Dear Rabbi Horowitz,
I have a question about our 10-year-old boy. My oldest has a very strong-willed personality and is very energetic.
He has a very hard time sitting in school all day (He is in school from 8:30 to 4:45). He comes home with homework and is frustrated to have sit down and do it.
He often has temper tantrums when he is asked to do his work. My husband says that he is lazy and self-centered. I agree, in part, but isn't this what all children are like? Don’t we have to teach them how to act properly?
Reading your question reminded me of an incident that took place some ten years ago, when I was riding in a mini-van along with seventeen American school principals winding through the streets of Yerushalayim en route to meet with Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z’tl. I got a frantic call on my cell phone from a kollel yungerman who asked me to provide him with a mental-health-professional referral for his son. It seemed that his six-year-old son was having full-blown temper tantrums nearly every evening when he arrived home from cheder and his parents were naturally quite concerned.
My first two questions to the fellow were requests for some background information – how many children were in the family and was this child the eldest (the father sounded rather young). When he informed me that this child was the eldest of five, I followed by asking him if he knew what brand of disposable diapers his children wore. When that question was met with silence, I attracted quite a bit of attention from my chaverim in the van by politely but firmly admonished the yungerman for not helping his wife with their children, and suggested that he go to shalom bayis classes before sending his son to a therapist. I informed him that my wife and I were blessed with four children in six years and during that entire period of time I insisted on always changing the children’s diapers whenever I was home. (Rachel, please share these lines with your husband.)
A temper tantrum is often a sign that a meltdown of sorts is occurring. Think of it as an emotional overload – similar to what happens when too many appliances are plugged into one outlet. This usually results in a blown fuse. Well, kids can’t blow fuses (or we don’t allow them to), so they respond by throwing a tantrum. I do not think that “lazy and self-centered” fit the symptoms that you are describing. Your son may not want to do his homework. He also may be responding to his frustration at 1) not being able to do it, 2) not wanting to do any more work after eight or more hours in school, 3) not having a hobby (click here), or 4) not getting the attention or tranquility that he desperately needs and deserves after a long school day.
Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a child neurologist, who lives in Far Rockaway, N.Y., posted a comment on the website to this “Question of the Week.” Here is the (slightly edited) text of his remarks:
If this was a multiple-choice question, I would check off the box for "need more information." The underlying problem can be anything from a) a typical boy who is not getting enough exercise and free time, and instead is being bombarded with schoolwork, to b) a child with a true learning disability or c) ADHD, as well as d) other possibilities--including an unrealistic father, a less-than-perfect home setting, etc. The information provided is too scant to offer a real opinion--in my professional view.
Leon Zacharowicz, MD
I concur wholeheartedly with Dr. Zacharowicz’s thoughts. It is always helpful to take a few steps back and look at the ‘big picture’ of your son’s life before admonishing him for his purported shortcomings. Rabbi Wolbe z’tl, at the meeting noted above, told our group of school heads that we should always view children as, “Klayne mentchen” (miniature adults), meaning that we should understand that kids have needs, wants, mood swings, etc. just as adults do. While we certainly need to teach them life skills and help them function in the complex and demanding world in which they live, forcing them repeatedly to do things they don’t want to do or browbeating them into silence usually backfires in many ways. (I strongly recommend Rabbi Wolbe’s classic sefer/book “Zeriah u'Binyan b’Chinuch – Planting and Building in Education." It is a masterpice – one that should be studied, not just read, in my opinion.)
I would also suggest that you contact your son’s principal and inquire how things are doing – academically and socally – in your son’s school life. It is quite possible that things are not in order there and that is contributing to your son’s stress level. You should also consider going to a professional for a few sessions to explore your parenting techniques and develop strategies for effectively reducing your child’s stress.
In closing, Rachel – and your husband: I strongly suggest that you step back and reflect on your family unit. Having dealt with children and their families for more than twenty-five years, I have found that the symptoms that a child exhibits sometimes mirror what is transpiring in his/her family. Thus, your son’s temper tantrum or meltdown may be a sign that your family is going through a meltdown of sorts. Having a few young children, especially close in age to each other, can be and usually is a great deal of nachas. It is also very, very stressful. Perhaps you should consider changing routines in your lifestyle. Attending less simchos (s’machot, whatever), going out with your husband alone one evening a week when the kids are sleeping, having your husband get more hands-on with raising the kids, even having him change his night seder to a morning shiur, all of these should be explored. And, I don’t know a more delicate way to say this, but if you are feeling very overwhelmed with the raising of your children, please, please set an appointment for you and he to meet with your Rav as soon as possible to discuss your family’s situation and seek his eitzah and psak (click here) as for what is right for you at this time in your lives.
Children are a gift from Hashem. They deserve and need our undivided attention and love.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved