Years ago I was visiting with an old college friend and her young children. She confided in me the difficulties in getting her children to sleep at night. One child required that she stay with him until he fell asleep, while another refused to sleep anywhere other than the parents' bed. If a baby sitter came, my friend didn't bother telling her to put the kids to bed at all. The kids just fell asleep wherever they were and my friend dealt with getting them to bed when she came home.
After our visit ended, and I escorted my friend out to her car, she sheepishly admitted that she couldn't get her kids to sit in their car seats either.
My friend is a relatively intelligent woman. She and her husband are both professionals with advanced degrees who function very successfully in their respective careers. They seem to have a decent amount of common sense. So why are their kids out of control? And what will be in a few years when the parents are trying to get their teenagers to come home on time at night?
Many parents are at a loss when it comes to disciplining their children. I often hear parents say they are unsure when to be strict and when to be lenient, which things to make an issue out of, and which to let slide.
Discipline is more than common sense. For many of us, it is a skill that needs to be learned. In this series of articles we will explore what discipline means and how to practice it effectively.
WHAT IS DISCIPLINE?
Discipline is a process of setting limits on our children's behavior and enforcing those limits in a loving and consistent way. It is a way of letting children know there are rules that need to be followed and ways of correct behavior that need to be learned. Discipline also teaches our children to accept authority.
From the Jewish perspective, discipline is seen as a sign of love. "Whoever God loves, He admonishes" (Proverbs 3:12). Just as God admonishes us with love, we admonish our children due to our love for them.
Conversely, "He who spares the rod, spoils the child" (Proverbs 13:24). The "rod" here is not condoning corporal punishment (more on that in a future article). It is referring to the various forms of discipline we use to correct our children and to set limits.
Other Jewish sources tell us that a disciplined child will bring us delight (Proverbs 29:17) and that a disciplined child will become wise when he is old (see "Reishis Chochma" on childraising).
RULE YOUR ROOST
In order to be effective, parents have to be able to take control and rule the roost. We are in charge. The Jewish family is not the democratic family. Years ago, some parenting experts advocated "family meetings," where the entire brood sat around the table voting on family rules and issues. Everyone had an equal vote. While it is important to allow children to express their feelings and wishes, the Jewish home needs to be one where parents have the ultimate authority and make the final decisions.
In Judaism, parents are given their authority by God. (See Authority in Parenting)There are two mitzvot which fall upon children: to honor parents and to revere them. Parents in turn must raise their children with great love, sensitivity and wisdom.
As parents, we have to approach our job with confidence. Our children need to feel that we know what we are doing. They don't like wishy-washy parents. Contrary to what they may say, they don't like to be the ones running the show. Kids know they are too inexperienced for this.
Contrary to what they may say, kids don't like to be the ones running the show.
Our children want us to guide and protect them. They don't always want to have it their own way. They don't want to win all the battles. And they don't want parents who are their buddies. Kids want parents who are firm and loving authority figures.
Ask yourself: Do I have trouble being the one who is running the show? Am I often uncertain what course of action to take? Do I lack confidence in my ability to get my children to behave? If so... read on!
DISCIPLINE WITH LOVE
The Jewish way is to discipline with love. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, said that the most powerful tool we possess in our generation today is the bond of love we forge with our children. The stronger the bond, the more our children will want to listen and to please us.
So working on the "love bond" is an essential prerequisite to helping our children accept and respect our authority.
One of the major roadblocks to effective discipline is when emotions other than love predominate -- such as anger, frustration, annoyance or impatience. Of all these emotions, anger is the most destructive. Anger makes children fearful, and Judaism forbids causing excessive fear in the home (Talmud - Gittin 6b-7a).
True, children will usually behave if we get angry enough -- but it is a very destructive method. They may end up towing the line today, but the negative emotions this stirs does not portend well for the future. Rebellion, disrespect, and other forms of acting out are often the lot of such children.
Parents who get angry are demonstrating their own lack of discipline.
When parents get angry, the message the child receives often is "I don't like you." One time I was yelling at my daughter and she looked at me and said, "You hate me!" That was her emotional response to my yelling. She felt hated.
Also, angry parents often make their children feel guilty for causing them to be angry. Then the child has to deal with both the parent's anger and the guilt feelings for having caused the parent's anger!
Parents who get angry are only demonstrating their own lack of discipline. You cannot expect well-behaved children, if the parents are getting out of control themselves.
The bottom line: Discipline needs to take place in an atmosphere of calm and love if we are going to be effective.
A FEW RULES TO FOLLOW
Here are a few practical tips how to demonstrate love while admonishing a child:
- Say to a child, "I love you too much to allow you to (you name it)... swim in the pool when I am not there, hit your brother, or drive five friends to the mall when you just got your license."
- Speak pleasantly and softly. If we yell at our kids a lot they will learn to tune us out. The softer we speak, the louder they hear. Further, explain to your child that you have their benefit in mind. (Maimonides - Laws of Character Development 6:7)
- If you are angry, cool down before dealing with the situation. While this is not always possible, try. This communicates to your child more caring, since we avoid subjecting them to our anger. And by waiting, we effectively role-model self-discipline.
- Don't embarrass your child when admonishing him. (It is forbidden by Jewish law to embarrass anyone.) This means not rebuking a child in public. Even is private, if you say, "That was a stupid thing to do," you will embarrass the child and make him feel unloved.
- Tell your child that his behavior is not befitting a person of his stature. In other words, "You're a smart 10-year-old and you're too big to forget to do your homework." If we think highly of our children, and communicate that, then they will make more of an effort to live up to that image. They will also feel valued and loved.
The Talmud says, "Let the left hand push away while the right hand draws near" (Sotah 47a). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says this is the combination of love and strictness we use with our children. The love, represented by the stronger right hand, must always predominate.
If we do so, then our efforts to raise healthy children who understand and respect boundaries, will be blessed with fruitful results.