How Do We Raise Confident, Happy Children?
By Simi Yellen, as told to Barbara Bensoussan
Many parents think that you can build a child’s self-esteem simply by showering him with constant compliments. Others believe that a child will gain self-esteem by feeling successful all the time; hence, they bend over backwards to make sure that happens. For example, if the homework is too hard, they’ll call the teacher to ask for an easier assignment.
These strategies only backfire in the end. They hinder rather than help a child develop real self-esteem. If a child never faces challenges, he’ll never learn how to push himself or how to function in less-than-ideal situations. If you constantly set a child up to win, he will never learn to lose. But knowing how to lose is an important life skill.
This isn’t called tough love; it’s called real life. In the real world, nobody is going to smooth everything over for your children all the time. The biggest gift you can give your children is to allow them to work through less-than-ideal situations. Let them develop the psychological muscles they need to cope with hard challenges. Too many kids today grow up without having acquired the ability to work hard to accomplish a goal.
A fourth grade class was assigned a rebbe who had a reputation for being difficult. The students’ parents handled the situation differently. One set of parents coddled their son. They righted any wrongs, brought their complaints to the administration and basically shielded their child from dealing with the situation. Another set of parents told their son, “Not every rebbe is easy to deal with, but in life, not every boss is easy either. Your job is to learn as best as you can despite the circumstances.” They made it clear that whining and complaining his way through the year was not an option. They didn’t coddle him, but when the year was over, they praised him for having gotten through it so well.
The lesson carried over into the months that followed. If his sister annoyed him, his parents would remind him, “Hey, you just got through ten months with a hard rebbe; this is nothing for you!” Having endured a difficult situation allowed their son to build character, and gave him the confidence that he could handle other bumps on the road of life.
Parental love is a necessary ingredient in instilling self-esteem—as essential as flour in a cake recipe. If a child doesn’t receive enough time, attention and affection, and a sense that her parents believe in her, it will be hard for her to feel confident—even as an adult. It’s not so much about the reality of the situation as it is about the child’s perception of the situation. A person who felt emotionally deprived as a child may make bad decisions in life because she may misinterpret attention—including inappropriate forms of attention—as love. She may grow up seeing herself as unworthy or inferior, and will see every deficit as evidence of her unworthiness. For example, a child with a positive self-image who’s not good at sports can still feel okay about himself knowing that he’s good at other things; a child with low self-esteem will see his failure in sports as part of a larger picture of inadequacy.
Since our children spend most of their day in school, if a child isn’t a strong student, it’s incumbent upon his parents to find other areas in which he can excel. If there’s no stage on which a child can shine, the parent has to build him one.
Identify your child’s strengths and find an arena where they can be displayed, allowing him to feel worthwhile. For example, I know a few boys who are in charge of the local shul’s seudah shelishis, a meal attended by hundreds of people. They know they have a responsibility; if they don’t come, congregants won’t have a seudah. There are other children who raise tzedakah for various causes or who work with younger children, helping them with homework, et cetera.
A young boy I know is dyslexic, which makes it difficult for him to read and process information. His father researched if any of the gedolim were dyslexic, but couldn’t find such a role model for his son. When it became clear that his son probably wouldn’t be a gadol hador, his father began pointing out the names of benefactors prominently displayed on the walls of neighborhood yeshivos. He would tell his son, “You see these men? They’re businessmen. It’s because they’re so successful in business that we’re able to have a kollel.” He showed his son that there’s more than one way to be a successful and influential Jew.
If there’s no stage on which a child can shine, the parent has to build him one.
Another parent had a child with disabilities related to language processing. Whenever the child would make an insightful comment, the father would say, “You’re smart as a whip!” The child internalized that he has the ability to understand things well and is very bright. He viewed his language-processing deficiencies as a problem to work on, but he didn’t perceive himself as being dumb as a result of his learning difficulties.
Parents’ attitudes toward grades also make a big difference. You can communicate to your child that effort matters much more than grades. You can say, “Your 75 means much more to us than another child’s 95, because we know how much effort you put in. Hashem’s in charge of the results, anyway.” The truth is that bright kids sometimes don’t learn to work hard, and it doesn’t serve them well later on. As mentioned earlier, a child needs to learn about hard work and effort. Parents can also model the right way to deal with tough situations by openly discussing their own struggles with tasks or difficult people.
We want our kids to be happy. But what people often don’t realize is that happiness is a by-product, not a goal. You can make a crying child happy by giving him a lollipop, but that’s just a short-term fix. In the end, you do him a disservice by depriving him of the opportunity to learn how to deal with disappointment. You create a self-centered child with a sense of entitlement, who will be more unhappy in the long run when things don’t go his way.
Real happiness is ultimately based on spiritual satisfaction, on doing the right thing and having simchah shel mitzvah. Mitzvos and good deeds produce intrinsic satisfaction that doesn’t require rewards like lollipops or stars on a chart. One of my clients was recently on her way into the house laden with packages when one of her children surprised her by offering to help. When they finished, this boy—whose teacher is big on charts and stars—asked her, “Mommy, will you give me a star?” She answered, “No, but you’ve got something better than a star.”
The child asked, “What’s that?”
“You have good middos,” the mother replied.
“Ah,” the child said, nodding wisely. “Yes, that’s much better.
Simi Yellen has been positively transforming homes for over a decade through her teleconference parenting classes and private consultations. Her new ten-week series entitled “Raise the Bar Parenting” empowers parents to raise respectful, responsible and cooperative children through curtailing arguing, chutzpah and other negative behaviors.
Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a university instructor and a social worker, and currently writes for Jewish newspapers and magazines. Her most recent novel is A New Song (Southfield, Michigan, 2007).
As Orthodox Jewish parents, we strive to convey our commitment to halachah to our children. Imparting these values requires time and thought, and we therefore send them to schools which offer a thorough Jewish education. However, in the area of sexuality and relationships, about which most children—and particularly adolescents—show curiosity and interest, and about which the halachah has clear opinions, we, and the schools we send our children to, often choose to be silent. This silence itself communicates an important message. Not talking about sexuality, especially when it is so much talked about in movies and the media, gives an implicit message that Judaism is at the very least uncomfortable about sexuality or, worse, has nothing positive to say on the subject. In addition, there is no avoiding the automatic association that when parents refuse to talk about these topics, children perforce conclude that sexuality is bad and shameful.
In order for our children to view a Torah lifestyle as being relevant to them, they must experience Torah as addressing issues that concern them. Talking about sexuality and relationships from a halachic perspective helps our children appreciate the wisdom and relevance of Judaism to these significant aspects of their lives, and by extension, to their lives in general.
Why Do We Hesitate?
We often fail to educate in these areas because we feel ill-equipped to approach them properly. The topics of sexuality and intimacy can be complex and awkward. However, if we do not provide a thoughtful, open, honest forum for discussion, our children will look for information and a value system elsewhere.
Is Your Child Ready to Discuss Sexuality?
By Yocheved Debow
When considering what to tell your children about sexuality, it is helpful to consider the following factors:
· Child’s milieu
· Child’s maturity
· Openness in the family
· Norms of the community
Who are your child’s friends and what is the nature of the information these friends might have? Is it likely that they are more aware than your child? Does your child watch television? And if so, what shows does he or she watch, and how often? Are there filters on the computer he uses, or is your child able to watch and explore whatever he chooses? Is your child an avid reader? If so, what is she reading? All of these factors will impact on how much access they may already have to information and can factor into your decision about what you would like to share with your child.
Do you think your child is mature enough to be able to differentiate between private and public? Will your child be able to respond to your conversation maturely, or will he become embarrassed? If you consider your child not so mature but she has asked questions, it is especially important to answer thoughtfully, perhaps beginning with partial information and moving on to more detailed information only if the child continues to question. Remember to find out what your child already knows and what she is really asking.
Openness in the Family
Each family has its own rules about what can and cannot be discussed. If your family speaks openly and easily about personal matters, the question of how to initiate a conversation about sexuality will not be too difficult. In families in which there are rarely conversations about personal matters, parents might need to be more thoughtful as to how, and at what age, they will want to broach these topics. Remember that your comfort level is also important here; try to ensure your own comfort, if at all possible.
Norms of the Community
While you may choose to be really open about sexuality in your family, or quite the opposite, very hesitant to speak about sexuality, be aware that your children spend much of their lives outside of the home. Be cognizant of the norms in your community; recognize that they constantly change as norms in secular society become more permissive. Children often walk around with partial information pieced together from comments by friends, fragments of television shows or parts of conversations they have overheard. If that might be the case for your child, the sooner you start a conversation with him in these areas, the sooner he will come to understand that you are, in fact, a very good resource for honest, accurate information about sexuality.
Sometimes we invoke the idea of tzeniut, modesty, and use it as an excuse to avoid discussing such topics with our children. While tzeniut is a core value and certainly applies to the way in which we converse with our children about these topics, we cannot escape the fact that our children’s environment is already quite heavily saturated with sexuality. Choosing not to talk to our children about these issues will not advance the cause of tzeniut but, to the contrary, will succeed in promoting the values of the general culture and its anti-tzeniut stance as the children’s sole source of sexual values. Openness and honesty are not compromised by sensitivity to tzeniut, properly understood.
It is important that we not delude ourselves. While we all try to protect our children from inappropriate material, we cannot be naïve and think that they are not going to hear, see or know anything about sexuality. For anyone who lives in a community which allows some modernity, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to protect children from at least partial knowledge of sexuality. Whether through friends or the Internet, television shows or books, they will gradually develop ideas about sexuality. Therefore, the onus is on us to speak to our children in the manner and in the context of our choosing. We must employ age-appropriate, correct information in order to provide an alternative message to those they absorb from the world around them.
Support from the Talmud
The Talmud, too, recognizes the importance of teaching about sexuality. In a surprising passage in Berachot 62a, we are told that Rav Kahana hid under his teacher’s bed in order to learn about sexual relations. While his teacher instructs him to leave because his behavior is not appropriate, the Talmud does not criticize Rav Kahana. Rather, it gives him the final word when he explains his behavior saying, “This is Torah and I must learn it.” And so, in fact, the Gemara explicitly supports the idea that sexuality is an important part of life, that it is natural to be curious about it and that it is the responsibility of parents and educators to share knowledge with their children on these topics. Our children are curious by nature, and this curiosity includes sexuality. One way or another, they will find ways to access the information they seek. Rav Kahana chose a most inappropriate way of learning about sexual relations, by hiding in his teacher’s bedroom. Our teenagers have their own ways of finding out answers to their questions. However, these sources, though easily available, tend to be highly problematic and inaccurate. Our children turn to them when they are curious and have nowhere else to turn. If we choose to engage them in conversation at the right time and in the right context for each child, they will continue to view us as a reliable source of information.
As parents, we should not only be reactive—forced to respond to the topic because of external circumstances—but rather proactive, broaching the topic and presenting the issues we consider educationally and developmentally appropriate for our childChildren deserve straightforward answers to their questions about sexuality. As they grow older, teenagers should also be taught about Judaism’s nuanced and positive approach to sexuality and pleasure in the appropriate contexts. I believe that speaking clearly about sexuality gives children power to better understand their bodies. Judaism has some deep and meaningful messages about sexuality and it behooves us to share that relevant, beautiful approach to sexuality which is authentic to our tradition regardless of what the secular culture has to say. Even if my child was truly sheltered and I wasn’t worried about what she would pick up off the street, I would be enthused about sharing the Torah’s view of sexuality for its wisdom, sensitivity and healthy attitude.
The message that sexuality has innate kedushah in the appropriate context is rarely transmitted to our children. By working to overcome our own personal difficulties with these topics for the sake of our children, we can provide an alternative voice—one that is positive and based in traditional Jewish values.
Dr. Yocheved Debow holds a doctorate from Bar-Ilan University’s School of Education. Her research focuses on sexuality and intimacy education in the Modern Orthodox community. She is the author of Talking about Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents, published by Ktav and OU Press. Dr. Debow currently teaches at Midreshet Moriah and is the academic principal at Midreshet Emunah v’Omanut. She resides in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband, Rabbi David Debow, and their six children.
To listen to an interview with Dr. Yocheved Debow, please visit ou.org/savitsky/debow.
Why are so many kids off the Derech?
By Lawrence Kelemen • Interview by Leah R. Lightman
Today, most of the calls I get are from parents whose children have gone off the derech. People are confused as to what is the root cause of kids going off the derech and what are secondary and tertiary effects.
We mistakenly think our kids go off the derech because they saw something on a cell phone, weren’t exposed to the beauty of Shabbos or haven’t learned an intriguing Maharal from an inspired teacher. In certain segments of the community, some think that perfectly stable children are spiritually blown to pieces by college courses or cell phones equipped with texting technology. In reality, the crack is in the foundation. It starts at home, and it can be remedied at home. A child’s spiritual health depends on his parents’ spiritual health, their shalom bayis and the love and acceptance they show their child.
Psychologists speak about three categories of causes for children leaving religion.1 First, there are child risk factors, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), hyperactivity, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), learning disabilities, poor academic abilities, poor social skills and depression. Second, there are environmental risk factors, which include major medical or economic crises, corrupt rabbis and teachers, sexual abuse, physical abuse, lack of recognition of individual strengths and Internet abuse. Third, there are family risk factors, which include hypercritical or angry home environments, parents with poor parenting skills and lack of shalom bayis. But not all of these risk factors are equally fundamental or powerful; one of these towers over all the others.
The Torah neatly organizes this mountain of “causes,” showing us the one root cause and its many secondary effects. Where does the Torah speak about off-the-derech kids? Only once, in Parashat Ki Teitzei, referring to a rebellious child, the “ben sorer umoreh.” Rashi might have been the one to coin the phrase “off the derech.” He defines “sorer” as a child who has “turned off the derech.” And what is the one factor our tradition says blew this child off the proper path? The Gemara (Sanhedrin 107a) says that one who marries a beautiful woman captured in battle (ishah yifat toar) will produce this rebellious child. Why? According to the Sifrei, because a man who selfishly marries for beauty will eventually hate his wife, and hatred in marriage destroys children spiritually. It is this simple: selfish pursuits kill shalom bayis, and lack of shalom bayis destroys the next generation.
Teachers and school administrators can certainly do damage, but not the sort of damage that can be done by parents. The Steipler Gaon said that success with our children is 50 percent shalom bayis and 50 percent prayer. He never mentioned schools. Rabbi Moshe Prager, a rebbe at Yeshiva Neveh Zion, says that 40 percent of the off-the-derech boys he works with are the products of divorced homes. I theorize that the other 60 percent come from homes where the parents are still married, but the marriage is not flourishing—at least not by the Torah’s standards. Good schools and extracurricular programs can make a big difference, but the solution must start at home, and especially with the parents’ middos and shalom bayis.
But we have plenty of data showing associations between hypercritical or angry home environments and off-the-derech kids. Doesn’t this suggest that criticism and anger are also root causes, along with shalom bayis? Criticism and anger are very damaging, without a doubt. Nearly every off-the-derech kid describes being emotionally scarred by these sorts of behaviors. As Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, mashgiach ruchani of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, wrote brilliantly, “It isn’t accurate to call them ‘dropouts’; rather, they should be called ‘push-outs.’”2
But even hypercritical and angry parenting is a secondary effect. It starts with parental selfishness, and that leads to shalom bayis issues. Ultimately, we cause kids to go off the derech.
“Frum inflation” is also a factor. Our kids can’t keep up with the rising emotional and physical tolls of being an outstanding Orthodox Jew. While young boys during the times of the Mishnah weren’t expected to start learning Talmud until age fifteen, today we demand that of children under ten who can’t possibly fathom what they are learning. The length and intensity of the school day is unprecedented and torturous, and those children who can’t sit still and concentrate through classes from morning until night are left behind or encouraged to take stimulant medications to help them become more “healthy.” In certain segments of the Orthodox world, playing ball is often discouraged, and team sports are virtually nonexistent. Courses on the first mitzvah, emunah, are rarely taught to “normal” students, and raising questions about or debating this taboo topic has earned hundreds of fine boys and girls rebuke, suspension or, in extreme cases, expulsion.
When I poll Bais Yaakov graduates about their emotional associations with certain mitzvos, I often find that they feel very warm about the mitzvah of taking challah and very cold about the mitzvah of tzenius. Do we teach these two mitzvos differently? And if we do approach these mitzvos differently, and one approach produces long-term results that are so much better, why don’t we always use the more successful approach?
How do we teach kids to take challah? We make a party, with music playing, and bake delicious bread while laughing and having fun. How do we teach tzenius? We clobber our students. We are harsh. We single students out and embarrass them in public. We toss kids out of school for violating a chumrah. We blame communal tragedies on our children’s lack of tzenius.
Tzenius is one of the few areas where we behave at home and in the classroom as if we know nothing about chinuch. Then the kids reject tzenius, so we parents and teachers feel the need to be even harsher—it’s a nonproductive, vicious cycle.
Overall, it’s a lot harder to be an acceptable Jewish kid today than it was a generation or two ago.
The number-one insurance policy for keeping kids on the derech is for parents to establish a set time every week when they spend time alone, concentrating on each other and their relationship—a date with no interruptions, no cell phones or surfing the web and no fighting, bashing or badgering. In short, a loving weekly date that takes priority over all else. The number-two insurance policy is at least one parent doing the same with every child every week.
Secondly, having a rav, someone parents are in contact with every week or two, whom both spouses trust and open up to, is key to maintaining shalom bayis. It’s hard to imagine how a couple could have shalom bayis without fulfilling the dictum in Pirkei Avot “Aseh lecha rav.”
If a child goes off the derech, parents have to admit the possibility that mistakes may have been made at home, approach our generation’s chinuch experts and humbly accept advice and direction. Hashem has sent so many malachim to this generation, people who have been successfully helping parents and children in this situation, and they are available.
“It isn’t accurate to call them ‘dropouts’; rather, they should be called ‘push-outs.’”
There is no generic formula for bringing a child back from the brink. Each situation is unique and requires a customized program for the child and his parents. That is why it is so essential for parents to approach an expert for help.
It is tempting to try to solve the problem of off-the-derech kids just by beefing up our formal and informal educational programs. Undoubtedly, great teachers and NCSY programs have saved more than a few kids’ spiritual lives. But it’s time we got to the root of the problem so that we don’t have so many kids who need to be saved. We’ve pretty much mastered the art of sending ambulances to the bottom of the cliff; we just haven’t made enough of an effort to build a fence on top so people don’t fall off in the first place. We need to address our fundamental selfishness and the resulting shalom bayis problems.
It is important to note that the “shidduch crisis” plays a prominent role in the off-the-derech-child scenario. Is there that much of a difference between a man who grabs a pretty girl in battle and a yeshivah bachur who will not date a girl, no matter how wonderful her middos are, if she (or in some cases, even her mother) wears a double-digit dress size? Is it really love of Torah that encourages shidduchim to be filtered by the level of financial support promised by the other side?
When I contacted the head of a prestigious American yeshivah to ask if he might have a shidduch for my daughter, he asked me “what level boy” I was interested in. Unsure what he meant, I asked for clarification. “Top boys go for $100,000 a year, but we also have boys for $70,000 a year and even $50,000 a year.” He said that if I was ready to make the commitment, he could begin making recommendations immediately. When a boy (or a rosh yeshivah!) picks a girl based on how much parnassah she will bring him, isn’t that just a variation of the ishah yifat toar theme?
An elite yeshivah student, twenty-three years old, from a well-to-do family, recently confided in me that he wants to marry a girl who has a serious career. Pointing out that he is already independently wealthy and doesn’t need the money, I asked him why. He unabashedly explained that if she is busy with a career, she won’t require so much of his attention. We, more than previous generations, can testify that this sort of selfishness is ultimately lethal. It kills marriages—and the next generation.
It is clear that a reworking of our values is needed. Young couples setting up their Torah homes need guidance in making sure their shalom bayis is launched successfully and then nurtured so the couple can transmit it to their own children. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen counsels and lectures in Israel and America. He is the author of several books, including To Kindle a Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers (Michigan, 2001), and he is director of the International Organization of Mussar Vaadim.
Leah R. Lightman is a writer living in Lawrence, New York, with her husband and family.
1. Dr. Norman Blumenthal and Shimon Russell, “Children in Crisis: Detection and Intervention,” Paper presented at Nefesh Conference (Asbury Park, New Jersey, 1999).
2. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, With Hearts Full of Love (Brooklyn, 2009), 73.
The best way to instill emunah in children is to pick them up when they cry.
There is a common misconception about emunah. People think of emunah as the result of philosophic inquiry. If that were the case, no real emunah is possible for children; all we can hope for is to get them to talk as if they have emunah and sing songs that assert that God is here and everywhere. Actually, while contemplation might result in emunah, emunah is far more commonly a natural expression of the human condition. When it is absent, it is because something has happened that damages the natural capacity a person has to appreciate and trust his or her Source and Essence.
Emunah is not a mimetic behavior or a skill—or even an attitude. It’s not a thought a person draws upon when encountering tough times; it’s a way of being. For those who live with emunah, emunah is like gravity. Awareness of God as one Who exists, Who knows and cares, Who responds to my existence, Who believes in me and expects things from me as much as I believe in Him—all this is so real that decisions are made and actions are performed much the same way that the laws of physics are taken into account before passing the butter. It is so much a part of reality that one need not think about it. Emunah is not so much a belief as it is a context or a prism through which the world is filtered.
Yet, to live with emunah is to be clear about, and profoundly related to, an ephemeral, non-physical, invisible, unprovable realm whose existence has non-immediate consequences. For emunah to be present, an individual has to be sensitive to the presence of something beside, and beyond, the physical world. This is the challenge of life, felt more acutely in our modern world than ever before, where physical pleasure, power and fame are the currency of value: to live lives in a physical world that are devoted to a mission that exists in a nonphysical world.
The mishnah in Avot (4:21) asserts that three things “chase a person from the world,” meaning, put one out of touch with reality: jealousy, desire and pursuit of honor. Any one of these three obsessions blinds a person to anything spiritual. They are the result of a single-minded focus on material things. They make it impossible to develop the senses needed to perceive the spiritual dimension of life—the reason for life—or even to be aware that there is such a realm. When material things become the currency in which we deal, emunah becomes impossible.
For children to live with emunah awareness, we must reinforce their natural tendency to trust, to depend on their parents. When a child cries, it is not the bottle that makes the difference, but the context in which the bottle is delivered—with love, reliability, connection and nurturance. These are all abstracts, and they point to a domain that is not physical, yet is as real as the bottle. As the child grows, she learns that she is loved, is provided for and can afford to trust without fear of betrayal. The child learns to appreciate, and the child learns that she is loveable as well. These are the foundations of emunah.
The question of imparting emunah to young children and teens is only a concern to parents and a society for whom emunah is a reality. Parents, teachers and other role models who don’t deal with God as a personal reality will have no questions about imparting this awareness to children, which points to the most effective way of imparting emunah to the next generation—living and demonstrating in our own discourse and relationships the opposite of jealousy, desire and longing for recognition. It means passing up opportunities for personal pleasure in favor of spiritual pleasure, which is all about connection to others, and to the Other. And it means living a life of humility, aware as we are that there is a God who put us here for a purpose. Opportunities to make these statements abound in daily family living: in how parents relate to each other, in how religious obligations are met, in what topics dominate casual conversation, in the style of parenting our children experience. Being a reliable and dependable parent, or a loving and loyal spouse, creates the context in which emunah in a God with similar characteristics can thrive.
After a blessing is recited, we respond with “Amen,” a derivative of the word emunah. A blessing affirms awareness of the Source, and expresses appreciation for being the recipient of gifts. Responding with Amen takes the affirmation of the blessing and keeps it alive in the world for others. The most effective way of passing emunah on to the next generation is to lead lives that embody and express a resounding Amen in the presence of the gifts around us.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman has been the rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, Georgia, since 1991 and has been struggling with emunah since he was five years old.