As much as a lot of the modern stuff has disappointed me, some of it is helpful.
As much we should be combing Chazal (like the Pele Yoetz, which discusses parenting throughout the book) for proper guidance, we can also receive ideas from people in our own times.
And even though a lot of child psychology is not as helpful or effective as proclaimed, there can be value in a particular method that has been observed and/or tried hundreds of times, and shown to work effectively in a particular situation.
Hashem sends messengers to help us out.
So if we read something or hear something that pops on the light bulb for us, then that is from Hashem, and it's probably meant to be utilized.
First of all, consider the source:
• Does the source have experience with your type of child?
In fact, it can even make you feel bad for no reason.
(Please note I did not say that such a source will NEVER help you. Maybe it will. But it's unlikely.)
If the source lacks experience with your situation, whether it's parenting as a widow or widower, or navigating child-rearing with joint-custody after a divorce, or dealing with a highly sensitive child or an ADHD-type child or a learning disabled child...the source is unlikely to be helpful if it lacks specific experience.
• Is the source able to understand & empathize?
If the source cannot relate to someone who isn't exactly like them, then you are VERY unlikely to receive the help you need.
In fact, such a source can even make you feel very bad about yourself for absolutely NO LEGITIMATE REASON.
This means you will go around feeling bad when you should actually feel good.
There is absolutely NO logical reason or benefit for an overall good parent who is sincerely trying to feel like he or she is a bad or a failure, or whatever.
It serves no purpose and is taka harmful.
• Does the source consider parents generally good or generally bad?
(If you convince parents they cannot function without your books & counseling sessions, that also helps you make a lot more money.)
Books & articles & talkshows gushed with personal stories of all sorts of abuse & insensitivity that normal people would never dream of doing.
(Or never do more than a handful of times throughout their entire parenting career; certainly not daily or weekly or even monthly.)
Unfortunately, many chinuch people in the frum community adopted this same style and engorged books, articles, and classes with very disturbing stories as a "warning" to parents about how bad this behavior is.
The problem with this approach is it assumes the parent NEEDS to hear this.
The implication is: If the parent doesn't hear this disturbing story of extremely disturbing & abusive behavior, then the parent will ALSO behave in this same abusive & disturbing way.
This is simply is not true for the vast majority of frum parents, who are idealistic and wish to do whatever is best for their child, no matter how difficult.
This idealism & dedication are especially true for new mothers fresh out of Beis Yaakov or a BT seminary.
There is no need to relate to them as if they possess some demon hidden deep inside & just waiting for them to have children so this demon can finally be released.
Also, that is not the Jewish way to relate to each other.
The core neshamah is all good and we are also commanded to give the benefit of the doubt & assume the best about every Jew — even parents! — unless there is a solid reason not to.
Assuming the worst about a person is a non-Jewish attitude.
The Jewish way is to relate to people as if they mean well and are basically good, but maybe just need a hand in getting to where they need to be.
• Does the source make you feel bad about yourself as a person and/or parent?
So shaming or chastising the mother is usually a very harmful method.
(Disclaimer: There may be exceptions to this, but I believe those exceptions are rare. In general, making a mother feel bad or abnormal is very harmful to both her and her children.)
Even if they have good middot & good intentions, the yoke of self-loathing or despair is too heavy for them to carry AND still perform their essential tasks well.
Some mothers will hit or yell at their children if they feel bad. They'll say hurtful things they don't even mean.
Some will act neglectfully or distance themselves from their children, whether emotionally or physically (like immersing themselves in their career or social life or chessed activities or novels & magazines or social media). Their children will feel like they have a robot mother who's not really present.
Some will put on a big act and perform all the technical aspects quite well, including a big smile & a voice full of enthusiasm. But inside, she feels empty, bored, angry, or like she's dying inside.
While putting on a big act is excellent for those times when we aren't feeling well or if we're going through a grueling phase, it isn't ideal as a permanent state of parenting.
The children do sense that their mother doesn't really like them or doesn't really like her role as a mother, though they may not know how to articulate it or even what's wrong with the picture.
Also, even if a mother really is parenting poorly, making her feel bad DOES NOT HELP.
My favorite rebbetzin once emphasized how important it is not to shame or act judgmentally toward a mother behaving abusively (whether your neighbor or someone you see in the street).
She said, "If you yell at her or rebuke her in some way, she's very likely to wait until she gets home and then REALLY give it to her kid. She'll blame her child for your disapproval."
In other words, if you really care about the child, you will not make the mother feel bad.
She advised doing something to break the moment, like just going up to her and giving a nice (not condescending or mocking) smile and saying "Hi!" even if you both are total strangers.
If it's a neighbor, you can knock on the door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar or say, "I just finished reading this book and I thought it's something you would really like too. Would you like to borrow it?"
Act like you didn't hear anything at all.
If someone is caught up in a temper, just distracting them with something like the above can be enough to break them out of it. When they turn back to their child, the same fire is simply no longer there.
Sometimes, a sincere & wholly non-judgmental offer of help works wonders.
It's impossible to offer hard-and-fast tips because so much depends on the individual dynamics and what you're capable of yourself, so how you should respond really depends.
But the main point is that even with a dysfunctional mother, making her feel bad about her dysfunctional behavior will make her behave even worse.
(Also, it could be that the dysfunctional behavior is a temporary response to a stressful situation and she KNOWS she's failing & WANTS to behave better, so by you avoiding condemnations and either assisting her or breaking the harsh moment, you are doing something she appreciates, which will also help her get back on keel.)
Another illustration of how making dysfunctional mothers feel bad backfires:
A non-frum friend of mine grew up with parents who regularly hit her and her siblings. When a siblings behavior at school initiated a recommendation for family counseling, her parents acquiesced (maybe they had no choice?) and attending counseling sessions for several months.
My friend remembers that the physical abuse and the extreme fury stopped, but her parents never became nurturing people.
For example, even when my friend told her mother she loved her, she said her mother never even lifted her eyes from the romance novel she was reading as she replied, "Go away."
So by age 11, my friend learned not to praise or show her mother affection because it only led to rejection.
Later, her mother said, "Oh, we attended therapy when you kids were little, but it never really helped."
"Oh yes it did!" said my friend to me after reporting her mother's comment. "I'm VERY grateful the hitting stopped. I lived in such fear & dread of being hit. At school, I was very shy and fearful and thought that being good meant to be as quiet & unnoticeable as possible. With rare exceptions, the idea of being assertive terrified me and I was sometimes a target for bullying, which I found unendurable. But I was able to overcome a lot of that fear & shyness on my own later."
So making the mother feel bad stopped the physical abuse, but the mother simply switched to emotional neglect instead (because she felt ashamed of having been "caught" and judged unfavorable, and lacked the ratzon to improve).
The point is that you can't really help people who aren't interested in being helped.
In order for be able people to be able to change for the better, they first need to WANT to be better. They need to WANT to be good.
If they don't want this, then you cannot help them.
But you can at least not make them feel bad, even if they are kind of bad.
If they feel bad about themselves, they will simply take it out on their children, whether via active abuse or neglect of some sort.
Okay, yeah, they're doing it anyway. But you don't need to make it worse.
And all the more so, making a good & dedicated mother feel bad?
What on earth is the point?
In conclusion, a chinuch source that makes mothers feel bad is generally no good, no matter how highly recommended.
• Does the source use cult tactics to get you to parent according to their method?
This connects to the above idea because cults operate by making people feel bad, and then offering themselves as the solution & salvation.
So a chinuch teacher or method that makes you feel like, without them, you will be abusive and/or your child will end up off the derech is some way?
In other words, "My way is the ONLY way...OR ELSE!"
That's a cult tactic.
Hashem is intimately involved and they cannot make such statements.
Some of our Gadolim had parents who weren't up to par. You don't hear about it so much because it's lashon hara, but when you read biographies, you come across vague indications of it.
In fact, one who became a tremendous tzaddik and extremely loving person sounded like he didn't have such nurturing parents.
There is another man that Rav Avigdor Miller mentions in his lectures whom Rav Miller describes as incredibly sweet with beautiful middot, and this man endured terrifying beatings from his father.
Other parents are very good, yet they have at least one child who goes off the derech in some way.
So while proper chinuch is vitally important, it isn't the only factor in who the child will become later.
Playing on a parent's fear to get them to conform is a cult tactic.
If the chinuch teacher explains the necessity of a particular aspect of his or her method by telling a scary story of what happened when a good parent simply did not carry out ONE aspect and saying that IS the reason why, then that is a cult tactic.
There were no other influencing factors? The loving parents did EVERYTHING ELSE right but lacked this ONE thing, and that ruined everything?
Believe me, you're going to get more than just ONE thing wrong in your parenting.
ONLY HASHEM IS PERFECT.
Also, Hashem is running things. Probably He had a reason why things turned out as they did.
So if you're made to feel that if you make one false step, you'll ruin everything, then that induces fear & dependence, and it's a cult tactic.
Manipulating parents to conform is a cult tactic.
For example, let's say the chinuch expert declares you must do this-and-such EVERY day OR ELSE...and then when you fail, the chinuch expert says, "Oh, that's okay. Doing it 3 or 4 times a week still works. I just wanted you to think you needed to do it every day just to make sure you'll DO it at least 3 or 4 times a week."
That's manipulating the parent's behavior.
It's wrong to manipulate people like that.
Each person has his or her own God-given bechirah and it's harmful to steal it away like that.
Furthermore, if the mother never knows that 3 or 4 times a week is actually okay, every time she does it "only" 3-6 times a week, she will feel bad. She'll feel like she's failing her child.
As stated above, feeling bad/despairing/failing actually harms a mother's parenting.
Shaming for very normal feelings or actions is a cult tactic.
If a mother with 4 kids under the age of 5 expresses feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or unable to carry out all the expectations she has of herself, why look at her as if she just sprouted a big hairy wart on her forehead and then say, "Well, yeah, of course! That's just how it is!"
When I witnessed this interaction in a class, part of the reason I felt so stunned was because I admired the young mother for even trying to do all that she did.
Another reason why the teacher's response was so shocking is because when you have little kids that close together, it means you are usually either pregnant (with all the hindrances that entails) or recovering from birth and probably not sleeping through the night because by the time you trained one to sleep through the night, you either have another baby or one on the way.
That's very demanding. So why can't the mother say she's frustrated at not being able to carry out her self-imposed tasks in the way that's more convenient for her?
Also, in response to the teacher's dismissive reply, the young mother's entire body sagged and she looked so defeated.
But why?! She was doing such a good job! Why make her feel like she's not?
Finally, the above interaction happened in a group. Why put down the mother publicly? Is that even halachically allowed?
And that is what cults use too:
Public humiliation is another cult tactic.
On the more positive side: Because these people don't mean to use cult tactics, these chinuch classes aren't really cults.
For example, I never ran into a chinuch teacher or course that displayed other classic cult aspects, such as constantly manipulating you into giving them money (beyond the standard affordable monthly fee), or acting as a front for illegal activities, or encouraging other members to sever ties with you when you leave the group, or isolate you from the outside world, and so on.
But cult tactics are always based on a lack of emuna.
If a person believes in Hashem and know that Hashem is running everything perfectly without you (and that you are a shaliach, but not more than that), then you won't:
- feel the need to manipulate followers/attendees/readers/members to do what you want
- feel like your way is the only/best way, regardless of other situations & personalities & capabilities
- feel the need to instill fear in order to elicit obedience
- feel threatened by normal feelings or responses, and thus feel compelled to shame them for these normal feelings or responses
With occasional exceptions, if you follow Hashem's halacha, you will not:
- judge your followers/attendees/readers/members l'kaf chovah (unfavorably)
- publicly humiliate or shame them
- respond to them with anger & angry or hurtful words
Again, no one is perfect and we all stumble in the above at times.
But if a chinuch provider is regularly doing the above, then it is certainly not chinuch based on authentic Torah hashkafah.
A Little Bit More about Shaming, Condemnation, and Criticism
Despite his intellectual brilliance, he constantly behaved inappropriately and did not seem to understand how inappropriate his behavior was.
They ended up divorcing when their children were still young (and she happily remarried later).
Another had a dysfunctional husband, and had received a not-so-ideal upbringing herself. Neither her parents nor parents-in-law were supportive people. She felt innately defective from a young age, and that feeling never left her.
Another possessed terrific middot and also had a fantastic husband, whom she described as a diamond, but her own upbringing was pretty dysfunctional. Her in-laws demanded high material standards (fortunately, they did not live close by) and her parents and a couple of her siblings were quick to criticize anything they didn't approve of her child-rearing methods (despite the fact that she was a MUCH better parent than all of them).
And others, of course, had very good situations over all.
Some came from a secular background and simply wished to learn how to raised children in a Torah way. Others came from frum backgrounds, but wished to learn how to deal with the challenges of raising a frum family in this generation.
The point of mentioned the above is that when you are teaching parenting, you face a whole smorgasbord of situations in your audience.
If you're going to shame, chastise, criticize, or in any way make a mother feel bad about herself, you may push her over the edge if she is already feeling bad about herself because she struggles against her own problematic upbringing and her husband and/or parents/in-laws are already yelling at her and cutting her down.
Or because she is already overwhelmed with dealing with problems in her home life (including health issues, financial problems, a special needs child, etc.).
You can break such a person.
And if you don't care about the mother, think of the children who are being parented by a crushed mother (in addition to any other problems going on).
So building up people and focusing on their good points, what they're doing RIGHT, is a very important aspect of helping others. (This idea is straight from Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender, a big chassidic tzaddik from the past generation.)
A chinuch teacher must be aware of this. I do not understand why so many were not & why some still are not aware.
Stopping the Madness
The final wake-up-call was when I wanted to discuss with my rebbetzin my "failure" to parent properly (according to the method of the course).
I poured out how hard I was trying yet how I felt that I was falling further & further behind.
She listened thoughtfully (and with increasing concern), then said, "I don't know exactly how to say this and I don't mean to interfere in your decisions, but...are you sure this course is good for you?"
"What do you mean?" I said, shocked. After all, this course was teaching me the Torah way of raising children! (Which I was increasingly failing to do, for some reason I couldn't fathom...must be because I was innately defective, I guessed...)
Very hesitantly and with sincere concern, she said, "Well, it's just that it seems to be making you feel bad."
It's like she was speaking a foreign language.
Feel? What do feelings have to do with following a rabbinically endorsed chinuch method? Ours is not to feel good, ours is to do or die!
So I expressed my bewilderment at her statement.
After all, if I'm not parenting properly, why should I feel good? I'm NOT being "good," I'm not doing things "right," so why should I feel good?
Also, aren't we supposed to do things whether we like them or not? After all, I really dislike checking for bugs & worms in food; I even dread doing it (because I'm not so into slow, nitpicky things like that), but I do it anyway because that's the halacha.
So why would this be different?
"Yeah," she said, "except that you sound like you feel BAD about YOURSELF. You're not supposed to feel bad about YOURSELF! Also, I KNOW you. You're a good person. You're a good mother. Why should you feel BAD?"
And it was like someone whisked off a blackout curtain that had been draped over my face.
I suddenly saw things clearly.
I was trying to be a good mother. And even if I wasn't up to par, as long as I was sincerely trying, why should I feel so bad about myself?
Why should I feel like such a failure?
Why should I feel defeated and hopeless and like my children have no chance of turning out well simply because I cannot juggle bowling balls while jumping through all the sky-high hoops the teacher set for us?
And so I quit.
A Final List of the Suggested Questions & Warning Signs
- Does the source have experience with your type of child?
- Is the source able to understand & empathize?
- Does the source consider parents generally good or generally bad?
- Does the source make you feel bad about yourself as a person and/or parent?
- Does the source use cult tactics to get you to parent according to their method?
The answers to the above should be:
- Generally good.
Answering the above questions negatively:
- Generally bad.
And beware of the following cult tactics (even if they're carried out unintentionally):
- Creating the impression that their method is the ONLY way (when it's not halacha)
- Inducing dependency on the expert or shitah
- Inducing fear
- Playing on the parent's fears
- Shaming for very normal feelings & actions
- Public humiliation (even in a minor way)
The above includes articles & books, not just classes or consultations.
Here's How to Handle Chinuch Problems in a Helpful Way
One of my children is an enneagram Six, which is one of the most complex personality types.
They possess many wonderful innate qualities, but they also struggle with anxiety & insecurity, which makes them a bundle of contradictions.
For example, if they feel under attack or as if they MIGHT be attacked, they sometimes decide that the best defense is a good offense, and they come out swinging with all their might while shooting from both hips.
But all that aggression emanates from fear.
Their aggression isn't bold or independent in the way that another type of aggression is.
(You can read more about the Six personality type here.)
They can also go hot, then cold, then hot again, then lukewarm, then...you get the picture.
A lot of standard techniques backfire with them.
For example, there is a really lovely frum book about unconditional love toward one's child. The mother in the book repeats to her misbehaving child that even though she doesn't always love his behavior, she always loves HIM deeply & completely.
Doesn't that sound nice?
Ironically, this lovely idea propelled my then 4-year-old son into a state of anxiety.
He did not even want to hear this statement. Throughout the days, he sought reassurance by repeatedly asking, "Right, you also love my behavior?"
What am I supposed to say? I don't always love his behavior, nor do I think I should love all his behaviors. But he really needs the reassurance that I do!
To his psyche, loving HIM isn't nearly enough.
So all this makes this type more-complicated-than-average to raise.
You need to read their mind and constantly try to see what's going on beneath the surface of their external behavior.
Anyway, I know I'm not so competent at dealing with this type, and I was having difficulties (especially at bedtime) with this child, who was four at the time.
He couldn't tolerate any disapproval from me, not even a facial expression, but often resisted the bedtime routine (brushing teeth, getting into bed, going to sleep) with every fiber of his being, even if he was tired.
And even something as small as a stern look from me elicited a volatile response.
Then Hashem had me remember that Miriam Adahan's book Awareness has tips for dealing with this type of child.
So I opened to the appropriate chapter (Type Six, Part II, For Parents, page 284) and saw that first of all, the author addresses loving parents and reassures them that they shouldn't blame themselves if they see this insecure, demanding behavior in a child.
That's a good sign right there.
She assumes her reader is a loving parent (although she acknowledges that not all parents are) and immediately brushes away the blame game.
Then she explains why a common emotional parental response does not work with this child, and also offers a variety of alternatives, explaining why they do work.
This allowed me to use my God-given bechirah to analyze if & how this applied to my situation. (It does.)
What jumped out at me was the advice to hold the child in a comforting embrace davka when the child is being obnoxious.
This is not my innate style (I'm more straight-forward & oppose "rewarding" bad behavior) nor is it anywhere in my upbringing.
But based on the author's explanation (which made a lot of sense), I decided to give it a try.
Also, when the book explained why this method works, it was not accompanied by the fear-inducing cult tactics I encountered in the chinuch course (i.e., the book did NOT say something like: "You MUST do this because once upon a time, there was a mother who did not hug her obnoxiously behaving child when he was behaving obnoxiously and he went on to become a serial killer — all because she did not hug him while he was obnoxious.")
And she didn't try to pass off the suggestion as "the authentic Torah way" (although maybe our heilige ancestors did indeed do it); the suggestion was clearly based on her own experience and/or research.
The point is that she had experience with this method & saw that it really did work for this specific dynamic.
So at bedtime, there we were in what had become our usual bedtime formation:
Me sitting at the foot of the bed and him stomping on his pillow while swinging the other leg over the headboard and shouting at me that he doesn't love me and other unfavorable opinions of what kind of mother he thinks I am.
So even though it is not my inclination to respond in the following way, I went according to the book and said something like, "Even if you don't love me, even if you hate me, I still love very much and I always will no matter what."
(I couldn't hold him because he was too far away and too volatile for me to hug.)
But those words immediately soothed him down.
He looked taken aback, then he smiled and said, "I don't hate you!"
Then he came closer and I could finally hold him and repeat that I love him no matter what, even if he doesn't love me.
Within seconds, a fierce & angry bear had softened into a loving, affectionate, accommodating kitten.
We only needed to go through this maybe once or twice more before the freak-out behavior stopped. He can still be difficult at bedtime (mostly because, like most children, he doesn't want to go to bed), but he no longer goes berserk.
And it even paved the way for his own free expression of affection.
After this, he started initiating hugs throughout the day and telling me he loved me very much.
In fact, when we sat together at a bus stop and another lady asked me about the route of a particular bus, this same son suddenly pulled himself into standing on the bench, lunged at my head & wrapped his arms around my head (nearly knocking me over and also forcing me to hold on to my hair-covering for dear life) and said, "What a lovely mother (ima chamoodah) you are! How much I LOVE you!"
This was both embarrassing & gratifying, but the lady just seemed amused.
The Goal isn't Perfection, But to Meet the Challenges in the Way Hashem Wants
And that's normal.
The situation was set up in exactly this way by HASHEM Himself.
As mentioned in the previous post, the Pele Yoetz sets up certain guidelines for parenting, but even so, he still leaves a lot up to the reader's own discernment because as the Pele Yoetz outright acknowledges, situations & dynamics vary so much from one to the other, it's impossible to offer detailed concrete advice to a general audience.
So yeah, for specific situations, I need to look outside myself for the answer because I simply don't have it.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes I ask Hashem.
Other times, I head toward a book or article that I feel holds the answer.
I won't consult with an actual person at this point because I've been burned too many times doing that, but reading, davening, inquiring of Hashem seem to meet my needs just fine.
It doesn't mean that things are perfect; Hashem always sends us challenges & different forms of tzaar gidul banim.
But it just means that I'm more likely to meet my challenges in the way that Hashem wants me to.
- How Turning to Torah Can Help Us Sift through A Lot of Confusion to Find the Right Path (with a special emphasis on chinuch)
What if they completely regret some of the things they said or wrote, and wish they'd never even thought such things?
People change over time.
Note #2: Everything really is from Hashem and as much as the previously mentioned methods & tactics hurt both me & my children, the positive outcome has been that I've become zealous about giving regular people chizuk and build them up by focusing on their good points and what they're doing right, and especially to give chizuk and accolades to young mothers new to parenting.
Because I learned on my own cheshbon how detrimental is the opposite.
So that's a positive outcome of the pain & confusion.