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Apr 7, 2011

The Skill of Parenting

I was reading a parenting book -as I'm apt to do with my free time - entitled Between Parent and Child by Dr. Ginott, which discusses the importance and application of empathy through addressing a child's emotions first in parenting, and I came across a fascinating annecdote that I felt many people would appreciate and not enough hear:

Recently in an electronics store, the owner said to me "I heard you discuss discipline and I don't agree with you." He stretched out the palm of his hand. "This is my psychology," he said proudly. I asked him whether he applied the same "palm method" in fixing a computer, stereo or TV set. "Oh, no," he replied. "For that you need skill and knowledge. These are complex instruments."

Issues of corporal punishment as a parenting method aside, the message is quite still clear. I think it's interesting how we don't start our education for becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, psychologists, teachers or virtually any career just nine months before we begin working (and never-mind initiating that training the day we take a position!). We know it takes years to master, and dedicate large chunks of each day to learning the required information and skills. We are aware that every situation requires preparation and application of a specific set of learned skills.

Personally, that's why I have dedicated tremendous time and effort in preparing myself to be a better parent. Thus, the parenting books. Then again, I think the same about relationships and marriage -particularly because I see marriage, children and family so intimately intertwined -so I dedicate significant time and effort into that as well.


  1. I often wondered the same thing. i have gotten some strange looks for reading pareting and marriage books at the age at that i did..but its important!These tihngs take a lifetime to master..and even then you are still learning..

  2. Absolutely. Who cares about the strange looks! Dedication to being a fantastic parent trumps what other people thing.

  3. So I understand that you believe that each child needs their own specific way to be treated lifi darco, but since you seem to be so well versed in parenting literature, what is your take on the general way to discipline a child? I've heard two basic approaches:

    1) Avert your eyes and let everything pass unless it is of the utmost necessity that it be addressed so that your children do not feel suppressed and so that they will feel like the home is a warm and loving environment.


    2) Discipline your child for (almost) everything they do wrong. Because if you don't, they will never learn.

    I see the reasoning behind each method but in an ideal world I believe a combination of the two would be perfect. But how do you master being able to come off as the "good guy" after screaming at them for two full hours the night before? It just doesn't seem possible?

    And while we're on the subject, if each child needs different parenting approaches, then how do you punish one child while allowing the other child to "get away with it"? Isn't that a double standard? (At least in the eyes of the child who is being punished?)

    Sorry I'm unleashing all my questions on you but everyone who I've asked up to date have given me the same answer: a brief "understanding" nod of the head and a "you'll worry about it when you have to." Thanks guys, that was really helpful. ;)

  4. @ FeistyFrummy

    I understand your frustration, and though I'm by no means the universal authority, I was blessed to grow up with parents who put so much work and did such a wonderful job that I inherited much of whatever savvy I possess from them, and have been augmenting it with reading, going to lectures, speaking with specialists, etc.

    I don't believe in punishment (or yelling). To me, the whole concept of discipline as punishment seems cruel and power-hungry. My goal as a parent is not to raise obedient children. It's to raise children who understand the world, and so my job isn't to punish but to instruct. I believe in opportunities to teach children. Consequences (not randomly selected or imposed restrictions) teach youngsters about the results of their actions.

    Here’s a story from my childhood: One day, I was in the high-chair with my lunch. But I wasn't eating. I kept picking up food and dropping it over the chair, wide-eyed with fascination at how everything went down to the floor, how it bounced or splattered around. I was having the time of my life. Clearly that wasn't my Mother's idea of lunch. So she said to me: "wow, I see you're really interested in how things fall! Look, you let go and down it goes! Down, down, down to the ground! I know you love watching that, but food isn't for dropping, food is for eating. If you want to play, we can give you a ball and you can drop it and watch it bounce around." Being under the age of three, I didn't quite get the lesson, so I dropped some more food. My Mother calmly responded with: "I see you're not ready to eat yet. Let's hold onto the food so you can have it later when you are hungry, and I'm getting you a ball so you can play and have some fun." Then she took my lunch, gave me a ball and I spent the next 20 minutes throwing it around with my eyes wide and a huge smile plastered on my face. Then I came back, tugged at my Mother's dress to let her know I was ready to eat, and ate my food.

    See, even though I was three... it's my Mother's approach that's so beautiful. No anger, no yelling. She recognized what I was interested in doing, taught me about the function of food versus a ball and the consequence of my not using food for its function was having it replaced with the ball. While I was perhaps too young to absorb the actual message of the words, her actions were consistent with her words, and she was flexible for my needs and wishes. She wasn't concerned about my eating... I'd eventually get hungry and ask/cry/motion for food.

  5. I believe this is the way to deal with children all the time. Instead of yelling "don't do that!" or "that's wrong!" to calmly assert "food is not for throwing/playing" and add an alternative "a ball is for throwing/playing." In this way, we don't berate our children or make them feel bad; we teach them how the world works.

    Children have different needs, and so as a parent being flexible is really important. While it may be easier to have everyone on the same schedule, it's not always possible. Recognizing a child's needs (particularly in the moment since children have no concept of "later") and being flexible for them is thus paramount. In the example above, my Mother recognized I wasn't ready to eat, I was still experimenting with the world (which we like to call "playing"). So she encouraged that instead of trying to force her way (or my lunch) down my throat. I was much more responsive that way.

    My brother, on the other hand, was much more easy-going. He ate on a regular schedule, he didn't mess with his food as much and was generally much better about it than I was.

    The approach is the same, but part of the mentality is recognizing that as a parent it's important to be flexible and really it's about knowing where the child is at (in the moment) and how to seize the numerous opportunities to teach them about the world.
    With regard to children throwing tantrums and getting upset, I also believe it's really important just to accept and show you understand how they feel. To label their emotions, to attach that to their (recent) experience, to show it’s not the end of the world to have them (and perhaps model or present good ways of expressing those emotions) and NOT to distract them from it. Distracting or trying to avoid it will teach them to avoid their emotions instead of learning to accept and trust them (the same goes for feeding -trying to feed a child when they're not hungry teaches them NOT to trust their own bodily impulses instead of getting in tune with them). Generally children respond better to understanding, accepting and empathizing than punishment, yelling and distraction (which are the modern parents' tools of choice).

    I do recognize, though, that yelling often comes when parents are at a loss for what else to do, or have their own anger/frustration/stress to contend with in addition to the child's actions/needs/responses. This is why almost all parents say they wish they had more patience (which I've been working on for ages in anticipation of the need, though I'm sure I'll find myself needing more of that too).

    I believe in taking every opportunity to teach children about the world, but the way I grew up with and learned is VERY different than the mainstream.

    While some may say "you think that's how it works, just wait 'till you have kids!" I grew up with this and it worked wonders for me and my siblings. I also recognize it's much harder to keep the perspective when emotions and time-pressure enter the picture, which is precisely why I believe in beginning training early on and building that attitude/approach so that it becomes second nature to me before having children.

    Feel free to bombard me with any further comments/questions and I'll do my best to respond.

  6. Wow! Thanks for that crazy long answer! It shows your vast knowledge of the subject and even if you're not the universal authority, what you said resonates as emet and I really enjoyed reading it. Especially what you wrote about common parenting styles being yelling, punishing and distracting and how we must teach our children to accept and address their emotions rather than feel ashamed of them and try to avoid them. Don't get me wrong, I love my folks and I think they were GREAT parents. But now that I have to start thinking about being a parent seriously myself, there are always many things upon which one can improve.

    So I definitely hear your story about the ball and the food. Makes a lot of sense and shows how much wisdom your mom has. You're very lucky to have her as your mother! I don't, however, understand how that would translate into a situation where, say, you were throwing food all over the floor of someone else's home and your mother wouldn't be able to just grab a ball and play with you. Also, I don't believe in corporal punishment AT ALL, except in one circumstance. Tell me if you agree. When I was very young and would try to cross the road alone while cars were driving, my parents would "potch" me. It wasn't really even that painful it just really got the point across and I only recall doing it twice. Their thinking being that if a child ever does something to endanger their life, they must SERIOUSLY understand that that is not acceptable. Corporal punishment loses its effect when it is used too often and then the child just begins to resent their parents because they see them as abusive. But for those rare instances when a child endangers their life, I don't think your mother's method of telling you "that's not what you should be doing now" and giving an alternative "though you can cross the street with adult supervision" would neccesarily get the point across as well as it should.

    Also, how would you go about dealing with a severely rebellious child (Chas V'Shalom, it should never happen to you)? If you found out your child, again, chas v'chalila, was on drugs, drinking, being promiscuous...what would you do? I've heard recently that all you can do is show them that you accept them and eventually, if you convey that message well enough, they will come back. What do you say to that?

    Again, thanks for answering all of my questions...I feel like we've got a bit of a "Dear Abby" goin on here. Maybe you should start a new blog solely on parenting advice...but not sure how many people would be likely to ask you questions being that you don't have children of your own yet. Still, keep the parenting posts coming...:)

  7. Glad you appreciate my experience and insight. I fully acknowledge that I have little practice, though I love babysitting and spending time with kids... that fact that it's just part of my nature doesn't make it more acceptable, unfortunately.

    I NEVER endorse the use of corporal punishment. EVER. Whether or not it worked for some, I grew up in a home that clearly stated (in terms I could understand as a child) "people are NOT for hitting." I could be angry or frustrated but acting out that way was never okay to me and I believe (a) that is a worthwhile value to instill in children/people and (b) as a parent we are supposed to model how to treat others. Any hitting will open that door to say that there is/are some instance(s) where violence is okay. Kids are smart, they will test what that means by turning around and hitting someone, saying: "Mommy/Daddy does it sometimes, why can't I?" And what does a parent have to answer this? That we are bigger/better? That it is to teach a lesson? The value communicated by answering with whatever excuse is that THERE ARE TIMES WHERE HITTING PEOPLE IS RIGHT. It is NEVER right. Ever. This is an ESPECIALLY important value to teach boys who grow up to be men, in particular since boys/men have aggressive tendencies. (Meanwhile, the flip-side of this should be to teach girls/women to reign in their emotional impulses the way boys are taught to reign in their aggressive impulses.)

    My Mother once walked into the street (she was reading a book) behind my Grandfather. As he reached the other side, looking back, he noticed that she was lagging more and more. Meanwhile, as my Mother was slowing down, a car was speeding up the street. Hey reached out with his long arms, grabbed her hand firmly and yanked her out of the street to safety. The shock and pain my Mother felt was not a punishment, but occurred as her Father saved her life. I truly don't believe in punishment. If a child is in danger -especially their life -you do WHATEVER it takes to remove them from that danger. Like if a baby goes to stick a finger in the electrical socket, pushing/pulling their hand away. Again, there is NO INTENT TO HARM, BUT RATHER TO SAVE. I don't believe in punishment that way, whatever pain occurs is in lieu of serious harm, but that is never the reason or impetus for the action. Intent to cause pain or harm is not a legitimate parenting tool.

    Again, this goes back to the purpose of parenting: to teach a lesson. After pulling a child from the street, crouching down and explaining what just happened and what could have happened (with appropriate details) will grant them MUCH more than a hit on the backside ever would. If a parent can communicate and describe with words what occurred, a child can draw the message and absorb the gravity of the situation themselves. I believe that it comes down to respect and trust. Trust that children can grasp the lessons we want them to learn about life (or will be able to as they grow older) and respect in communicating and relating to them as we would adults (because they are just as deserving of that respect). In addition, hitting inspires fear rather than mutual respect and understanding.

    Too many parents have either (a) too much anxiety or (b) too little trust in their children. I believe that, often, parents reap in their relationships with their children what they sow when the children are younger.

  8. The rebellious child is a whole other topic. I have on my shelf a book I intend to read next, entitled "The Challenging Child," which addresses several of those points. Again, I think it's always about the METHOD. All parents want their children to grow up and mature and absorb great values. The difference may be HOW parents go about teaching them (though I've never come across definitive research to back this particular claim).

    I must again admit my lack of experience. But I have another story for you. My brother once came back from a shabbaton and dropped his bag by the laundry machines at our house. My Mother opened it up, and out came a strong smell of cigarettes. So she took out each and every bit of clothing –which reeked of smoke –and tore through the pockets of every pair of pants she came across. Eventually, sitting in the pocket of a pair of jeans, was a pack of half-smoked cigarettes. (Now, I should let you know my brother doesn’t smoke, and he never has. Occasionally hukkah, socially or because it was part of the sefardi culture.)

    So my Mother called my brother from his room and asked what was going on. She started by stating the facts as she saw them (no tricky questions, no attempt to catch him in lies, just her observations), “Your clothing all reeks of cigarette smoke and I found this in one of your pockets.” She held out the pack. Then with an earnest look, she asked: “what’s going on?” My brother was already feeling defensive though, and there was much yelling that ensued. My brother got the whole story out –that he’d taken them away from someone else on the shabbaton, who was actually an adviser, to stop the adviser from smoking them –but my Mom was in tears. I heard snip-bits like “what should I think when my son comes home with a pack of cigarettes from a shabbaton?” and “What the hell do you want me to say? I didn’t take them for me! You know I don’t smoke!” She asked out loud whether she should call the administration to confirm the story or to report this adviser. She wanted to trust my brother, but seeing it brought so much emotion, it was tough to handle. That’s when I went into my room and shut my door.

    With rebellious children, it is very difficult to remove one’s own emotions as a parent from interacting with a child and trying to teach them or convey one’s values. Ask any parent, they’ll tell you. That’s often why parents yell. Unfortunately that kind of thing pushes people away. In that vein, demanding and disrespectfulness inspire resistance as well. I believe a parent can be respectful but firm. To listen, understand, be open and hear what their child is saying. To empathize and recognize where they are coming from while being firm about their values. It’s not easy to communicate “be honest with us, we’ll support you” at the same time as “here are our values, and these things are (un)acceptable.” But it’s important to ALWAYS start with empathy. Most defiance is inspired when we try to assert ourselves first instead of just listening and recognizing where the other person is coming from.

  9. If I can’t listen to it as a parent, should I expect my child to NOT keep secrets? I cannot control anyone, even (especially) my own children. Should they decide to do whatever, the best I can do as a parent is to listen, to understand where they are coming from, to accept them as they are, and to then (and only then) give them some of my wisdom. Clearly a rebellious teen doesn’t want to hear another lecture about why drugs are bad. Or what’s wrong with promiscuity. But if I have the fortitude to listen first, and then to show them about how to stay safe and take care of themselves (even if what they are doing is outside my comfort zone or what I consider acceptable –and I may also communicate that as well, as long as it’s not demanding or demeaning), then I may begin to reach them. And it is a beginning. Without ANY point of connection, there is no beginning. But if there is some connection, that point can become a way to influence. Not to exert influence, but to simply have an influence. It’s not about coercing or directing someone else’s life. Respecting their choices and communicating that their safety and well being is the most important concern I have will have a much greater impact than just sitting there saying “okay, I love you and accept you” or “I demand you do things my way.” Part of that, of course, is talking about the possible consequences or repercussions of those actions (for an individual and their body, short and long term and perhaps within the parenting relationship).

    My uncle and aunt (one of them) made the mistake of telling their children that they disapprove of them having a boyfriend/girlfriend and that the significant other would not be welcome in the house. Instead of creating a connection or having any influence, their children keep their personal and dating lives as far from their parents as possible. If they had, instead, taken the time to talk with their children individually, about what the relationship means to them, their feelings, their experiences, their growth and whatever else their children may have thought or wanted in a relationship, there would be a point of connection. They could empathize, understand and listen first. Then perhaps communicate something akin to “it’s not what we had in mind for you, and not the way we do/did things with you growing up, and we have some concerns, if you’re open to discussing them.” By establishing respect, understanding, empathy and communication, there is a possibility of dialogue.

    I already have a saying I tell a lot of parents when they relate to me issues or concerns regarding their children (especially late teens and onward). I ask them: “Do you trust in your parenting ability? That you were as good a parent as you could be?” Of course practically all of them say “Yes.” And I follow that up with: “Then I ask you to look at your children and trust your work.”

  10. Okay, maybe it should be a separate blog. :P

    Also, in regards to your point about being by other people - (1) come prepared, (2) the same flexibility and empathy applies. As kids get older, though, it's important to allow the Ba'al Ha'Bayit set and enforce the rules -it's their turf and that should be made clear to all parties involved.

  11. Oh man! That was the most interesting megilla I've ever read!

    Ok so back to the good stuff: I basically agree with everything you said...everything except the corporal punishment thing, to which I half agree and cannot decide which side to take. In fact, right after I wrote my reply to you I called up my parents and asked them what their take on corporal punishment was. They answered me what I expected them to say...NEVER, except when a child is too young to understand and it's the immediate reaction to an action they've done to endanger their life that they will never forget. A child of two or three, no matter how much you want to "trust" that they understand what you are saying cannot POSSIBLY comprehend the consequences of his actions because his brain hasn't even developed that part yet! And the only way to ensure that the child does not endanger his life again is by taking immediate action. I recall that both of the times my mother slapped me when I crossed the street, I had this overwhelming sensation that she, in the worst way, did not want to do it, and that it was for my own good. I knew that, she was able to communicate that to me somehow. I think that's the Mom was not hitting to get out her anger; she wasn't doing it for herself (which is where corporal punishment gets corrupted), she was doing it for me, out of love...and I felt that!
    Listen, I very much hear your point about not hitting because that makes it O.K. for the child to hit...and quite frankly, I can't imagine hitting my own child (just like I'm sure my mother never envisioned hitting me), but I'm thinking that sometimes, it's the measure that must be taken to ensure the child's safety. If, chas v'shalom, you weren't successful in communicating to the two or three year old that crossing the street alone is not O.K. and he does it again and gets hurt, chas v'Shalom, could you ever forgive yourself?! I'm sorry to be so morbidly overdramatic but this is what's going through my head. I'm still not convinced of either one. Do you see why I'm confused?

  12. I understand (in part) where the idea(l) of corporal punishment comes from. It's like the idea of having to slap a friend or "shake them out of it" when they're about to do something seriously damaging to themselves (while I never do this, I get the idea). It's a way to communicate "wake up!" and show them really how dangerous it is, particularly if doing such a thing is out of character. For children who can't understand logic/words yet, it relates a strong message. It may even prevent them from doing it again (though I'm still unconvinced of that; either they will develop fear of reprisal instead of learning about the danger or they won't remember and will stumble into the same situation, neither of which gets me anywhere in terms of teaching my children the ways of the world).

    In your case, it seems your parents had a particular way of communicating that whatever they do it is through love and care for your well being. That they did not hit out of anger and could communicate their love and concern in punishing you that way is unique and commendable.

    Having that growing up would make the whole issue very confusing for me too!

    But I have to admit I grew up with different parents and values. It's for this reason (among others) that I take a hard line in disagreeing.

    Once children are old enough to walk, run, fall, scrape themselves and get hurt... they know what pain is. As soon as they can understand and remember (about 3 or 4 years old so that they have the language for it) "if X happens, I will get a booboo," it is possible to extrapolate "if Y happens, I will get a big, big booboo!"

    If the child is too young to understand, then they need supervision, not corporal punishment for being a child! The measure just doesn't make sense to me -to hit a child because they are unaware or not yet old enough to understand. Part of my job as a parent -when they are so young -is to simply make sure they are not in danger!

    (This, more than anything else, would eat me up if Chas V'Shalom something happened. Not being alert, aware, supervising and safeguarding their well being. I would not fault myself for not teaching them to stay off the street when a child is too young to understand the message. I would never lament and say "if I'd only hit my child hard enough the first time they tried to cross the street alone, they'd never have run into the street alone again!")

    Personally, if the mother of my children EVER laid a hand on them, even in such a situation, I'd be absolutely livid. Honestly, I would make it clear before marrying a woman that any form of corporal punishment or laying a hand on a child with intent to cause pain (even to teach) is 100% unacceptable to me. I cannot -in my own mind, with good conscience -justify it.

  13. Well, you've definitely given me a lot to think about and unfortunately, have just made me more confused, because I see your side as well as my parents' side more clearly than ever.

    G-d Willing, I will never have to face the question of slapping my child. But I think as a compromise between the two, I would of course try to take your approach first. But if I end up with a very rowdy, rebellious child who feels the need to walk into the street every few minutes (G-d forbid), and who is NOT GETTING what I am telling him about the dangers/ not understanding why I pull him out of the street harshly, then maybe, JUST MAYBE, I would employ corporal punishment. But I would definitely do it only for this particular life-threatening circumstance and do my utmost to convey the same message my parents conveyed to me; that it is not something I wish to do, but it is actually completely out of love. And as soon as he is old enough to understand, I will explain to him exactly why I did it.

    The way I see it (for now...again, I'm still not 100% sure of either side), is that it can be compared to the common mashal of a parent bringing their baby to the doctor for shots. The baby doesn't understand why their parent is letting the doctor just hurt them like that and at that moment there is such a look of shock and betrayal in the baby's face...but it is ultimately for the baby's good, and when he grows older, he completely understands that. Just as G-d gives us pain in our life that we may not understand, we do understand that it is ultimately for our own good. That's just what I'm thinking for now. I'll let you know if you're side eventually wins out in the end, though. Thanks for helping me work this one out...and beware of more parenting questions to come! :)