Dear Emuna,

My husband is overall a wonderful person, but with a bad temper that's often directed at our kids. When things are chaotic or he can't find what he's looking for, he'll curse or call them derogatory terms such as "stupid" or “piece of garbage.” Sometimes when they act up (they're 2 and 4), he'll pick them up roughly or hold them upside down.

We went to therapy which helped a bit, but I'm worried that he's ruining our marriage and their self-esteem. Any ideas?

-- Worried Wife

Dear Worried,

I've been chided recently in this column for jumping to conclusions too rapidly and for giving simple solutions to complicated problems. With this in mind, I will refrain from saying that it sounds like your husband is abusive and you should take the kids and run.

But I would advise that you read up on the topic. A bad temper that carries over to swearing, to picking children up "roughly" and "holding them upside down" is cause for real concern. You are correct to be worried.

After an instance of abuse, there is frequently a "honeymoon phase."

I'm not sure what you mean when say that he is “overall a wonderful person.” Very few people are all good or all bad, but that doesn't mean they are contributing to a warm and healthy home for you and the children. In fact, when you read about abuse, you will discover that many such people seem wonderful, especially to the world at large, and are respected in their communities. In addition, after an instance of abuse, there is frequently a "honeymoon phase" where they are remorseful, abjectly apologetic and extra loving, lulling the victim to believe in a rosier future and to stay in the relationship.

I don't have the full picture, which I recommend that you do some research. I would additionally suggest that you call your local domestic abuse hotline, describe your situation, and ask their advice. Then pray that the Almighty gives you the strength to follow it.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

A family of friends recently visited our home to have a Sunday lunch with us. When they left later in the afternoon, we realized that money had disappeared from my husband's wallet (which had been left open and was now displaced) and from another spot in the kitchen where I keep change from groceries. Altogether, the financial impact was limited, but this was a shock to me.

This specific family has a 13-year-old boy, a nice and smart kid who has given them some problems in the past. His mother had told me, several months ago, that she had found her son in possession of an inexplicably large sum of money. He had also taken money from his parents on another occasion. I had totally forgotten about this, but following this incident I can say I am practically certain that he is responsible for the theft in our home. The only other children in the home were mine, who are much younger (under 6).

What should I do now? For the time being, I didn't say anything to the parents because I don't want to put our friendship at risk and because I thought that – if something similar happened to me – it would be just hurt too much. But I am very, very upset about this episode and obviously reluctant to invite this family again, despite the fact they are lovely people whom we get along with very well. Do you have any guidance for me on this matter?

-- Puzzled Friend

Dear Puzzled,

This is a very tough situation. While I agree with you that the signs point to this guilt, I don't really see how you can be “practically certain” that he is responsible." It is unfortunate that his mother spoke loshon hora (disparagingly) about him to you, thereby making him the target of your suspicions. This should be an important cautionary tale for parents who frequently aren't as careful as they should be when discussing their children. Remember: your listener doesn't love them like you do and is less inclined to judge them favorably.

In any situation like this, I would be very reluctant to inform the parents, and particularly in this case where you have no concrete evidence. Since she did tell you about her son's challenges, you can assume they are dealing with the issue and that your call or accusation will only cause them additional and, probably unnecessary, pain. It will also definitely (as you fear) drive a wedge between you and them. No parent likes to hear even well-meaning (!) criticism of their children from other parents.

In this case, since you didn't witness any improper action yourself, you have no proof, and since it is not life-threatening, I would err on the side of discretion. The next time you have them over, just lock up your valuables.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

We are raising our teenage granddaughter and in need of advice on how to balance discipline and freedom for her. She came to us with many problems and issues. She still does have issues, but has improved a lot for the short time she has been with us. Trying to balance being a grandparent and “parent” at the same time is difficult. Both of her parents are alive, but they are not very involved in her life much due to their lack of responsibility. Thanks for anything you may suggest.

-- Grandparents/Parents

Dear G/P,

Let me begin by saying that I really respect you for stepping up to the plate. It certainly is not easy, on many levels.

There are 2 main issues that you raise:

  1. The balance between freedom and discipline – which torments every parent and particularly those of adolescents, and
  2. Balancing being a grandparent and a parent

Let's start with the latter. I don't think this is an area where you should seek to achieve balance. For all intents and purposes (and according to your own description), you are now the parents. That's the role you are playing in your granddaughter's life. Perhaps at one time you were able to be a more typical “indulgent grandparent,” but those days are no more. You have undertaken a serious responsibility that you now need to live up to. Your granddaughter needs you to be her parents.

All children need boundaries – and rebel against them.

That leads us to the first issue. I think I might rephrase the choices in a way that frames your positions as less adversarial. Instead of balancing freedom and discipline, let's call it freedom versus structure and boundaries. All children, no matter their age, desperately need boundaries. And all children, no matter their age but particularly teenagers, strongly rebel against the notion. It's a fine and delicate line to tread.

You will probably have to do some research. Speak to her teachers at school. Speak to the parents of her friends. What are their norms and expectations? You’ll need to get a sense if your granddaughter is telling the truth when she (inevitably) says that "all the other parents let"?

Try to have a few inviolable rules (frequently, safety-related) – curfew, no alcohol, responsibility for schoolwork, forbidden hangouts, to name a few. And try to be flexible outside of this.

All teenagers are challenging. Their hormones make them (and everyone around them) crazy. As do their fears and anxieties about getting older. Your granddaughter may have some extra issues due to her parents' situation. She may be tempted to act out more.

Our Sages advise us to "Pull close with the right hand, and push away with the left." The right hand is compassion and love; it should be the stronger and more dominant emotion and impulse. The left is discipline and boundaries. It's the weaker, less frequently-used side. We need both, but compassion takes precedence. Always lead with it.

Finally, the Almighty's compassion is infinitely greater than our own. Ask Him to give you and your husband the strength and wisdom you need for this noble undertaking.

-- Emuna