Q: Baruch Hashem, I have been blessed with a large family of children, bli ayin hara. Unfortunately, my oldest son is “at risk” in terms of his general behavior. We are working with people to help him. My second son, who is 16, is quite obedient, and generally takes school seriously.
However, I’m particularly worried about my third son — let’s call him Akiva — who is 14 years old. He has learning difficulties and is in a special school. By nature, he is more aloof and intense than his siblings. He is interested in learning magic tricks and performing in public — things that are generally non-conventional from a religious standpoint. My husband, who is very involved with his business, thinks that Akiva’s interests are a waste of time and makes his opinion obvious. Akiva finds it difficult to learn with his father, because learning is hard for him, in general. Baruch Hashem, this son has very positive feelings towards Yiddishkeit, and I don’t want him to lose them.
My husband can easily get angry with Akiva and take away his electronics, which only makes things worse. I want to improve the relationship between my husband and our son, but it seems difficult to do. Is there any way I can help?
A: It is commendable to see how you are working on “damage prevention” in regard to your children who may be affected negatively by their oldest brother. Family dynamics are, of course, affected when, due to circumstances, a parent is compelled to accept certain behavior from one child and not from another. The same occurs in relation to academic expectations. Some children are expected to achieve high marks in school, and others are excused from expectations that would be unrealistic for them to fulfill.
Your third son, Akiva, is preceded by an older brother who “enjoys” modified expectations from your family due to his “at risk” status, followed by a second brother who may exceed family expectations with his good behavior and serious attitude towards his studies. Then there is Akiva, who would greatly like to achieve more, and may be disappointed that he cannot meet his own expectations.
Your husband needs to understand your son’s predicament and why he is finding ways to hone skills, showcase talents and create an identity that is interesting to him and others. You and your husband can be proud of his warm feelings towards his Yiddishkeit, while empathizing with his need to find a positive self-identity if he is presently unable to find it in learning.
Your concern about your husband’s attitude is justified. It is important for him to find ways to better relate and connect to his son before the gap between them widens.
In what areas are Akiva’s positive feelings towards Yiddishkeit most apparent? Your husband needs to show interest in this, verbalizing his thoughts and perhaps asking questions. If your husband clearly thinks that Akiva’s activities are silly or immature, expressing this opinion to your son will not make his interests disappear.
Finding common ground is the beginning of forging an improved relationship. Perhaps your husband can share experiences that he had as a child or a teenager, stories or feelings to which Akiva can relate. They can also spend some quality father-son time alone — perhaps visiting an aquarium or nature museum; this would convey the message that your husband enjoys your son’s company unconditionally.
As for use of electronics: this needs to be regulated by time schedules, not by impulsive responses from an angered parent.
Positive verbal interaction is crucial between parents and children. Specific praise, which reflects your husband’s particular value system, can penetrate the heart of Akiva and all other family members. Exemplary middos that your child possesses should be noticed and praised by your husband to help cement their relationship.