What does your child do when she can’t fall asleep at night?
She gets out of bed repeatedly. She says she’s hungry, or thirsty, or too hot, or too cold, or it’s too noisy, or it’s too quiet, or she’s not tired, or something else. It’s always something.
What do you say to her?
I will let her get a drink, but no food. If she says it’s too hot I’ll crack open her window. If she says it’s too cold, I’ll get her another blanket. If she’s says it’s too noisy and I agree, I’ll get everybody to quiet down. If she says it’s too quiet I’ll leave her door a bit open. When she says she’s not tired, I tell her to lie quietly in her bed and think happy thoughts until she falls asleep.
When you asked her in the morning to tell you what happy thoughts she was thinking about until she fell asleep, what sorts of things has she told you?
What? Oh. I never actually asked her. I just wanted her to go to sleep. I assumed that she did. I didn’t think there was any reason to pursue it.
End of conversation.
Did you ever wonder what your child thinks about while waiting to fall asleep.
Perhaps like the Persian king in Megilas Esther, your child reviews his or her recent history.
That night, the king couldn’t sleep. He ordered the book of his recent memories to be brought and it was read to the king.
There it was written that Mordechai had revealed that two of the king’s closest guards had plotted to do assassinate the king. Because of Mordechai’s good deed, the king was saved.
“How was Mordechai’s success acknowledged?” the king inquired. “Not at all,” was the reply.
I’ve conflated the king and Mordechai.
Imagine that it was Mordechai who couldn’t sleep. As he lay in his bed, he opened the book of recent memories in his mind. He remembered how he had warned the queen about the threat he had uncovered and how the king’s life had been saved. He wondered why no one ever acknowledged what he had done. He fell asleep sadly wondering if he ever accomplished anything worth noticing. But then he realized that is not true. He gets noticed all the time for not accomplishing enough.
Parent’s voice in child’s head while waiting to fall asleep: You got a 98 on that math test. If you hadn’t rushed to show how fast you can finish, you would not have made that careless mistake on question 6, you would have gotten a hundred.
Child’s voice in child’s head while waiting to fall asleep: I was not rushing. I just made a mistake. Why is that so terrible? I thought 98 was really good. I don’t think so anymore. Again, I wasn’t good enough. I never am.
Rabbi Ackerman, how long do you think this child is going to hold onto these thoughts? Kids move on. There is a lot more happiness in their lives that you never talk about. They’re resilient. You get too dramatic.
You may be right, sometimes. And you’re definitely not right all the time.
I recently told this story.
A boy who is in 2nd grade won a donut from his Rebbe on Sunday [two weeks before Pesach]. He had answered a very difficult question in class and was on cloud nine. When his mother came for pickup, he ran over with his donut and a huge smile. Before he could explain, his mother let him have it. “Don’t you THINK about bringing that into our car! We just had it cleaned, and I told you this ten times already!” The spark from his eyes faded more with each word, and when she was done with her rant he was silent. He dropped the donut into the garbage and
went into the “Kosher for Pesach” car.
You seem to think this would not have a long term effect on this child, and you may be right. Maybe.
Here’s an excerpt from an email I received in response to that story:
One day, I won the science fair at my high school. My prize was a colored paper plate with a bright ribbon glued to it. Ok, maybe it was cheap, but I can tell you that was the best looking paper plate I ever saw. My father decided to make fun of it in the absence of saying anything else about the science fair. Took all the joy out of winning. That was fifty years ago. Still, nevertheless, your words reverberate.
V’chal maasecha basefer nichtavim (Avos 2:1)
Everything you say and do is recorded in a book.
Perhaps that includes the book that your child reads from when she’s in bed, waiting to fall asleep. Everything you’ve criticized, belittled, ignored; explicitly or implicitly; it’s all in her book. So are all of the smiles, the warm eye contact, and the words of acknowledgment, love, and support that you gave her that day and the days before.
Unfortunately, parents sometimes take the wind out of their child’s sails.
Be the wind beneath her wings.
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575