Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Everything I know about parenting, I (should have) learned from Moses.

At a recent Shabbat Service, the Rabbi spoke to the congregation about the way G-d responded to the Children of Israel when they sinned. In Moses’ absence, the Children of Israel built a graven image and prepared to worship it. This was probably the worst thing they could have done and their behavior angered G-d. His reaction went beyond normal; it was one of extreme anger. In fact, G-d wanted to smite the Children of Israel immediately for their sin.

Of course we know that Moses stepped in and pleaded with G-d to spare the people. Moses reminded G-d of all the things the people had done right, all the mitzvoth they had fulfilled without question or complaint, and begged that they be spared in spite of this great wrong. Luckily for us, G-d heard Moses, and spared the Children of Israel, making it possible for us to be here today.

This message hit me right between the eyes.

As a parent, I am constantly seeing all the wrong things that my children do, and with five children ranging in age from pre-teenager to infant, there can be a lot of “wrong” things on any given day. It is not unusual in my house to have the three year old throw a handheld electronic device at the head of her oldest brother, or to see the younger boy tackle his older sister in an attempt to grab a coveted toy. Even worse than the physical attacks are the verbal ones that I witness. To hear my children tell their sibling that they “hate” them or that they are “stupid” is distressing, to say the least. And, though I am not proud of it, but because of these behaviors, I often find myself angry enough that “smiting” them seems a viable option.

Okay, not really. No, not even close. But I do experience that high-blood-pressure-jaw-clenched-talking-through-gritted-teeth kind of angry at times.

What I need to internalize from the Rabbi’s message is that there is always something good. That is, I need to stop looking to “destroy” the children for one grievous wrong, when there are many things that they do right. Especially the little “rights” that they do, like when the oldest takes it upon himself to read a story to his sister. Or when the older girl makes a surprise snack for her siblings. Or, even better, when I overhear the whispered compliments being passed back and forth between the siblings. These behaviors fill my heart with joy.

The Rabbi also spoke of another part of this story. That when we allow ourselves to become mired in all the negatives, they overtake our lives and become all that we can see or even seek. We become so intent and used to searching for the negatives that we find it impossible to see all the positives that are around us.

As a parent, it seems it would be more productive to follow more closely in the footsteps of Moses (while fully admitting and accepting the fact that I am not even close to being the tzadik that Moses was.) But, I should learn from him and his actions. I should learn to see the benefits of actively seeking the positive behaviors so that they can be weighed against the negative ones.

In the world of small children, the tiniest positive behavior should carry twice the weight of even the most horrible of negative behaviors. If Moses can help G-d to see this, then surely he can help me to see it as well.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Arm Chair Parent

The Armchair Parent

What is an armchair parent, you ask? An armchair parent is one who sits in a chair (or on the couch) and tells the children how to behave without ever really looking, getting up, or making eye contact. It is the “don’t do that,” “stop that right now,” “don’t make me get up” method of parenting. It is exactly the opposite of the kind of parent I always dreamed I would be. But, suddenly, I had become one.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, I justified this “armchair” behavior because I believed it would be temporary.  I was pregnant with my fifth child and I was tired. But, I won’t be tired forever, I reasoned. Baby number five joined the family via cesarean section number five, and I still sat on the couch. In fact, I was encouraged to sit and allow people to help me. They could bring me food, and drinks, and even the baby. At last, I had a legitimate excuse to direct my children’s behavior from the couch. 

This doesn’t mean it felt right. Or that it was even effective. In fact, barking orders at my three year old from the couch could not have been less effective. All it did was give her reasons to scream, stomp her feet, and assert that she could “do anything.” (Normally, I am all for encouraging the “I can do anything sentiment,” but in this case it was often more along the lines of coloring on the wall with a sharpie than becoming an astronaut.) But, since I was recently post-operative, there was not too much I could do. By the time I would hoist myself off the couch and catch up with the wiry little girl, she had already drawn three or four frescoes on my walls, and the point was now moot.

I could, and sadly, did, spank her once or twice. I figured, I got all the way off the couch, and she had been deliberately naughty. But, spanking never ever felt right, and I could not usually justify the “we don’t hit our brother” spanking in my mind. (Yes, because the best way to teach that we do not hit is to hit. That works.)

The ironic thing is that it got easier and easier to be that armchair parent. Never having to get up to interact seemed like a pretty good deal. I sat on the couch with baited breath every day, waiting for the three year old to start screaming. And when it did, I blamed the screaming fits for my fatigue and exasperation. It was like a self fulfilling prophecy…I expected the screaming, I got the screaming, so I began to expect more of it.  It is just how my days were bound to go. She would grow out of it, right?

But here is the thing. I knew there was something wrong with me because when baby number five joined the family; I had help. My sister flew in from her home, a million miles away, to take care of the older children, and in particular, the three year old, while I took care of the newborn. My sister had never met my three year old until the day she arrived at my house. Of course, she had heard the stories of the screaming and tantrums that I dealt with daily. I think she was a little afraid to come to my house, but she came anyway. I am grateful that she did, because she taught me a very valuable lesson.

I watched her interact with my daughter. I watched my daughter respond. She didn’t scream, she chattered. She talked about a million things that she could do, and that they could do together. And my sister, the amazing woman that she is, did something that I imagined I had been doing, from the comfort of my spot on the couch.


She talked to the three year old as if the three year old had something of value to say. And she helped her. And she encouraged her. And she treated the three year old with respect and understanding and love. And the three year old BLOSSOMED. She just began to shine.

Oddly, it wasn’t until several months had passed and I hit a rock bottom of sorts with the three year old that I realized what my sister had done and what I was not doing.

“Rock bottom” is never pretty, and it certainly wasn’t pretty between the three year old and me. I told her I wasn’t her mommy. I told her that MY children did not choose such behaviors and that she should go and find her mommy because I wanted nothing to do with her. I was D.O.N.E. She was being sold, nay GIVEN, to the very next band of gypsies that came through my neighborhood. Worse than thinking all of these horrible thoughts, I said them out loud. To my three year old. And then I stopped talking to her. (Because the silent treatment is particularly effective when directed at a three year old. Of course it is.) 

During the hours I had of not speaking to my young daughter, I had plenty of time to reflect on the behavior choices that both she and I had made. And this is when I realized that that solution was simple, and my sister, my wonderful, amazing sister, had already shown me what needed to be done.

I needed to LISTEN.

I didn’t need to get off the couch, necessarily, but a little eye contact with the child speaking, and a genuine interest in what she had to say would work wonders. I needed to become involved again. The day after I told her I was selling her to gypsies, I decided to try it. To try really listening and actively involving her in the day’s goings on. It probably will not surprise you to learn that we had a very good day. One that did not include screaming and throwing things. Oh, there was a tantrum or two, to be sure, but instead of the yelling and screaming method of handling it, I talked to her. I really talked to her and asked her to explain what she was feeling. I asked her to solve the problem. And then I listened. I listened with amazement as she figured out how to solve the problems. And on this day, the tantrums were much shorter than they usually were. I treated my three year old like a person, not a small child. It was exhausting, but, it was a very good day.

So, while I may still sit on the couch, I know now that the quickest way to divert my child from going down the path of bansheedom is to actually hear her thoughts and feelings. I always thought I did, until I saw how it was really done. 

Finally, I can be the parent I want to be. The parent I always envisioned myself to be. I can be involved. With EACH of my children.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Prayer.  Dictionary.com provides these three definitions:
1. a devout petition to g-d or an object of worship.
2. a spiritual communion with G-d or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.
3. the act or practice of praying  to G-d or an object of worship.

It is such a simple concept, right? Prayer is a conversation with G-d.  But, HOW does one pray?

In Judaism, there is a prayer or a blessing for just about every imaginable situation. There is even a blessing one is to say upon hearing thunder. (What if this thunder is heard during a terrible storm, when thunder booms every fifteen seconds or so? Is one to recite the blessing each time? What about for the lightening?) But, while there are specific prayers and blessings for situations, how does one handle the everyday situations?

Many of my friends are involved with prayer chains. These are usually set up for people who are very ill and in need of prayer. I know of the Mi Sheberach prayer, and I say it during Shabbat services. Sadly, the list of names I add to the prayers for the sick is long. But, how do I pray for them on a Tuesday morning? Is there a special prayer for those in need of healing when there is no minyan?

When my heart is aching because I have learned of a friend who is ill, I want to reach for the comfort of prayer. I know that I always feel surrounded by warmth and love on Shabbat. I know it is from the feeling of collective prayer and being in the presence of G-d. And yes, I know that I am always in the presence of G-d, but somehow it is different. So, how do I pray?

Is it okay to just “talk” to G-d? I mean in a very casual way; in a very “Are you there, G-d? It’s me, Margaret” kind of way? Or do prayers always have to be formal and said in the presence of a minyan? What if I don’t know the Hebrew? Is it okay to just use my native language? What if the person for whom I wish to pray does not have a Hebrew name? What if I am not sure of this person’s full name? What if I get the name completely wrong? And what about prayers for myself? Is it selfish to ask for help with the mundane?

I spent many years in Sunday school as a child, and prayer was never one of the topics covered. I wish it had been. I wish we had been taught HOW to talk to G-d. With prayers available for every situation, I would have liked to learn how to use them in every situation. I would like to be able to share with my own children how to pray. Is there a right way? If G-d is all-knowing, as I believe, then wouldn’t He already know what is in my heart? Are the words even necessary? Is it more about the ACT of uttering a prayer, or merely the RELATIONSHIP one has with G-d?

Really, HOW do you pray?

Until this question is answered, I think I will keep doing what I have been doing. I will just keep on speaking to G-d with my heart. I am sure He understands.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Stop pestilencing me!

Children today make me laugh. Particularly my children. Please allow me this little story.

My boys were having a fight. There was physical contact involved, and my younger son; he is six, ended up with his nearly twelve-year old brother's fist in his stomach. I wanted to know the hows, the whys, and the wherefores, so I brought the boys, and their nine-year old sister (who was a witness), into the living room for the big discussion.

The oldest shared his side of the story. The younger boy shared his. Then the girl told me what she saw.

As I was doling out the necessary punishments and lectures, the six-year old started shaking with laughter. Laughter that was causing tears to roll down his face. I had to know what was so funny. So, I asked him to please tell me what was making him laugh. His answer was simply that his brother had been "pestilencing" him.

As his mother, I felt that it was necessary to correct him. I told him gently that he must have meant that his brother had been "pestering" him, not "pestilencing." Then, becasue I am not one to let a learning opportunity pass by, I asked my six-year old to tell me what "pestilence" is. He told me quite proudly that pestilence is one of the plagues. I asked him to please be more specific.

"Pestilence," he said, "is a sickness. Like a giant bug."

The minute he said the word "bug," I knew what he was telling me. He was telling me that his brother had been BUGGING him.


I think his Sunday School teacher should be very, very proud.

Loshon Hara and social media

Social media sites make it so easy to keep in touch with friends and family, and even let you widen your circle of friends. But, they also make it very easy for your life to be discussed. If what is being discussed was a post on a social media site, is that discussion loshon hara? I have seen the most intimate details of people’s lives on facebook pages, and entire conversations in the form of “tweets.” These life updates are put out there in a very public forum for the world to see. When does it become “gossip” to discuss these updates? 

I suppose that if you are discussing such an update on the owner’s page, it is not being said behind his back because he can participate in that discussion. But, if one takes what they read on facebook and talks about it around the water cooler at the office, is it talking behind one’s back and therefore loshan hara?

Of course, the argument could be made that when one posts an update to cyberspace, one is accepting the fact that this update will now become common, and very public, knowledge. On the other hand, the poster could be working under the impression that such posts will only be seen by 657 of his closest friends.

So, where does that leave us? If I see a post that concerns me, and I mention it to someone other than the original poster, have I just participated in loshon hara? Or was it already public knowledge? What if the person I spoke to was also a “friend” of the original poster? Can it be assumed that the person to whom I am speaking has seen the same post and therefore is part of the “inner circle?”

Nothing changes the fact that speaking behind someone’s back to cause them harm or mar their character in any way is not an acceptable action. But, at what point should a person take responsibility for their use of social media? If you put it out there, aren’t you expecting, even hoping for, a discussion?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Recently, my children and I were watching a show on the History Channel (or some such network) "demystifying" the Ten Plagues. You know, giving scientific answers to why and how these plagues may have occurred. Generally speaking, we find these shows interesting.

My oldest was watching with rapt attention as a scientific explanation was given for each of the plagues...the "Red Tide" turning the Nile, how this algae would have killed all the fish forcing the frogs to take refuge on land, how dead fish would have attracted bugs, and so on and so forth.

My oldest didn't say much during this program. At least not until the tenth plague was discussed. According to this program, the slaying of the first born had to do with grain and how it was stored. Apparently, there was a fungus that settled on the top layers of grain that was stored. The oldest and strongest would have been given double portions of this grain and it is this fungus that made them sick and ultimately caused them to die.

As the narrator explained this to his audience, my oldest seemed to become more and more agitated. He was still quiet, until the end of the show. At this point, he looked at me and said, "That doesn't make sense." I let him continue. He went on to say, "You know, this doesn't make sense. And I don't know why they are trying to make something out of this. Because sometimes, SOMETIMES, it is just G-d."

Now that is faith.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Honor your father and your mother

Let's face it. It is a big one. It made the top five. There are even people who point out the parent-like qualities of G-d and believe that this commandment applies to both G-d and Mom and Dad. Both need to be honored. It is required.

But what do you do when one of the parents start acting like a slub and you are having a hard time keeping up with that commandment?

Do you still have to honor your father if he walks all over you? If he treats you like you are worthless and is rude to you every time you speak to him? At what point does this contract dissolve? At what point do you, as the child, have permission to stop honoring your parent? Or do you?

I have always tried to be a good daughter. And some day, I hope to achieve that status. But right now, in this moment, I dont' think I fit the bill.

I started writing this post about three days ago. I was angry with my father because I thought he had changed in his behavior towards me, and I was hurt. But, after visiting with my father for several days, I have discovered something. It isn't my father who has changed. It is me. I am sad, depressed, and feeling unworthy of just about everything.

My father didn't change his behaviors, he has always been this way with me. He has always been a bit of an extremist in his reactions and conversations. The ultimate pessimist, to be sure. And I have always known this and I don't fault him for that. It was just easier to deal with his extreme behaviors when my mom was alive.

During my visit, it occurred to me that my father was not acting any differently than he always has, but I was reacting differently. I realized during this visit, that the buffer is completely gone. And I realized exactly when it started.

Most people would expect me to say that it started the day that my mom passed away, but it didn't. There was too much numbness, followed by too much grief. But, as we began to work our way back to the surface after her passing, I realized that it was Mom who made it easier to deal with my father's extremisms. It was Mom who was able to see the humor and make Dad see the ridiculousness of his words. She was always able to bring him down to the necessary level of normal reactions.

After Mom passed, I still brought the kids to visit with my dad. I thought, and do think, that it is extremely important to encourage a relationship between my children and my father. (And, for what it is worth, I do the same thing with my in-law's but that is a different post altogether.) On one of the very first visits after Mom passed, I tried to talk to my father about my feelings and how I missed Mom..

He yelled at me. He belittled me. He told me that I wasn't "allowed" to be feeling what I was feeling. He hurt me tremendously.

It was at that moment that I started to "notice" his behavior towards me had changed. He was ruder and harsher in his words with me. He treated me less and less like an adult. He tried to make me feel badly for my choices in my adult life. In the end, even after he told me how foolish I was behaving, he would come around and tell me that I knew what was best for my family and my life. It just took him longer than it had in the past. Mom was the one who always showed him that I was a grown up. She was the one who helped him to see that if I were going to make a mistake, it needed to be my mistake. Mom was the one who was always able to talk reason into Dad. I didn't have that ability and I didn't have the ability to separate the hurtful words from the extreme reactions.

And so, after my visit with my father this time, I realized that I am the one who needs to change my reactions. Dad has not changed. There is no need to excuse his behavior, it is the same as it has always been. What needs to happen is that I need to separate his immediate reactions from his words and wait for him to come around to reason. He always does. And he doesn't mean to hurt me when he says the things he says.

It is my duty as a daughter to honor my father. To treat him with respect in all situations. I know that my feelings are true and real for me, and no one, not even my father has the ability to take them away or make them less than I feel that they are. But, that doesn't mean that I can be disrespectful to my father. Instead, I will honor him with my words, and with my actions.

And through that, I will also be honoring my mom, may she rest in peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Peace in the home.

Traditionally, in Judaism, Shalom Bayit refers to a marriage; to peace being kept between husband and wife. I wonder if it is the only interpretation? What about peace between siblings? And what is my role as a mother in keeping that peace?

I have four children ranging in age from nearly 11 to nearly 3. Generally speaking, these are very good children and I consider myself both lucky and blessed that they were given to me to nurture. They really do fill my heart with warmth and love and most of the time they make me very happy. But then, they fight.

Of course, children are children and fighting is part of learning one's way in the family. Problem solving is an important skill for children to have and once they have mastered this skill, they will always be grateful for it. But, when is it a parent's duty to intervene in a sibling fight?

Let me explain something. I am using the term "fight" in a more generic sense. To say that my children are having disagreements is not strong enough, yet most times, there is no real physical contact and so the term "fight" might be deemed too strong. Of course I would be quick to intervene if physical harm were imminent. Even I know that kind of fighting has taken it too far. (Not to mention the numerous examples in the Torah of how physical fighting can lead to extremely bad things.)

So, back to my children. How long should I let the children engage in their "fight" before I step in? I can't solve their problems for them, and they need to learn to work and play together. Yet, there are times when all I want is peace in the home. Complete and total peace. I listen to their language and I cringe. The mean things that come out of their mouths makes me sad. I thought, or rather I hoped, that I had taught them to be more respectful of each other and of themselves.When and where did they learn to be this nasty?

I am not perfect. I don't even think I am great. But, I treat my children with respect and show them love in every situation. Is it just normal for siblings to go through these stages of fighting and could it be a sign of maturity when the ten year old gets into a verbal argument with the two-year old? Is it normal for them to scream at each other and shoot words full of venom at one another? Is it all just a part of growing up?

Each of my children has a distinct personality and I can see each of them trying to find their way in the family. I have always tried to encourage them to be the best that they can be, not making life with siblings into a competition. But I have to wonder, how much does the concept of peace in the home fall squarely on my shoulders? Even if the argument is theirs, is it not my responsibility to make sure that everyone under the roof of my home is happy? Is it unrealistic to expect happiness one hundred percent of the time? And is it unrealistic to assume that lack of happiness is my fault?

I don't have the answers to these questions, nor do I know where to find the answers. I know that my role is to be there for each of my children and that is what I plan to do. As for their fighting, and keeping the peace in my home, I suppose we will have to let that play itself out.