“We have a problem.”
“Tell me.” I say to parents on the line.
“Our nine year old daughter…”
I hear only silence.
“Well, we want you to know that she is a really special child. We don’t want you to think badly of her. She’s usually so good. She’s great in school, has lots of friends and her teachers only have the best things to say about her.”
“Okay,” I respond. “So what’s the problem?”
There is an uncomfortable pause on the other end. And then Maya’s mother begins to speak.
“She is so disrespectful; I am sometimes reduced to tears. She erupts in anger and says mean things to us.”
Maya’s father now adds to the conversation. “Sometimes I can’t believe the behavior I’m watching. I totally don’t understand it! She is a doll to everyone else. She gets awards in school. Whenever she has a play date, her friends’ parents cannot stop praising her. But here, she can become nasty and turn this house upside down.”
It’s quite common for parents to hear glowing reports about their child and yet, feel helpless at home as they live on the receiving end of incredible disrespect.
What could be happening to cause such a drastic change in public versus private behavior?
“Let me ask you a few questions. First, can you describe to me some of the chutzpah and then we can figure out if there are any triggers.”
Maya’s parents tell me about her coming home from school each afternoon and making a big deal about supper. She would rather eat junk food and so she refuses to eat dinner until she consumes the snacks that she desires. She does her homework but after she is done, the night becomes an evening without boundaries. She refuses to go to sleep at her set bedtime. She refuses to get into pajamas and brush her teeth when told. Usually she ends up playing on the computer or reading until she decides it’s time to call it a night. When told to go to sleep, Maya ignores her parents and keeps on doing whatever it is she is in the middle of doing. Maya calls the shots.
“This behavior can’t be allowed to continue,” I tell Maya’s parents. “Not only is it destructive to Maya, but her younger siblings are certainly taking this all in and believing that this is permissible. Soon this will be a family based on disrespect.
“We know this is bad,” they say, “but what can we do? She just doesn’t listen. “
“You and Maya are going to sit down and have a very serious discussion. Both of you need to be there – no cell phones, no blackberries, no interruptions. She needs to see that you mean business. I am going to guide you but I want to know one more thing. When the chutzpah occurs, what do you do?”
Maya’s father tells me that the disrespect is often flung toward him. He tells her it’s not right to speak this way and then she answers back that he doesn’t know how to handle her.
“You should learn from Mommy! She knows how to handle me.”
“What does she mean by that? What exactly does Mommy do?” I ask.
Maya’s mom explains to me that she often cajoles her husband to give their daughter another chance. When Maya misbehaves or speaks disrespectfully, her father will get upset and threaten her with a punishment. Maya’s mother than asks her husband to look away or let their daughter ‘just have one more cookie, or 5 more minutes’.
Maya’s mother can’t stand dealing with the emotions and conflict.
I now have my AHA moment. This is the info I’ve been waiting for.
The Torah describes the unusual case of a “rebellious child” who did not listen to “the voice of his father and mother.” In using the language of not listening to “the father and mother,” instead of simply saying “to the parents,” the Torah gives us incredible insight as to why this child rebelled. The parents were not speaking with one voice. When they undercut each other and question each other’s judgment in front of the child, the child picks up on the disagreement and resists his parents. After all, if you cannot listen to one another and parent with one voice, why should your child listen to you? Unknowingly, by opposing each other in front of your child you are teaching your child to disrespect you.
The first they need to do is to come together and parent with one voice.
In many families, there is one parent who tries to be the ‘nice guy’. When there is conflict this parent wants to restore peace quickly and be surrounded by happy faces. Usually, it becomes two against one as the child allies with one parent against the other. But instead of finding peace, the result is chutzpah and disrespect. The child learns that he can bring his parents to bicker and quarrel. There is no sense of discipline. There is no sense of respect.
The first thing I advise Maya’s parents to do is to come together and parent with one voice. I ask them to decide how they would like to handle the conflicts and which behaviors would bring consequences. I explain to Maya’s mother that she is contributing to her daughter’s disrespect every time she asks her husband to look away or give in to bad behavior.
We set four principles of discipline to be followed that I would like to share with you.
1. Remove unnecessary sources of conflict
Just as we remove delicate or dangerous objects from our toddlers reach instead of saying ‘no’ the whole day, it is wise to eliminate any insignificant causes of disagreement. Decide which situations are important and which you can look away at. This way, you do not feel as if your days and nights are spent constantly quarreling.
2. Establish routines
Many conflicts occur when children do not know what to expect or what is permissible. If we sometimes allow children to play ball indoors or nosh before dinner and other times we say ‘no’, we cause confusion. Children then test our limits and push until they hear ‘yes’ because they know that we will give in if they push hard enough.
3. Do not use the word ‘punishment’
A punishment connotes evil stepmothers in Disney movies and inspires feelings of unfairness and revenge. Instead we want to help children learn that they are responsible for their behavior-both good and bad. This brings us to #4.
4. Discuss privileges and natural consequences.
Explain to your child that it is a privilege to be in this family. And it is a privilege to play on the computer, have special time to read before bed, as well as toys to play with, (cell phones) and nights out with the family. If you speak disrespectfully or ignore family rules, you obviously do not appreciate the privileges you have been given and cause yourself natural consequences of losing these privileges.
As the parent, you will have to think about the natural consequences that best suit your child’s life. This conversation should take place before any new conflict occurs. Speak in a gentle but firm tone. Lose the anger which only alienates children and speak from your heart. Instead of giving a long rambling lecture, say your points clearly and concisely. Be sure to give your child one or two examples of the behavior that will not be tolerated and ask him to think about a better response that will allow you to hear his words but without the chutzpah.
If both parents speak with one voice and support each other as they maintain consistent discipline in the home through these guidelines, they will find that their children respect their unity and leave the chutzpah behind. Though there can surely be other causes of chutzpah and rebelling in children, parents who undermine each other most definitely bring disrespect home. Why should we be the ones to bring chaos and pain into our lives?