A woman writes:

We live in Israel and our families, including two sisters-in-law, have very little contact with us. My in-laws are great, and are very supportive and encouraging of how we are raising our kids. My sisters-in-law, however, are another story entirely. They constantly offer "advice" which is really not-so-veiled criticism, and this has gone on for years even though neither one of them had kids of their own. Nothing I do is right, and they are not shy about telling me what or why, and as one might expect, I find their "suggestions" impractical and not reasonable.

We've been told we aren't giving the kids enough, materially or time-wise. We should never criticize them. We should never get angry at the children (we try, we try, but everybody fails sometimes), and we should never punish, only explain.

I have tried smiling and saying nothing; I have tried saying that we will take their opinion into account. My husband has, on occasion, explained pleasantly that we appreciate their concern but that we see the situation differently, thank you. I now realize that it would have been better to have confronted the two of them more directly years ago. Is there any good way out of this now?

A TOUGH CHALLENGE

Before addressing the issue at hand it is instructive to note that criticism is, at the very least, a very sensitive and delicate issue. The Torah states, "You shall surely rebuke your friend." The critical word here is "friend." The person reprimanded must feel that the rebuke comes from someone perceived as a friend, an ally and someone whose words the individual can respect and wish to heed.

If that criteria is not met, the Talmud cautions that just as it is a mitzvah to speak what can be heard so it is a mitzvah to desist from saying that which cannot be heard.

One of the toughest challenges to human beings is to receive criticism graciously so as to respond to it appropriately.

When there are in fact legitimate issues that need to be addressed, often we may have to disqualify ourselves and identify another person who does meet the criteria of the perceived "friend." That might be a rabbi, mentor, or another who is significant and valued by the party in question.

One of the toughest challenges to human beings is to receive criticism graciously so as to respond to it appropriately. It is especially challenging to accept criticism when it comes to child-rearing. We often see our children as extensions of ourselves, and our parenting as reflections of our most significant efforts. Critical comments in this area hurt us to the core and feel like an assault on our very person.

The sages comment that one who is able to handle oneself well and control a response at a time of criticism and embattlement with another, is worthy of the world existing in his or her merit. That's how hard it is.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

Practically speaking, I would think that the reader would be well advised to:

  1. Be reassured that there are many schools of thought in child rearing methodology. In fact, some of the most popular approaches of the past have reversed themselves and new ones appear all the time. There is no one right approach that fits all situations.

  2. To fortify yourself against criticism you would do well to seek the counsel of someone who knows you, your children, your values, and where you are coming from. I would subject the critical comments to their scrutiny and ask them to determine, given your situation, if there are indeed any modifications necessary in your approach.

  3. I would then tell my critics that I appreciate their good intentions, have explored their suggestions, sought counsel for my particular situation and am satisfied that while their approach might be commendable, mine works best for me. As they say, "different strokes for different folks."

  4. I might also share my vulnerability with them; namely, that I need to surround myself with those who will be supportive and who would give me positive feed back. If they can provide that, we can co-exist and they can be part of my immediate world. The bottom line is: I cannot waste my precious and limited energy on detractors who would undermine my efforts in the area of life that is both most challenging and sacred to me.

  5. My personal counsel to mothers of large families who juggle so much responsibility is to be mindful of the care, attention, and nurturing that they owe themselves. These moms need to eat well, exercise, be well groomed, make sure they take personal time for an exercise class, a learning class, an hour at the library alone, a solitary walk in the park, etc. This personal attention is a necessity, not a luxury. It recharges the batteries and helps us access our internal energy.

  6. And, as with all things, I would continue to pray. I would ask the Almighty, the source of all wisdom, to guide my steps and to help me see clearly.