Putting Out Fires

Q: My family is quite leibedig, bli ayin hara. We have a bunch of boys who are rather demanding and don’t give up easily. They can be a little overactive, and my energy seems to run out on a regular basis. They are not the best students, and most would rather play than be serious (including the older sons). My boys have high expectations if they work for behavior rewards, and the prizes they want are not realistic. Because we have many children, bli ayin hara, your usual suggestions about charts and rewards just won’t happen. Too much is going on!

I feel like I’m spending half my life “putting out fires” — such as their silly arguments. The majority of my children are boys and I feel like I’m a referee. Everyone blames the other guy and I never know who is telling the truth. I never know who started a fight, but each child wants to have the last word. If I say that “I’m not sure I can do what you’re asking,” they start to nag me endlessly. They can call me on the phone 10 times, pleading for things. I don’t deserve to be treated this way. I’m also concerned that they’ll learn that manipulating people to do what they want pays off. They can be very kind and helpful (when they’re in the right mood) … but how should I deal with them when they’re not?

A: Your situation is clearly a challenging one.

You need to work within your abilities. In your letter, you stress what you’re unable to do. What are you able to do to better focus and direct your children? What consistent activity involving structured positive reinforcement can you offer your family?

You feel that details of charts are overwhelming, but I think that a realistic vision of your present family situation is even more overwhelming. Perhaps your sons would be motivated to work towards a group goal. Depending on their ages, a group of children might work towards the reward of going to an amusement park or a children’s activity center. When working as a team, whoever “started the fight” makes little difference. Once reminded of the group goal, siblings are more apt to leave the temporary argument in favor of the common objective.

When no child admits to starting a fight, they are often all accurate. Fights are frequently continuations of the previous night’s unresolved altercation. Or someone’s rolling eyes or annoyed face is perceived by one sibling as “starting up” … and the fight is on! For the sibling with such facial expressions, it was simply meant as a look of exasperation; but seeing the same “annoying behavior” got a predictable response from his brothers. Getting past arguments and learning how to compromise is easier to accomplish by creating positive group goals than by attempting to locate the instigator of the argument.

Regarding their demands, you need to create boundaries and guidelines for phone-calling. Of course a parent should be allowed to answer “I don’t know” without being pushed into a corner! Speak to each child individually and explain how you feel when demands are continually put on you. A chart for “being sensitive to Mom” can be created, stressing the need for behavior modification and explaining how improved behavior in this area pays off for them. A reward does not have to be expensive — it has to be something they usually don’t have — such as time spent alone with a parent.