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What’s Your Problem? – Part I

A doctor, an accountant and a lawyer walk into a bar. The bar tender looks up and asks, “What’s this? A joke?”

Sometimes, the funniest jokes are when we laugh at ourselves. When we finish laughing and catch our breath, we pause and say, “You know, that’s really not funny.” Or, to paraphrase our humble president, “We’re the joke we’ve been laughing at.”

With that in mind, we present the following narrative, as told by the protagonist himself:

• • • • •

Okay, so we all heard enough doctor-lawyer-accountant or rabbi-priest-imam jokes. The problem is that in my life, it’s no joke. My father is a businessman, my uncle is a lawyer, and my wife’s uncle is a doctor. One way or another – what with all the unsolicited advice and well-meaning tips – sometimes I feel like the bar tender in the joke. Only I’m not laughing.

So last week, my wife, Dini, shares the exciting news that a lady in our neighborhood has arranged a parenting group for local mothers, focusing on building self-esteem and social skills in our children. The lady came with an impressive set of credentials and had more letters after her name than I have professionals in my family. Most of all, my wife’s sister insisted that her neighbor’s downstairs tenant’s co-workers called this lady’s phone conference parenting line every week and couldn’t stop raving about her.

In short, my wife was sold. “I mean, everyone’s taking parenting nowadays,” she confided. “It’s about time we got some direction, too. We don’t want our kids growing up with all sorts of emotional or social issues, chas veshalom, do we?”

No, we do not.

How our parents brought us up is beyond me. Did they mess up in our upbringing for lack of professional direction? Are we damaged goods, suffering from untold and unresolved social and emotional issues? Oh my Gosh, maybe Ineed therapy and I don’t even know it! Surely, with the help of a good therapist, I’d be able to dredge up enough long-forgotten issues and traumas and obsess over them anew. Then I’d have something on which to blame all my mistakes and shortcomings. What a relief that would be!

In any case, like I said, Uncle Ben’s a doctor, a world-renowned surgeon in fact. He had popped in to pick something up just as my wife returned from her first class. Dini was bursting with enthusiasm, new terminologies and innovative ideas.

“Did you know,” she began, “that some children suffer a cognitive dysfunction which doesn’t allow them to figure out that when you ask them not to leave their briefcase in the hallway, it means you want them to put it where it does belong? It doesn’t help to yell at or punish the child, chas veshalom. The child knows they are doing something wrong, and they are as frustrated as we are, but they need to be toldclearly to put their briefcase where it belongs. We can’t just tell them not to leave it in the hallway!”

Dini’s face was absolutely shining from the excitement of this new discovery.

Uncle Ben’s interest was piqued. “I hadn’t realized that you were taking counseling courses,” he said. “So, what made you decide on this new career?”

“Oh, no,” my wife giggled. “I’m not exactly becoming a professional. These courses are for our own kids. You know, so we can make sure they grow up socially and emotionally healthy.”

Uncle Ben shook his head in understanding. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that your child has a cognitive dysfunction. I didn’t know that.”

My wife’s mouth fell open. I tried to explain. “No, Uncle Ben,” I said. “Our kids are, boruch Hashem, fine. At least as far as we know. Dini’s just taking the course so that we can be armed with the right knowledge for any issues that do come up.”

“Right,” Dini nodded. “Prevention is the name of the game. That’s what the lady kept saying. Why wait until the child is suffering, and their self-esteem is low, and she’s a social outcast with failing grades and being bullied? Shouldn’t we try to prevent all that? That’s why they’re pushing schools to bring a social skills curriculum into the classroom. Kids will learn about all sorts of dysfunctions, traumas and wrongful behavior, and they’ll be given ways and methods to deal with these things as they come up. Sort of like, you know, preventative medicine.”

Uncle Ben always thinks and speaks in medical terms – and I mean always. A week after their youngest daughter got married, for example, my shvigger asked how they were coping with their newly-empty and quiet house.

“Well, the anesthetic has worn off,” Uncle Ben replied. “The numbness is gone. But we’re still pretty groggy and disoriented. The surgery has gone beautifully, though. The wedding was lovely and that’s a fine young man she married. Aunt Sheila and I will try to give them space, to prevent any post-op complications, you know…”

So I thought it was pretty smart of my wife to use the example of preventative medicine.

Boy, was I wrong!

“Preventative medicine?” Uncle Ben’s eyebrows shot up. “You teach the children about all sorts of dysfunctions, traumas and wrongful behavior – exposing them to notions they might then go and imitate – just in case? Can you imagine prescribing antibiotics to a whole classroom to prevent the one or two kids who might have strep from becoming more ill or spreading their infection? Can you imagine x-raying every child once a week – exposing them to the dangers of repeated radiation – because if you do catch something serious you can treat it early and easily? I don’t know much about parenting,” Uncle Ben confessed. “We didn’t ‘do’ parenting in our day. But I do know about medicine, and I know what’s bad medicine.”

“But Uncle Ben,” Dini argued, “you should have heard the stories about children with all sorts of serious dysfunctions who could be so easily helped with the right methods and therapies!”

“And we hope that those children with dysfunctions getthe right therapies,” Uncle Ben responded. “Same as we hope that patients in need of surgery receive the necessary surgery. Take it from a surgeon: There’s no questioning the life-saving benefits of surgery. But if I’d cut open hundreds of healthy children in order to catch the few sick ones and save their lives, I’d get sued for malpractice – and for good reason!

“But hey,” Uncle Ben said conciliatorily, “I’m not here to tell you what to do. Like I said, in my day we didn’t have so many emotional syndromes, diseases or disorders. We just tried to raise our kids in a healthy environment, with love and common sense. Who knew from Intermittent Explosive Disorder*, General Anxiety Disorder or Collyers Mansion Syndrome* when we were growing up? Nowadays, everybody seems to be suffering some sort of dysfunction or another. Is anybody normal anymore?”

On that happy note, Uncle Ben picked up his package, bid us adieu, and took his leave.

My wife and I looked at each other.

“You think he’s right?” I broke the silence. “Is everyone crazy nowadays? I mean, take an average class. We now know that kids who tend to daydream or have a hard time concentrating are not slacker, like they believed in our day. Rather, these are children suffering from a medical disorder – ADHD – and there are drugs and therapy regimens for their illness. Chutzpadike kids aren’t just troublemakers in need of discipline either. No. These poor kids suffer from Oppositional Defiant Disorder – through no fault of their own or their parents – and they need professional treatment for their disorder. The kids who have a hard time sitting still through the long classes – in our day, we just said they have ‘shpilkes’ or ants in their pants – are also sick, suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome. There are drugs for that, too. And the students who can learn and study well are also sick! They suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder or other social phobias, which is why they learn rather than play and socialize. There’s treatment and counseling for these kids, too.”

“And that’s not even the half of it!” my wife exclaimed. “You didn’t even mention the people who suffer from Anger, Adjustment Disorder*, Panic Attacks, Eating Disorders, Seasonal Affective Disorder*, Temper Dysregulation Disorder*, Nightmare Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder* and who knows what else! Uncle’s Ben’s a great doctor and everything, but he so is not aware of what a crazy world we’re living in today. Yes. We do all need therapy.”

Somehow, I hadn’t been heading to the same conclusion that my wife reached, but who was I to argue? She was as determined as ever to be as prepared as possible to help our children deal with all of the monsters striking our luckless generation. She went to the next class and came home even more inspired than after the last one.

As luck would have it, my father had just stopped by.

Dad listened closely as Dini detailed the many fascinating ideas and educational methodologies she’d gleaned tonight. “And the lady told us that the word ‘punishment’ shouldn’t even belong in our dictionaries in the first place,” Dini said, concluding her recital. “Today’s methods are positive and focused, not cruel or arbitrary.”

“This lady,” Dad asked curiously, “where do her methods come from?”

“Dad,” I cut in, “she’s a frum lady.”

“Oh, I wasn’t doubting that,” Dad reassured us. “I’m sure her husband is a major talmid chochom and she went to a top seminary. Still, these aren’t her own original methods she came up with by making diyukim in the Ramban, or are they?”

“Um, no, I don’t think so,” Dini admitted. “She has a degree. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? I mean, chochmah bagoyim ta’amin, right?”

“Of course,” Dad agreed. “I wasn’t questioning her hashkafah or the possibility of chochmah bagoyim. I’m a businessman, not a rov. But I do know a thing or two about investing and about how to analyze what is chochmah and what’s plain baloney. When it comes to investing, for example, any company with a good PR man can give you a great sale’s pitch as to why their product will become the next bestseller and turn you into an instant millionaire.” Dad was warming to his favorite subject. “The problem is how to figure out – as best you can – which company will indeed succeed and bring you riches, and which company will fail badly and leave you broke.”

“So how do you work that out?” Dini asked.

“Simple,” Dad explained. “You don’t listen to what they tell you half as much as you study how they have actually performed in the past. If a company has been succeeding and pulling in huge profits year after year, you know that their product is good even without their sales pitch. If, however, a product has consistently failed to bring in a profit, then even the best sales pitch won’t hide the fact that it’s almost surely a losing proposition. No sensible businessman will hire a manager, for instance, who has previously run every company he managed into the ground, no matter how smooth-talking he is and how promising his sale’s pitch. You examine past performance. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the greatest indicator.”

“And what does all that have to do with parenting and chinuch?” I asked.

“Everything.” Dad smiled. “You want to evaluate – like a businessman – how parenting methods in years past compare with today’s new and improved ideas, right?”

We both nodded.

“The sales pitch is that the old methods were arbitrary and simple-minded, while today’s methods are positive, well-thought-out, multi-faceted and just better. Now, what about the results? What types of trouble were kids getting into 30 years ago, and what kinds of trouble are they getting into today? How chutzpadik were kids 30 years ago and how chutzpadik are they now that we’ve thrown out so much of the old ‘arbitrary’ disciplinary ideas? How spoiled and self-centered were kids 30 years ago and how spoiled and self-centered are they under today’s new methods? What was the morality level 30 years ago and what is it now that we’ve thrown out the old methods and instituted new ones?”

“The consensus, I believe,” Dad continued, “and this is even by the goyim, is that morality, scholastics, common sense, basic mentchlichkeit and every other value we hold dear is going down the tubes – and fast. The no-punishment, less-discipline, non-judgmental, blame-every-failing-on-your-mother-or-some-other-disorder worldview, which focused more on self-esteem than self-empowerment, has failed. Completely. It has raised a generation of self-centered, capricious underachievers whose ego and self-esteem are so great that they don’t even care that they’re failures. Nor do they recognize or admit to these shortcomings. Those are ‘someone else’s’ fault and ‘someone else’s’ responsibility.

“So if the universities were a business,” Dad declared, “they’d have gone bankrupt years ago. What sane businessman would invest even one dollar in their ideas, given their rate of consistent and abject failure?”

Would you?

Read about Uncle Edwin, the lawyer, and the rest of the narrative in “What’s Your Problem? – Part II,” coming soon.

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* Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), also known as Road Rage. Collyers Mansion Syndrome:the fear of throwing things away. Adjustment Disorder:Difficulty adjusting to new situations. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):the blues;feeling down in the cold, overcast winter months. Temper Dysregulation Disorder (TDD):severe temper outbursts. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, aka gayvah.

Note: All of the “disorders,” “syndromes” and the like mentioned in this article are officially classified as such in the current or proposed future edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV & DSM5). We kid you not.