click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Telling Kids What to Do
Mom with a View

Telling Kids What to Do

Are parents afraid to teach their young kids values and proper behavior in a clear, unambiguous manner?


In “The Wrong Way to Speak to Children” (WSJ), Jennifer Lehr suggests that the way most of us address our young children is, for lack of a better word, wrong. Her theory is that most of our conversation is about control – “We use it to tell our kids what we want them say (“Say sorry!”); how we want them to feel (“You’re okay!”); what we want them to do (Behave yourself!”); and what will happen if they don’t (“Do you want a timeout?”) – and compliance.

Just as an aside, she seems to allege that most of speak with a lot of vehemence and emotion; hence her constant use of exclamation marks!!

She then cites what was in her mind a painful story that led to her epiphany in parenting theory – and, of course, a new book.

It was at the end of a play date and she asked her for-year-old daughter, Jules, to thank the other mom for having her over. After a little prodding and encouragement Jules mumbled a thank you. I’m sure we are all familiar with such a situation and response. What is new is Ms Lehr’s reaction: “My heart sank. My sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed. It was like I was a ventriloquist and Jules, my dummy.” (I don’t mean to seem judgmental but the author seems prone to extreme emotional reactions to fairly mild situations!)

If Jennifer Lehr was dealing with teenagers then I would probably agree with her that control and compliance are not the best strategies or goals.

But she’s talking about four year olds. Four year olds are not just short adults. They’re children! (My turn to use exclamation marks!) They aren’t mature enough to deduce solely from our behavior how to act. And they aren’t disciplined enough or motivated enough to act on this information even if they have superior powers of deduction. Four year olds need their parents to tell them what to do and when to do it. And to ensure that they follow through.

Ms. Lehr rails against the idea of this “parentspeak” but none of us would probably be who we are today without it.

This is the job of parents of four year olds, a job we can’t abdicate despite Ms. Lehr’s innovative theory and writings. I confess that I don’t really understand why Ms. Lehr’s “sparkling daughter seemed so kowtowed” by the simple request to say thank you. It doesn’t seem that onerous or demanding. Is Ms. Lehr just seeing what she wants to see? Is she projecting? Is she making a mountain out of a molehill?

Hard to say but even if the author is correct and her daughter was subdued by the admonition to express gratitude, so what? Maybe she didn’t like being told what to do. Maybe she was resentful. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But expressing gratitude and appreciation is a basic positive character trait that parents need to instill in their children, whether they resist it or not, whether they sparkle with excitement at the discovery or not.

It is our responsibility to teach the lesson of gratitude in a clear and unambiguous way. A four year old may not be thrilled in the moment but she’s being shaped into a polite, appreciative adult. Parents need to look to the future and not get too caught up in a child’s fleeting reaction.

Ms. Lehr rails against the idea of this “parentspeak” but none of us would probably be who we are today without it. And I venture to say that the world would be full of a lot more spoiled brats.

I think the world needs a lot more expressions of gratitude, not less, from people of all ages – even if it’s not always expressed with superlatives and enthusiasm.

January 22, 2017

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 4

(4) mraquelalmeida, January 27, 2017 9:35 AM

entitled kids

If we don't teach our kids to be grateful we are failing them as they grow up with a sense of entitlement. We must teach them to be grateful. It is not just because it is polite,it is a skill which will help them navigate through life.

(3) Eric Wood, January 26, 2017 4:02 PM

Completely agree Emuna,

It was many years later after teenage had passed, long after being a 4 year old, my daughter (wonderful now age 50) told me "You were right all along, dad."

(2) Liba, January 25, 2017 6:30 AM

Control doesnt work

Emunah, control doesn't work. Being forced to say thank you does not teach the child gratitude. The way to teach the child gratitude is do teach the child, through modeling gratitude, showing appreciation, asking (not telling) them (perhaps not in tree moment) to show appreciation and to praise their attempts. You reference teens in the article. The main reason teens can be so challenging is becausethey are fighting against the control that parents put on them when they were children and had no power to fight (even though many young ones do fight). Influence due to a positive relationship is much stronger than control. As a preschool teacher for more than 10 years (and a mother of 6 young children), I speak from experience. Forcing children to say sorry or thank you teaches them nothing but how to lie. There are much more effective ways to teach gratitude or respect or regret.

(1) Yael, January 22, 2017 1:07 PM

I agree with you.

I think Ms. Lehr was misjudging an excellent parenting moment of hers. Yes, her daughter was feeling socially awkward at the moment. But if Ms. Lehr reminds her daughter every time, eventually she will get used to it and lose her awkwardness.
And those become the most socially confident children! The ones who were taught how to behave appropriately. Ironically, that gives children the greatest confidence! To know the correct way to behave in every circumstance. That frees up their creativity to shine when appropriate!
(Besides, of course, as Emuna says, creating nice, normal human beings instead of selfish brats!)

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment