Is it Chutzpah?

Q:We are turning to you for help in dealing with the chutzpah of our 9-year-old son which has really gotten out of hand lately. Here’s the most recent example. He was playing outside tonight with his friends. My wife called him in and he ignored her. After she insisted and raised her voice, he begrudgingly complied. When he finally did come in, he began insulting her. He called her “weird.” He shouted, “You make terrible suppers.” And when she told him to begin working on his homework, he defiantly refused and started complaining that he “hates school.”

Things got so out of control that I had to give him a patsh before he settled down and started his homework. I certainly would not want to have to do that again. What would you recommend we should do to nip this problem in the bud?

 

A:Many parents, I am sure, can identify with your dilemma. Chutzpah is a serious problem which, unfortunately, is all too prevalent today. As Chazal have taught, “[At the end of Galus, when we can already hear] the footsteps of Moshiach, chutzpah will increase.” (Sota 49b)

As is well known, children are obligated to honor their parents. In fact, the Torah includes this as one of the Aseres Hadibros. (Shemos 20:12 & Devarim 5:16) Speaking or acting with chutzpah, therefore, is a clear violation of this mitzvah mid’Oraisa. Not all childhood misbehavior, however, needs to be labeled as chutzpah.

To illustrate this point with an extreme example, suppose a child was being mistreated, R”l, by a parent. Would it be considered chutzpah if that child resisted or defended himself? Some people (and I am not including you and your wife in this group) are under the misconception that the above quoted pesukim grant parents the status of infallibility, including the license to treat their children improperly.

Returning to your letter, Chazal have also taught, “Who is [considered] a wise man? [The answer is] he who is able to anticipate future [consequences of his current actions].” (Tamid 32a) A wise parent, therefore, understands that small children need to be allowed time to make transitions during their day. Take bedtime, for example. Parents cannot expect children to jump into bed immediately when bedtime is announced. Instead, they need to put on their pajamas, to have a bedtime routine and only afterwards go to sleep.   Understandably, when children are playing or engaged in any other pleasurable activity, they cannot be expected to abruptly terminate their fun when the whistle is blown. What they need is a brief period of adjustment, during which they can complete the process of accepting that play time is over.

When your son is outside playing with his friends after school, that time is probably the highlight of his day. Coming in to do homework and go to bed are not very appealing, to say the least. Resistance on his part, therefore, should be expected. In order to ease this transition, therefore, you have two options.

One approach would be to insist that he begin his homework before he goes out to play. In fact, it could even be a condition for being allowed out that he must complete at least part of his homework. This arrangement has two benefits. Firstly, it insures that he will work at his maximum efficiency in order to complete his assignments so that he can get outside quickly. And, secondly, it makes the prospect of coming inside after playing less objectionable because at least part of his homework has already been completed.

The other option is to give your son some advance warning that his play time outside is coming to a close. For example, “You really need to come in now. But I’ll let you stay outside for another 10 minutes.” This way, your son has time for one more game, try or fling before having to call it a day. If your son has his own watch, it is even better for you to give him a time before he leaves the house at which he must return without being reminded. This gives him more independence and allows him to develop self discipline, as well.

Finally, let me assure you that I do not condone temper tantrums. And your son was apparently having one when your wife called him in to do homework. A temper tantrum, however, by definition is not controllable. Children throw them when they are overwhelmed with intense feelings of frustration with which they cannot cope. Certainly, parents must help their children to avoid tantrums. And one of the best techniques is to follow the timeless advice of Chazal quoted above by making sure that they do not provoke their children in any way.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.