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  Chapter 27 from
Positive Parenting
Developing your child's potential.

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski  Ursula Schwartz 


Other Available Chapters
18  22  37 


But I'm Only Human

Good! That’s what parents are supposed to be. But how are children supposed to know that? Children think their parents are perfect. The sooner they discover that their parents are indeed their protectors, but are by no means perfect, the better it will be for them.

As we noted earlier, children who think their parents are perfect are likely to be extremely self-critical. If something has gone wrong in the home, and it can’t possibly be the parents’ fault, then the child must accept it as his fault. What other option is there? This self-degrading attitude may be the source of many later problems in life.

I have suggested that parents try to avoid screaming when angry. This is indeed ideal, but the parent may be exhausted and tense after a full day of work laced with various aggravations, and may be beset with financial worries as well as several other nagging concerns. Just at this inopportune time the child does something that he has been told numerous times not to do, and the parent loses it. He screams at the child and perhaps even spanks him, perhaps assuming that the child was acting out of defiance.

Give children the benefit of the doubt that they are only children, and may be behaving according to juvenile abandon rather than with hostility toward the parents.

Okay. So you were taut as a guitar string and you lost your cool. Indeed, you are only human. How about letting the child in on this secret?

A bit later in the day, perhaps at bedtime, you can walk in and sit down on the child’s bed. “I’m sorry I screamed at you the way I did. Even though you did what I had told you not to do so many times, I should have just sent you up to your room (or whatever other disciplinary measure you use) instead of screaming. I always tell you that it is not right to scream, and if it’s not right for you it’s not right for me either. I did have a very hard day and was just on edge, but that still doesn’t make it right.” Let’s face it, the screaming was a mistake, so own up to it.

I once had a patient in the psychiatric hospital who asked for permission to leave the hospital for a few hours to attend a farewell party for his fellow students who were going to disperse at the end of the semester. I authorized the pass and wrote the order on the chart. When I returned the next day, he was irate because he had not been permitted to leave the hospital. “You promised me, and you backed out on it! I will never have an opportunity to see some of these friends again.”

I traced the problem and found that I had been indeed written an order for a six-hour pass -- on another patient’s chart! I then explained my mistake and apologized.

This was one of the most therapeutic things that could have happened. The young man realized that the doctor had made a mistake, and had written an order on the wrong chart, which could conceivably have been disastrous. Yet, he was still functioning as a doctor, and his authority had not suffered. Making a mistake is not a capital crime after all! It does not destroy one’s reputation. This was something this patient needed to know.

Much the same holds true for children. They need to know that parents retain their authority and respect even after having made a mistake.

Is a young child really able to grasp all this? Let me assure you that even if he doesn’t fully understand all the words, the feelings will register. He will know that Daddy was tense, that Daddy is sorry that he screamed, and that Daddy is very human.

Children do not have to be privy to everything that worries parents, but as a whole, the fewer secrets that are kept, the better. Children have a rich fantasy, and if they do not know what it is that parents are worried about, they may fantasize, and their imaginations may be far more anxiety provoking than reality. If you don’t tell them what is bothering you, then it must be something so terrible that you can’t even talk about it. You may be worried because your bank returned a check for insufficient funds when you believed you had adequate money in the account, and you will not be able to find out what went wrong until after the weekend. You had assumed that you had adequate funds, and you also wrote several additional checks, and these too will be returned. This is obviously very aggravating, but why bother a child with it?

There happened to be a great deal in the news that particular day about layoffs in various plants and the downturn in the economy, with many people losing their jobs. This may have resulted in some discussion at the supper table. Seeing the father’s worry, the child puts two and two together, and concludes that his father had been fired. The next morning he shares this terrible news with his friends, and that evening the father receives several calls from neighbors sympathizing with his misfortune and offering to help in whatever way possible.

This is just one possible scenario. I know of one case where a father happened to be away on business, and the mother was very depressed because she had been notified that her sister’s child was gravely ill. She did not want to impose this worry on her child. However, that day there was a great deal in the news about the police search for a serial killer, and the child began thinking that perhaps his absent father was the sought-for villain, and that was what was worrying his mother. If at all possible, try to explain to children just what it is that is worrying you.

A not uncommon problem is a child’s protestations when the parents go out in the evening, leaving him in the care of a babysitter. The child may express fear of monsters in the closet or under the bed. Incidentally, whereas childhood fears have probably always existed, there is little doubt that the graphic portrayal of violence and fiendish creatures on television has intensified such fears.

Children who exhibit such fears will be less frightened when the babysitter is a mature adult rather than a young adolescent. It is also advisable to establish a familiarity with the babysitter, so that she is not a stranger to the child and he can feel some trust in her.

But let us look at this problem from another aspect. The child’s expression of fear of monsters may be the only way he knows how to emphatically declare his protestation about his parents’ leaving. Rationally, he knows he is safe, and even though he may “believe” in the monsters, this may be the only way his underlying emotion emerges. The underlying emotion may be due to the child not being able to understand why in the world the parents have to leave the home. The small child, who since infancy has been the recipient of his parents’ attention, may have come to believe that the parents exist in order to care for him -- period, end of matter. The fact that the father may have to leave home to learn or work makes sense, and that the mother may have to go to the supermarket also makes sense. After all, these activities are all directed toward his support and well-being, and that is how things should be. But what is this business about their going out in the evening? That doesn’t serve the child’s needs in any way. That can only be for the parents’ needs, but since when do parents have needs?

This is why it is important to let children know that parents are humans, and indeed, they do have needs of their own.

The juvenile concept of parents is often that they are G-dlike. We often refer to G-d as our Father in Heaven, and to small children the reverse may also be true. Not only is G-d our Father, but our father and mother are G-d. They are great and powerful and perfect, and like G-d are immune to all distress and have no needs of their own.

It will help in many ways for children to realize that while parents are indeed strong and loving and will care for them and protect them, they are nevertheless human, and that they do have needs. The child should be helped to realize that parental needs may be similar to his own, which he can easily understand.

“Honey, you know how you like to be with your friends? Well, Daddy and Mommy like to spend time with their friends just like you do. During the day we are all busy with our work, so Daddy and Mommy get together with their friends in the evening. When you get together with Motty and Danny and Itzi you have a good time and talk about interesting things. Daddy and Mommy are going to be with Danny’s daddy and mommy tonight, and we’re going to talk about things that interest us, just like you do.”

I have a childhood memory of having said at age 5, “A mother is not a mentsch (a person). A mother is a mother.” I don’t remember the context in which I said it, but I do recall saying it, and my mother thought it was worthy of repeating, so I heard myself quoted several times. But this indicates to me how I felt about my mother at that age. She was a mother, which is a unique being, far superior to a mere mentsch.

If we understand this, it is no longer surprising why a child insists that when his mother is sick in bed with a high fever and aching all over, she should come down to prepare his breakfast. He just may not be able to grasp that parents are mortal.

Letting children know that parents are indeed human may have many dividends.

 
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