Dealing With Chutzpah in a Pre-Teen

Q: I realize that chutzpah is rampant in our generation; isn’t it said that in the generation of Moshiach, chutzpah yasgehchutzpah will increase and strengthen?

I have an older son who used to question everything my husband and I said and did. After he left home to learn in an out-of-town yeshivah, he began to appreciate us more and question us less.

However, in recent months, his 11-year-old brother has taken his place. He seems to be continuously testing our limits and questioning our authority. If I ask him to do something, he’ll immediately make a comment and say that his friends are never asked to do such tasks. How can we nip this behavior in the bud?

A: Although it is natural to respond defensively to an oppositional child, parents should try very hard to avoid reacting in this manner. Once a power struggle begins, there are no victors.

Chutzpahdig behavior can be due to a variety of factors, such as a child’s low frustration tolerance or intense sibling rivalry. Parents must attempt to vary their responses depending on the given situation.

Much has been written on the topic of the oppositional child, but techniques often deal with working with the child’s limitations rather than focusing on his future potential. A counselor might advise a child to cope with a teacher’s personality by trying not to get himself “caught,” rather than seeing the child’s future potential working together with the teacher and classmates. This initial approach is quite understandable, as an oppositional child is often quite guarded and is used to being offensive in response to authority. However, one needs to follow the approach of chassidic philosophy, stressing the neshamah’s endless potential and how our positive thoughts can sometimes aid this process. A parent needs to believe in the child’s eventual ability to acclimate appropriately to the world around him.

Since an oppositional child often does not receive a “straight” message comfortably — be it a compliment or a direct request — a parent needs to speak in a more roundabout manner to achieve the desired results. A parent can use humor in getting a point across, saying: “Do you think I am silly enough to think you’re not a wonderful boy? I know better than that!” or “Do you think you can fool me into thinking you’re not a great child? I know that you did X and Y this morning!” Since these are not direct statements, they can be received much more easily by oppositional children.

One can sometimes problem-solve quite successfully with such children if the parameters of solutions and suggestions involved are extremely clear, and these ideas allow for a Plan B if the initial endeavors fail. Optional plans allow for the unexpected and adults’ limitations, so that the oppositional child will have less reason to be angered, as his expectations will be more realistic.

Some children’s responses are more tempered, and they are more responsive to adults when certain difficult issues are explained to them. Some oppositional behavior is due to lack of understanding, such as when certain children are expected to “obey” without sufficiently understanding a difficult circumstance confronting them.

A parent also needs to try preventive measures to avoid power struggles. If a parent is aware of possible issues that might emerge in a given situation, they need to be spoken about to avoid unnecessary stress with the oppositional child. The stance a parent needs to project is one of compassion and sensitivity towards the child, not fear of the child’s possible volatile response. A parent can sense if the child’s behavior has become a manipulative tactic or is a cry to be understood. To prevent this pattern from becoming a negative one, a parent needs to be patient and compassionate, not fearful and defensive. Avoiding power struggles is clearly a continual challenge when working with “chutzpahdig” children.