Blog Post


Parsha Vayakhel: The Biggest Mistakes Parents Make

Years ago The Wall Street Journal had an article about a study of the middle-class American family made by two Southern California anthropologists: 

Among the findings: The families had a very child-centered focus, which may help explain the “dependency dilemma” seen among American middle-class families, says Dr. Ochs. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own, she says.

(They) noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures. In those cultures, young children were expected to contribute substantially to the community, says Dr. Ochs. Children in Samoa serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat… By contrast, the U.S. videos showed Los Angeles parents focusing more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task. Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said. Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.

Many years ago when our eldest child was about two-years-old, I purchased a book about raising kids, figuring I better learn what to do. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk emphasized listening to your kids and purports “to help listeners understand children’s emotions, gain cooperation, and learn new alternatives to discipline.” 

Karen and I tried very hard to follow its prescriptions of expressing back to Atara our understanding of her feelings of frustration as she flayed about during her tantrums. But we found that she was becoming more and more difficult despite our patient empathy, despite our feeling her pain and despite letting her know that we were fully aware of her frustration. It got us nowhere.

I finally abandoned this methodology and instead took a page out of the Irving Nightingale (my dad) book of raising children, put my foot down and promised a putsch on the tuchus (a little slap on the bum) if she didn’t go to bed on time. Magically she became a much easier child to deal with. Somehow my parents, without any PhDs, seemed to have more effective tools at raising kids than these so-called experts. 

In the span of two generations, the focus of families has dramatically shifted from being parent-centered to child-centered. Today everything revolves around the child’s schedule, whims, wants and needs. While, of course, the job of a parent is to ensure the good, welfare and security of a child, at the same time it is also incumbent on parents to inculcate a proper sense of proportion, discipline and responsibility. This latter aspect of parenting seems to be a dying art.

In my observations of families, I find that the biggest mistake parents make is that they are afraid to be willing to lay down the law and they don’t expect, let alone demand, discipline, rules and chores. The biggest lacking in today’s families is the parent’s unwillingness to give their kids chores and responsibilities commensurate with their age and abilities. As I emphasized to a group of young Venezuelan moms and dads in a class I once gave, it makes no difference how many maids and nannies are in a household, kids gotta have jobs. 

Today the holy grail of raising children is self-esteem. Yet there is little appreciation that self-esteem doesn’t come from a parent (or teacher) heaping false praise on half-baked attempts by children, so as not to hurt their feelings. Real self-esteem comes when parents make reasonable demands on a child and praise them when they get off their behinds, put aside their electronic devices and do something productive in the house or with their school-work.

This rescuing-parent syndrome that begins at a very young age sets the stage and continues onward for many years where parents today rush up to college with their darlings and spend the first few days “getting them settled in.” Really? Can’t they put the sheets on the bed themselves? Maybe indeed they cannot because nanny/cleaning lady has been doing it for them their whole lives. Karen and I have never understood this ritual and Atara, Moishe, Matty, Tzippy, Yoni and Avital all did very well without us when they went off alone to Yeshiva in Jerusalem or college in New York. Independence starts at a very young age, and the more self-sufficient a child is, the better off they will be for the remainder of their lives. 

As the study goes on to describe, a home where the kids make the rules and are the primary focus, and where they are expected to do nothing looks like this: 

In about 75% of the families, the mothers came home first and began to “gyrate” through the house, bouncing between the kids and their homework, groceries, dinner and laundry, according to the group’s analysis… When the fathers came home, 86% of the time at least one child didn’t pay attention to him. “The kids are oblivious to their parents’ perspectives,” says Dr. Ochs.

Little wonder at that. 

But a home where the parents ensure that the children all have jobs, chores and responsibilities and where the kids realize that they are not the center of it all, is a home which is more peaceful and productive – both for the parents and for the children alike. 

Oompa Loompa doompadah dee
If you are wise you will listen to me
Who do you blame when your kid is a brat
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?
Blaming the kids is a lion of shame
You know exactly who’s to blame
The mother and the father!

Oompa Loompa doompadee dah
If you’re not spoiled then you will go far
You will live in happiness too
-Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

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