How often do you believe what your children say to you?
How often do you take what they say at face value?
The pasuk says b’tzedek tishpot amisecha, and the Mishna tells us he’vai dan es kal ha-adam l’kaf zchus. Clearly, we are supposed to judge everyone, including our children, favorably. We should not suspect our children of lying or distorting or withholding information in order to trick us or manipulate us.
I think that most children, most of the time, tell the truth about their thoughts and their feelings. They have no intention of lying or hiding anything from us. Yet they sometimes give us inaccurate or incomplete information about what it is that they are thinking and feeling.
Why do children do this to us? How can we trust them to be sincere?
The answer is that they are sincere and they aren’t doing anything to us deliberately when they give us inaccurate or incomplete information. They’re telling us the same things we tell ourselves, the same half-truth and lie we all too often leave unexamined and accept as truth.
The half truth we often leave unexamined is anger. I’m not referring to looking or sounding angry. Many people consciously choose to express anger in order to intimidate someone or cause them to change what they are doing.
I’m referring to the visceral feeling of anger. Rarely, if ever, does a person feel anger and no other emotion. But we are more readily aware of the anger, and fail to examine the emotions that accompany and often precede it.
What are some of the emotions that precede and accompany anger? Fear, disappointment, and grief are among the more common ones.
I heard Raizy screaming at her younger brother that he is stupid and lazy, and that she wishes he had never been born. Benji began to sob pitifully. I was so furious at her.
Me: That’s all, you were furious at her? No other emotion, just anger?
Mom: No, now that I think back on it, I was grief stricken that my daughter could be so vicious, and sad that I hadn’t been able to shield my son from such an attack, and disappointed in myself as a mother. I was afraid that she had scarred him for life.
Me: You were grief stricken at your daughter’s viciousness? What do you mean by that?
Mom: I had always dreamt of having children who would be supportive of one another, generous and kind and gentle. I never scream at my children or call them names. I have tried so hard, and I failed. So yes, I was grief stricken when she screamed such invective at her brother. It was horrible.
Me: What did you do when you were so furious at Raizy?
Mom: I told Raizy that what she said to her brother was a terrible thing to say and I sent her to her room. I said she could come out of her room when she was ready to say she’s sorry. About 5 minutes later she came out and said she’s sorry.
Me: I don’t know if Raizy was sorry that she hurt her brother’s feelings or that she got in trouble with you, or both. I would wait an hour or two before exploring that with her. You can also say to her that you’re sad that she would say something so harsh to her brother. You were willing to let her know you were angry; let her know you were sad and concerned that she really upset him badly.
I also suggested to this mom that she sit down with Benji and ask him what happened, and what he thought about what Raizy had said to him.
Mom, later that week, did. It turned out that Benji’s take on the situation was quite different from his mother’s. Benji told his mother that Raizy is a great sister except when she “loses it,” and then he feels very sad and cries because she says terrible things “when she goes crazy, but she gets over it and then she’s really nice again so it’s okay.” Benji didn’t get scarred, he got calloused. It’s much scarier for mom than it is for him.
That doesn’t mean that Raizy’s “crazy” behavior is acceptable. It means that mom might be able to feel displeased and concerned rather than grief stricken and furious when she slows down and learns the whole truth. The truth is that she isn’t only angry. The intensity of her feelings is driven by grief over her perceived failure and fear of the damage Raizy may have done. When all she expresses is anger, it’s a half-truth that isn’t enough to help her or either of her children.
You will help your children better when you are aware of all of your feelings, especially when you are able to feel safe, when you are in a state of nachas.
We see this from the first words of the Iggeres HaRamban:
Accustom yourself to speak all your words b’nachas to all people at all times. This will protect you from anger - which is an unfavorable trait that brings people to sin.
What does it mean to speak words b’nachas?
The Ramban did not write shel nachas. That would mean to speak words that give nachas or convey your feeling of nachas. To speak your words b’nachas describes your state of being when you speak, to be in a state of nachas. To be b’nachas means to be at rest, calm, secure, unthreatened, safe, and whole. It’s a state of mind from which you can help your child because you don’t need help.
But what if you can’t be b’nachas? G-d willing we’ll discuss that next week.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting. He works with parents and educators, and conducts parenting seminars for shuls and organizations. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.