When children are fighting, an irate parent screaming, Oh,
no! Dont tell me youre fighting over that new toy again! I
cant take any more! Its 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
childrens 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 childrens 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 shouldnt have done that
-- it wasnt 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
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 wasnt so nice -- it wasnt
right -- you shouldnt 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
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
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 wont happen
again. Rachely replied, It wont.
I feel that by admonishing my child without accusations and
in a calm fashion, I achieved the desired result without upsetting Rachely or
In a role-playing experiment, one group member played the role
of a disrespectful child, and another played the mother. In response to her
childs disrespect, the mother said -- in a
slightly sharp tone of voice -- Youre 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.
Heres a report of an interaction where the mothers
inappropriately calm and gentle voice resulted in what she termed a
I came home from a parenting-workshop session to discover
a crayon mark on our living-room wallpaper. Determined to practice what
Id just learned about a calm tone of voice, I said -- gently -- to my
4-year-old who was sitting there, Dont tell me who did it. That
would be lashon hara [derogatory speech]. Just tell everyone that we dont
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; hes 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. YOURE
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 dont write on walls. Here -- take this soapy
water and a brush and scrub it off. The child was probably testing the
limits of his mothers new gentleness techniques. He needed to know that
it was not just a matter of We dont 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 childrens misbehavior:
Rachels 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.
Whats the matter with you?! she yells angrily. Why are
you so mean to Shira? Why cant you treat her
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
mothers 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 mothers 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.
Its what I always have been, and I guess its 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 childs behavior may well go
from bad to worse.
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 childrens 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.
25:17; Bava Metzia
58b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat
2. Carol Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon &
3. Even Sheleimah