Working With Our Children and Enlisting Their Cooperation

Q: I have a 10-year-old son who, if he doesn’t get his way, will cry and argue. I am not one who says “No” often. (Usually it is for safety reasons). His argument is that other parents allow it and he asks why are we overprotective. For example, we do not let him walk to school or go collecting in private peoples’ homes alone. How do we get him to understand us and accept our views for his good?

A: Your brief letter omitted some critical information. For example, you included your son’s side of the argument while leaving out yours. Yes, you did mention that your rationale is based on “safety reasons.” Yet, you did not give any indication of how you presented your point of view. As any good chef or caterer understands, cooking the food is only part of the process. How the food is arranged and garnished on the plate contributes significantly to its appeal. Similarly, how parents package and present their opinions greatly influence the reactions and responses of their children.

For example, if parents hand down their decisions like autocratic, high court judges, children can feel demeaned. And they can come away with the sense that their feelings were disregarded. No, a family is not a democracy. And not everyone’s feelings should be given equal weight in every decision. If a child believes, however, that his feelings were not taken into consideration at all, then it would be understandable for that child to feel resentful or hurt. And if that were the case, it would also make sense for the child to cry.

How, then, can parents convey to their children that the children’s feelings are being considered, without acceding to the children’s every wish? The answer is twofold. Firstly, parents should acknowledge a child’s feelings by reflecting them. For example, “I know you really want to ___ because you feel it will be fun and because everyone else is doing it. Do I understand you correctly?”

The second part is that parents have to attempt to accommodate at least some of the child’s concerns whenever possible. This is called compromise. And it soothes tensions between adults just as it does between parents and children.

Returning to your letter, you cited two examples. The first was that your son wants to walk to school. Exactly what “safety reason” prevents you from allowing this? More specifically, how far do you live from his school? What is the nature of the danger posed to him by walking? And, if he claims his classmates are all walking to school, is he lying or are the parents of his classmates all grossly irresponsible and guilty of child neglect?

If neither is the case, then perhaps some reasonable accommodation could be made. For example, perhaps your son could be allowed to walk part of the way or part of the time to school. Or, perhaps he could walk with one or more of his classmates to minimize the risks. The point here is that such parenting decisions need not be made on an all or nothing basis.

The second example you gave was that you do not want your son to go alone collecting (presumably tzedakah). I have addressed this issue at length in the chapter, “Two Sides of the Coin of Tzedakah Campaigns,” in my first parenting book, Partners with Hashem: Effective Guidelines for Successful Parenting (Artscroll, 2000). In case your local Judaica store is all sold out, I will summarize the main points here.

Aside from any safety considerations parents may have, I believe enlisting children as junior meshulachim does more harm than good. It may bring in much-needed funds to the mosdos for whom the children collect. At the same time, however, it encourages bad middos, such as disrespect for mekomos hatefilah, aggressive and boisterous behavior, and irresponsibility towards other people’s money.

Years ago, I consulted with the Bostoner Rebbe of Boston and Har Nof, Harav Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, zt”l, regarding how I should deal with my own children who wanted to collect alone. He replied, “How will you know whether your children are properly safeguarding the money they collect if you do not supervise them?”

I also spoke with Harav Eliezer Ginsburg, shlita, Rav of Agudas Yisrael Snif Zichron Shmuel and Rosh Kollel at the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn. He offered the following practical suggestion which I successfully implemented with my own children.

“Ask your children what the average amount collected would be and then write a check to the organization for that amount. In this way, your children will not lose out on their prize. But you are right to be concerned about them collecting in the streets. Explain your objections to your children and they will surely accept them.”