Grumpy? It’s not your fault.

Question of the week:

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

I see infographics a lot on Pinterest and Facebook that excuse, so to speak, children’s behavior that is rude or grumpy. They look like this:

The way children behave is a reflection of their…

● Age
● Brain development
● Wiring
● Sleep/ deprivation
● Blood sugar
● Days events
● Life challenges
● Needs

I feel like there is something not quite right about this ideology, but I can’t tell what it is.

What do you think about this type of positive parenting views?

Sincerely,
Sarah

Dear Sarah,

We think your instincts are spot on. Note the following three important ways in which the list falls short.

  1. That list would be indistinguishable from that of a dog trainer explaining that the way dogs behave is a reflection of events out of the dog’s control… Any so-called system that fails to distinguish between people and animals is intrinsically flawed.
  2. That list leaves out parents. Most experienced teachers can rather quickly describe their students’ family backgrounds with considerable accuracy. Today it is politically regressive to emphasize parents and family, however there is no more powerful determinant of how a child behaves than his or her parents. The list you presented takes all of the onus off of mothers and fathers and how they interact with their children.
  3. That list leaves out religion and culture. A child taught that some behaviors are acceptable while others aren’t, behaves quite differently from another child who is given a different list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors or no list at all. A child who understands that even when Mommy or Daddy isn’t present (or a teacher or a policeman) God is still watching what they do, behaves differently from one who doesn’t.

That said, obviously all the factors in the list you mentioned in your letter are real and do need to be taken into account. That is where much of the challenge of parenting arises. The question is how to relate to factors like tiredness or blood sugar. Nuance is more difficult than extremism. This is true in most parts of life and raising children is no exception. What do we mean? Most people find it easier to swear off tobacco than to limit its use to one cigarette a day. It is easier for a school to make a ‘no cell phone’ rule than to allow students to petition for exceptions when…their brother is in the hospital or their sister is about to give birth or their parents need to tell them who is picking them up from school or, or, or. Red and green are easier to distinguish from each other than are the sixteen shades of green you can find at your local paint store.

Nuance and flexibility have their place. Living in a world of absolutes leaves little room for individuality or mercy. But nuance has its own problems. It can turn into wishy-washiness and weakness or present as inconsistency. Living in a world where the rules are constantly changing is unsettling and leaves one feeling insecure and constantly on edge.

What if the above list wasn’t an excuse for bad behavior, but instead it was a call to awareness? Now, the onus would be on parents to reflect in advance rather than to ignore bad behavior after the fact. They might ask: Am I expecting behavior that is age-appropriate? Is my child in the middle of finals? Is she coming down with something? Have I been consistent and clear about my expectations?

Parents do need to be aware of children who are not feeling well or who are overtired, and they need to know their children’s individual inborn temperaments and challenges. That awareness can guide parents to adjust the schedule, overlook a certain amount of grumpiness or make a simpler supper. Proactively, parents can choose to smooth the day; now may not be the time to decide that a child’s room needs to be cleaned and it even may be time to overlook certain behaviors.

However, there is a difference between awareness and making excuses. Children start out crying because of any discomfort as newborns, when they should be responded to as quickly as possible. But that is the beginning of a path that eventually leads to being adults capable of handling a negative work review, a car cutting them off on the road, or a misbehaving child of their own, without responding by screaming or lashing out. That path from infancy to adulthood takes place over years as parents instill the idea that being tired or disappointed or over-stimulated is not a “get out of jail free” card. As our mother (Rebbetzin Maisie Lapin) used to say, “Children outgrow shoes. They don’t outgrow bad character traits.”

Sarah, we agree with you that many parents today bend too much to one direction. Previous generations sometimes bent too much in the opposite direction. The desire to be a thoughtful, understanding parent is a wonderful one. It is difficult to achieve by following mantras and emoticons rather than by constant attention and assessment.

Be strong and of good courage,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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4 thoughts on “Grumpy? It’s not your fault.”

  1. Societies in the West are trending in a dangerous direction. Victimology. Somebody else is always to blame. Politics.News.Entertainment. Repositioning and rebranding.
    The blame game. The lying game. Coercion and deception.
    Scapegoats.

  2. Thank you. I often hear advice from those who recommend a strict, almost austere approach to child discipline, as well as those who advise that almost any behavior should be tolerated. This balanced view is so refreshing. Thank you for all you do. Please know how appreciated you both are!

    1. Thank you, Chana. The tug between Din and Rachamim – judgment and mercy – is a constant one.

  3. Well “typed” Rabbi you show kinds to avoid, as the child training is vital.
    Some of the types picked up in my hearing did us no good. Leading and bettering goodly traits are not meddling as some made it. A Dr. Spock I think it was who gave too loose a steering-column. Nor is muscle and mouth attacks. And not good is Mr. Spock either for maneuver. Thanks for the soap box as you make thinking.

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