If your child is doing dangerous things, often punishing doesn’t work. This is what does.
Parenting Challenge: We allow my seven-year-old to ride his bike near the house. Our street is very long, and we let him go down the entire street; but he knows he has to stay near the house and come home at a certain time. The other day, it was already a half-hour after he was supposed to be home, and he hadn’t come in yet. I sent his brother out to look for him, and his brother came back an hour later saying that he had gone up and down the street, and he couldn’t find him. About a half-hour after that, my seven-year-old walked in; by then he was about two hours late.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“On our street,” he told me.
“But I sent your brother to look for you, and he couldn’t find you on the street.”
“Well,” he responded, “when he went up the street I was probably down the street, and when he went down the street I was probably up the street. That’s why he didn’t find me.”
It sounded a bit far-fetched, but I didn’t want to do anything about it, since I had no proof that he was lying. Then I got a call from a concerned friend, who had seen my son on her street, a few blocks away. I got very upset and told my son, “Abba will deal with this when he comes home.” Please note that we have a very good and loving relationship with this boy. Also, we were not behaving rashly, and we were thinking before reacting.
After my husband came home, he went over to our son lovingly and said, “You did two things wrong, and therefore you need to get two slaps.” He had my son hold out his hand, and then he slapped him twice on that hand – not too hard, but not too soft, either. He was careful to slap our son in a place and in a way that would preserve his dignity. Also, before he slapped him, my husband told him how much he loves him, but that he needs to get punished because he broke the rules and lied. In addition, my husband took away his bicycle for a week.
My son seems to have accepted the punishment. After he was punished, we went back to our loving relationship, and things are proceeding as normal. Did we do the right thing?
Rabbi Brezak responds: You have fulfilled all of the conditions of hitting that we have cited numerous times in the name of Harav Steinman:
- You have a loving relationship, and the child knows how much you love him.
- You gave the slap after having thought carefully about it, not out of anger.
- You were careful not to make the slap too hard.
- You do not hit frequently.
- So you agree with the way we dealt with this?
- But we fulfilled all the conditions of hitting, as the gedolim have said.
Indeed, but the question here is: Is a slap the correct and in-place reaction here?
- How could it not be? The child deliberately lied and broke the rules. In addition, he was a few streets away from the house, and there is potential danger here.
Indeed. That’s why I don’t necessarily agree with how you handled the situation.
Because there’s another factor that you haven’t taken into consideration. There is an additional problem, besides the lying, breaking of the rules, and potential danger, and this factor can cause us to have to adjust our entire approach to this situation.
- What is that factor?
It is that the child went secretly behind your back.
- I said that he lied.
This is not just a matter of lying. This is much more than that. This is a child hiding things from you and doing things behind your back without your knowing about it.
- That’s why we punished him. So now that you’re pointing this out, I should give him an even stronger punishment, because his behavior is even more serious than we thought.
No! What you should do is what will help him stop going behind your back. It’s one thing when a child does something wrong. It’s much worse, though, when a child goes behind your back.
Yes; therefore, you have to really teach him a lesson. Therefore you have to stop him from going behind your back. Punishing and “teaching lessons” are good when they’re in place; then they have a chance of being effective. But when a child begins to go behind your back, the way to stop him is not through punishments and consequences. These will only force him to go behind your back even more. They will only make him work harder not to get caught the next time.
How many times have parents around the world approached me about their children going behind their backs, and when the parents get upset at them, the children only go behind the parents’ backs more. Then the problems get worse, and the parents get more upset, and the children go behind their parents’ backs even more, and it becomes a vicious downward spiral, Rachmana litzlan.
So what are we supposed to do? In this case wait. You have already punished him. When a child is younger, and the relationship is good, then the child may have accepted your punishment, so wait and see if he does it again. But the next time you catch your child going behind your back – which may not be long in coming – don’t you dare punish him. Instead, work with him; talk with him, and encourage him to be open with you.
Can you explain a bit more? First, encourage the child to open up. Let him know how important it is to you that he be open with you. Tell him that you care about him so much and want an open relationship. Then let him know how important it is for him that he open up to you – because you are his friend and his ally, and you will be able to help him and guide him through difficulties that he himself will not be able to deal with.
The next step is to make it safe for him to open up.
That means you must assure him that he will not be punished when he opens up, even if you will hear things you don’t like to hear and you will be upset at what he did. Why shouldn’t I punish him if he tells me he did something wrong? Because then he won’t open up to you in the future. After he opens up – how will he learn the severity of what he did if I don’t punish him? He will learn if you explain to him lovingly how dangerous what he did is; if you explain to him that there are some not-nice people out on the streets, and that when he keeps the rules and sticks to the times you agreed upon, and when he stays near the house, he is protected. This is too soft. I feel that what you’re saying is very wrong and is very weak parenting. I think it’s very strong parenting, because it works very, very well. It gets the child to work with you and to stop going behind your back. And it does something else, too: It brings the strongest result – much, much stronger than the other style of “strong” parenting you describe. What is that? It gets your children to listen to you and to follow your directives, even behind your back and when you’re not there – not out of fear, but of out respect, because they know you love them and they want to please you and to listen to you.
Have you actually seen this work? Allow me to share with you a scary incident that a mother shared with us just this week.
This mother has a six-year-old named Moishy, who has been very independent and defiant. She described two instances involving this child, which took place a number of months ago. #1 She was with her children at the park about a block away from her home. When it was time to leave, she told Moishy that they were going home. He ran away and hid. He sent his shelichim (i.e., his many friends and followers in the park) to tell his mother that he wouldn’t be coming home just then. Eventually, she told them to tell Moishy that she was going home – which of course he didn’t care about. In fact, he was thrilled to be left behind at the park without his mommy. She walked up the road, hoping he would follow, but he didn’t. She felt it was dangerous for him to walk home alone, since he would then have to cross the street by himself. “What should I do?” she asked. #2 The following day, Moishy was playing with a ball in the lobby of the building. The ball rolled outside and then rolled under a car. He climbed under the car to get the ball, and at that moment, while he was under it, the car started moving. A neighbor who witnessed the scene started screaming when the car began to move, and b”H, the driver stopped. What did you tell the mother to do? This child is very independent and had been doing whatever he wanted and was consistently doing things behind his mother’s back. The mother had fallen into a pattern of fighting with him and punishing him. I advised her to work with him in the way that I have described above. What were the results? The boy has made a major turnaround. His rebbi in yeshiva says that he has never seen such an improvement in such a young child. Just a few weeks ago, something very, very scary happened. Her son was playing with another boy near the house. The other boy told her son, “Come, let’s go on the big street, so we can ride our bicycles down that street.” Moishy responded, “I’m sorry, my mommy doesn’t want me to go there. She only wants me to play near the house.” The boy tried hard to convince him to go, but he would not be persuaded. Moishy then went home and proudly told his mother how he didn’t go with his friend because she didn’t want him to go. What’s so scary about that? The other boy, who went anyway, fell and broke a leg and an arm, and he damaged his skull as well. Another boy who was nearby ran to help the injured boy, and that other boy was hit by a city bus. You’re not serious. I am very serious. This happened just recently; the mother herself told me about it.
And when I tell you to work with your children so they don’t go behind your back, I am very serious as well. When you work together with your children, not only do they stop doing things behind your back, they start listening to you behind your back. And that is very strong parenting, be’ezras Hashem. Parenting to Ponder. Very strong parenting dictates that you work together with your child and make it safe for him to open up to you. This brings your children to listen to you and to follow your directives, even behind your back and when you’re not there – not out of fear, but out of respect. Because they know you love them and they want to please you and to listen to you.