the chinuch teacher kept insisting it can all work out if the parents continue to work with the school according to the school's directives.
Note: This approach NOT true. I've seen this too many times to count. If the school is the wrong fit for THAT particular child (or for the whole family), then THAT it usually what spurs a child off the derech later. A negative school experience is the main reason for off-the-derech youth later. Even two really wonderful parents may not be able to counteract a consistently negative school experience. How unfortunate that this chinuch teacher remained clueless at the time.
Furthermore, when their children were still young, my friend's husband took the unusual & very intelligent step of hosting a chinuch class for men in their home.
So it was weird to see such problems with this son, plus another son of theirs who also started acting up.
And I noticed a certain insensitivity in these two sons—the one really difficult boy in particular—not just toward his siblings & parents, but in general. Not sociopathy, but he wasn't so interested in how his behavior affected others.
Outside the family, he never went out of his way to hurt anybody—in fact, I don't think he ever hurt anyone outside the family—and he liked being around people. But I sensed a certain disconnect in him, even though he was also sociable boy.
In addition, both boys always came off as a little immature for their age from the time they were young.
Meaning, when they were six, they were somewhat immature for a six-year-old. When they were 10, they were somewhat immature for a 10-year-old. When they were 15, they were somewhat immature for a 15-year-old.
Right now, after years & years of superhuman efforts, these 2 sons are on either side of age 20 and doing okay.
Just kind of okay. Not more than that. (And still a little bit immature for each of their ages.)
And just to drive the point home, this state of "kind of okay" comes despite:
- a calm, consistent upbringing
- parents (particularly the mother) who performed incredible feats for YEARS (including through numerous pregnancies & nursing babies) to find the right parenting method
- the hunt for & investment in schools, mentors, and programs for the wayward sons
Ironically, despite having parents stretched to the limit & focusing so heavily on one child in particular, a father sometimes on sedatives due to his son's intolerable behavior, and an aggressive bullying older brother who regularly disrupted pleasant family events, the rest of the kids are turning out pretty well!
Again: Throughout all this, their numerous other kids have been doing very well.
Isn't that illogical?
People understandably don't like to hear stories like this because it feels so wrong.
It's not fair.
And you know what?
It's really NOT fair.
And it also brings up feelings of despair because you start to think that if all that effort didn't work, then maybe nothing does...so what's the point of it all?
However, there is no cause for despair.
This particular problem comes when parents run very hard in the wrong direction.
(And this is easy to do when you have chinuch teachers & authors unwittingly advising parents to run very hard in the wrong direction.)
Doing It Right—No More Indulging Ego or Emotions (Even With The Best of Intentions)
As described above, she invested tremendous energy & effort in her children.
Here's a specific example:
When their 2 boys were young, her husband disliked taking them to shul on Shabbos.
Admittedly, it's tremendously hard to manage the davening with 1 young son, let alone two.
It was a big unwieldy yoke on him (and understandably so).
Yet it is absolutely his tafkid to teach his sons to daven and to daven in a minyan!
That's the male role and it is HIS role to teach them this.
A mother cannot do this.
But neither my friend nor her husband realized this.
(Again, HE at least should've realized this from his learning. But socially & culturally, this idea isn't around—unless you happen to listen the minority of rabbis who discuss it according to real daat Torah.)
So despite the inconvenience among her other myriad duties, my friend knocked herself out by creating a special bag of treats (which entailed inconvenient shopping while pregnant & nursing, and with numerous young children). The special bag was huge & stuffed with treats specially picked according to their taste, and featured bows and ribbons.
She beamed with pride as she showed the bags to me while her eyes glowed with expectation.
She presented them to her sons with a huge smile and an excited tone of voice.
In the meantime, her glum-looking husband shepherded them out the door with the fancy treat bags.
She did this kind of very well-intentioned encouragement a lot.
Yet these 2 boys didn't like davening.
Even long after bar mitzvah, they often stayed home on Shabbat rather than go to a minyan. I'm not sure they even davened on their own in those times.
As far as I know, they never learned to like davening.
The boys didn't like learning either, despite the fact that their father loved learning and was quite a knowledgeable masmid.
Their resistance toward school & davening developed into the primary source stress in the family, though both the parents have such good middot, it didn't flare up like it does in other families.
Even now, neither likes learning or davening, but the combined efforts of their parents, mechanchim, and therapists over the years enable them to go through the motions.
Interestingly, my friend & her husband have another young son now at the age where he needs to learn to go to daven with his father on Shabbos.
And this son is not only energetic (like his older brothers), but bold, confident, and savvy (unlike his older brothers). He also has an aggressive streak that his older brothers lacked at his age.
Yet despite how this younger brother should be a harder child to train, it's a totally different ballgame now.
Why? Why are things so different?
Why are they succeeding with the objectively more difficult child, when they did not succeed with the easier children?
First of all, the father finally got involved in his obligatory chinuch.
He stepped out of his former role as "mommy's helper," and took on a more proactive role as head of the home (although he is indeed still a helpful husband, but he is now more than that).
And the mother finally released these particular reins to the father—especially important when the chinuch involves something ONLY the father can do! A mother cannot be mechanech her sons about going to minyan, how to behave in shul, and so on.
(I don't mean widows, who often receive a special siyata d'Shmaya due to the loss orchestrated by Hashem. But they still struggle with this & often depend on other men to train her boys to daven. I mean married women who have a husband around to mechanech the boys. Hashem gave them a father in their home. That's what the father is there for: chinuch.)
Yes, the mother can assist in this particular aspect of chinuch. She should definitely be supportive.
But it's really the father's arena.
(This is why you see with boys off the derech that the vast majority—in addition to negative school experiences—grew up with fathers who never learned to mechanech them about davening. Either the fathers were too tough & angry or they were apathetic. Either way, there was no real chinuch about davening.)
So how do things go now?
First, before the father goes off to learn, the father leans down to his son and, in a very soft voice with an "I'm-not-kidding" face, his father says that he'll be coming back in however much time to take the boy to daven and the boy needs to be ready.
Wisely, the father doesn't smile, cajole, or speak in an excited tone of voice.
He doesn't look glum or reluctant either.
He looks determined & committed.
Then the father looks over the boy's head to the mother, and she nods.
(While the father presented it as the boy's responsibility, it's still good for the mother to support it and prompt the boy so he'll be ready when his father returns. And she does. So that's their silent way of making sure they're both in the game.)
Because she's both emotionally & physically worn out at this point, my friend no longer has the energy to make davening in shul seem full of allure & excitement.
(Though she meant well, it was always a deception anyway because until a person matures enough to understand the power of davening in a minyan, it feels neither alluring nor exciting—though some children do naturally enjoy the experience—and making it seem what it isn't often doesn't work. The kid gets all excited and then...oh. Meh. Let-down occurs.)
So at the appointed time, she pleasantly reminds the boy that his father will be home soon to take him and that he needs to get ready.
Though her voice remains soft & pleasant, it conveys a firm undertone.
I was impressed by the way this assertive, fearless boy looked at his parents with respect each time they spoke to him in this manner.
When his father came, he addressed the boy in a quiet, pleasant, yet no-nonsense manner.
And the boy went! And he went willingly.
This kind of calm & no-frills yet no-nonsense determined approach works wonderfully with these bold, energetic, assertive boys.
Naturally, we have no idea how he'll be when he hits his teens.
But as far as his shul attendance goes, he is already doing so much better than his older brothers ever did at any age.
And knowing the parents as I do, I feel strongly that the shift has to do with the shift in the parents' roles.
Rather than the mother being the mover & shaker behind her son's davening chinuch, it now comes from the father — as it should.
(Logically, it makes no sense that the davening chinuch can come from the mother only. Davening in a minyan is a uniquely male mitzvah that demands the full devotion of the father.)
So the mother is no longer the head honcho with the husband relegated to being the reluctant tag-along to his sons' davening chinuch.
(That's how it initially as each parent unconsciously fell into the wrong role.)
Now the father has taken his son's davening chinuch firmly by the reins. He guides his son regarding davening in shul and the mother plays the all-important supporting role.
(And this is all by spoken mutual agreement.)
And they're doing it successfully without all the song and dance of the earlier years.
Why? Because this way WORKS.
It's meant to work. That's the spiritual physics.
And it shows how wonderful the parents truly are in their willingness to step out of their comfort zones for the benefit of their children. These changes aren't easy to make, yet both parents made them.
It's a very beautiful & inspiring thing to see.
(And just to emphasize a point misunderstood by many new parents: Too much enthusiasm & bribing implies that a particular mitzvah or activity is neither pleasant nor important on its own. This is a common method nowadays, and I initially also did it with my children when I thought it would be beneficial. Encouragement or a little bit of enticement can be very positive. But if you do too much too often, the opposite result occurs. Ask me how I know...)
Basic Points to Keep in Mind
(They did the same for their girls, which immediately cured one of their girls of an emotionally based issue she exhibited before the switch.)
Both school systems are mainstream chareidi, by the way. But different styles & approaches exist, even within the seemingly monolithic charedi community.
Finding the right fit for one's child is essential. (And it doesn't need to be mainstream charedi either. It really depends on what's best for that child.)
But when a better school choice is not possible—and sometimes it isn't—it's important to realize that nisayon is from Hashem, much like death or disability or an extreme financial situation are nisayonot from Hashem. In such a case, a focus on bitachon & davening helps.
So that concludes some insights into a parenting problem common today, and the possible solutions.
- Fathers must fulfill their halachically obligated role.
- Fathers cannot relinquish their halachic role (even with the mother enthusiastic & confident encouragement) and expect a halachically desirable result.
- Mothers need to support & value their husband's halachic role just as much as they respect & value their own maternal halachic role in chinuch.
- School choice plays an overwhelming role in how children turn out.