“I can’t take it anymore!”
“What happened? Is the baby teething again? You’re exhausted.” my husband asked, trying to read my thoughts, over the phone.
“No, no. It’s Kaila. She’s staying with us for four more days! Four more days! I never knew that a four-year-old could drive me so batty.”
My friend Sara had asked me to have her darling Kaila over for a week, while she was away. I happily consented, looking forward to Kaila bringing her bounce and enthusiasm into our home. Why not? My kids adored her and would be thrilled to have her sleeping over for a whole week.
A whole week! The first couple of days were fine. The children played together beautifully, and as I expected, Kaila brought a new energy into our house. But soon that energy turned into fire. Suddenly, Kaila began to fight instead of play, and refused to cooperate with the simplest requests. Bedtime was horrendous, the morning was even worse and, well, the afternoons were simply unbearable. I began counting the days, the hours, the minutes until Sara would be back. I – and my children – just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Why don’t you take her aside?” the voice of reason, i.e. my husband, asked. “Maybe she just needs a little personal attention. After all, she probably misses her parents and her siblings.”
“That’s about the last thing I feel like doing but you’re probably right. I’ll go take her in the other room and read her a book.”
And you know what? It worked.
All it took was a little love. I pulled her onto my lap and felt her soaking up all the attention I forced myself to give her. She just needed some love.
It brought back an expression Rebbetzin Altusky had once said in a chinuch shiur: When they’re least lovable, they’re most in need of love.
My friend Penina called the other day and told me about the terribly difficult Shabbos she had just had. Her young teenage daughter was absolutely impossible. At the Friday night meal, Yael started up with everyone, ranting, raving and creating a most dismal atmosphere for the whole family. Unsure what to do, my friend’s husband, Avi, sent her to her room for the night. The rest of the family was relieved to have a little quiet, but a certain tension hung in the air.
The next day, Avi ran into an older rabbi who was visiting the neighborhood for Shabbos. Avi took the opportunity to see what the rabbi had to say about the previous night’s scenario. After hearing the full description, the Rabbi responded: “Thirty years ago, I would have responded differently, telling you to discipline her more, etc. But now, I guess I’ve softened with age. What I have learned over the years is that when children are misbehaving in such a radical way, it usually means they’re missing something. I would say to pull her over to you, give her a hug, and tell her you love her.”
When they’re least lovable, they’re most in need of love.
Why is that so easy to say, but so hard to put into practice? It is most challenging to take a child who has just insulted everyone around, including you, created havoc, possibly even broken things or ruined someone’s property, and say, “Come here, sweetheart, come sit on my lap.” Most parents are not feeling particularly loving at that moment.
A classic book on Jewish thought, called Tomer Devorah, presents an insight that may help parents express affection at times when they don’t feel that way internally. This sefer describes Hashem’s thirteen attributes and proposes that people are meant to emulate these middos, thus fulfilling the mitzvah “Ve’halachta bedrachav,” to go in His ways. One of these attributes is “Mi kel kamocha, Who, Hashem, is like you.” The Tomer Devorah explains that this is referring to the idea that Hashem bears insult, meaning that when people sin, at that very moment, they are being sustained by Hashem, and Hashem does not get angry. They are using the sustenance and energy He has given them to do things He has commanded them not to do. Yet, Hashem tolerates the impudence and continues sustaining them. He does not take revenge or withhold the sustenance. He keeps giving and giving, waiting patiently for the sinner to repent.
Caring for children provides us with a wealth of opportunities to emulate Hashem. When our children are least lovable-instigating, hurting, insulting and throwing fits, we can dig down deep into our neshamas and pull out the love and patience that Hashem has planted in us. We can give and give and wait patiently for our children to repent, which usually comes with a little maturity.
Sometimes children get locked. Yael, from the example I brought above, was typical of this pattern of behavior. She had a mind of her own and was often very challenging at home. An endless cycle developed, where the more she misbehaved and the more her parents scolded her, the less she would improve her behavior. She would get stuck and wouldn’t budge out of her rotten mood. In this kind of situation, threats and punishments just don’t work. The child prefers to suffer the punishment than give in.
Why is that? Why do some children seem to always shoot themselves in the foot? This is not a simple question. People are more complex than can be explained in one article. But sometimes it is because they just don’t feel good about themselves. They feel attacked and alone. Even if they were the ones who started the whole negative episode, it doesn’t matter. If everyone is against them that is the feeling they are stuck with. And what happens in military combat if Side A starts up with Side B, and Side B retaliates and begins to overtake Side A? Does Side A say, “I’m sorry. You’re right, I shouldn’t have started up?.” No. They attack back – and this time more strongly than the first time, because now their pride is at stake. After all, they started up this whole business. And when pride comes in the picture, all reasoning goes out the back door.
And thus, the child thinks to himself, “I won’t give in, even if I die in the process.” Because pride, an inner sense of self-worth, is what makes people want to keep living. Without it, they’re almost, chas veshalom, dead.
Of course, discipline is an irreplaceable part of parenting. Sometimes, children need to be punished for their misbehavior and it will remind them in the future that the misconduct is not worth the consequences. It’s a different situation when the child is stuck. When you find him frequently and unrelentingly tangling himself into unpleasant exchanges with siblings and parents, a different modus operandi is called for. It’s not just that he is being naughty. His naughtiness is continuously tormenting his siblings, his parents, possibly peers and teachers, and even himself.
So the next time that child is acting so completely unlovable, and you’re at the end of your rope this is your opportunity to muster up all that love buried deep inside of you. Take him on your lap (at the time and in a way that he will agree to, of course), give him a kiss and tell him how much he means to you. In doing so, you will be emulating Hashem and giving your child the self-worth he needs to put himself back on track.