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Parenting With Rabbi Ackerman
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
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When a parent tells me that she is overwhelmed, I usually say "That sounds very difficult. What do you do when you're overwhelmed?"
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Succeeding at Failure
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
August 23rd, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

Koheles  (7:20)  makes a cryptic statement: adam ain tzadik ba’aretz asher ya-aseh tov v’lo yech-eta, there is no one who is a tzadik who does well and never sins.

 

Rav Yudin, in Koheles Rabbah, asks how can it be that Koheles describes someone as a tzadik and at the same time describes him as someone who commits sins.  His answer is that we are mistranslating the word yech-eta.  It doesn’t always mean sinning.  He brings a text from Shoftim to show that the word can also mean to ‘miss the mark, to fail.’  Rav Yudin says that Koheles is teaching us that a tzadik who does well is not perfect; he fails sometimes, and he is still a tzadik.

 

Greatness is not measured by how seldom you fall.  It’s measured by how often you rise.  You don’t become a tzadik by achieving perfection.  You become a tzadik by overcoming imperfection, again and again.

 

Unfortunately, we and our children sometimes get the impression that gedolim and tzadikim were born that way and never faltered.  Stories and books that portray gedolim without any description of how they became the paradigms of Torah and middos we wish to emulate, can lead us to despair.  We, who know we how often we fall, despair of ever rising to their heights. 

 

Rav Hutner, z’l, heard this despair in the words of one of his talmidim.  He responded in a letter.  Here, paraphrased, are some excerpts.

 

We tell the stories of their perfection but skip over the struggles that raged within their souls.  We depict them as though they had been created with their stature and character [as we know them].  We are all in awe at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, z.t.l., but who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the falls and the set-backs that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with his yetzer hara.

 

The result of this is that when a young man of spirit, of desire, of enthusiasm, finds himself stumbling, falling, declining, he believes himself unworthy of dwelling in Hashem’s home¦ But know, my beloved one, that the root of your soul lies not in the tranquility of the yetzer hatov; it lies only in the battles of the yetzer hatov¦ In English there is an expression, ‘lose a battle, win the war.’  Truly you have stumbled, and you will stumble, (and this is not a concern of opening one’s mouth to Satan), and in many battles you will fall defeated¦

 

The wisest of men said, ‘Seven shall a tzadik fall, and rise.’  The fools think that this means that a tzadik can fall seven times and will rise. The wise understand well that this means that the making of a tzadik is the result of the seven times he has fallen. (Quoted in Tuvcha Yabe-u, Chukkas, page 104)

 

The Tiferes Yisrael [Kiddushin 4:77] tells the story of an Arabian king who had heard wondrous things about his contemporary, Moshe Rabeinu.  The king sent his finest artist to Moshe Rabeinu to paint his portrait.  The artist returned with the painting, and the king summoned his wisest men to interpret from the visage what this great man is truly like.  They all agreed that the face in the portrait depicted a person of low character, arrogant, money-hungry, and callous.

 

The king was furious.  He assumed that either his wisest men were actually fools, unable to read a person’s character, or that his finest artist had failed to accurately depict Moshe Rabeinu in the painting thus misleading the wise men.  He wanted to know who had failed him.

 

The king traveled to the camp of the Jews, to see Moshe Rabeinu for himself.  As he rode near, he saw Moshe Rabeinu from a distance, yet close enough to see that the likeness rendered by his royal artist was strikingly accurate.  He respectfully approached Moshe Rabeinu, explained what had happened and why he had come, and that he now realized that his physiognomists were either complete frauds or had chosen to deceive him about Moshe Rabeinu.

 

Moshe Rabeinu told him his suspicions were unfounded; the portrait is an accurate depiction, and the physiognomists’ interpretation is correct.  ‘I am not ashamed to tell you that all of the failings that your wise men discerned in me are bound up in me by nature¦ I, with great strength have harnessed them and turned them into their opposites, a second nature.  And that is why I have respect and honor in the heavens above and on the earth below.’

 

Perhaps Rav Hutner would have been pleased to read:

 

‘The world renowned Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Moshe Feinstein, was known for his pleasant demeanor; even in the most provocative of situations he would avoid an angry response.

When a yeshiva student questioned him about his serenity however, he made it clear that the quality was not easy to attain, or even natural, to him.  ‘It is years that I have worked on perfecting this trait,’ he said.’ (Ramban: A Letter for the Ages, Artscroll 1989, page 31)

 

You, as a parent, are not, and will never be perfect.  Your struggles may be difficult, but they are signs of growth, not defeat.  The same is true for your children.   During the times of struggle, how do you sustain your optimism, or at least stave off despair?

 

On a good day, be in the goodness; and on a bad day, see.  (Koheles 7:14) 

See what?  See, on a difficult day, what you were able to accomplish on the successful days.  Let that be a source of reassurance that you will do better again.  (Likutei Oros page 25 note 16)

 

We tend to notice failure and gloss over success, in ourselves, and in our children.

 

Slow down and pay attention to the words of guidance you have spoken gently, reassurance you have given, a smile you have shared.  You do well, and you deserve to notice it.  You will continue to notice when you do poorly, but it will be a reminder that you have to keep getting up, not a frightening confirmation that you never stand tall.  Noticing how often you do well makes it possible to succeed at failing.

 

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.
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Back to School
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
September 2nd, 2012
What is the most impressive accomplishment in professional sports? What is that question doing in this newspaper? One of the lessons Ben Azzai teaches us in Pirkei Avos is al t'hi maflig l'chol davar, which means there is potential value in everything in Hashem's world (Tiferes Yisrael on Avos 4:3).  Maybe we can even derive a musar haskal from professional sports. In most sports, there is a champion every year.  Every year, someone win …
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Kids Nowadays
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
September 2nd, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

 

There is one question that parents ask me that I refuse to answer.

 

"Why don't kids today do what they're told like kids used to do??€

 

Why do I refuse to answer that question?  Is there such a thing as a bad question?  Isn't it a sign of wisdom to ask questions?

 

There is no problem with the question per se.  The problem lies within the premise that generated the question.

 

The premise is, "kids used to do what they were told.?€  It's a false premise.  If it were true that kids used to do what they were told and now they don't, it might be useful to ask why they did then and they don't now.  But questions that are based on a false premise are not useful.  The truth is, kids nowadays sometimes do what they're told, sometimes they don't, and it was always that way.  It's not about culture or parenting techniques.  It's about ratzon, the desire to do something, or not do it.

 

When I explain this to parents, some of them think I'm describing something out of twentieth century Western psychology.  I am.  What they don't realize is that I'm describing a Torah hashkafa as well: you can bend a child's will but you can seldom break it.  The lesson is conveyed through two stories:

 

Let's say an 11-year-old boy wanted to fast on a fast day like Tisha b'Av or Yom Kippur or the 17th of Tamuz.  He wanted to boast to the world that he had the ability to fast like grown-ups do. Even though his father and his mother would tell him that he would not be able to, and that if he tried to fast he will faint, he would not listen to them. If they would hit him or try to force his mouth open he would cry and scream and not comply with what they wanted. In the end he would fast and it wouldn't bother him in the least; he'd walk around throughout the fast with no difficulty.  He would be able to because he had a strong desire to show off his ability to fast and this desire would give him the ability to bear the burden of the fast.

 

You will also find a seven-year-old able to walk an hour or more to an orchard and it doesn't bother him. This is because of the joy and desire in his heart to visit the orchard.  It enables him do something very difficult without complaint.

 

These are not the children of modern Western parents, the supposedly unique, modern children who don't do what they're told.  These are the children of a very different place and time.  Like the children of today, one of them steadfastly resisted doing something against his will, defying the strenuous efforts of his parents to gain his compliance.  The second demonstrated the ability to do more than you would expect when it got him something he wanted.  They are hypothetical children and they are typical children.  They illustrate a norm, not an exception.

 

The descriptions of these typical children are found in the sefer Od Yosef Chai (Parshas b'chukosai, page 245 in the Salem edition, Yerushalayim 5752).  The Ben Ish Chai is describing the children of his place and time, Bagdad at the end of the 19th century.

 

The second scenario shows us how you can bend a child's will.  It describes a seven-year-old boy who was willing to walk for over an hour to get to an orchard presumably to enjoy seeing and perhaps even tasting some of the fruit.  We can assume that this same seven-year-old would have strenuously resisted going for a 60 minute walk to nowhere.   I assume that's what would've happened in Baghdad 120 years ago.  I know for sure that it happened in Baltimore 25 years ago.  When we would suggest to our children that we all go for a somewhat lengthy Shabbos walk on a summer afternoon, they always asked us, "to where??€  When the answer was, "to look at the deer on the lawn" (they were lawn ornaments at a home about a mile from ours, not live deer!), or "to stand on the Beltway overpass and watch the trucks go by right underneath our feet!" we always got a far more cheerful response than when we said" just for a walk, to nowhere in particular.?€

 

The first story shows how difficult it can be to break a child's will.  The Ben Ish Chai tells us that even parents who hit and attempt to physically overpower their child to make him eat, will fail if their child is intent on having his way and fasting.

 

I would add another vital lesson from that story.  The parents told their 11 year old that he would not be able to fast, and that if he tried he would faint.  The Ben Ish Chai wrote that the child would not listen to them, and that the child would complete the fast successfully.  At that point, the parents would lose credibility.  Their assurance that their child would be unable to fast and would faint if he tried would turn out to be untrue.

 

Don't tell your child that you know something is going to happen when you really don't.  Don't say, "Don't' climb there, you're going to fall.?€   When they climb there and they don't fall, you lose credibility. 

 

The alternative is to express concern for what you think may happen.  It sounds like this:

 

Esti, don't climb on the railing, it's very high!

 

It's okay, dad, I climbed on it yesterday and I didn't fall.

 

I'm glad you didn't fall yesterday, Baruch Hashem, Esti.  I still don't want you climb on it because I'm afraid you might fall and if you did you could really get hurt.

 

But maybe I won't fall, and it's fun!

 

Right, and maybe you will, so I want you to come down and see where else you can climb where it's padded underneath.

 

Her will is to climb because it's fun.  Climbing is also a good source of strength and stamina which I recommend to parents for their children. 

 

Your will is to keep her safe.   Don't break her will or discount yours.  Bend her will to a place where she can climb safely.

 

 

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.
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Can This Be the Same Child?
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
September 11th, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

 

Dina and Menachem were both on the phone when they called.  I was struggling because I don't multitask well, especially when the task is to listen to two people speaking to me at the same time.  I was able to discern that they both wanted to talk with me about a child named Levi.   They made an appointment and came in later that week.

 

Here's how the session began:

 

Menachem, please tell me about your son.

 

He is an ingrate, a liar, a stubborn ox, and he's insensitive.

 

Thank you, Menachem.  

 

Dina, please tell me about your son.

 

He is appreciative, truthful, flexible, and sensitive.

 

Thank you, Dina.  And Dina, I'm curious.  Why did you choose to describe a different one of yours sons from the one that your husband described?

 

I didn't.  We told you at the outset that we wanted to meet with you to discuss our concerns about our son, Levi.  When you asked me to tell you about my son, I assumed you were asking about Levi, and that's who I described.

 

Really?  Menachem, you also described Levi to me?

 

Yes, like Dina said, we came to speak with you about Levi.  You started out by asking me to describe our son, and I assumed you meant the son we told you on the phone we wanted help with, Levi.

 

As I describe this conversation to you, dear reader, it seems obvious that either Menachem or Dina has an incorrect impression of their son Levi.   How could that have happened, and how could I fix it?

 

The answer is that both Menachem and Dina have accurate impressions of their son Levi, and that happened because he reacts to each of them very differently.   I didn't fix it, but I did help them understand why he reacts to them differently.  They're fixing it, gradually.

 

I asked mom to give me an example of a situation in which she saw Levi as a child who is appreciative, truthful, flexible, and sensitive.

 

I heard his sister screaming at him.  I went to see what had happened and I saw that he had her doll in his hand.  I asked him what was going on, and he said she had used his pencil sharpener without asking him first, so now he had taken her doll without asking her first.  He was truthful.  Then I asked him what else he could do to let his sister know that he is upset with her.  He put the doll down and told her to ask him first next time.  He was flexible.   He looked at me and said, "I'm sorry, mommy.  Thank you for not yelling at me.?€  He was sensitive and appreciative.  That's the kind of child he is.

 

I asked dad to give me an example of a situation in which he saw Levi as a child who is an ingrate, a liar, a stubborn ox, and insensitive.

 

I heard his sister screaming at him.  I went to see what had happened and I saw that he had her doll in his hand.  I asked, "what are you doing with your sister's doll, how many times have I told you not to touch her things.?€  He started to say something about his pencil sharpener; I stopped him and told him there is no excuse for touching her things.  All this was not even 20 minutes after I had let him have the apple he'd been asking for.  He's an ingrate.  He said he thought she wouldn't mind that he was playing with her doll.  He's a liar. I asked him why he can't do what he's told and he said his sister should do what she's told.  He's a stubborn ox.  Then he looked right at his sister and yelled, "I hate you."  He's insensitive.

 

I told them that all of this reminded me of a boy with whom I met many years ago.  His menahel asked me to speak with this child because his rebbe was becoming very frustrated with him and repeatedly sent him out of the classroom.  The menahel told me that the rebbe had wondered if the boy needed to be treated for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD without hyperactivity) because this 5th grader had become unable to stay focused and on task. 

 

I met with the child and gave him a set of pictures depicting various feelings. I asked him to circle all of the feelings he could remember experiencing over the past couple of days.  Like most children, he circled "bored."  One of the only other feelings he circled was "exhausted.?€ 

 

I asked him to tell me about "exhausted.?€  He told me that he doesn't get enough sleep because he reads in bed after his mother has turned off the light.  We discussed strategies to increase the amount of sleep he could get, and he decided he would put the book away sooner and go to sleep earlier. 

 

When we met a week later, he said he had been unable to limit himself to a shorter period of time to read in bed.  I asked him if he'd like me to invite his parents to meet with us to figure out how they could help him, and he said yes. 

 

The following week, his parents and I discussed their role as helpers towards their son's goal of staying focused in class. They agreed that getting more sleep is an objective towards that goal with which they could help by more carefully monitoring their child after his bed time, removing books from his room, checking under his pillow, and coming in to look in on him periodically.

 

The child agreed to all of this.  At my next meeting with the child, he told me, with a big smile, that he has been focusing much better in class because he has been getting more sleep since his parents have been making sure he doesn't read in bed.

 

What's the comparison?  That boy you met with in yeshiva wanted to be able to focus and stay on track, he wanted help.  Levi never said he wants to behave better.

 

That's true, Menachem, he never said that to you.  But he expressed himself quite clearly to Dina; he apologized for what he done and he put down his sister's doll.

 

But why can't he be more patient with her to begin with?

 

That's a good question.  You might be the answer.  It might help him to cultivate the middah of patience when he sees it more often from you.

 

I'm not Dina.  She is a patient person.  I'm not.

 

Menachem, I hope you will doven for the patience and tolerance to stay calm so that you can help your child when he is behaving in a way that you don't like.   You and I can talk about what happens to you to when you're unhappy with something Levi has done.  I don't know if you'll ever be a "patient person" like Dina.  I think you can be patient more often than you are now.

 

That's what we ask Hashem to do for us; to be erech apayim, forbearing.  We are taught that Hashem treats us the way we treat others (b'midah she'adam modaid bo modidim lo).

We ask Hashem to help us even when we might not deserve it.  No relationship parallels our relationship with Hashem more closely than our children's relationship with us.

 

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.
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Listen to Me part 2
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
September 26th, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

 

Last week I told you the story of a young couple who decided they wanted to watch the sunrise.  They got up very early in the morning and stood very still facing the night sky.  There was a beautiful, clear, bright sunrise, but they didn't see it.  The next day, they rose earlier and walked briskly toward the night sky.  There was a glorious sun rise, and they missed it.  They were determined to achieve their goal.  So the next day, they rose even earlier, and they ran toward the night sky.   The magnificent sunrise that day eluded them once again.  Clearly they hadn't learned from their mistake.  They repeated it with greater enthusiasm, and got the same dismal result.

 

I told you that had they spoken to themselves, and to each other, they might have realized that doing the same thing they had been doing, no matter how diligently, consistently, and carefully, would never get them the outcome they desired.

 

How can that be?  How can it be that even with sincere, concerted effort, achieving a goal as seemingly simple as watching the sunrise on a clear day, can be so elusive?  And given that it is so elusive, how can stopping to talk to yourself about it make a difference?

 

Because when you stop what you're doing and listen to what you're saying to yourself, you will hear what you're thinking.  Or you'll hear that you hadn't been thinking at all, just doing what you've always done, by rote.

 

Had the young couple in our story stopped long enough to listen to their thoughts, they might have realized that their thinking was flawed.  That flaw in their thinking, that unexplored premise upon which all of their actions were based, was rendering their actions futile.   No amount of diligence, no level of consistency or sincerity or effort could possibly bring them to their goal of seeing the sunrise.  No matter how still they stood, how far they walked, how early they rose, how fast they ran; they did not and would never see the sunrise.  Until they examined their thoughts.

 

Here is how Aviva and Shmulik examined their thoughts to discover the flaw in their thinking that was preventing them from helping their daughter Li-el.

 

Me:  You've told me that one of the most frustrating things for you is when Li-el tries to carry more groceries into the house at one time than she can and she ends up dropping and sometimes spilling things even though you've told her numerous times not to.

 

Li-el's mom: That's right.  I don't know how many times we've said to her, "you should have learned by now that every time you take too many groceries you drop something.  How do you not realize that it's going to happen again??€

 

Me:  I believe you that you don't know how many times you've said that to her.  I'd like you to take a guess.  Would you estimate that you've said that to her seven times or maybe ten times; maybe more than ten times?  What do you think?

 

Li-el's dad:   Between Aviva and me, we've probably said it took her more than ten times, but what's the difference?

 

Me:  I was about to ask you the same thing.  What's the difference?  What difference have you made, what have you accomplished by saying the same thing to her repeatedly?  I would ask you to consider being roe-eh es hanoelad of your saying the same thing to her over and over again.  You keep telling her to look at the results of her trying to take too many groceries at the same time.  I'm asking you to think about the results of what you're doing.  She keeps doing the same thing and you keep saying the same thing and nothing has improved.

 

Li-el's mom:  So what should I say to her to get her to stop taking too many groceries?

 

Me:  We'll get to that in a minute.  First I want to know what you say to yourself when you see her carrying too many groceries.

 

Li-el's mom:  I don't say anything to myself.

 

Me:  I would like you to.  I would like you to picture in your mind, right now, Li-el carrying too many groceries.   Imagine that you're about to tell her something, and tell me, out loud, what it is you're hoping to accomplish with what you're going to say to her, knowing that what you've said to her up until now hasn't helped.

 

Li-el's mom:  I don't know.  I don't know what else to say to her.  I still want her to know that she's taking too many groceries.   Shmulik, what else do you think I should say to her?

 

Li-el's dad:  I don't know either.

 

Me:  I don't know for sure, either, but I would like to suggest that before you say anything to Li-el, you first say to yourself, "I wonder how many groceries Li-el would be able to carry safely.  She apparently doesn't know how to gauge that.?€  Then you could help her figure it out, perhaps starting by carrying very few items, and gradually increasing the number.

 

The flaw in Aviva and Shmulik's thinking was that Li-el could do better if they kept telling her she was failing. 

 

She already knew she had taken more than she could carry as soon as she dropped something.   Telling her about her failure more consistently, or more promptly after she failed, or louder, didn't help her do better.  When they listened to themselves, they realized that their goal wasn't to show her that she had done poorly; she already knew that.  Their goal was to help her improve.  They did that by slowing down, and inviting her to think with them about how to improve.

 

What about the young couple yearning to see the sunrise, and expending much effort in what continued to be a fruitless quest?  What was the flaw in their thinking?  

 

They thought if they worked hard and long enough they'd be able to see the sunrise even though they were facing west.

 

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.


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Listen to Me
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
September 26th, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

 

I was told the following fictitious story.

 

A man observed a woman in the grocery store with a three year old girl in her shopping cart.  As they passed the cookie section, the little girl asked for cookies and her mother told her, "No."  The little girl immediately began to whine and fuss, and the mother said quietly, "Now Monica, we just have half of the aisles left to go through - don't be upset. It won't be long now."

Soon, they came to the candy aisle and the little girl began to shout for candy. When told she couldn't have any, she began to cry. The mother said, "There, there, Monica, don't cry - only two more aisles to go and then we'll be checking out."

When they got to the checkout stand, the little girl immediately began to clamor for gum and burst into a terrible tantrum upon discovering there'd be no gum purchased.  The mother said serenely, "Monica, we'll be through this checkout stand in 5 minutes and then you can go home and have a nice nap."

The man followed them out to the parking lot and stopped the woman to compliment her.  "I couldn't help noticing how patient you were with little Monica," he began.  The mother replied, "I'm Monica - my little girl's name is Tammy."

 

Monica was talking to herself. 

 

I remember when talking to yourself was considered a sign that there was something wrong with you. Years ago, when we saw someone walking down the street by themselves talking out loud we would think they were a little strange.  Now we assume they're talking to someone on their Bluetooth, and what's strange is the private things people talk about in full voice in public places.

 

Monica told the man that she'd been talking to herself rather than to her little girl as he had imagined.  It's a good punch line if you see this story as a humorous anecdote.  We can also see this story as a parable and take from it an important musar haskale.

 

Im ain ani li, mi li.  If I don't talk to myself, who will talk to me?  Do I expect my child to help me put things into perspective, to think about what choices I have and how I can express myself more effectively, and to slow down long enough to weigh the potential outcomes of the choice before I make it?

 

My wife and I were discussing what you said last week about weighing the outcomes of choices that we can make before we make one.  You quoted a chazal that says "ai-zeh hu chacham? Ha-ro-eh es hanoelad- Who is wise? One who can see the outcome of his action.?€  We're not nevi'im; how is that possible?

 

You're right.  The example of roe-eh es hanoelad is Lot.  Rashi points out that Lot knew what had happened with his older daughter, yet he made the same choice again rather than learning from the "nolad" of his prior choice.  He made the same choice that led to the same unfortunate outcome instead of learning from how this choice had turned out before.  You've told me that one of the most frustrating things for you is when Li-el tries to carry more groceries into the house at one time than she can and she ends up dropping and sometimes spilling things even though you've told her numerous times not to.

 

Li-el's mom:  You mean we need to get Li-el to be roe-eh es hanoelad, to see what happened the last time she took too many groceries so she won't do it again.  But we've tried to.  I don't know how many times we've said to her, "you should have learned by now that every time you take too many groceries you drop something.  How do you not realize that it's going to happen again??€

 

Me:  I believe you that you don't know how many times you've said that to her.  I'd like you to take a guess.  Would you estimate that you've said that to her seven times or maybe ten times; maybe more than ten times?  What do you think?

 

Li-el's dad:   Between Aviva and me, we've probably said it took her more than ten times, but what's the difference?

 

Me:  I was about to ask you the same thing.  What's the difference?  What difference have you made, what have you accomplished by saying the same thing to her repeatedly?  I would ask you to consider being roe-eh es hanoelad of your saying the same thing to her over and over again.  You keep telling her to look at the results of her trying to take too many groceries at the same time.  I'm asking you to think about the results of what you're doing.  She keeps doing the same thing and you keep saying the same thing and nothing has improved.

 

Li-el's mom:  So what should I say to her to get her to stop taking too many groceries?

 

Me:  We'll get to that in a minute.  First I want to know what you say to yourself when you see her carrying too many groceries.

 

Li-el's mom:  I don't say anything to myself.

 

Me:  I would like you to.  I would like you to picture in your mind, right now, Li-el carrying too many groceries.   Imagine that you're about to tell her something, and tell me, out loud, what it is you're hoping to accomplish with what you're going to say to her, knowing that what you've said to her up until now hasn't helped.

 

Li-el's mom:  I don't know.  I don't know what else to say to her.  I still want her to know that she's taking too many groceries.   Shmulik, what else do you think I should say to her?

 

Li-el's dad:  I don't know either.

 

Their situation reminded me of another story I was told.  It's the story of a young couple who decided they wanted to watch the sunrise.  They got up very early in the morning and stood very still facing the night sky.  There was beautiful, clear, bright sunrise, but they didn't see it.  The next day, they rose earlier and walked briskly toward the night sky.  There was a glorious sun rise, and they missed it.  They were determined to achieve their goal.  So the next day, they rose even earlier, and they ran toward the night sky.   The magnificent sunrise that day eluded them once again.  Clearly they hadn't learned from their mistake.  They repeated it with greater enthusiasm, and got the same dismal result.

 

Had they spoken to themselves, and each other, they might have figured out what to do differently.   G-d willing, next week, I'll tell you what they would've heard.

 

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.


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The Siyum Paradox
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
October 20th, 2012

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

Are you a sufficient parent?

If you think the answer is yes, beware of complacency.

If you think the answer is no, what do you think about that?  What is it like for you to think that you're not sufficient as a parent?  I would like you to think that it is all right.  And not become complacent.

You've got me confused.  You want me to be okay with being insufficient as a parent?

I would really prefer that you see yourself as a sufficient parent who provides for his children's needs and wants to give them even more.  Have you ever made a siyum on anything you've learned?

Sure, I made a siyum just last month on a Seder Mishnayos, Seder Moed.

Mazal Tov.  So you're finished with Seder Moed now, you've learned it sufficiently.

No, I mean, yes I learned it sufficiently, but no, I'm not finished with it.

You're not finished with it?  But you made a siyum.   If you're not finished, what were you m'sayaim?

I was m'sayaim the Mishnayos with the Rav.  But I'm not finished with it.  I hope next time to learn Seder Moed with the Tosfos Yom Tov, and maybe another time with the Tiferes Yisrael.

So you made a siyum but you didn't really celebrate since you haven't yet learned it with the Tosfos Yom Tov, and the Tiferes Yisrael.

NO, that's not true.  I was very excited about making the siyum on what I had learned.

You were excited about what you had accomplished even though there's a lot more that you want to accomplish?

Yes, I was.  What's wrong with that?

There was nothing wrong with that.  He was a sufficient Mishnayos Moed learner worthy of making a siyum, and aware that he wanted to learn even more. 

That's the way I want you to think about yourself as a parent.  Sufficient and not complacent.

Yaakov Avinu offered a gift to his brother Esau.  Esau demurred, saying, "I have a lot.?€  Yaakov replied, "I have everything.?€  Esau's statement sounds like a realistic assessment of his situation.  Yaakov's, on the other hand, is hard to understand.  It might even be mistaken for complacence.  "I have everything" sounds like there's nothing more I that need.

What Yaakov said was true.  Yaakov knew that he had everything he needed.  It may be that the lesson to us in Yaakov's words to his brother is that sometimes what you need most to realize is that you have everything you need.

The earliest version of a list of fundamental human needs may be the Mishna in Pirkei Avos that teaches us that even if one had to subsist on salted bread and measured amounts of water and had to sleep on the floor, one could still learn Torah.  The Mishna describes it as chiyai tsaar, a life of depredation.  One would want more, but not need more. 

A more recent version of this short list of needs, formulated by Abraham Maslow, was published in the 1943 issue of the journal Psychological Review.  Maslow drew a pyramid to illustrate how our basic needs must be met before we can aspire to what he called higher level needs.  The bottom level of his pyramid is labeled "Immediate Physiological Needs," and it refers to food, water and sleep as the fundamental human needs, the same ones listed in the Mishna.  Maslow's Pyramid rises to include esteem, respect, and self-actualization, which he described as higher level needs.  That's where I disagree.

If you need something and you don't have it, you are lacking something, you're incomplete, and perhaps even endangered.  According the Mishna, if you have food, water, and the ability to sleep, you have everything you need.  You are not lacking anything, you need nothing else.  There are higher level wants, aspirations, and desires, but, by definition, these are not needs.  You may strongly desire something, deeply yearn for it, and be genuinely disappointed if you don't achieve it, but it isn't essential to your survival.   The lack of a need is a threat that must be addressed.   Lacking a want, however important it may be, is not a threat.  Failing to make the distinction leaves people feeling and behaving threatened over unmet wants in the guise of needs.  Understanding the difference between needs and wants allows us to allocate our energies more appropriately.

Let's go back to my conversation with the dad who had made a siyum even though he wasn't forever finished with Seder Moed.  He said he had finished learning the Mishnayos with the Rav.  He hopes to learn it someday with additional m'forshim.  I suspect that if he were to re-learn the Mishnayos with the Rav he would learn more that he had learned the last time through.  So do I think his siyum was a farce, that he had no reason to celebrate?  No, I don't think that at all.  I think his siyum, and all siyumim, are echoes of Yaakov's words to Esau.  Echoes of the message that when we have what we need, we should acknowledge and celebrate that.  We may, and perhaps should, want more, but it's important to distinguish between needs and wants.  Siyum means finished, and there's more to do.

The ability to joyfully accept what we've accomplished and at the same time want more is the paradox of the siyum.  The lesson of that paradox is best observed through its converse, the insistence on getting more because you think what you have is never enough.  A sure recipe for frustration, disappointment, resentment, and ultimately, despair.

So what can I say to my child when he wants more than I can possibly give him?

That's a fair question.  I'll ask you one in return.

What do you say to yourself when you want more than you can have right now? 

I hope you have learned to cope with disappointment, and to think about accepting what is now, while you plan for and look forward to something even better. 

Teach your child by modeling for your child that contentment needn't breed complacency and a siyum is worth celebrating even though you want to learn more.

 

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.
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Medication
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
December 2nd, 2012
How well do you do with taking medication? I don’t mean are you able to swallow a pill. I mean are you willing to take medication when it could help you feel better.

I know some people who will walk around with a headache for days rather than take an aspirin or aspirin substitute. I know other people who don’t think twice about taking medicine that they think might help them feel better.

I also know people who use alcohol as a form of medication because they see that as socially acceptable whereas taking medication would leave them feeling stigmatized.

Stigma is a serious concern for many children as well. Some children do not want to take medication because they believe it would mean there’s something wrong with them. To avoid this entire issue, parents sometimes tell young children that the pill they offer them every morning is a vitamin. If your child’s pediatrician recommends this as an appropriate way to work with your child, follow his or her guidance. Just be careful to tell your child the truth before he finds out on his own.

What is the truth? What is wrong with your child that you don’t want to tell him? You don’t want to tell your child that he is hyperactive? Or that he is attention -deficit or that he is bipolar or oppositional/defiant? I don’t want you to say any of these things to him, either. He is none of the above. He may, chas v’shalom, suffer from and struggle with any of the above disorders and they can make life difficult for him, but they do not define him. He may struggle with bipolar disorder; he is not bipolar. He may suffer from oppositional/defiant disorder; he is not ODD. Yes, I know that many people use those terms in that way, and most adults understand that being described as bipolar doesn’t mean that’s all that they are. Children don’t yet know who they are, and it is important to help them separate their challenges from their basic sense of self.

Think about the words borei n’fashos rabbos v’chesronan. Every one of us has chesronos, every one of us is incomplete. Some chesronos are more painful and stigmatizing than others. Teaching your child to be discreet is important. Speaking with your child honestly about his challenges is vital.

Borei n’fashos rabbos v’chesronan. The words also mean: HaShem has provided for the chesronos, every one of us can be complete enough to serve HaShem. Sometimes, medication helps with overcoming challenges or coping with them more effectively. First, you need to understand each chesaron.

The purpose of diagnosing someone is not to label them. The purpose of diagnosis is to understand the nature of a challenge in order to address it as directly as possible. For example, depressed mood may be effectively addressed by one medication while labile, or fluctuating, mood may be worsened by that same medication. The way that we hope a medication will help someone is called the main effect. For example, the main effect of an anti-depressant is to reduce the feelings and the thoughts of depression.

Medications also have side effects. Some side effects are merely unpleasant and should be tolerated, while some are dangerous and should be reported to a physician or emergency care provider immediately.

You should have a clear understanding of the desired main effect, and the side effects, of any medication that is prescribed for your child.

I encourage parents to discuss both main effects and side effects with children who are taking medication. I want a child to know how a medication is supposed to help him, and to be alert to how it might be affecting him in other ways he should report to a parent.

In addition, I want hear from a child what it means to him to be taking medication.

Dovid R. sounded embarrassed. His voice was halting and soft. He asked if I could tell him how to get his son to take the medication that he was refusing.

Me: You said, Dovid, that you haven’t been able to get your son Nissie to take his medication. What’s your impression of what it is that Nissie doesn’t like about his medication?

Dovid: I’ve explained to him why he needs to take his medication and he’s still refusing.

Me: And when you asked Nissie what it is that he doesn’t like about the medication what did he say to you?

Dovid: Actually, my wife tried that and it didn’t help at all.

Me: What did your wife say to him?

Dovid: She asked him why he refuses to take it, and he yelled back at her, “you can’t make me!”

Me: So you’ve told Nissie that he has to take his medication, your wife asked him why he won’t take his medication, and he’s still not taking his medication?

Dovid: Exactly. So what else can we do?

Me: Dovid, what do you think will happen when you say, “Nissie, what is it about your medication that you don’t like?”

Dovid: I’m not really sure, but I can tell you that this is the kind of stuff my wife does not want to hear. She told me she did not want to meet with you because Nissie’s medication is not optional, and she was afraid you’d make it sound like it is.

Me: Dovid, if the prescribing physician considers the medication to be necessary for Nissie, I would never mean to imply that it’s optional. My concern is that when your wife asks Nissie a “why” question, Nissie becomes defensive. You’re explaining how important it is that he take his medication, but he never gets to express what it is that’s hard for him about it.

Dovid: But I think that’s my wife’s point. It doesn’t matter that it’s hard for him; he needs to take the medication anyway! And you said you also don’t think it’s optional, so what’s the point of asking Nissie what’s hard about it for him?

Me: The point is that there may be something about taking the medication that you could make less unpleasant for Nissie, but we won’t know what that might be until we ask Nissie for some more information about what is hard for him. It’s more likely that Nissie will answer you when you ask him an open-ended question rather than putting him on the defensive by asking him “why” or trying to guess at what’s hard for him with a series of questions to which he has to answer yes or no. So, what do you think is going to happen when you sit down with Nissie in a private, quiet place and gently say to him, “Nissie, what is it about your medication that you don’t like?”

Dovid: I’m not really sure, but you know what; I’d like to give it a try.

Our conversation resumed the followed week.

Dovid: This is my wife Shany. She decided to join us after she heard the outcome of my conversation with Nissie about his medication. The first thing I realized about what you had said to me was that I’ve never had a “private, quiet” conversation with Nissie about his medication before. Just sitting down alone with him in the guestroom, we both seemed so much more relaxed.

Then, I did all the things you suggested. I made eye contact with him, I told him that I think it’s really important that he take his medication, and I asked him what’s hard about it for him. He said he hates it when his sister Devorah points out his pill on the breakfast table and says, “Well, Nissie, I guess you’ll have your head on straight for a few hours.” Then, like you had said, rather than offering a solution, I asked Nissie what he would suggest. He said he wanted to keep a bottle of water in his room and take the medication there before coming to breakfast. And he’s taken it every day since we spoke about it.

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.
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I Don't Know
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
December 2nd, 2012
Have you ever asked your child, “what’s the matter”, and he said “I don’t know.”

Children often say, “I don’t know” because they don’t know. They don’t have the words to describe what they’re feeling.

You can help your child identify and express feelings. Identify has to come first.

When your child can’t describe what he’s feeling, you may be tempted to offer some suggestions.

Mom: You look like something’s bothering you, Malka. What’s the matter?

Malka: I don’t know.

Mom: Are you angry about something?

Malka: I don’t know.

Mom: Are you upset with about someone?

Malka: I don’t know.

This line of questioning is often frustrating for both parent and child. There is an alternative.

Invite your child to talk about what happened instead of asking what’s bothering her. Ask her about events rather than feelings.

Mom: You look like something’s bothering you, Malka. What happened?

Malka: I was raising my hand nicely but Morah never calls on me.

Next, paraphrase your child’s report of what happened to her, and then ask her what that meant to her, how she interpreted what she saw and heard.

Mom: The teacher never calls on you, even when you raise your hand quietly, and you don’t even wave it around. Tell me more.

CAUTION: You may be quite sure that “never calls on me” is not an accurate statement. For the time being, accept your child’s perception and you will be able to help her think about it differently as your conversation continues. If you challenge her on it now, she will argue the point, and tell you that you never believe her. Your conversation will come to an abrupt end, and she’ll still think that her morah never calls on her.

Malka: It’s not fair. She doesn’t like me.

Mom: It seems unfair that she didn’t call on you. When that happens, what is it like for you?

Now you are inviting her to identify the feelings that she experiences as a result of things that happen and her interpretation of those events. Her teacher didn’t call on her even though she had been raising her hand nicely. You really don’t know why the teacher didn’t call on her. Perhaps the teacher saw 12 hands raised nicely and called on someone else, not intending to “not call on” Malka. Nonetheless, Malka was not called on.

Malka: It’s not fair!

You asked Malka what it’s like for her when she thinks it’s not fair that her teacher didn’t call on her. In your first attempt to elicit her feelings you asked her an open-ended question, “what is it like for you.” You were hoping she would tell you how she feels when she’s thinking those thoughts, but she again told you the thought, “it’s not fair,” rather than describing any feeling she has about it. Now, switch to a multiple-question:

Mom: I understand it seemed really unfair to you. And when that happened, you felt sad, or angry, or frustrated...

Malka: I felt sad. Morah never pays attention to me. It makes me angry.

Mom: So you felt sad and angry. (sigh) [Feel bad with her!]

Right about here, parents describing these types of conversations sometimes say to me:

I validated her feelings. Then I explained to her that perhaps the teacher saw 12 hands raised nicely and called on someone else, not intending to “not call on” her. I told her that it’s fair for other children to get a turn sometimes, and there’s no reason to be sad and angry, and besides, I’m sure because she gets called on sometimes, too.

When you say to your child, “I understand that you felt sad and angry” and then proceed to tell him that he shouldn’t have, you didn’t validate his feelings. You told him that you think his feelings were invalid and unnecessary, and that he got it wrong again.

You will be more helpful to your child when you really do validate his feelings. You would sound like this:

Mom: You felt sad and angry when Morah called on someone else even though you were raising your hand nicely. What happened then, Malka?

Malka: I make a little bird sound to get on her nerves cause I was angry at her.

Mom: And then what happened?

Malka: Morah said I’d be getting an assignment.

Mom: Is that what the teacher meant in the note she sent home with your punishment assignment? The note that says you disrupted the class?

Malka: Yes.

Mom: Malka, what else could you do the next time you feel sad and angry in school? I don’t want you to get in trouble again.

Malka: I don’t know.

We’re back to “I don’t know.”

This time, Malka doesn’t know what else to do when she’s sad and angry about something that happened in school, and last time she did something that got her in trouble. When your child doesn’t know what else to do when she’s sad and angry, you may be tempted to offer some suggestions. Slow down.

First, as we’ve already discussed, don’t try to talk her out of being sad and angry. She may decide, in retrospect, that she could have thought about the situation differently and she would have felt differently, not sad and angry. That doesn’t mean that she’ll never feel sad and angry in a similar situation.

You have the opportunity to help her think about what behavioral choices she could make the next time she experiences those feelings. I urge you to help her think about it, not think about it for her.

You help her think by giving her time to think. When she says, “I don’t know,” say to her that you understand (and accept!) that she doesn’t know. Then, gently tell her that you want her to think about it, and that you want her to come and tell you what ideas she thought of. If she asks you, “what do you think I could do,” offer her a suggestion, and ask her to think what would happen if she were to do what you suggested. If she imagines it would work well for her, fine. If not, see if you, together, can modify it so it would work.

What always works for a child when she’s sad and angry? I don’t know. What always works for you?

In Liketui Eitzos, R' Nachum of Breslov, wrote, “When you run out of tachbolos, you're left with savlonus.” You can’t always prevent or cure sadness and anger. You can cope with them in ways that don’t hurt you or those around you. That’s what you teach your child.

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.
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Self-Awareness
Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
December 9th, 2012

René Descartes, in Principles of Philosophy, wrote: Cogito, ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am."

That’s a good start. “Therefore I am.” Therefore you are, what? It gets more interesting when you realize that what you think and how you think can affect who you are, what you feel, and the way you behave.

If I think that a lion is 20 feet away from me and it could leap from where it is standing to where I am standing, I will be terrified and I will freeze in fear or run in a desperate attempt to escape. If, instead, I think that a lion is 20 feet away from me and I know that the zoo was laid out in such a way that it appears 20 feet away yet it cannot come near me, I will be fascinated, and I will stand still pondering how they created that three-dimensional optical illusion.

Does it seem to you that many of your child’s thoughts are illusions? Does she become angry at an imagined slight, fearful of a harmless adversary, or deeply sad at a minor disappointment? How can you get her to think more accurately so that her feelings will be less intense, and her behaviors more modulated? How do you teach her to cultivate more objective observation of events and to give less credence to her initial impressions?

Batsheva’s mother Ruthie put the question this way:

What method do you recommend when a child overreacts to things, gets all wound up over nothing?

My answer was concise.

Empathy.

I find empathy to be a good place to start. Most parents are able to remember a time when they reacted to something as though it were a larger issue than it really was, objectively. But they weren’t being objective, their thinking was not accurate, and they allowed the emotions triggered by their initial impressions to drive their behavioral reactions, usually in an unhelpful direction.

Clinically, we use the term psychotic to describe thoughts that stem from inaccurate beliefs, or delusions. Here is a broader use of the term.

“Why are we so amazed by the fantasy thoughts of a psychotic, wondering how such craziness enters the human mind? Why are we not equally amazed by our own delusions, which are sometimes no less than the psychotic’s?

“This is because each of us has one or several emotional weak points where we still have not matured: self-indulgence…temper tantrums…ego-pride…Whatever it is, each one of us, in that area, has such irrational thoughts that only a born psychotic could entertain them. But we, sophisticated savants that we are, who become enraged at the slightest affront to our intelligence, are unaware of our own fantasy thoughts and entertain psychotic thinking.

“Take for example someone who is stuck in ego-pride. Everything he does or says will activate some or many thoughts of ego-pride: ”How clever what I just said,” or “How nice what I just did,” or “How so-and-so will envy me” or “Everyone will talk about me and give me my due honor.” Even if what he said or did was said or done in his own privacy, nevertheless his thoughts will still be there. And after all is said and done, his actions may have been not only not clever but even foolish. So this is the intelligent, rational being who now prides himself in foolish action? And what kind of delusive thinking is it to weave up illusory conversations of others who have nothing to discuss, because they did not see his actions? The only explanation is that as far as his ego-pride is concerned, he is psychotic-no matter how intelligent and genius he may be in all other matters. Such is the case with ego-pride, but the “rational” mind has similar delusions for self-indulgence, temper tantrums, or whatever.

“And what advice can we give to the human being who seeks therapy for his psychosis? The hard truth is there is no complete cure that will keep every unsound thought from rising to mind, but at least you can reduce the insanity of these thoughts and keep their appearance to a minimum. The way to do this is through heightened self-awareness.

“Train yourself to watch every thought that comes to mind; pay attention to all your inner self-talk. Listen to what these inner voices are saying, especially those surrounding your emotional weak points.

“At the beginning this very introspection will be with crooked vision, deluding ourselves how clever our thoughts are. But with perseverance, by the tenth time we will clearly see how irrational our thinking is and be shocked by how our sophisticated minds ever entertained such delusions. Our deified intellect will then lose its status and become an object of laughter for us. Never again will we blindly trust our mind and rely on its rationality.

“These two perspectives – objective vision and loss of credence- are necessary to reach our objective. As long as my thoughts are ideal in my eyes and my thinking is for me infallible, introspection will not help because in my heart I am saying how sound and straight are my thought patterns. I will not look with detached, objective vision. But after several times of experiencing our own psychosis, after laughing at our insane thoughts, we will be able to spot one the next time it comes and be able to correct it.”

The above paragraphs are taken from the diary of the Peasetzna Rebbe, Rav Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, HY”D. (To Heal The Soul, Pages 92-93)

Batsheva’s mother Ruthie asked:

What method do you recommend when a child overreacts to things, gets all wound up over nothing?

The answer begins with empathy, the willingness to accept Batsheva’s illusory thinking instead of challenging it.

Gently ask her to share her self-talk with you. “With perseverance, by the tenth time,” though it may take even longer, you will eventually hear Batsheva begin to think more objectively, lose her credence in the initial conclusions she jumps to, and slow down enough to spot her irrational thoughts and correct them. You will be giving her the opportunity to practice thinking more rationally, and you’ll be healing her soul.

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.


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