Dealing With Dislike

Q: Our 8-year-old daughter definitely has an aggressive streak. We managed to convince her not to be friends with the more condescending and snobby girls in her class, but the attitude she has developed over the years (after spending much time with these girls) is taking a lot of time to modify.

She dislikes classmates and neighbors for reasons that make no apparent sense. She claims not to like one girl in her class “because she has red hair and freckles,” and avoids a girl on the block because they fight over who gets the first turn when playing group games. She makes it clear to these girls that she doesn’t want to be their friend. When we ask why — really — she doesn’t want to be friends with them, she says, “I don’t know” and shrugs her shoulders. Our older daughter, who is 10, is embarrassed by her younger sister’s behavior towards other children.

What makes this even more difficult to understand is that my husband and I are not like this at all! We don’t criticize and focus on the faults of others. My husband and I naturally see the good in people. We are not aggressive and, bli ayin hara, get along well with others in all areas. Yet, despite our efforts to teach our children to be dan l’chaf zechus, this seems not to have penetrated our daughter’s brain.

If we try to point out the need to see the good in everyone (not necessarily to be everyone’s best friend), she just gets uncomfortable and defensive.

What’s a good way to approach our daughter and help her improve her attitude towards others?

A: One of the challenges of being a mother or a father is parenting a child who is very different from them. Perhaps the child has traits similar to those of another relative: “He’s just like my father/brother.” In such a case, the comfort level of a parent can be compromised. The relative may have been difficult to deal with, and/or your interpersonal issues may never have been resolved. This may not be accurate in your case, but it is definitely true in the case of some parents who have children that are difficult to work with.

Whatever personality make-up your daughter has, allowing her to develop more of a condescending attitude towards others is neither productive nor beneficial. By putting down another human being, one assumes a superior position towards them. There is an unhealthy psychological pay-off for those who are condescending to others. By focusing on what the other “lacks,” one doesn’t have to focus on one’s own limitations.

If you consciously work on focusing on the good in individuals, as a “family project,” your daughter will feel less singled out by you. She will be less defensive and open to different ways of viewing others. Offering rewards for verbalizing the good in others on a daily basis is an initial step. You and your husband can give examples of when you could have looked at another’s character flaws (without mentioning names, of course), but chose not to, and how this approach was most beneficial to you and to the situation at hand.

A person who has true self-esteem does not have the need to continually look into what another lacks. A cognitive re-frame (a mental mantra, so to speak), which I have suggested to my clients to help forge unconditional “self-love,” is: “I am so special because my neshamah is part of Hashem, and there is nothing more special than that.”

Hatzlachah in this most worthy project.