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Improving A Child’s Derech Eretz

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Dear Dr. Yael:

I have five children, and am struggling with my oldest son. He can be so good at times, but then he will talk to me with such chutzpah. I want to have a good relationship with him, but I worry when he speaks to me this way – and therefore, I end up reacting badly. This creates a vicious cycle, as he speaks back to me with even more chutzpah. I know I should react differently, but how can I respond kindly when he is speaking to me in such a disrespectful way? Wouldn’t that set a bad precedent?

My other children are beginning to follow his behavior, and I feel like the situation is spiraling out of control. What can I do to stop my other children from speaking to me in the same wrongful manner as their brother? And how can I get my son to speak to me more respectfully?

A Frustrated Mother

Dear Frustrated Mother:

Thank you for your letter. I do not know your son’s age, but if he’s age-appropriate he should view my DVD, “Chutzpah is Muktzah2” (available in Judaica sefarim stores). If he’s past the age of eight, making him too old to get much out of this DVD, perhaps you should purchase it for your toddlers and younger children. The DVD teaches them how to behave with derech eretz (e.g. saying please, thank you, don’t wake Mommy, I’ll do it with pleasure, I am sorry, etc.) and features great musical interludes with famous Jewish singers.

The issue you raise is, unfortunately, very widespread. But you are already one step ahead of the game, as you recognize that your son’s behavior is inappropriate and are properly taking steps to rectify the situation. It is important to speak to your son when he is calm, explain to him that you love him, but it is hurtful when he speaks to you disrespectfully. Tell him of your desire to have a good relationship with him, and that you want his input into how this can happen. Try to come up with a joint plan focusing on how each of you treats the other. Explain to your son that as his mother, he must speak to you with derech eretz – but that you will change your tone with him as well, speaking towards him with greater derech eretz.

To give the plan an improved chance of success, devise ways to ask each other to do things while explaining the reasons why at times those things cannot be done immediately. A good way for your son to speak to you (and for faster results for you to speak to him) is to say “I’ll do it with pleasure” when you ask him to do something. Another thing to say if he can’t fulfill your request right away: “Is it possible for me to do it in one minute?” If he does not seem amenable to these scripts, develop your own verbal thoughts that work for both of you. (Remember that a prepared script is likely to make it easier for your son to speak more appropriately to you, as he will have a better idea of what you are looking for.)

Make sure to heap praise on him when he speaks with derech eretz. Similarly, if he reverts back to speaking disrespectfully, calmly say, “Can you please say that again with derech eretz?”

It is not a good time to attempt to change your son’s behavior if he is extremely tired or hungry. In those situations, it would be better to have him get some rest or eat something. Then you can quietly and calmly tell him that although you know he was tired and/or hungry, you still expect more from your special son than to speak with you in an unsuitable way. By staying calm, you are telling your son – without engendering more disrespect – that his actions are unacceptable.

Once the tone with your oldest son improves, your other children will likely follow suit in the way they speak with you. But you should speak with each of them as well. You and your husband should also converse in the same mode, setting a good example for your children to emulate. Children generally learn and act through the examples set by their parents. Additionally, it’s a good idea to role-play with them on ways to speak more respectfully, as this will ready them when the real situations arise.

Don’t be surprised if there are setbacks; they are bound to happen. You may be tired and snap at one of your children, which may cause him or her to react disrespectfully. Your children may be tired or hungry and may speak to you disrespectfully. The key is not to let these kinds of situations snowball and become the norm. If you snap at one of the kids, you can apologize and then remind your children that even though adults make mistakes, they are still required to speak with you respectfully – no matter what you say. Explain to them that when they are in a bad mood, you will try to remain calm so that you can help them feel better. Also tell them that they should try to do the same for you. And if they make the effort to listen to you and subsequently speak respectfully, make sure to praise them generously and tell your husband – in their presence – how proud you are of them. Be descriptive in your praise, expanding on what took place. This will help the child in question feel that you really paid attention, and that you are truly proud of him or her. While general praise is nice, specific praise is much more meaningful.

Lastly, do not personalize your children’s actions. Too often we do that, causing us to get very upset and thus react badly. If you take a step back when your child is disrespectful and see it as a teaching moment instead of a personal affront, you will be much better equipped to respond calmly and successfully. Your children are likely reacting to whatever internal feelings they are experiencing and are not acting disrespectfully because they do not respect you. If you are able to internalize this, you will have accomplished a lot.

Most children want to please their parents, but they do not listen because they want to be independent or they are feeling hungry, tired, insecure, etc. If you think their behavior is due to the desire to be independent, give your child two choices pertaining to a matter that interests them. (Make sure that you are comfortable with the choices you’re offering.) This will help them feel as if they are in control of the situation.

I hope these ideas are helpful. If my suggestions go beyond the depth of the problem, please seek professional help before the problem becomes more significant. Hatzlachah!

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