Dear Dr Yael:
My husband and I have seven children; three are married, and our 19-year-old son is currently looking for a shidduch. We are chassidish, so we check out every girl very thoroughly before our son meets her.
A girl from a non-chassidish family is being suggested for my son, and I am very hesitant about going further with this potential shidduch. This girl is the second of nine children; her older brother is married. We have researched the girl and her family carefully and heard only the most wonderful things about them.
Here’s why I’m nervous: I am concerned about the future, such as possible depression or mental illness that seems to occur quite often nowadays among our young adults. After helping their mothers run their homes and being their mothers’ right hand, I worry that burnout will occur during the marriage. I have seen and heard too many stories like this, and I am seeking your suggestions about dealing with this as I search for a daughter-in-law.
I know that not every large family dumps on the kids, but this is something I worry about. Many years ago I read a book by a well-known mechanech, a rav, and the best piece of advice I took from the book was to never ask a child to do something for you that you could do yourself. For example, if I need a tissue I will get one myself unless I have severe pain in my legs that prohibits me from helping myself. The rav stressed how important it is for parents to not expect from or demand of their children any assistance – unless that aid is absolutely required. His message: parents, when needing help, should only ask for something of necessary importance. They should not request something because they are too lazy to do it themselves. He stressed the need to teach a child mutual respect, that the parent is not the master and that the child is not a slave.
Yes, when exhausted, I would ask a child to bring me a cup of water – if he or she is going to the kitchen anyway. While I thank him or her in these instances for the appreciated favor, this does not happen on a daily or frequent basis. I believe that children will gladly do something for a parent, but only when it is occasionally asked for – and only if it’s something important. Also, for the sake of not being machshil a child in kibud av va’em, it is very important for a parent to think twice before asking for anything, even something seemingly simple. If they say “in a minute,” and don’t do it precisely in the next minute, it is the parent who is causing them to sin (by having lied). Therefore, I carefully phrase my requests – when I make one at all.
Of course children should help put away their toys and belongings; after all, they took them out. This is certainly different than asking children for a tissue (or something else) solely for the sake of bossing them around or getting them to do something for you. Asking children to do things for you can become a terrible way of taking advantage of them.
I am very glad that I read that book years ago, as I now think long and hard before asking my kids for anything.
Now back to my search for a daughter-in-law: Having expressed my hashkafa regarding children helping in the home, I am hesitant to accept a girl from a home where she is overworked. But the youngest child in a family can also be problematic because that child tends to be overly spoiled.
Since most families in my world are large, middle children can also be overworked and not given enough individual attention. Thus my question: Is there a way of knowing the mental health or stability of anyone in advance of marriage? Mental illness, a very scary thing, can happen anywhere and at anytime – and to anyone.
Any advice will be greatly appreciated.
A Longtime Reader
Dear Longtime Reader:
Thank you for your interesting letter. I will touch on a few of your points separately.
To begin, you noted that not all oldest children are overworked, nor are all youngest children spoiled. Of course every child has a different role in a family, but the most important thing you should seek in a possible shidduch is a girl (and family) with good middos, machatanim that have a respectful, loving marriage, and a girl who feels secure within herself. These are not always easy qualities to find, but these traits are more important than focusing on what number the child is in the age pecking order.
A respectful and loving family will not overwork a child and the child will not feel burnt out because he or she feels valued and appreciated. Additionally, I would hope that a child who has a good relationship with his or her parents would be able to say, with the utmost derech eretz, that he or she feels like he or she is doing too much in the house. Giving children jobs, within normal boundaries, can give them self-esteem because they feel accomplished – and there are many opportunities to praise them. (This is not to say that children should be slaves!)
There is a very big difference between having children do everything and having children do a few jobs to help out at home. Even if a family has full-time help, children can still do certain things – putting their dishes in the sink, helping cook for Shabbos, shopping, etc. For example, my son liked to vacuum when he was five. So once a week, I let him vacuum the den, where he generally played. And believe me, he did not feel overworked; on the contrary, he loved to help and felt good when I called his grandparents, older siblings, and father to tell them how special he is to help his mommy. I also occasionally asked all of my children to get me things, and they always eagerly got them. It is important to praise your children when they help you, and to write mitzvah notes for the younger children.
Assigning a fair amount of jobs to your children is healthy in the child-rearing process. It allows children to develop a good sense of self and helps them become giving people.
There are limits, though, when it comes to helping in the home, as children have their own responsibilities like schoolwork and extracurricular engagements. While I agree with much of what you wrote, you need not weigh your needs every time you want to ask your child for something. If you teach your children at a young age to exhibit derech eretz, you will not be machshil them when you ask for something, because they will probably be happy to earn the mitzvah. A parent’s authority should surely not be abused, but there is a middle ground whereby the parent is not afraid to ask his or her children for things – but not go overboard with requests.
Think about the sechar you are giving to your children when you allow them to help you. I am sure that while every parent has a unique style, with one not necessarily better than another, children need realistic expectations to succeed. There can be various ways to express that to them.
As for your search for a daughter-in-law, look for a girl that has a good relationship with her parents, one who feels loved and treasured. Look for qualities in a girl that are important to your son. For instance, some young adults want an ambitious and/or outgoing spouse – while others desire a different type of spouse. In the end, it is imperative to focus on your son’s needs and to look for a girl that is generally self-confident and comes from a family that has good relationships with each other. Hatzlachah!