The following story appeared in the Jewish Observer many years ago. It is still timely.
One day a Menahel took notice of a young boy's uncharacteristic mood. Normally possessed of a bright disposition, a period of days went by during which he seemed morose. He called the boy into his office and asked him if anything was bothering him. The boy began to cry and explained that he was carrying a heavy burden in his, heart. He said, "I know that I'm a terrible person because I think of terrible things."
The menahel assured him that he was not a terrible person and that he was a wonderful sweet boy. He told him to ask for help regarding whatever was troubling him. The boy then explained the source of his pain: "I think of my grandmother dying, something for which I- have prayed to Hashem."
The menahel was surprised, but persisted with his questions. 'Why do you want your grandmother to die? Is she mean to you?"
The boy replied, "Of course not. She's wonderful to me and I truly love her."
"So why do you want her to die?"
The boy's response should prompt each of us to look into ourselves and our relationship with our children. He explained, "You see, my father is a very busy man, who is involved in so many causes. As a result, each and every night he is out attending simchas all over town. Until last year, he had never done homework with me, and had no time for me at all. Last year, my grandfather died and everything changed. My father, unable to go to simchas because he was an aveil, was home every evening. We learned together, went to a sports game together, and he even did a report with me for school. I so enjoyed having my father as part of my life. Then around two months ago, his 'year' was up, and once again, my father is never home. I miss him and was wondering how I could have him with me again. The only thing that I could think of was, if my grandmother would die, he would again become an aveil and be forced to spend time with me. I know how terrible these thoughts are, and I am not a good person for having them. But I can't help myself."
The Menahel, usually not a loss for words, could do nothing more than embrace the young boy and, with tears in his eyes, as he thought of his relationship with his own son, assured him that was just a silly thought. He is truly a wonderful and sensitive young man who just wants to spend more time with his overworked and 'over-simchad' father.
What is the mussar haskail? What can we learn from this story?
I would suggest two things.
The first lesson is the importance of being proactive when a child seems sad or upset. Rather than waiting for the child to come over and ask for help or solace, and rather than demanding to know what is the matter, this menahal invited the child to talk about what was bothering him. I would ask the question a little bit differently. Rather than saying, is anything bothering you, I would say, you look unhappy. What’s on your mind? If the child were to respond, Nothing I’m fine, I would say, Okay. If you ever want to talk, please let me know.
The second lesson is to become aware of how much your time and attention mean to your children. It’s very sad that many parents will say that nothing and no one is more important to them than their children, yet when it comes time to allocating their time and energy, their children come last. They come last after work obligations and social obligations. When I point out this discrepancy to parents with whom I’m working, they usually tell me that their work obligations are really for their children so they are putting their children first. The problem is that children don’t experience it that way. Their experience is that even when parents are not at work they somehow have other things to do and other places to be rather than with them. The child in our story expressed a terrible wish when what he really wanted was for his father to put him ahead of the social obligations that kept them apart.
Here’s the story of a child who had a very poignant wish that his parents were quite surprised to hear.
Our eight-year-old son puts up such a fuss every Shabbos lunch time when we ask him to clear his place. How can we get him to do it without an argument?
I suggested that they ask him what he would like to earn for promptly clearing his place when asked to do so.
Why do we have to give him something for doing what his siblings do quite nicely?
I never suggested that you give him anything. No matter what he asks for, you can always no, what else can you think of until you’re willing to agree to his request.
I don’t really like the idea of it, but I guess it’s better than having an argument every week. I’ll give it a try.
We met again a week later, and he told me what happened.
I sat down with him on Thursday evening like you had suggested and I told him that I would like him to clear his place after Shabbos lunch quietly and promptly and I asked him what he wished he could earn for doing that. He said, “I wish you would play checkers with me on Shabbos afternoon.”
This child was not interested in earning more stuff. His wish was to earn some time with his father.
For most children, nothing and no one is more important than their parents. No amount of stuff you give them can ever take your place.
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.