-- Chapter from When Children Fight -- Chapter 2: Above All, Stay Calm Chapter from When Children Fight -- Chapter 2: Above All, Stay Calm
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  Chapter 2: Above All, Stay Calm from
When Children Fight

By Miriam Levi 

Other Available Chapters
Chapter 1: The Problem and Some Solutions 

Chapter 2: Above All, Stay Calm

When children are fighting, an irate parent screaming, “Oh, no! Don’t tell me you’re fighting over that new toy again! I can’t take any more! It’s too much already!” only adds to the emotional turmoil -- and to the noise level.

On the other hand, a parent who manages to remain calm will not only be able to refrain from hysterics, but will also be in a better position to focus on a solution. Children unconsciously absorb their parents’ emotions, for better or for worse. Agitated parents add to their children’s agitation; calm parents calm them down.

We should keep in mind that emotions are conveyed not so much by words as by tone of voice. Raised and agitated voices convey judgment and condemnation, arousing in children fear and even resentment, whereas a quiet voice is soothing. It creates that relaxed atmosphere which is so reassuring to children and makes them far more inclined to do as we ask. In his classic work Igeres HaRamban, Ramban wrote to his son, “Always speak to people in a soft tone of voice,” adding that this will prevent him from growing angry. When we speak quietly, we convey strength; it is obvious that we are in control of ourselves and of the situation. Parents who have changed to a quiet manner of dealing with their children’s fights report dramatic results, as the following stories illustrate:

My two boys had a fight. Eli, 71¼2 had torn a picture which his 5-year-old brother brought home from school. Normally I would have scolded him in a loud voice: “Eli, you shouldn’t have done that -- it wasn’t very nice! How would you like it if someone did that to you?” His reaction would then have been defensive, something like, “He started it!” and so on, ending up in a very unpleasant argument.

This time, I waited until evening. I called Eli in and told him quietly, “I want to speak with you.” I had him sit down next to me and, taking hold of his hand, told him in a serious but quiet voice, “Eli, what you did this afternoon wasn’t so nice -- it wasn’t right -- you shouldn’t have done it....” At that point he burst into tears! I was so surprised. With a few quiet words, I got through to him so easily.

l l l

It was suppertime. Yosef, age 3, and Rachely, age 7, were arguing over a favorite cup. Yosef moved a chair to the counter and climbed up to reach for it. While his back was turned, Rachely pushed the chair away. Yosef slid down from the counter, missed the chair and fell, hurting himself.

In the past, I would have screamed at her immediately. “It was so stupid to move the chair! You could have killed your brother!” She would have yelled back and cried.

Instead, I told Rachely that her meal was over, and sent her to her room. Later, after I cleaned up the kitchen and felt calm enough to talk to her without becoming angry, I went to her room. I said, “I know you realize that you made a mistake when you moved away the chair.” She replied that she did. I continued and said, “I hope it won’t happen again.” Rachely replied, “It won’t.”

I feel that by admonishing my child without accusations and in a calm fashion, I achieved the desired result without upsetting Rachely or myself unnecessarily.

In a role-playing experiment, one group member played the role of a disrespectful child, and another played the mother. In response to her “child’s” disrespect, the “mother” said -- in a slightly sharp tone of voice -- “You’re not allowed to talk to your mother like that.” When the “child” was asked how this made her feel, she answered, “Like I wanted to get back at her!” The “child” then spoke exactly as before, and the “mother” also repeated what she had said, except that this time, she spoke in a soft, loving tone of voice. Again, the “child” was asked how this made her feel. Her answer: “I...I felt like...crying!

When we are angry, exasperated, or nervous, our tone of voice will convey this, no matter how neutral or even positive our spoken words are. A parent can say all the “right” words (“Kids, do you think you could maybe settle this between yourselves?”), but if these right words are said in the wrong tone of voice, children instinctively realize the truth. The real message is in our tone. This is because our tone of voice, more than anything else, conveys our judgments and evaluations about the child -- be they positive or negative.

A parent who is tense, annoyed, or despairing, can not hope to hide it. His tension, annoyance, and/or despair will seep into his tone of voice and be clearly conveyed, along with any negative judgments present at the time. Even if he does somehow manage to keep his true emotions out of his voice, it is only a question of time before he will slip up. Ultimately, the best way to avoid displaying negative emotions is not to feel them. And the way to avoid feeling them is to get at the attitudes and beliefs which engender them, and change these. We shall have more to say about this in Chapter 3, where we discuss the cognitive approach.

Here is an experiment you may want to try. In front of a mirror, practice saying, calmly, “Kids, do you think you could maybe settle this between yourselves?” Now try saying the same thing in an exasperated tone, then tensely, then with annoyance, and observe the complete change of expression on your face.

While a calm tone of voice is always beneficial, there are situations where firmness, or even a display of anger (not actual anger), is called for -- and sometimes this must be accompanied by action as well.

Here’s a report of an interaction where the mother’s inappropriately calm and gentle voice resulted in what she termed “a failure”:

I came home from a parenting-workshop session to discover a crayon mark on our living-room wallpaper. Determined to practice what I’d just learned about a calm tone of voice, I said -- gently -- to my 4-year-old who was sitting there, “Don’t tell me who did it. That would be lashon hara [derogatory speech]. Just tell everyone that we don’t write on our pretty walls, and whoever did it should wash it off.”

I woke up the next morning to find that all the walls were covered with letters of the alef-beis, in ink! Now I knew this had to be the work of my oldest, my 5-year-old; he’s the only one who can print. This time, I reverted to my old pattern: “WHOEVER HEARD OF A 5-YEAR-OLD WHO WRITES ON WALLS?!” I screeched. And then I slapped him. “YOU’RE NOT GOING DOWNSTAIRS UNTIL YOU WASH IT OFF!” So he did, scraping off much of the wallpaper in the process. If I had been firmer the night before, I feel this could have been avoided.

“A failure,” perhaps, yet it could also be seen as a valuable learning experience. In this situation, more firmness was definitely called for: “We don’t write on walls. Here -- take this soapy water and a brush and scrub it off.” The child was probably testing the limits of his mother’s new gentleness techniques. He needed to know that it was not just a matter of “We don’t write on our pretty walls,” but a Torah prohibition, bal tashchis (not destroying food or property), that is involved here. The child could be told, “Hashem gives us beautiful things to give us pleasure, the better to serve Him. We must be careful not to spoil or destroy them. Hashem wants us to have that good feeling which comes from things being beautiful, clean, and orderly.”

Nevertheless, firmness, even great firmness, should not be equated with anger.


The Torah forbids us to cause anguish to others.1 Even though they cause their children anguish, parents may take measures necessary to educate them. They may not, however, express pent-up resentment toward their children for failing to live up to their expectations. Under special circumstances, parents may act angry toward their child to correct his behavior, even though it causes him suffering. But such deliberate displays of anger must be reserved for those rare occasions when it is necessary to forcefully impress a child with the gravity of his wrongdoing.

Anger is as harmful and destructive as calm is beneficial and constructive. If anger were a way of getting children to improve, all misconduct would have ended long ago, since there has never been a lack of angry parents. But, on the contrary, anger is one of the most counterproductive ways to deal with children’s misbehavior:

Rachel’s 5-year-old Naftali regularly teases and hits his younger sister, Shira, which results in her crying. Rachel has asked him many times to stop, but he keeps right on teasing. Finally, she loses patience. “What’s the matter with you?!” she yells angrily. “Why are you so mean to Shira? Why can’t you treat her nicely?!”

Will Naftali now stop the teasing? No. He is now even less motivated to change the way he treats his sister. If he accepts his mother’s negative evaluation of him, he will be preoccupied with thinking what a bad child he is. If he rejects it, he will attempt to defend himself. And his mother’s attack will probably make him resentful and rebellious toward her -- hardly the best frame of mind for a child to be in when we are seeking his compliance.

Thus anger defeats our goals.

In fact, anger often reinforces the very behavior we wish to eliminate. This is because children interpret our anger to mean: “You are bad.” The more often they “hear” this, the more they believe it. Yes, this is what I am -- the child concludes -- bad. It’s what I always have been, and I guess it’s what I always will be. So, in hopeless resignation, he continues his misbehavior.

Anger can “work” in the short run -- that is, it can frighten a child into obedience. But each time we yell and/or slap a child in anger, we are conveying with the most graphic of demonstrations the idea that aggressive behavior and lack of self-control are permissible and acceptable patterns of behavior. In the long run, the child’s behavior may well go from bad to worse.

Venting Anger

Our Sages denounce short-temperedness as a destructive character trait. Yet some people fear that, as modern psychology has taught, suppressing anger -- “bottling it up inside” -- is harmful, and eventually leads to ulcers and other physical ailments. This theory has given rise to the ventilationist view, according to which it is healthy and beneficial to vent our anger -- to give it full expression. Though this view still holds sway, some psychologists are now challenging it. As Dr. Carol Tavris writes, “It seems to me that the major effect of the ventilationist approach has been to raise the general noise level of our lives, not to lessen our problems. I notice that the people who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.”2

But ideally, anger should be not controlled, not held in, not bottled up, not “sat on,” but prevented from happening altogether. This can be accomplished, as we shall see shortly, by discovering from where the anger is coming -- by dealing with anger at its root cause.

Guilt and Anxiety

Both guilt and anxiety interfere significantly with being calm. Guilt results from self-blame and condemnation. If you are blaming yourself for your children’s fighting (“What am I doing wrong that they fight so much?”), the guilt engendered will prevent you from maintaining the necessary calm for effective handling of the situation. The same goes for anxiety. If you fear that because your children fight so much, they will develop awful middos, the anxiety accompanying your fear will make you tense and nervous -- hardly calm-inducing emotions. Moreover, if you find your guilt or anxiety particularly stressful and difficult to handle, you are very likely to end up angry at the children, whom you view as to blame.

The Difficulty in Keeping Calm

Most of us are fully aware of the benefits of being calm. We well recognize the harmful effects of parental anger and other negative emotions, and the poor example these set for children. We truly do not want to lose our tempers. We want to act as was advocated by the Gaon of Vilna: “Children should be admonished with soft words and reprimands which will be willingly accepted.”3 Nevertheless, so often, despite all our good intentions, resolutions, and efforts -- we still find ourselves becoming upset, yelling, and slapping.

Good resolutions are not enough. What is needed is a method that will show us how to turn our good resolutions into a reality, that will help us to cope with our anger, anxiety, guilt, and other harmful emotions. The cognitive approach, a fairly recently developed system, can answer this need. It can be a valuable tool for self-improvement.

1. Vayikra 25:17; Bava Metzia 58b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228.
2. Carol Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).
3. Even Sheleimah 6:5.
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