Parenting Through Fogged Up Windows

In the previous parenting article, we explored Rabbi Wolbe’s concepts of Planting and Building in education.  One of the areas that us parents often fail in is mistaking a “planting” moment for a “building” moment. Our child displays an undesirable behavior in front of our eyes and our knee jerk reaction is to want to fix it right now – to change the behavior instantaneously and “re-program” the child’s external actions! But there are no short-cuts when it comes to re-programming our kids.   Much of the influence that we need to have on our kids will be in the arena of planting rather than building.  Modifying their external behavior starts with influencing their inner world. Good quality positive “planting”,  namely steering our children away from bad behavior and towards good values, requires thought and more importantly,  calmness and objectivity on the part of the parent.  It sounds so perfectly straightforward-right? But of course in practice being calm, objective and approaching our kids from a well thought out place, is no simple matter!

Why Is It Easier Said Than Done?

Usually, “bad behavior” on the part of a child will conjure up a whole host of negative emotions in the parent, such as worry,  guilt,  disgust,  anxiety,  anger,  pity and many others.

A 10 year old boy wakes up in a bad mood and is being aggressive towards and upsetting his younger siblings who are all trying to get ready for school. His mother sees this and is immediately filled with anger at the boy. He is disrupting the routine, he is turning a peaceful and calm atmosphere into one of mayhem! She is also filled with pity for the younger children who are being bullied. She is worried about the future of this boy – “what will come of this child, he is always hurting his younger siblings?!” she is thinking subconsciously.

As we said in a previous article Parenting – Providing The Palette For Their Self Portrait“, as parents, we must realize that our child is like a precious diamond. When helping our child overcome his imperfections, the words we use must be precisely aimed at their purpose. If the parent “uses the blunt instruments of condemnation, insult and anger, he destroys a part of what is precious in the child.” This being the case, how likely is it that a parent in a state of anger, frustration, worry  and a whole host of other negative emotions, is going to be able to have the composure to choose the precise words and give over the message needed to the child in the moment? How likely is it that the parent will have the calmness and level-headedness that are essential to accessing their inner wisdom, in order to know how best to deal with this situation? Virtually impossible!  We need to “plant” and yet we impulsively blurt out damaging and counterproductive words (and other reactions) in the name of “educating” our children! We feel we need to intervene and fix the situation right now – we need to set the child straight, change their habits and do some  “building”.

Driving With Fogged Up Windows

My parenting mentor, Rabbi Dov Brezak, gives the analogy of a driver driving a car with fogged up windows.  In such a situation there are two major problems: The driver will certainly not reach his destination and secondly, it  is inevitable that the car will crash and the driver will cause serious damage to himself and others! Similarly, when we are interacting with our children from a place of negative emotion, we are like this driver. We can’t see the child in front of us, we only see ourselves and the messages that our emotions are telling us – in the case above  “what will come of this child, he is always hurting his younger siblings?!”  This mother might be picturing in her mind’s eye her son turning out like the delinquent kid next door or her brother who bullied her when they were kids and is still a bully to this day! She is thus not seeing the child in front of her at all, his needs, where his behavior might be coming from etc. and instead she is seeing a whole world of emotions, outcomes and fears in her own mind.  It is for this reason that if we try to ‘educate’ the child under such circumstances, much like the car in the analogy, we will not reach our destination, namely to help the child move away from the undesirable behavior. Moreover, like the driver with the fogged up windshield, the parent will surely cause harm to the child when she approaches him in this very subjective state.

So Let’s Get Practical!

If we find ourselves in a situation where our child’s behavior may cause some harm or damage, then we must of course intervene. In such a case the intervention should be done as emotionlessly as possible: with no rebuke, criticism, lecturing or venting! In the heat of the moment this is certainly no easy task but it’s something we can work on. This intervention is neither ‘planting’ nor ‘building’, we will simply call it ‘first aid’.

When there is no pressing or urgent intervention needed, the parent is best to not intervene at all, bite their tongue and hold off the educating for a different time.  Why a different time? For many reasons, some of which we will explore in future articles. The first and foremost reason, as we have already said, is that the parent at that moment cannot think straight and figure out what will be most effective. Their negative emotions blind them from accurately seeing the child.  Later on when they are feeling calmer and more rational,  they can think through the issue, talk it through with their spouse or a friend, or even take advice from a mentor.  Secondly, at that moment the child will be defensive and therefore will not be receptive to hearing and absorbing the education that they so sorely need! We often feel a desperate need to deal with our children’s bad behavior immediately but this actually undermines our parental influence. When we approach the child when their defences are down and they are feeling happy, calm and secure, they will be much more open to absorbing the message we want to give them. Let’s clarify this strategy with a true story.

A mother organized a babysitter to watch her 5 and 7 year old boys in the house one afternoon. This 18 year old girl had enjoyed babysitting for the children many times before.  When the mother finally returned home,  she was greeted by a  distraught babysitter who couldn’t fight back her tears. The children had guilty smirks on their faces. The mother took the babysitter into a separate room and asked her what happened. The babysitter proceeded to tell her that the kids spent the past 2 hours pushing her, jumping on her and calling her names. She was deeply hurt and traumatized. After dealing as best she could with the poor babysitter, the mother saw her out and was now faced with the big question: How should she best deal with her children? She was shocked, disappointed and downright angry at them for their disgraceful behavior. She would have expected more from them. In fact she was so distraught that she found herself bursting into tears, overwhelmed by all these negative emotions. She realized that her children lack an understanding of the severity of hurtful speech and behavior towards other people. Her instinct was to yell at them and deliver a harsh punishment to “teach them a lesson”. At the same time, at the back of her mind she knew that this was probably not going to help her achieve her goal of really impressing a value on her children. She was also very aware of the fact that in her current state, she lacked the ability to say what they truly needed to hear or to deal with the situation in the most effective way.  She therefore decided that for the time being, she would not say or do anything. She finally appeared in the lounge where her kids anticipated a lecture, a mouth full and certainly a punishment. To their surprise and increasing discomfort, they were met only by an icy silence and a distraught looking mother for the rest of the evening. With zero communication, she served them supper and then told them to get into pyjamas and get into bed. The  kids complied with everything they were told to do. In fact this mother didn’t remember a time that her kids had been so obedient! She sensed their extreme guilt. Later that evening, after she had calmed down a little, she consulted her parenting mentor who she always turned to for clarity and guidance. She talked things through and gained clarity on how best to approach the “planting” that she needed to do. The following afternoon, she sat down with the boys and told them how shocked and disappointed she was that such special boys like them behaved in such a way. She asked them how they think they can make it up to the babysitter. They started thinking with serious looks on their faces. The 5 year old said “I will say I am sorry”. The 7 year old said “I will draw her a picture”. “Those are both good ideas, but they are not enough” continued the mother. “What else can be done?” The children racked their brains. “I will save my Shabbat treat for her and take it to her house” said one. “I will write her a letter” said the other. The mother, being as dramatic as she could,  said “Do you know something kids, I’m still far too shocked and upset about this. You give it some more thought and we’ll continue our brainstorming tomorrow”. The kids were left to stew in their own guilt for yet another day. The following day, when their mother called them to discuss the issue further, they were more attentive than ever. They came up with more ideas of how they could make it up to the babysitter. The mother complimented them on all their suggestions, but told them that they had forgotten something very important: to ask the babysitter for ‘mechila’ (forgiveness). “What is mechila?” asked the boys. The mother proceeded to explain the Torah’s definition of ‘teshuva’ (repentance), how if we don’t gain forgiveness from the person we have hurt, even on Yom Kippur we cannot attain forgiveness from Hashem. The children stared wide-eyed as they took in their mother’s words. She told them that the next day they would go together to visit the babysitter in her home and give her the apology letter and ‘gifts’ as well as ask her for mechila. The following day, the kids were absorbed in a game on the floor with their friends when their mother announced that its time to go to the babysitter’s house . Normally they would be so absorbed in their game that it would take a long time to pull them away. On this occasion however, they jumped up immediately and ran to the front door! The guilt that had built up over the three days since the incident lead to an eagerness on their part to fix the damage they had done. During the car ride to the babysitter, the kids asked their mother to practice with them what they were to say. “Please forgive me” and “I am sorry for the way I behaved”. When they arrived, they gave the girl letters, pictures and chocolates and asked her for forgiveness, which she graciously granted them and she even told them that she is looking forward to babysitting again for them soon! During the car ride back home, the mother complimented the children for their efforts and told them how proud she was that they really made amends.

There are many parenting lessons to be gleaned from this story. One of them is that in the moment when the parent is absorbed in negative emotion, they will not be able to respond to the child’s behavior in the most powerful and effective way. A delayed response, coming from a more insightful and level headed place will bring long term results and will yield true “planting” moments.

To keep silent in the heat of the moment is truly challenging! So, to make this lesson as practical and do-able as possible, let’s start by aiming to put it into practice just once a day!

לע’נ ר’ דוב בער בן ר’ עזריאל זאב

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