We call it ‘fulfillment parenting’ and it enabled us to raise six decent kids (including triplets) without going nuts. Here, we share everything we’ve learned.
The following is an excerpt from:
A few people have suggested that Rebecca and I pen a book on child-rearing. We’ve demurred. Again, it is presumptuous. Are we good parents or are we just blessed with good kids? Are our kids good or do we just need to wait a little longer for them to morph into proper teenage and adult monsters?
How do you measure or judge “good” kids?
I’m not asking these questions facetiously.
My grandfather used to say, “check back when they’re 30.” He was right. You never know whether a kid has turned out well. It can even be hard to tell if they’ve turned out badly. Beyond that, it can be d-mned hard to tell whether the parents had any role in either outcome.
So, the following isn’t a guide to good parenting. It is simply an exploration of what we’ve done, why we’ve done it and what we’ve observed as (we think) a result.
Let me start with a single, perhaps controversial, statement: our goal as parents has never been to raise happy kids. It isn’t that happiness isn’t important. It is just that it isn’t the most important thing.
Way back when I was at Harvard, I took a survey course on intellectual history. The professor asked a question: “If there was a drug that made people happy and had no side effects, other than stopping them from doing anything else, would you require all of society to take it?”
You could pose the question a little more gently: “Would you let people take it?”
The professor posed the question in class but didn’t answer it.
Privately, though, he did.
“Yes,” he said to a small group of us, “I would require people to take it.”
He was obviously a utilitarian – somebody who values the most happiness for the most people as the highest goal. Aside from practical considerations (e.g., how would people eat?) happiness was the goal. This perspective has faced some challenges, even from proponents. There’s the classic distribution of happiness question. Another big one is: how do you measure happiness? It is darned near impossible, especially if you find people claim to be happy and you just can’t believe them because you disagree with their life choices (e.g., Haredi/Ultra-Orthodox Jews). The next natural step was to find something you could measure. Something material. That, of course, was money.
I believe this is how money became a proxy for happiness.
In Western societies, once you got well into the 20th century, lower classes had increasingly – quantitatively – better lifestyles. The poor got fat. But they weren’t happy. Absolute wealth obviously wasn’t a proxy for happiness. So, people turned to relative wealth. People looked at the super-wealthy and said: the uneven distribution is at fault. After all, once you get past a certain level of wealth, the happiness return/dollar lowers. People with that level of wealth are hoarding a whole lot of happiness others could exploit far more effectively than they can. And $10,000 in your pocket means a lot more than it does in the pocket of a billionaire. Obviously, it isn’t fair to distribute happiness so unevenly, so justice demands balancing the scales.
I’m not arguing against or for redistributive economic policies (at least not here). I am arguing that they miss the point. Happiness is not money. And happiness is not The Point. A life lived under a drug that makes you happy but stops you from doing anything else is the life of a pickle: it has no purpose. Actually, the pickle has more of a purpose. At least it can be tasty. As far as I’m concerned, happiness is not the goal. It may well be a side-effect, but it shouldn’t be the goal.
Even more critically, in practical terms, aiming for happiness does not result in happiness. There’s a whole class of things like this. I’d add Love, Honor and Peace to the list. They’re all best acquired indirectly. Playing tough makes people less likely to pick a fight with you, leading to peace. If you are always seeking peace, then others who aren’t seeking peace will take advantage of you. Seeking Honor gets awful close to kissing others’ rear-ends in order to gain their respect. It doesn’t lead to honor. Instead, ignoring others and doing what you believe is right is more likely to yield their respect. Desperately broadcasting how much you need Love is likely to drive others away. Playing “hard-to-get,” or at least acting as if some other goal is more important, is far more likely to attract a mate.
The same rules apply to Happiness. Leading a fulfilling life is more likely to lead to Happiness than seeking Happiness directly.
Happiness plays “hard to get.”
You’ve got to let it come to you.
As we see it, raising children who have the tools to lead a fulfilling life is more likely to lead to their happiness. That happiness will be a side effect, sure – but it will be all the more real because of it. There will be a basis for their joy, rather than joy wavering uncertainly over a pit of emptiness and despair.
Early in Nava’s life, we went to the United States. She’d been sleeping through the night at about 4 months, but then she stopped sleeping through the night when we got back. We expressed a bit of confusion to a friend, and she recommended a very controversial book: Contented Baby by Gina Ford. Now, Contented Baby is a bit crazy. But it made sense. Gina Ford had worked for years with kids with terribly sleeping patterns and she’d corrected them. Our case was milder. Buried in the book, she had tables for feeding and sleeping by age. It turned out we were already keeping to the table the with exception of one 2:00PM bottle. We added it and Nava has slept through ever since (although she no longer needs a 2:00PM bottle).
We applied Contented Baby “light” to all our other kids and all of them were sleeping through by four months of age. It’s the only parenting book we ever really used (another reason to be reluctant to write one – why contribute to a genre you don’t follow?).
The most important part of Contented Baby wasn’t the timetable. It was the philosophy. Gina Ford had a simple foundational principle: happy parents make for happy kids. Specifically, well-rested parents make for contented babies (thus the clever title).
She’d regularly encounter parents who didn’t get this. They thought that their exhausted reality was an expression of their love and sacrifice on behalf of their children.
It is an expression of a form of love. And it is an expression of sacrifice. But it is not best for the parents or the children. It is a sacrifice that only serves to make reality worse.
Our children aren’t there to grind us into the ground. Whether we had a single baby, four kids under 17 months or six kids, we’ve always wanted to meet their needs with the least amount of effort required. It isn’t just about us. It is also about them. They need to learn how to sleep, then how to occupy themselves, then how to take care of themselves and then how to be fully responsible adults.
Excessive parental sacrifice can undermine all of this while making for a very grumpy house. Especially with triplets.
When they were young, if we were well-rested, they’d be more settled and confident. As they’ve gotten older, our increasingly hands-off approach has given them the opportunity to grow into the fullest versions of themselves.
Everybody wins. Knowing when to do less can actually be the truest actualization of parental love.
That’s why every time I see a TV show with the parents waving their exhaustion around as a matter of pride (and with only one or two little babies in the house) I just want to scream: “YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!”
 I can’t tell you that the sleep management was due more to luck or to Gina Ford. I can tell you that without Gina Ford, it wouldn’t have happened so smoothly.
Enough poetry. How do you get it done?
Or, rather, how do we think you get it done?
I know I might sound like some new-age Upper West Side Hippy installing speakers with Mozart in her womb when I say it, but it all starts very, very early.
Yes, I’m sure living in a calm and peaceful and well-fed pre-natal environment helps. It probably also helps if the mother eats peanuts (gotta avoid those later allergies). But I’m not really talking about that early. I’m talking about the very first days of life outside the womb.
NICUs today – or at least NICUs when my kids were in them – don’t use breathing monitors. They use blood-oxygen monitors. With more modern electronics, blood-oxygen monitors are probably simpler than breathing monitors. They are also measuring, if you will, a more vital sign. Breathing monitors may correlate with danger, but blood oxygen’s correlation is stronger. All that said, neither simplicity nor directness are the reasons we use blood-oxygen monitors in NICUs. Instead, it had to do with another of those NICU studies. They tested two groups of babies. Both had blood-oxygen and breathing monitors. One set had the conventional setup – alarms attached to breathing monitors. The other only had alarms based on blood-oxygen levels.
Now, it is very easy for a baby to stop breathing. It is quite a bit harder for them to bring down their blood oxygen level. When they ran the study, trying to verify that the blood-oxygen levels were kept within a safe level without the breathing monitors being alarmed, they found what I believe was a surprising result: the babies on breathing monitors stopped breathing far more frequently.
The answer has to do with manipulation. Whenever the babies stopped breathing, the nurses would come running to help them. They’d get a lot of attention. So, they learned to stop breathing. As pre-mature infants.
This, of course, endangered them.
With the blood-oxygen monitors, the nature of the cause and effect was far more tenuous. For starters, the babies had to take things a lot further and in ways even adults have a hard time comprehending. For the baby’s own good, it was better to let them stop breathing once in a while than to teach them that they were rewarded for doing just that.
Aside from the health impacts, the breathing monitors were making the children dependent on the drug of attention. Part of independence, part of fulfillment, is learning how to stand happily alone.
When we lived in Oregon, I read an article condemning an Eastern Oregon family for child abuse. Among the various charges, the local paper’s most magnificent claim was that the uncle was said to have said – on multiple occasions – that raising children was like raising cattle.
The thing is: there’s a lot of truth to that statement.
It is not evidence of child abuse in and of itself.
Children learn from incentives. You’ve got to be very careful about which incentives you use or how far you take them – after all, you don’t want to undermine their ability to be full-fledged people. But they, like every sentient creature, respond to their environment. The environment you provide them with must guide them towards a fulfilling reality. That’s why ours is a house that seeks, at every stage and in every way, to empower our children. Physically, socially, mentally, economically, and yes, spiritually. We don’t use incentives to control children. And we don’t ignore incentives in the belief that they need to express their true selves. Instead, as much as possible, we use incentives to guide them down the path of self-control and self-empowerment. They must ultimately learn to define themselves around one or more purposes (although they need to find those purposes) and then reinforce the aspects of themselves that reinforce their chosen purposes. This will raise them up, making them greater than themselves.
Put another way, learning self-control leads to learning self-empowerment which enables us to become the highest form of ourselves.
Here’s a simple example. If our children screamed for their bottles, they’d get them. But not quickly. We’d switch from normal efficiency mode to SLOOOO-MO. We’d make a big deal out of it. Soon enough the kids would learn not to whinge (a wonderful Australian term) for their bottles. They’d have to ask (or be willing to wait while their parents prepared the bottles if they weren’t yet able to ask). With triplets it was even easier. We just gave the kid who screamed the most the last bottle. We created a race towards more pleasant behavior.
As an aside, raising triplets can actually be very, very efficient. You only have to sleep train once, basically. And certain activities are much less time consuming on a baby-by-baby level. Take feeding solid foods. Instead of waiting for a child to finish their morsel before spooning in the next one, you just move onto the next baby. By the time you’re ready to feed baby one again, they’ve already finished their first bite. Feeding three kids only takes marginally longer than feeding one.
Lunch time after a busy morning. Guess which one is the foodie now?
Kids could play the game too, of course. A favorite of every child is to make noise in synagogue. You’re sure to get what you want then, right? Your parents will give you candy or whatever just so you won’t make a scene. Our approach was simple. If a kid made a scene, we stuck them outside by themselves in the stroller for a minute or two (so long as the weather was fine).
Soon, our babies were quieter than most of the 5-year-olds.
The four-baby Stroller of Exile
From an early stage, we paid our kids for chores. Early in life, payment was in rides. By default, they’d get rides, but if the toys weren’t picked up, they’d lose them. If they went above and beyond, they’d get extra rides. Misbehavior could cost them. I’m good with rides, so it worked. When they got older, we transitioned to points, which were convertible to money.
That’s still the system we have today. We have a job board where we rotate everyday and pre-Shabbat tasks. The everyday tasks earn points, and they can’t watch anything until they finish the pre-Shabbat tasks.
And if we end up doing their chores?
Then they have to pay us from their points.
The incentive regime continued in other ways. We never ever gave in. Even with newborn infants. Screaming and whinging just hardened our positions. The cost of going “the easy way” is a whole lot of the hard way. If you don’t start this young, you face an increasingly steep road in trying to implement it later. If the kid expects to get what they want by screaming, it is pretty hard to change that belief. They can put up a hell of a fight if they haven’t already learned that not putting up a fight is the best way to get what they want.
It goes back to prayer. I want my kids to ask “their father and mother who art in the Kitchen” by making an argument – not by pulling a fit.
 I’m generally quite skeptical of scientific studies claiming to provide universal rules. I am here as well. This tells me children can manipulate from a very young age. It does not tell me that this is all children do. Humans are deeply complex and very few rules successfully define us.
 We never used candy or food as an incentive. Enough people have problems with that already.
 I would give any sort of ride they could imagine. Tree rides, scare rides, elephant rides, car rides (they’d steer me by the ears), rocket rides, couch rides and many, many more. One of the best was the “I don’t know” ride, which I’d give when I’d ask them what ride they wanted and they’d say, “I don’t know.” The whole system was not only a lot of fun, but a real challenge for my imagination.
 We’re going through this process now with one of the kids. I suspect the going is particularly hard because the child is effectively receiving the opposite message at kindergarten.
 It is a bit trickier with newborns. They communicate by crying and you need to ensure they are fed, kept clean and loved. You want to stay ahead of the need to whinge. Understanding when they are just whinging requires both knowing the kid very well and ensuring the kid has what he or she needs – and that includes cuddles.
At the same time that we treated our children like cattle, we also made a point of treating them like real people. They can’t deal with the real world unless they have exposure to reality. Reality ends up being a heck of an incentive.
Again, this started at the very beginning. We spoke to all the kids in full sentences, in a normal voice, from the day they were born. Respecting that they had real desires and that a lack of communication was deeply frustrating (and a legit cause of crying), we taught our kids very basic sign language. Words like “all done,” “more,” “please,” “milk.” “water” and “poop.” We wanted them expressing themselves as soon as possible. Beyond that, we wanted them to be able to more effectively impact their reality. If screaming isn’t effective at changing your reality, then something else needs to be.
The real people principle extended to our threats and promises. We only made real threats and real promises. We were very careful with each because walking things back (or enforcing the unreasonable) really hurts the child involved. We also never promised our kids it was all going to be okay or that we’d always be there for them. We can’t deliver on those promises and so we can’t make them. I like to think the promises we do make have more power as a result. They are more comforting than that which cannot be trusted.
We were, and are, realistic with the kids. We explained, continually, what we were doing with them and why. We know, as with many of these things, that they didn’t get it at first. They couldn’t comprehend it. But eventually, it clicks together. Things become a lot easier then. They can get (and stay) with the program because they understand it.
Perhaps the most important “real” principle was honesty. We were always honest, sometimes brutally, with the kids. There was only one exception to this: older kids’ activities after younger kids’ bedtime. We lied, on two occasions, about the big kids watching a movie after the little kids’ bedtime. We didn’t just conceal our intent, we lied about it under interrogation from those younger children. We only did it twice. The older kids were so upset by the deception that some of them refused to watch the movie. Oh, and when Yaniv wouldn’t eat kreplach, we called them Monkey Brains. We’ve been calling them Monkey Brains ever since.
That’s it in the deception department.
Reality is more than parents just speaking honestly. During Ethiopia’s brief spring with the rise of Prime Minister Abiy, we brought our entire family to the country. We saw other white people there; what we didn’t see were other white children and babies. Local people were fascinated by the eighteen-month-old girl we had with us. Why’d we do it? The trip wasn’t for us. All I learned was that Ethiopians vastly prefer Toyotas to any other cars and that mannequins in Ethiopia are white – which says something about the nature of racism. No, we went because we wanted our children to see poverty – to understand the extent of the challenges in the world. We also wanted them to see what was, at the time, a hopeful society – despite its poverty.
We were only there for two days, but it made a lasting and valuable impression. We’ve always exposed our children to reality, as messy and as horrible as it may be. We’ve tried to educate throughout that process.
After all, if our children hope to change the world, they have to know about it.
Ethiopia with the family
 When Nava was about 18 months old, she started getting some serious vertigo. We called the advice line for our health fund.
The nurse asked, “what are her symptoms?”
We said, “She’s dizzy.”
“How can you possibly know she’s dizzy,” said the nurse, “She’s 18 months old?”
Rebecca just put the phone on speaker and said, “Nava, how do you feel.”
“I feel DIZZY!” said Nava, and that settled that.
 Years later, when I was tangentially involved in setting up a school, I visited an American Classical Christian School. They had a three-stage learning process. Stage One was Grammar. In Grammar they memorized countless fact-filled songs – from songs about Pythagoras to songs about history. Young kids are great at memorizing songs. Stage Two was Reason. That was when they started using the facts that had had no meaning before. I think of our almost rote explanations of child-rearing as belonging to the same category.
 One girl at a rural church site asked what our daughter’s dummy (pacifier) was. Bec explained through an interpreter that it was so she wouldn’t cry. The girl asked why our daughter didn’t just use her thumb. The interpreter was also curious. Rebecca was going to answer, something to do with future orthodontics. Then she literally stopped herself and said, “It’s a First World Problem.” At that same church we were going to visit the grounds dressed as Jews. Just before we got out of the van, the guide explained that churches in Ethiopia were carved out of rock because a 9th century Jewish queen had burned all the wooden churches and monasteries. We tucked in our tzitzit and took off our yarmulkas. Shortly afterwards, we visited a local family and they made us coffee. We shared some of our food with them. The sharp English cheese was not appreciated. But again and again, when we offered our salami, they checked that it had no pig. They were Christians who would not eat pork.
 We were next in Australia, where a black Kenyan Jew said we really had to go to Nairobi. “Ethiopia is backward,” she said, “Because it was never colonized. That’s why Kenya is far more advanced.” Right or wrong, that’s not the perspective you hear about on American college campuses.
Now kids can be pushed and prodded and enticed with incentives. But there is something even more important: expectations.
We are, after all, social animals.
To give a basic example: my grandmother expected us not to swear in front of her. She expected better from us. Because of that, better is what she got. If you expect less from your kids, or if you assign them a basket of expected behaviors, your expectations will become reality.
The classic example is parents freaking out when kids hurt themselves a little. If the parent acts like it is all cool, the kid will think it is all cool and everybody will actually be better off. This is why, when my kids used to scrape themselves and start screaming, I tended to administer immediate comic amputation or defibrillation by blown raspberries. It actually led to better outcomes.
In a much more serious and broad case, the recent news has seen a rush of teenagers suffering from tics. Tourette’s-like tics. It is believed the rapid spread of tics is due to (I kid you not) Tic Toc. Teens see videos of other teens with real or simulated tics and their brains seem to reprogram around what is expected. They then develop uncontrollable tics of their own.
Every kid has strengths and weaknesses and challenges. But you have to manage the impacts of expectation when facing them. In almost all cases, we believe you really need to micro-focus on the particular and damaging issue at hand. If a kid is hyper, work on helping them settle themselves down (or get them into an environment where they can be hyper). Don’t label them with ADHD and the whole suite of other behaviors that come with it. If you do, they’ll start exhibiting those behaviors too. You’ll expect it, their teachers will expect it and so they will adopt it unconsciously. If your kid is poorly adjusted socially, don’t put them “on the spectrum.” Work on individual issues, whether it be eye contact, noticing and responding to cues, or whatever. Be aggressive about addressing those issues. After all, they can certainly spiral out of control. But be very reluctant to apply a broad-spectrum label.
Unusually, for my thoughts on these matters, a recently published study backs them up. A JAMA Pediatrics study tested normal interventions vs. an intervention that taught parents to interact with their babies even if there was no eye contact and to play with them in a way sensitive to their particular issues. As the study’s authors said “Many therapies for autism have tried previously to replace development differences with more typical behaviors. In contrast, this works with each child’s unique differences and creates a social environment around the child that helps them learn in a way that was best for them.”
The study reduced eventual autism diagnosis by 70%.
We are social animals, and we love to adhere to expectations. By ignoring the “package deal” and focusing on individual challenges, we can get past the expectations the “package deal” created – to the benefit of our children.
That social component is a core reason why I believe little kids should never be exposed to little kids’ TV programming. The shows are tuned to maximize attention and delight. However, they mess with kid’s ability to understand real-world cues. The screen seems to be interacting with them. But it isn’t actually doing so. Even if it is a computer game, it still isn’t reacting as a human would. The more convincing the faux interaction, the more it messes with our social programming.
I remember watching part of a basketball game with two of the triplets. They were under the age of two. I pointed at one player (Travis Outlaw) and said, “That guy can really jump!”
One of my sons promptly turned to the TV and said “Jump! Jump!”
He couldn’t know it wasn’t real and that Travis Outlaw couldn’t hear him, not until he was older and ready to compartmentalize the screen.
Our older kids watch shows and use computers pretty freely. For a while, we strictly limited it. We still do with the younger ones. With the older kids, we focus on talking about the risks while making sure the screens aren’t impacting their ability to otherwise grow.
Expectations don’t only have downsides. They also have upsides. We expect our children to do their best and to improve on their weaknesses – this helps them do exactly that.
It is impossible to measure, but our expectations seem to help.
 Rebecca taught me that even when things are serious, running around in a panic will only make things worse (e.g., increase the chance and severity of shock).
 Even worse, you might unnecessarily stick their young and growing minds on psychotherapeutic drugs which have got to mess with things. Sometimes it is necessary, but it’d sure be best to avoid it.
 This applies to syndromes, which are simply oft-correlated collections of symptoms. A disease is different.
When Rebecca was in the hospital with the triplets, we got our hands on a few books advising how high-order multiples should be raised. Every book said you had to make your friends and visitors do the dishes. They will all want to feed the babies – the books advised – but make them do the dishes! We didn’t do that; it just didn’t seem nice.
Plus, people really enjoyed feeding the babies.
Other than that one point of disagreement (which we set aside), the books differed widely.
One set of books said the first year was fine, but then it all spiraled out of control. The other set said the first year was a living hell, but then it got better. It was quickly clear what the difference between the books was. The control-freak mothers had a fine first year. Once the kids got older, they could no longer control them. And the mothers who had no sense of control couldn’t handle year one; but were better adapted to later years.
Learning from these examples, we went for a mix. Total control early on and then, whenever possible, relinquishing that control. We had a baby chart indicating the order of feedings. We cycled the kids through sleep, food and attention on a synchronized schedule. The kids were all sleeping through by four months. The synchronization continued in these basic areas, but we began to let loose more and more over time.
Early triplet navigation, we quickly shifted to simply calling out ‘single-file duck style’
The principle explained to them – and acted on – was that as soon as they demonstrated good decision-making in an area, we would relinquish control over that area. At this point, with a 14-year-old and three 13-year-olds, we don’t check homework or tests unless half-year report cards come back bad. But they don’t come back bad. Our kids have earned our trust. One kid concealed his poor performance a few years back, and so we watched him carefully for a few months. He’s back on track. One kid used to lie regularly. That has stopped, due to clear repercussions. We now believe that child as a matter of course. She’s earned it.
Step-by-step, day-by-day, we encourage and reward their self-control. As part of this, we aren’t safety nuts. As 12-year-olds, two of the kids would take the bus to Tel Aviv alone and walk for kilometers while there – even at night. They tell us they are at friends’ homes, rather than asking for permission. Our thumb is continually being pulled off the lever of their lives. It would be, no matter what; they are growing into de facto independence. But we believe our encouragement of it makes it all easier while still (we hope) leaving them willing to sacrifice some independence and turn to us when they need help.
 Plus, our community provided us with the first six weeks of meals after we got out of the hospital. Six weeks of prepared meals. How can you ask somebody who’s a part of that to wash your dishes?
 No face-to-face or voice contact during sleep time – including feedings or changings.
 Although our second youngest has gotten himself into some serious trouble (eating a toilet bowl cleaner, walking into a busy street at 18 months and pulling a cupboard of glasses onto himself), he hasn’t suffered any serious harm.
As part of that growth track, we created a system of family laws to adjudicate issues between the kids. They started with laws created by the parents. But by the time the kids were five, we were working with them to help fashion their laws. At the time, the laws were primarily about toy ownership and control. That mattered to them. As time has passed, we’ve encouraged more and more self-control as a “community of children.”
As an example, when two kids have a dispute they can’t resolve, they can call a beit din (a Hebrew word for House of Judgment, or Court). Three other kids sit on the Court and hear the claimants’ cases. They set the rules of evidence and presentation. After hearing the two sides, the judges ask questions and then argue about what the outcome should be. Eventually they vote on a decision. When two judges agree on something, it is settled. Critically, later cases can refer to those judgments and their reasoning – making the judges reluctant to decide things on the basis of personal bias. Laws have been established around couch usage, table setting, seat choice and, yes, toy control.
The beit din doesn’t come up often and it has weaknesses. The biggest is that enforcement of decisions relies on each child keeping in mind that others will thus adhere to similar decisions in the future (something our grown up courts might learn from). One kid had a run of very unreasonable actions which led to an expectation on that child’s part that they’d never win a case. It fell on me (the bailiff) to enforce the law, but I really had very few tools to accomplish that.
It’s since resolved itself, but that was a tough period.
For me, the best part of the beit din is hearing the judge’s reasoning. It is pretty cool to see the logic of a legal system emerge. Especially if it is about toys. It is even cooler when judges come at things from totally unexpected directions and end up setting precedent as a result. The kids work out sometimes beautifully elegant rules that have never occurred to us as parents.
 Laws are not allowed to differentiate based on individual people or personal characteristics.
Children, of course, are people. They aren’t carbon copies of their parents’ ideals. As parents of non-identical triplets, we know this better than most. They have been raised in very similar fashions and yet they are very different people. They aren’t blank slates. As I’m fond of telling them when they struggle in one area or another “every person has their own kind of intelligence and gifts.” More critically, every person faces very real challenges. When those challenges hit your kids, you either have to help them through the challenges – or help them come to accept a harsh reality and work around it.
It sounds horrible, but for years, I shared a very peculiar kind of advice with my kids. I talked to them about their weaknesses and how they could be improved – almost like life was a test and they just had to focus more on the subject matter they were weak on. I didn’t expect a socially awkward kid or the one with self-anger issues to be the most adjusted or stable children. I just wanted the edge taken off so that they could best leverage their real strengths. Those years of conversations worked. Each kid is different, but no kid has a glaring problem that is likely to undermine their own goals.
But even with this, some issues just get bigger and bigger and bigger. Two challenges have stood out above the rest.
The first was a very long-term lack of confidence on the part of one of my kids. That kid was considered almost doll-like by many when younger. The expectation was that that kid was stupid (not our expectation, but the universe is bigger than the family). The kid got convinced, deep inside, that they weren’t smart. It didn’t help that the kid didn’t consider many conventional things easy to think through. The child is very bright, but every strength comes with other weaknesses. So, the kid was a mediocre student who covered for the many things the child didn’t understand (out of fear of seeming stupid when the kid asked for help). Even more challenging, the kid loved to create chaos in order to have some feeling of control.
We stayed the course. We kept insisting that we knew the child could do well, even as that wavered. We also made a strong effort to listen to the kid’s questions, especially those the child thought were stupid. We worked to ensure the kid slept enough (a continuing problem, it turns out almonds help). We had the kid ask their own teacher for help, privately, so the child wouldn’t feel stupid in front of the class.
Then, the child switched teachers. The new teacher had no idea the kid been a poor student. There was an opening to establish a new self-identity. In one year, one summer really, the child went from mediocre student to a very good student. The kid’s confidence, behavior and non-academic intelligence (shown in art and interpersonal understanding) improved as well. When I met with the teacher and told her the child had been a poor student, the teacher was incredulous. The teacher had never seen any of that.
Our kid is most at fault for the improvement, but as parents I like to think we opened the door to a better reality.
Another kid, the one who almost broke the Beit Din, was harder. The child would pull terrible, destructive, disruptive fits. They weren’t like my fits (which were cries for justice, at least as I recall). The child’s goal seemed to be to make everybody as angry and unhinged as he was. Using a maxim from my own father that some kids really need physical interaction I’d give the child these long hugs, but they didn’t really help. It’s hard to say, but they may have simply pissed the kid off even more.
To help things out, we’d tried Friday night appreciations. You know, we’d go around the Shabbat table and have everybody appreciate somebody else. But it didn’t help much. There was no real underlying appreciation.
Things were getting worse and worse, and it was impacting the entire family. At one point, I felt like everything was falling apart. I remember praying outside on the street just wondering what we could do. That child had just told one of my other kids that they wanted to hurt themselves.
That was a major major, major red flag, and I was really worried. Growing up I’d seen where it led. I wasn’t just praying that night in my standard quid pro quo fashion. Instead, I was begging for insight.
The Shabbat before (I believe) I’d attended a lecture given by a local Rabbi. He wasn’t talking about child-rearing or psychology or dispute resolution. I think he was talking about prayer times. During his lecture, he mentioned a Jewish community in medieval Europe that had a ridiculously stupid custom. Every Sabbath, after morning prayers, the people in the community would share the grievances they had with others. One Shabbat the dispute lasted so long that they missed the afternoon prayer.
As I stood on the sidewalk, praying, the thought entered my mind: “Grievances?”
It was dangerous. Stupid dangerous. It could blow up in our faces. But it was worth the cost. I came in after prayers, proposed it to Bec and then, that very night, we tried it. We went around the table and asked people to share their grievances. There were rules (of course). The grievance had to be about something, not just someone. People had to listen to the grievance against them before they responded. Voices couldn’t be raised. And the discussion had to focus on finding resolutions or agreeing there were no resolutions to be had.
The grievances were all over the map. Boys going into the girls’ room. Kids not giving each other enough time to use the plug to charge their phones. Me angrily wading into disputes without understanding them. I don’t remember the rest. But, either through commitment or simple purchases (e.g., plug splitters so kids could charge simultaneously) we either resolved the issues or showed good faith to improve the problems.
The very air in the house seemed to clear. We’ve only done grievances once or twice since. The kids tend to bring them up more proactively during the week. And people who committed to improvement (including me with my wading in) are continually improving their behavior.
What about the child who was threatening self-harm?
The child is fine now. The child sometimes gets down on themselves for doing things they think are stupid, but the child’s disappointment is very limited in both extremity and in time.
This must have happened early during the coronavirus. Through the course of the lockdowns, the kids and family just grew stronger and stronger.
The lockdowns were, in our little microcosm of a world, a beautiful time of familial peace and growth.
It sounds totally counterproductive, but grievances were the best thing to happen to our family.
I guess we’re medieval idiots.
 It’s genetic. My mother was kidnapped by a mentally ill woman who thought my mother was her doll.
In many cases people like to cast things as direct tradeoffs. Freedom vs. Discipline. Independence vs. Control. Communism vs. Capitalism.
A child who’s a rebel and a total pain in the behind might be just the kind of child who challenges the improper order of things when they grow up. On the other hand, a well-behaved child might lack the gumption to address injustice or much of anything else. Forgetting kindness and justice and all that, the rebel kid is more likely to do what’s needed to take care of him or herself while the well-behaved kid is more likely to be walked over.
So, which do you emphasize?
Facing this incredibly simplified cross-section of behaviors, our answer would be to pick another ideal. You want to raise considerate and caring kids. Guided by consideration and caring, the kids can be rebels when it’s called for (giving dad a grievance for wading into fights like an idiot) or disciplined when it’s called for (helping dad take care of the little kids when mom is out of town). We’ve always tried, with our kids and with life, to find a way between the common tradeoffs to something greater.
To me, the greatest path between the tradeoffs is the path of Goodness and Holiness. Enabling your children to live a life of fulfillment, (rather than happiness-seeking), ought to be the goal of any parent.
Many parents are eager for vacations away from their children. Not us. We’ve done it a few times since they were born, but it is never all that rewarding. Sure, the dishes, clothes, etc… can be a lot of work, but the kids aren’t. They are increasingly pleasant and interesting to be around.
I’m far from a perfect parent, of course. I do raise my voice – but I am improving. And the kids sometimes battle – but they tend to resolve those battles quickly and without a whole lot of bad blood.
We all have the tools to improve, and we all know we are, in fact, improving.
The biggest gap in my own parenting is that, despite working from home, I don’t spend enough time with my kids. I have a lot to offer most of them – from teaching them to write to teaching them code to simple discussions about life. I tried scheduling a half hour a week for each kid, but I didn’t sustain it. My best conversations with them tend to be either while I’m driving them around or while we’re having our daily family dinners. I have a hard time stepping away from my work, from the productive side. I have a hard time sacrificing the tangible to create the intangible. I never regret when I do it, though. The result can be magical.
Are we good parents? I have no idea. Parenting isn’t an experiment you can run. Every kid is different, and parenting should be flexible. “Success” can have many different definitions. You can’t rerun your children’s lives. That said, our kids push themselves and think seriously about the world. That’s pretty much all we can ask for. I like to think we played a role in this, but maybe we didn’t. I have no idea. That doesn’t stop me from giving a bit of summary advice, though. So here it is:
Focus on outcomes, not self-sacrifice
Be honest and real with your kids
Aim for fulfillment, not happiness
Continually improve and encourage independence
Use expectations to bring out the best
Help them internalize the rule of law and responsibility
Think creatively when faced with the hard stuff
Keep off the screens in the early years
Avoid assigning syndromes
And always seek to improve
There are lots of little practical things – like not making eye contact with babies at night or asking your children to tell you the best part of their day before they go to sleep – but the overall guiding ideas are these. Oh, and always make sure your kids know that you love them. But that’s so obvious, it didn’t get its own section.
Is it scientific? No. But the ‘scientific’ way of raising children is also deeply flawed. It not only tends to reflect the biases of the scientists (science has shown that scientists of the softer sort tend to “prove” what they already believe), it also tries to boil unimaginable complexity down to simple questions or statistics. In other words, it misses the enormous beauty of the unmeasurable. Science can’t see or feel love. It can’t sense the myriad challenges of a real life. It can’t tell which child will be empowered by challenge and which overwhelmed. All it can see is vast patterns – like my premie statistics trying to replace the doctor’s sense of the individual case. Most critically, scientists often miss the second order effects. Making a kid happy in the short term can undermine happiness in the long term. Going easy on a kid so they learn more readily can leave them unprepared for stressful real-world environments. We try to find these effects, but even when we do so, the scientific approach is coarse by its very nature. Dangerous playgrounds for young children lead to fewer injuries later in life. But some children never recover from the trauma of injuring themselves.
We are complex. It is precisely because of complexity that common sense and paying careful attention to your own children can be more effective than the best scientific and academic reasoning – no matter the metrics. You have to think about the kid, think about how they respond, and constantly adapt. There is no magic shortcut.
When we were looking at fostering and perhaps adopting children, there was a universal, scientific, rule. The household could have no negative feedback. No criticism. No punishments. If we hadn’t been so desperate to have more children, it would have been a dealbreaker.
Sometimes the negative is needed. Sometimes, even with traumatized children, it can be necessary for their growth.
Every child, every person, is an individual. There is no recipe for success. We forget that only at our own very great peril.
The above was an excerpt from:
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