Jewish Parenting Wisdom: Am I too strict?

Dear Rabbi Knopf,
I’m scared that if I am too strict with my kids, it will harm my relationship with them. Sometimes, when I tell them off, I seem to make things worse and I just make them more aggressive. What’s the correct approach?

Dear Merissa,
The late sage and ethicist Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe warned that parents who are too rough with their young children can harm their relationship with them, even though the damage might not become apparent until a decade later.

But it’s essential to discipline your kids. Discipline is a very important way in which we teach our children to take morality seriously, to develop standards for judging behaviour and to rectify the mistakes they have made. It is also a way of cultivating their empathy and teaching them to see morality as an important part of their identity.

Let me explain how to do that:

Show you take morality seriously

Research shows that if you want your kids to value moral behaviour, you must show them that you do, too. You need to be crystal clear with them that it’s very important to do the right thing and that when they do something wrong, they have to make it right.

Don’t just punish them; explain why what they did was wrong

As the Slonimer Rebbe, a 20th-century Chassidic leader, explained, if a child doesn’t understand why the behaviour for which he is being punished is wrong, he will just feel resentment toward his parent.

So, explain to your child why you are upset and make sure he knows why he should be sorry. Help him reflect on what he can learn from his mistake.

Express disappointment

Disappointment conveys to your kids that you disapprove of their behaviour, but you have high expectations of their potential for improvement. The child takes the message that he is a good person, even though he did a bad thing, and that his parents have faith in him that he can do better.

Model the values you’re trying to teach

Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz cautioned against disciplining children with coarse expressions, or enraged screaming, warning that this sets a harmful example for the children to follow.

Keep up the great parenting!

Dear Rabbi Knopf,
I want to ask you the million-dollar question: how do I cope with my kids spending every available moment on their electronic devices? Please help us!

Dear Steven,
This is indeed the question every parent is asking. There isn’t space here to explore the topic exhaustively, but here are some tips:

  • Over the last decade, studies have consistently shown that the best way for parents to help their children in this area is by setting limits. It is essential that parents are very clear about these rules. Be prepared to have repeated conversations with your kids about your expectations. You also must be clear about what the consequences are if your kids don’t follow the rules you have set.
  • If your children are older, you must discuss the nature of their digital behaviour. This includes online interaction with strangers, but also the temptation to be cruel to others in online communications and the tendency to interact in shallow and superficial ways. Adolescent exposure to pornography is extremely harmful, so you should install filtering and monitoring software on any devices used by your children.
  • Consider following the recommendation of American Academy of Pediatrics by drawing up a contract that’s signed by both the children and parents, committing to a set of guidelines regarding the family’s use of technology. As part of the contract, your children must agree to you periodically checking into their media history and should commit to not watching inappropriate shows or playing offensive games. Child psychiatrist Jodi Gold recommends that a contract violation should result in the loss of the use of their devices for half a day. A second offence should result in the loss for a whole day.
  • Time and again, the research points to the importance of setting a good example. Set some digital free time for yourself and make sure your kids know about it. It is a good idea to have family time where your phone isn’t physically present (this is better than just shutting off the phone).
  • Brian X. Chen, the lead consumer technology writer for the New York Times, reports that experts recommend that the longer you wait to give your children a smartphone, the better.

Those guidelines should be enough to get you on the right track.

Rabbi Anthony Knopf is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ora in Montreal and the father of four children. If you have a parenting question for Rabbi Knopf, please email him at [email protected]. To subscribe to his parenting newsletter, visit his website.