As we approach the holiday of Purim, we are once again confronted with the delicate balance between the physical mitzvot of the day and the very real dangers that some of these aspects present. There is of course much discussion on the nature of drinking wine on Purim and how this is balanced with the dangers of substance abuse that plagues our society. While there are many different dynamics and components to this issue, one critical component relates to the role of parents in helping children to make ‘good’ and ‘smart’ choices that can help guide them in the future. Parents can benefit from having an appropriate framework as how to communicate with their children.
How to communicate with our children can stem from mitzvah observance. The gemara in Succah 42A says that teaching one’s child mitzvot is dependent on their particular level of understanding. When a child is able to speak, his father needs to begin to teach him Torah. When a child knows how to wears tzitzit, his father needs to buy him tzizit. There are other examples including assessing whether a young boy is obligated in the mitzvah of Succah. The Taz says that every child needs to be assessed ‘according to his sharpness.’ One of the implications of this statement is that educating our children to do mitzvot is directly correlated with their level of understanding about each particular mitzvah. No two mitzvot are the same and no two children are the same.
When educating our children to make good choices, we need to provide age appropriate messages that they can understand. Consider the example of 8-year-old Chaim who was caught stealing his friend’s snack in school.
Mrs. Lowenstein: Chaim, I received a call from the school today that you were caught taking Shmuli’s cookies. Can you tell me what happened?
Chaim: Mommy, I don’t really want to talk about it!
Mrs. Lowenstein: I really think that it is important that you try your best to let me know what happened. I want to understand what happened and try to figure out how we can prevent this from happening again.
Chaim: Mommy, you know that I really like Oreo cookies. There are so many times that I ask you to buy them and you always say no. I was so hungry in school and I did not want to eat anymore of those fruit snacks that you send me from home! I know that it was wrong and I am really sorry!
Mrs. Lowenstein: I appreciate that you told me what happened. Stealing is wrong and I am disappointed. I think that we need to discuss other things that you can do instead of stealing. I guess that I have not been a very good listener. I think I need to do a better job of trying to give you some snacks that you enjoy! Let’s talk later about some of the options that you would enjoy!
Let’s analyze some of the ideas from the above example;
Mrs. Lowenstein allowed Chaim to tell her what happened without necessarily running to judgment, immediate discipline, consequences or punishment.
Mrs. Lowenstein was very firm in stating that this behavior was inappropriate and wrong. However, this was done with further validation Chaim’s feelings and desires.
Mrs. Lowenstein said that it was important to discuss other concrete ways to avoid negative behaviors in the future. These concrete suggestions are a critical component of meeting the child at his/her appropriate developmental level. Further discussion and empowerment may be appropriate for a teenager but not for a younger child who needs concrete solutions and techniques to avoid future problems.
Through her calm demeanor and open dialogue, Mrs. Lowenstein is planting a very important seed for the future. This ‘seed’ relates to the parent being accessible to discussing issues and being a ‘soundboard’ for discussion of future issues.
Based on the last point, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt’l, in his sefer, Alei Shor, writes that one of the most critical goals of parenting is to develop a warm relationship with their children. A warm relationship that is cultivated during the early years of a child’s life helps the child to deal with the turmoil that will inevitably come during the adolescent years. This point will be elaborated on in the next article.
Rabbi Mark Staum, LCSW is the school therapist for the PTACH program @ MTA. He also maintains a local private practice where he specializes in child/family dynamics and iparent/child communication. To contact Mark, please email him at [email protected]
By Rabbi Mark Staum