Dear Dr. Yael:
My 16-year-old best friend, who I love dearly, is the oldest of 11 children. She has a most difficult life, as her mother expects her to work all the time in the house and is never satisfied with anything my friend does.
My friend is truly a tzaddeikes, never answering her mother back. But she sometimes cries to me about her difficult life. She is bright, but her grades are falling. Her parents don’t care about her education and will often force her to miss school so she can help out with the house and the children. I sometimes think she is Cinderella.
My friend is not allowed to participate in most school activities, since her parents feel that her tafkid is to help them raise their family. She doesn’t have time for friends and while some girls don’t bother with her, I love her so much and try to always be there for her. How can I help my friend?
A Teenage Fan
Dear Teenage Fan:
Your expression of great care for your friend demonstrates what a special person you are.
Your friend is clearly in a trying situation. Unfortunately, in our community many large families overburden their older children (especially their daughters) by expecting them to do too much. This is extremely challenging to the child and becomes almost unbearable when the child’s efforts receive no gratitude. At least if your friend worked hard and was greatly appreciated and complimented, her chores would seem easier to handle. She may then feel accomplished and gain self-confidence from the compliments and gratitude showered on her.
It appears that her parents may be insensitive or unaware that their daughter is overworked and deserves a life. You note that they do not care about her grades or about her need to have a social life. This might be the case because they seem to be unaware of the amount of time they are taking from her, as well as the fact that they themselves are probably very overwhelmed.
The larger issue is that, based on your letter, it seems that her parents do not express appreciation for her. This can really damage your friend’s self-esteem, which further intensifies the problem.
It may be a good idea to speak to a faculty member (perhaps a mechaneches) who can help you resolve this issue by reaching out to you friend’s parents. Especially since your friend is missing school, the school can intervene on her behalf by asking your friend’s parents to allow their daughter to be more involved in school activities. School officials can also address her poor grades and ask her parents if their daughter is studying enough, thus alerting them to the possibility that she may not have enough time to study properly for her exams. Due to her family situation, it is understandable that she will have more responsibilities than other girls her age, but she would benefit from having some free time and receiving more appreciation for her hard work.
The problem you describe often comes to my attention when these young girls are grown and married, and suffering from depression due to marital problems as a result of the type of childhood that your friend is experiencing. Many of these now-married women have been so busy rearing their siblings that they now feel burnt out and can’t manage to raise their own children. Since it is obviously too late to change their childhoods, I try to help the women deal with their problems through therapy. But since “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” I hope that mothers, fathers, and others who may be doing the same thing to their children read this column and stop overwhelming their children with endless work and constant criticism.
I applaud you for taking the time to write this important letter, one that may have more positive impact on our community than you might imagine. While some parents mistakenly don’t give their children enough chores, other parents engulf them with the responsibility of bringing up their siblings, children that the parents themselves should be rearing.
I wish to emphasize my belief that it is essential for children to be given a fair amount of responsibility and chores at home. (The words “fair amount…” are the key here.) But it is just as essential that when they perform these tasks they should be complimented and shown appreciation. This will build the child’s self-esteem and sense of responsibility.