Thursday, May 19, 2011

Parenting a needier child

This Shabbos I'm starting a new series, on "Parenting from the Torah". We'll be looking at advice from Tanach, midrash, gemara and later authorities on some of the big issues we face today. Our first class will be on parenting "needier" children.

Specifically, we'll look at two questions: (1) How do we treat a child's special needs without undermining his self-confidence? (2) How do we treat a child's special needs without causing jealousy from his siblings?

I'm not offering "Parenting Tips" here. First, I'm no better at parenting than anyone else. Second, the Torah doesn't provide clear, unambiguous guidance on parenting issues. Rather, it's going to be a discussion. But I do plan to emphasize certain points, including:

1. All of Jewish education is structured around the idea that every child has unique needs, and we are supposed to take those unique needs into account;

2. Children must know that they have your commitment to take as long as needed, and to work as creatively as needed, to help them;

3. Children must be rewarded for effort and investment, and must be encouraged in the skills and talents they have;

4. Siblings will be emphathetic and understanding if their relationships with each other are strengthened.

Here's the source sheet I plan to use:


1. R’ Dr. Abraham Twerski and Dr. Ursula Schwartz, Positive Parenting, pg. 247

Parenting is not a canned activity. It is not something that even the best-programmed robot could do. Parenting consists of creating a relationship with a child and connecting with him in a deep and harmonious way.

We know that we need to provide for each child’s needs

2. Mishlei 22:6, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch translation

חנך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה:

Raise the boy according to the course his life will take when he is grown; then he will not depart from it even in his old age.

3. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Thoughts on Education, Collected Writings 7:419

The fact that the maxim חנוך לנער על פי דרכו directs our attention separately to each individual child whose education has been entrusted to us, and bids us raise each of our children according to the future course of his life, should make us mindful of yet another reflection that is no less worthy of our consideration: Every child must be raised as an individual… The practical means by which we are to guide each individual child to this height of pure devotion to duty are not the same. They are as different from one another as the tendencies and abilities, the temperaments and proclivities, the intellectual and emotional potential are in each individual personality. Every shoe does not fit all feet. The objective of our educational work should be to raise children as different as Jacob and Esau in such a manner that both of them will grow up to be good and capable men. But if this purpose is to be achieved, the two cannot be raised by the same method.

4. Talmud, Succah 28b

קטן שאינו צריך לאמו [חייב בסוכה] היכי דמי קטן שאינו צריך לאמו? אמרי דבי רבי ינאי כל שנפנה ואין אמו מקנחתו רבי שמעון בן לקיש אומר כל שנעור משנתו ואינו קורא אמא. גדולים נמי קרו! אלא כל שנעור ואינו קורא אמא אמא.

A child who does not need his mother [is obligated to sit in the Succah]. At what stage does a child no longer need his mother? In the yeshiva of R’ Yannai they said: When he does not need his mother to clean him after he uses the washroom. R’ Shimon ben Lakish said: When he wakes up without calling, “Mommy!” But don’t older people do this as well? Rather: When he wakes up without calling, “Mommy! Mommy!”

5. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:29

והנה שודאי חייבים במצוות כשהביאו שערות והם בני י"ג ובנות י"ב ויש חיוב על האבות ללמדם מה שאפשר להם מקטנותם בזמן ששייך שיבינו לפי כוחם. ולא בבני שש שמחוייבין להתחיל עם סתם ילדים, אלא בזמן שמכיר כל אחד על בנו שכבר שייך ללמוד איתו הוא הזמן ללמדו

Certainly, they are obligated in mitzvot once they reach physical maturity, at the age of 12 or 13, and there is an obligation upon their parents to teach them whatever is possible from the time they are still minors. This is not at the age of six, as it is obligatory for other children, but rather at the time when each parent sees that his child may learn with him.

Maintain his optimism

6. Talmud, Eruvin 54b

רבי פרידא הוה ליה ההוא תלמידא דהוה תני ליה ארבע מאה זימני וגמר יומא חד בעיוה למלתא דמצוה תנא ליה ולא גמר אמר ליה האידנא מאי שנא אמר ליה מדההיא שעתא דאמרו ליה למר איכא מילתא דמצוה אסחאי לדעתאי וכל שעתא אמינא השתא קאי מר השתא קאי מר אמר ליה הב דעתיך ואתני ליך

R’ Preida had a student who would only learn after R’ Preida taught him a lesson 400 times. One day, R’ Preida was asked to participate in a mitzvah [which would take place after the lesson], and he taught the student but the student could not learn. He asked, “Why is it different now?” The student replied, “From the moment I heard them tell my master that there was a mitzvah to pursue, I could not focus. At every moment I said, ‘Now the master will leave, now the master will leave.’” R’ Preida said to him, “Pay attention, and I will teach you”…

7. Bereishit 4:3-4

ויהי מקץ ימים ויבא קין מפרי האדמה מנחה לד': והבל הביא גם הוא מבכרות צאנו ומחלבהן וישע ד' אל הבל ואל מנחתו:

And it was, at the end of days, Kayin brought a gift to Gd from the fruit of the land. And Hevel also brought from the first of his sheep, and their fat. And Gd turned to Hevel and to his offering.

8. Midrash, Shemot Rabbah 40:4

הגדול והקטן שוין לפני המקום, בצלאל משל יהודה ואהליאב מדן והוא מזדווג לו, אמר ר' חנינא הגדול והקטן שוים... המשכן בשני שבטים אלו נעשה, וכן המקדש, שלמה מיהודה וחירם (מלכים א ז) בן אשה אלמנה ממטה נפתלי

Great and small are equal before Gd; Betzalel was from Yehudah and Ahaliav was from Dan, and he was paired with him. R’ Chanina said: Great and small are equal… The Mishkan was created by these two tribes. So was the Beit haMikdash – Solomon from Yehudah, with Chiram, “the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali.”

9. R’ Dr. Abraham Twerski and Dr. Ursula Schwartz, Positive Parenting, pg. 257

Medication does not do homework, medication does not practice the new pasukim, and medication does not read the chapter in social studies. It is they who do the learning, who practice their new assignments, who do the homework and who organize and plan their time and tasks in a better fashion.

The other siblings

10. Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 84:8

ר"ל בשם רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אמר צריך אדם שלא לשנות בן מבניו שע"י כתונת פסים שעשה אבינו יעקב ליוסף וישנאו אותו

Reish Lakish said, citing R’ Elazar ben Azaryah: One must not vary his treatment of one child among others, for via the striped cloak that our father Yaakov made for Yosef, ‘They hated him.’

11. Rashbam to Bereishit 37:2

והוא נער את בני בלהה וגו' - נערותו ורגילותו ומשתאיו היו עם בני בלהה ובני זלפה. ומתוך כך התחילו אחיו בני לאה לשנוא אותו:

‘And he was a youth with the children of Bilhah…’ His youth and his habits and his drinking were with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, and so his brothers, children of Leah, began to hate him.

12. Talmud, Megilah 16a-b

לכלם נתן לאיש חלפות שמלת ולבנימן נתן חמש חליפת אפשר דבר שנצטער בו אותו צדיק יכשל בו דאמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב בשביל משקל שני סלעים מילת שהוסיף יעקב ליוסף משאר אחיו נתגלגל הדבר וירדו אבותינו למצרים אמר רבי בנימין בר יפת רמז רמז לו שעתיד בן לצאת ממנו שיצא מלפני המלך בחמשה לבושי מלכות שנאמר ומרדכי יצא בלבוש מלכות תכלת וגו'

‘He gave to all of them, to each he gave changes of clothes, and to Binyamin he gave five changes of clothes’ – Can it be that the righteous one who was pained in this manner would now stumble in the same thing? For Rava bar Machsiya said that because of the two measures of silk which Yaakov added for Yosef over his brothers, the matter developed and our ancestors descended to Egypt!

Rabbi Binyamin bar Yefet explained: Yosef hinted to Binyamin that he would have a descendant who would go out before the king in five royal garments, as it is written, ‘And Mordechai went out in royal garb…’


  1. You made the excellent point that "All of Jewish education is structured around the idea that every child has unique needs, and we are supposed to take those unique needs into account."

    When we lived in Pennsylvania during the mid-1980's, one of our kids was rejected from entering the kindergarten of the only local Jewish day school by their gatekeeper/psychologist who was always given the last word on admissions. This despite their having a very competent and sympathetic Resource Room teacher.

    We tried to make our case, a rather good one, for giving our child a chance, but the unsympathetic principal shocked us by saying (may not be exact) "We're not here to save Jewish souls". A rabbi, yet! Supposedly the dual Jewish/General Studies curriculum in this one-day-school town was not for everyone. The fact that the nearest day school was over 1.5 hours away did not move him to take a chance.

    Now and then, we began to meet other parents in the same boat as us, who had been repelled one at a time from the school in this fashion. We moved out of state at the earliest opportunity after that, to a place with schools that did not take the un-Jewish, narrow view of their duties.

  2. I would add the r'zushya story -hkb"h grades on a curve (and btw imho it's just as important that talented children learn this - for a different reason)
    Joel Rich

  3. The problem with siblings is very rarely the parent who buys a kusones pasim. It's the parent with 24 hours days, a job, a weird belief they ought to sleep some of that time, and children who have more needs and therefore take up more of their time.

    The children without special needs can end up starving for attention. Particularly in a large family. Without special care, that child may seek attention through misbehaving, not trying in school, going OTD or antisocial behavior.

    My advice... One night a week, take one or at most two kids out to the local fast-food joint. (If we're speaking of a a home witha lot of kids, the budget won't absorb much more.) Or a window of Sunday to taking one child (or at most two) out to do something. (Barnes and Nobles works.) So that the child is never more than a month away from significant one-on-one time. "Quality time" is not a full replacement for quantity time, but this parent has no choice.

    I would add that while our educational institutions are built around the idea of unique individual needs, there is a similar problem of finite resources. And so, the child with a learning disability spends too much of his day on his week point, and not enough learning those things he's good at. Lowering expectations overall, as school becomes about their failure. And the mainstream class is still being taught to the middle of the class, regardless of any of the above. We might in theory believe chanokh lena'ar al pi darko, but after cost-cutting, it doesn't consistently reach the child.


  4. Bob-
    At least I can gladly inform you that this situation no longer applies there, thank Gd.


    Very much agreed on all points.