Lessons From a Reader’s Letter

Q: Firstly, I would like to thank you for your amazing weekly column. I would even say that it’s one of two reasons I still buy Hamodia

A few weeks ago, a father wrote that he was having trouble toilet-training his child. We were having similar problems. At the time, our three-year-old daughter (the oldest of two; the other is one year old) would use the bathroom; but, it was still a struggle. In addition, she was still wearing diapers for bed. So every night she would wait until she was put to bed and come down again needing to be changed. Then I read your article and decided to try your suggestions.

First, I told her for every time she uses the bathroom, she can color in a circle on a chart. And for every five times she would get a prize. Then we found that five was too much. So we put it down to three. It took her a few tries with some accidents; but she did it. We bought her the prize she chose and then I told her she has to do another three times. Baruch Hashem, this system is going well. I have recently raised the number back to five. And she no longer wears diapers to bed.

Thank you for your wonderful column and advice.

A: Thank you for your kind words about my column and the delightful news of your personal success with your daughter. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu grant you continued siyatta diShmaya in your avodas hakodesh of raising her.

Oftentimes patients are reluctant to share their successes with their therapists. They mistakenly assume that the therapists would not be interested. After all, these people think (and sometimes say), “Why should I talk about what I did right when I’m here to figure out what I do wrong?”

As I point out to my patients, however, we can learn as much — if not more — from our successes as we can from our failures. By examining what went wrong, we can figure out what to avoid next time. But by studying what went right, we can learn what we should repeat in the future. Similarly, there is much in your letter from which other parents can learn and apply to the challenges they face.

Firstly, by implementing strategies you read in my column, you demonstrated the following wisdom of Chazal: “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone” (Pirkei Avos 4:1). Some parents unfortunately believe that there is nothing they can learn from anyone about child-rearing. Their children, of course, suffer the most from the well-intentioned but often misguided approaches of these stubborn, know-it-all parents.

Secondly, your letter highlights how effective incentives can be in motivating young children. And by using this positive approach so successfully, you confirmed the validity of another chinuch guideline of Chazal. “Always use the left [i.e., weaker] hand to push [a child] away [i.e., to scold or punish]; and the right [i.e., stronger] hand to bring [a child] close [i.e., express approval or affection]” (Sota 46a).

A third chinuch principle contained in your letter is that lessons taught to children must be geared to their individual capabilities. As Shlomo Hamelech declared: “Chanoch lanaar al pi darko — Teach a child according to his way” (Mishlei 22:6). And the Malbim comments: “Each child has a different nature… [And the teaching will not be effective] if he is educated in a manner which goes against his nature.” You saw, for example, that five successes were too much for your daughter to achieve before earning her prize. You, therefore, appropriately reduced the required number to three.

Finally, your letter also illustrated the importance of flexibility. For example, when you saw that five times was too much for your daughter, you lowered the bar to three. And when you realized that she was capable of holding out longer before receiving her prize, you raised the number back up to five. This illustrates the opinion articulated by Chazal: Lo hakapdan melamed — one who is rigid and overly exacting should not teach” (Pirkei Avos 2:5). And while this Mishnah is addressing mechanchim, the message certainly applies to parents, as well.

All too often, parents have well-intentioned but wholly inappropriate standards of behavior for their children. And when the children are unable to live up to those standards, the parents stubbornly attempt to enforce them, assuming that their initial expectations were realistic. The failure of their children to fulfill those expectations, the parents reason, was due simply to laziness, rebelliousness or disrespect. The children are then harassed. The chasm of alienation between parent and child widens. And everyone loses. If such parents heeded your example, however, considerable heartache, conflict and family turmoil could be avoided.


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