Power Steering

Raising children is a whole different ball game today. So, for that matter, is teaching students. Once upon a time, parents and teachers could and did resort to heavy-handed tactics in their efforts to set their youngsters straight—and, by and large, those tactics worked. It’s another story today. In the looser, more chilled atmosphere of our times, and with the blurring of the traditional lines of respect between adults and children that comes with ikvasa d’mashicha, we’ve had to look for other ways to get our message across.

When parents see a child behaving in ways that disappoint them, a chord of fear is struck in their hearts. The parents worry that all the effort they’ve put into their offspring will, chas v’shalom, come to naught. They’re anxious lest the child’s accomplishments to date will start trickling ignominiously away. They’re afraid for the child’s future. And when we’re scared, our instinct is to bear down even harder. To make the child see the error of his ways. To force him or her back into the mold we’ve prescribed for them.

Unfortunately, these days, heavy-handed tactics do not usually have the desired effect. In fact, they frequently have the opposite intended effect. Shouting at or vociferously lecturing children may leave them shaken and temporarily obedient, but they don’t do much to shore up their inner sense of right and wrong. In the old Peanuts comic strips, parental scoldings were typically represented by a series of harsh black lines inside a speech bubble: something unpleasant that the child had to endure, but whose meaning went completely over his head. In fact, a parent’s yelling or otherwise over-reacting distracts the child from the message because he’s too busy coping with the fireworks. As soon as the decibel level goes up, many kids shut down.

Also, reacting heatedly to a kid’s childish acting-out can actually make him eager to repeat the offense, if only for the negative attention it will win him. Once again, the message is lost.

What’s needed in such situations is a light touch. When you drive a car with power steering, all that’s required is a gentle hand on the wheel, to guide and direct the vehicle. Similarly, a tricky situation with a child, even one that arouses parental anxiety, is best handled with calm good sense and a long-term view. Let me give you an example.

A single parent I knew was having a hard time with her daughter. She had raised her virtually on her own until the girl reached young adulthood. Then, suddenly, after years of little to no contact with the father (who did not share the mother’s values) the daughter reconnected with her other parent. She would come home talking animatedly about her father and evincing every interest in forming a long-lasting bond with him. The mother was beside herself. Her daughter’s excitement over the newfound relationship terrified her. She was afraid that she was going to lose her.

When the mother confided in me, the first thing I did was urge her not to panic. She’d been reacting to each episode with long harangues, trying to remind her daughter of who she was and how she’d be raised—to little effect. I suggested that she’d do well to bear in mind exactly who she was to her daughter: the parent she loved and respected, the Rock of Gibraltar on whom she’d depended for so many years. Children need to feel close to both of their parents, but that didn’t mean that the mother would be supplanted in the girl’s affections or that the daughter would abandon the value system with which she’d been raised. The mother’s fear undermined her good sense and caused her to bear down more heavily than was either necessary or wise.

“Be matter-of-fact,” I told her. “Let her talk to you about her father without acting as if it threatens you. Smile at her and be as loving as you’ve always been. Behave as if it’s understood that your daughter is continuing to be the same person you raised her to be. Everyone goes through upswings and downswings. It’s natural to move away and then come close again. Just don’t panic!”

In other words, don’t overreact. Feel and act secure. Keeping the response light is often the best way to get your message across. Another example:

For many years, my husband was a rebbi in a local day school, teaching middle- and high-school boys. One day, as he passed through the building’s lobby where a beautiful model of the Bais Hamikdash sat on display, he noticed a boy bouncing a ball in a way that posed a potential danger to the display. My husband approached the student and suggested that this was not the best place to play ball.

In a dazzling exhibition of chutzpah, the boy looked at my husband and asked, “Who says you have the authority to tell me not to play here?”

Many rebbeim, in his position, would have either exploded with anger or retreated in confusion. My husband, thinking quickly, said with every appearance of good will, “Hm. Now, that’s an interesting question. Why don’t we go to the office and find out?”

The response took all the wind out of the boy’s insolent sails. Muttering, “Okay, so I won’t play,” he took himself and his ball away to greener pastures. Score one for the light touch!

•••

When we’re feeling attacked, rejected or otherwise insecure, our natural reaction is to come down heavily on the source of our discomfort. To take the weight of our position as a parent or teacher and dump it like a load of bricks on the offending child’s head. To forcefully wrench the wheel until we get the kid back on track. But power steering, as we’ve said, requires a light touch.

Apart from the fact that a heavy-handed reaction tends to turn people off rather than engage their cooperation, there’s another factor to consider. A wise person once told me that most kids—and that includes teenagers—pretty much hear only the first sentence or so that you say to them. Which basically rules out long lectures and lengthy moral harangues.

So here’s the rule: don’t let it get personal. Whatever the kid says or does, keep it businesslike. Even if your child acts unloving or uncaring. Even if your student speaks in a fashion unbecoming to a Jewish boy or girl. Dumping that figurative load of bricks on his head may give the kid a headache, but not much else. Instead, consider the big picture. Remember your role, not your outraged feelings. Think, “What is my job here? What do I want to accomplish?” And then quietly and calmly get the job done.

I know it’s more difficult than it sounds. When our emotions get in the way, it’s hard to think straight, let alone say the right thing. When we feel hurt, disrespected or otherwise mistreated, our tendency is to react blindly. To shoot first and consider the consequences later. In other words, to do whatever it takes to relieve our feelings and assuage our anxiety. But it’s our job as parents and educators to react in a way that will actually help the child.

A light touch. Calm as the Rock of Gibraltar letting the waves smash themselves against your self-assured, unmoving bulk. Confidence and serenity hint at inner strength. And, as such, they speak much louder to the child than any panicked or indignant speech could ever do.

Children have a long road to travel, and they’re bound to take a misstep every now and then. It’s our job as the adults in their lives to nudge them back into line as we glide together down the highway of life. But we have to steer them in a way they can handle and learn from. With one finger on the wheel, and another pointing the way.