Dear Rabbi Horowitz:
Our 10-year-old son, the oldest of our six children, has a very strong-willed personality and is very energetic. He has a very hard time sitting in school all day. (He attends school from 8:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m.) At home, he is frustrated with having to sit and do his homework.
He often has temper tantrums when asked to do his work. My husband says that he is lazy and self-centered. I agree, in part, but isn’t this what all children are like? Don’t we have to teach them how to act properly?
Reading your letter reminded me of an incident that took place some 12 years ago. I was in a mini-van winding through the streets of Yerushalayim with 17 American school principals en route to meet with Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l. I got a frantic call on my cell phone from an Israeli kollel yungerman who asked me to provide him with a mental health professional referral for his son. It seemed that his six-year-old son was having full-blown temper tantrums nearly every evening upon arriving home from school, and his parents were naturally quite concerned.
I asked this fellow how many children were in the family. (The father sounded rather young and frazzled.) When he informed me that this child was the eldest of five, I asked him if he knew what brand of disposable diapers his children wore. When that question was met with silence, I attracted quite a bit of attention from my chaveirim in the van by politely but firmly suggesting that he go to shalom bayis classes before sending his son to a therapist – as he clearly wasn’t household shopping, or changing their children’s diapers. I informed him that my wife and I were blessed with four children in six years, and during that entire time I always changed our children’s diapers whenever I was home.
A temper tantrum is often a sign that a meltdown of sorts is occurring. Think of it as an emotional overload – similar to what happens when too many appliances are plugged into one outlet. This usually results in a blown fuse. While kids can’t blow fuses (or we don’t allow them to), they respond by throwing a tantrum. I do not think that “lazy and self-centered” fit the symptoms that you are describing. Granted that your son may not want to do his homework, but there are other possibilities to consider. He also may be responding to his frustration at 1) not being able to do it; 2) not wanting to do any more work after eight or more hours in school; 3) not having a hobby; or 4) not getting the attention or tranquility that he desperately needs and deserves after a long school day.
It is always helpful to take a few steps back and look at the broader picture of your son’s life before admonishing him for his purported shortcomings. Rabbi Wolbe, at the aforementioned meeting, told our group of school heads that we should always view children as “klayne menschen” (miniature adults), meaning that we should understand that kids have needs, wants, mood swings, etc. – just like adults. While we certainly need to teach them the life skills that will help them function in the complex and demanding world in which they live, forcing them repeatedly to do things they don’t want to do, or browbeating them into silence, usually backfires in many ways. (I strongly recommend Rabbi Wolbe’s classic sefer/book, Zeriah u’Binyan b’Chinuch – Planting and Building in Education. It is a masterpiece that should be studied, not just read.)
I would also suggest that you contact your son’s principal and inquire how things are doing – academically and socially – in his school life. It is quite possible that things are not in order there, which is what is contributing to your son’s stress level. You should also consider going to a mental health professional for a few sessions to explore your parenting techniques, and develop strategies for effectively reducing your child’s stress.
Rachel, I strongly suggest that you and your husband step back and reflect on your family unit. Having dealt with children and their families for nearly 30 years, I have found that the symptoms that a child exhibits often mirror what is transpiring in his/her family unit. Thus, your son’s temper tantrum or meltdown may be a sign that your family is going through a meltdown of sorts. Having a few young children, especially with them close in age, can be – and usually is – a great deal of nachas. It is also very, very stressful.
With that in mind, perhaps you ought to consider changing established routines in your lifestyle to lower the stress level in your home. Attending less smachot, going out with your husband alone one evening a week when the kids are sleeping, and having your husband get more hands-on with raising the kids (even having him change his night seder to a morning shiur) are ideas that should be explored. And I don’t know a more delicate way to say this, but if you are feeling very overwhelmed with raising your children, please make an appointment for the two of you to meet with your rav as soon as possible to discuss your family’s situation. Seek his guidance and p’sak as for what is right for you at this time in your lives.
Children are a gift from Hashem who deserve and need our undivided attention and love. I have found over the years that when children don’t get enough of their parents’ energy and focus, they create the circumstances that practically force their parents to give it to them.