Q:I’m sure the following scenario is quite common, although that offers me little comfort. We have been blessed with a 9-year-old boy, a 7-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl. My wife and I know that love without appropriate boundaries is not true love. Kids need and thrive with healthy boundaries. The challenge is that I am very weak in this area. I am not consistent or firm enough and the result is that my wife and I have lost almost all authority in the home. For example, our son often comes home later than agreed upon. When he is questioned, he’ll simply state that he wanted to stay and play with his friends. My wife and I also disagree in many areas which filters down to the kids.
There are frequent power struggles between our son and us, and to a lesser but growing extent with our other two kids. I’m embarrassed to admit that occasionally it gets to a point where I find myself shouting or even hitting in an effort to gain control or in response to extreme chutzpah. Of course I realize that this is an unhealthy situation and want to change it. I believe that low self-esteem is at the root of my inability to be the father my family needs.
How do we regain our authority and set those healthy limits?
A:Raising a child is an enormous challenge which simply cannot be managed alone. And that is at least part of the reason Hakadosh Baruch Hu assigned the task to two parents. When they are not working in harmony, however, the task is not simply more difficult. It is virtually impossible.
The Torah relates that the parents of the ben sorer u’moreh declare, “He does not heed our voice.” (Devarim 21:20) On that passuk, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, comments, “Complete agreement between father and mother [is a] preliminary factor in bringing up children.”
Since you write that, “you and your wife disagree in many areas that filter down to the kids,” it is little wonder to me why you and your wife, “have lost almost all authority,” at home. When significant, unresolved differences exist between parents, they almost always “filter down” to the children. The first step you need to take, therefore, to address your son’s misbehavior is to work on your marriage. If you have been unable to resolve your differences with your wife until now, you may need outside help. Working with a marital therapist, for example, may be the best thing you can do for your children. How does working on your marriage benefit your children? Consider this. Nothing terrifies children more than dissension between their parents. Children have a visceral terror of their parents separating. And they will do whatever it takes to keep their parents together. Very often, the easiest and most accessible tool to hold parents together is acting out. In other words, children can, at times, unconsciously go about creating a distracting disturbance which will force their bickering parents to unite. This, then, becomes a form of self-sacrifice, as children endure all of the negative consequences of their misbehavior in order to achieve their ultimate goal of keeping their parents together. When parents work on and resolve their differences amicably, therefore, the family dynamics improve, removing the underlying cause of their children acting up.
Finally, the last sentence of your letter attests to a remarkable level of insight on your part. Yes, low self-esteem is very often the root of many marital and parent/child conflicts. As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has emphasized in many of his books, such as Let Us Make Man and Angels Don’t Leave Footprints, low self-esteem forces people to attempt to compensate in ways that are both self destructive and harmful to others. For example, parents will demand an unrealistic level of obedience from their children to prop up their sagging egos. Then, when children do not submit, the parents lash out verbally or physically as if they had been mercilessly demeaned or insulted. Their hopes of feeling worthwhile and competent are dashed by their imperfect children. And they strike out in frustration and anger.
You are to be congratulated for having the courage to face this unpleasant truth about the primary causes of your family difficulties. And, as in many areas of life, identifying the real problem is more than half of the solution. In your case, I would strongly encourage you to consult an individual therapist (in addition to the marital therapist) so that you can learn both the source and solution to your low self-esteem. And judging from the high level of insight displayed in your letter, I have every reason to believe your course of treatment will prove to be successful.