Israeli moms and dads hit the books to learn how to turn their family circus into a family circle.
By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
The Ozer family is getting ready for bed, and it's not a pretty sight.No one's cleared the supper table. Twins Itamar and Yehonatan, eight, race around the living room, doing everything but taking a shower, ignoring dad Opher's shouts to get upstairs now. Four-year-old Avia's put the cat on the table again, endangering a pricey vase, drawing an angry "Enough already" from Sigal, her mom.
Dishes and food are strewn around the house, a testimony to 12-year-old Noa's afternoon snacking. Itamar's lied about doing his homework, Yehonatan won't turn off the TV and Avia is throwing a tantrum over not getting to hear a bedtime story. Hours later, Sigal and Opher collapse into bed, dreading morning when the battles on the home front resume.
At least, that's the way things used to be. But tonight, it's different.
Yehonatan and Noa vie for who can fill up the dishwasher faster after dinner. Itamar's homework is done without mom having to check. No food's been left around. All three younger children cheerfully head upstairs to shower when asked, ready for bed less than half an hour later. Okay, Avia puts the cat on the table again, but this time mom simply suggests, "That's not a good idea," and the girl whisks the whiskered one away. And there's plenty of time later to snuggle and read a book with mom.
Magic wand? A deal with the devil? Not quite. Their sanity and the foundations of the family in the balance, the Ozers of Hod Hasharon decided to act.
Faced with chaos, the couple sought control and found it at the Adler Institute's Parenting School, joining growing numbers of moms and dads discovering that better parenting can be learned, to the supreme benefit of the entire family.
With not enough Super Nannies to go around, they're learning better ways to run their households, learning tricks and new tools that offer relief in dealing with parental challenges from diapering to the dilemmas of adolescence.
Adler's not alone, though it's been the leader in the field for years. Classes are being offered by a number of parents' groups, companies that sell products aimed at kids, community centers or even in segments on TV. And if Labor MK Nadia Hilou has her way, soon all first-time parents will be required to take them.
"Today, if you want to do flower arranging, or be a cosmetician, or an interior designer, you take a course, you go study. The only profession for which one receives no training and no basic tools to perform is parenthood," she says.
Spurred by the case of Rose Pizem, the young girl allegedly murdered by her grandfather, aided by her mother, and which made headlines all summer, Hilou wants to ensure increasingly stressed-out parents have the tools to meet the challenge of parenting, even before they face it.
ADLER'S CLASSES were created just for that reason, "out of the belief that being a parent is the most important job in the world, and one that must be learned," says institute director-general Osnat Harel.
The institute was founded in 1963 by immigrants, led by Prof. Rudolf Dreikurs, a disciple of Alfred Adler, who trained psychologists, social workers and educational counselors concerned with problems affecting Israel's developing society, particularly that the more autocratic methods of parenting they'd grown up with were no longer relevant. "So the Adler Institute found a niche, by working in groups working on parenthood," similar to those Adler ran in his native Austria, says Harel.
The classes, attended by several thousand parents a year, mix doctrine with practical dos and don'ts, like helping a mom whose baby cries during every diapering rethink the overall experience, from the tone of her voice to the physical way she approaches the child.
Parents of a youngster who always demanded something on outings were shown how to teach him to not always expect a gift, or to give him a small budget of his own to underscore the Adlerian idea of giving children choices, preventing excursions from becoming skirmishes.
"We'll be able to plan our outing in a practical way, but that practical idea will first go through the parents' understanding of why the child is behaving this way and where they are with that behavior," explains facilitator Hadar Kugel of the classes' approach. Such tips send parents like the Ozers home with new direction and ideas that ease situations on the home front.
"Kids sometimes can be annoying - they cry, they act up," says Hilou. "But one needs to know that this is part of a child's development, and how to deal with itâ€¦ They need to acquire these toolsâ€¦ And I believe many cases of suffering and abuse could be avoided if parents had more support, knowledge and guidance."
THAT HELP was exactly what Sigal Raz-Ozer, 41, found herself seeking as she struggled to raise her four children.
Bath time was a battle, reading a book before bedtime a war of wills. Parents like Raz-Ozer come to Adler's classes seeking answers, wondering, as Harel notes, "why a two-year-old is running roughshod over a mother who runs a $2 million business." Raz-Ozer recalls "a lot of noise, a lot of crying sometimes. I remember feeling pretty helpless when a situation would cause one of the kids to cry, their always trying to get my attention... I found myself asking why a lot - why are the children doing these things. It was also important for me to see things through their eyes and understand their motives... and make as few mistakes as possible."
She brought Opher along to "have more of a consensus" at home, and the two joined another dozen or so parents at an Adler parenting class nearby, a combination of confession, lectures, practical discussions and interactive exercises that, she says, "changed my life, both personally and in my relationship with the kids."
Her first parenting challenge tonight comes quickly, just moments after returning home at 5 from her job as head of customer relations for Leumi Card. After observing her perpetual-motion daughter Avia, four, bouncing on the sofa for about 10 minutes, Raz-Ozer notices she's stopped, and seizes the moment to encourage the child's good behavior.
"My daughter could jump on the sofa all day," she explains. "I could say: Avia, enough jumping, stop jumping, STOP JUMPING. But if I see her, like now, sitting nicely, I can come up to her and say: 'You know, Avia, today I saw that you really tried not to jump on the sofa, and I really appreciate it.' That's encouragement - encouraging positive behavior. And it works better against negative behavior than just saying stop all the time. Our children stop hearing us telling them to stop at a certain stage. And when we encourage them, it strengthens them."
THE PROPER way to encourage youngsters is just one subject covered in class. Overseen by an Adler facilitator, the Ozers' group, like the others, first developed a "contract," outlining "what we wanted to see happen in the group, what we didn't want, a commitment to discretion, respecting each other, etc.," Raz-Ozer recalls, chilling out in her garden a bit before returning to mommydom.
The series of 20 to 24 meetings - divided by children's ages - focused on major Adlerian themes in parenting, including creating a sense of belonging in the child, the idea of equality between parent and child, offering choices and setting limits or finding alternatives to punishments.
"The axiom in Adlerian theory is the need for what is called social interest, a need for the child to feel like he or she belongs," explains Harel. "A child will do anything to obtain this, and if his behavior doesn't bring about this feeling, he'll choose behavior that disturbs and do anything to get attention, up to and including violence, because that way, he or she will feel they belong."
The classes stress that "there's something to learn, awareness grows. It's not something that comes by instinct. It's rational, it's after thought. You can do things differently and get completely different results at home," says Harel.
Before they did anything else, however, each week Raz-Ozer and her classmates launched the most moving and important part of the meeting: They stirred a pot.
The kdera, or pot, opens all classes. Parents share the toil and trouble of the past week, what worked, what didn't, creating a positive mix of breast-beating and sharing advice that unites them. "I remember discussing the whole issue of power struggles, how to get out of them. I'd ask my son to do something and he didn't want to, like taking a shower. I remember we talked a lot about getting the kids ready in the morning, or at night, that it got out of hand and made me and the other parents angry," Raz-Ozer recalls.
FOR KEREN Peleg and her husband, Amir, there were different challenges, as their oldest daughter Shani, seven, has cerebral palsy. "Even a regular family isn't easy, and with her we face more problems, more issues. We felt the need to get more answers... and the answers we received were simply excellent," says Keren.
One involved using a system called the "stoplight," she explains. "Every family has its own stoplight: Some things are red; they're simply not allowed to happen. In our house, it's that it's absolutely forbidden to eat in the living room. We determined what's red in our house and what's green - what we can let them do on their own; the yellow being the things they need a little direction with."
The classes also helped Shani and her parents find a solution to the nightly clashes over showering: "I would simply say to her: 'Now you're in the living room; I'm going to pick you up, and all the way to the bathroom you're going to scream and cry until we get there.' And on the way she burst out laughing. So there was no crying, no problem," Keren, 35, recalls. "That's the way we did it for about four days until the whole issue disappeared. And when it comes up again, or with another child, I do the same thing, and it works - like magic."
The couple also ended nightly showdowns over their youngest son sleeping in their bed, by simply choosing not to make an issue of it until he simply stopped by himself. Even Amir, who thought of himself as "Super Dad" before the classes, got a new perspective. "I was spoiling them too much, every little thing they wanted they got... And I learned through the course that this was unhealthy behavior," he admits.
Immediate punishments have also become a thing of the past. "I've learned not to act impulsively," he says, and the kids are more disciplined without them. The class, he says, is "something that would benefit every household. We have to bring more parents to Adler - it'll really help them."
Sigal and Opher explored parenting from the theoretical to the specific, breaking up into more intimate subgroups to facilitate a true exchange of ideas. In return, they got tips from both facilitator and classmates that smoothed over rough spots back home. "I think many times I told the group how I felt like the things we were learning were working for me, that I finally realized how to act, or that my awareness had somehow changed... the penny had dropped," says Sigal.
There was another unforeseen benefit to taking the class, she says: "We'd come home with this great high; we wanted to be with them more and work more on our relationship with the kids."
THAT'S CERTAINLY the impression one gets tonight. Indeed, Adler himself would likely happily recognize his principles in action, like making children feel a part of their home, setting limits, allowing them to understand the consequences of their actions, giving them choices and encouraging a healthy dialogue - all on display through the evening.
So while Noa, Yehonatan, Itamar and Avia flop on beanbag chairs for some post-school TV, there aren't arguments about it later. "I try to prepare them, so they know what's going to happen," says Sigal. "Instead of telling them: 'Turn off the TV now!' I say: 'When the show is over, we're going to have dinner.' I set limits, but I do it within a dialogue... It's a matter of giving them more respect."
Itamar, getting ready for soccer practice, holds up a bag of potato chips, eyeing Mom for approval, assuring her his homework - a sore point in the past - is done. While the bubbly youngster still sometimes struggles with the issue, there's no fighting over it.
"I don't check all the time, but periodically I do," says Sigal. "And more than once I found that he lied, he told me he'd done it when he hadn't." Whereas in the past that would lead to yelling and punishments, "today I try to use what I learned... to neutralize the 'buttons' that get pushed inside me."
Even when Itamar asked for a punishment, which Adlerians hold is counterproductive, she refused. Instead, "I explained to him: 'Is it worth it to you that your teacher check and your relationship suffer, and every time you tell the truth people will think you're lying?' I showed him actions have consequences. I asked him if he needed help. We had a dialogue. But he knew I wasn't happy, and I think he learned something from it."
"I know I have to be more responsible for my homework," says Itamar. "Mom told me that I can do it if I set my mind to it. If I want, I can do anything. There are still arguments sometimes about homework, but she'll always love me and respect me. I like it better that there's less yelling... It's better for the two of us together."
"I'm not saying I don't yell at him anymore," says Sigal, "but there's a line of communication on the subject... The kids can come and tell me anything, even if it's not pleasant. Sometimes they come and say: 'Can I tell you something and you promise you won't get mad?' And I say: 'I can't promise. Some things make me angry. But I want to hear.'"
A SENSE of belonging and teamwork permeates the atmosphere in the three-level house, where the animals - Rika the dog, cats Natasha and Matilda, and Roo, a chinchilla - get along as well as the kids. After Opher returns from work and mom's spent some time with Yehonatan and Avia doing a puzzle on all fours, Sigal declares: "Let's go pick up Itamar - it'll make him so happy," and everyone heads out to the soccer field.
"There's more of a connection between the siblings," confirms Noa, applauding her brother's goal. "We get along better - we spend more time together. I think in our house we have more of a choice. When I visit other families, there's more verbal aggressiveness - more yelling, more forcing. Here, you can play first if you want, but then you have to do your homework; it's left to us."
From giving dad a list of preferred sandwiches to taking care of the pets it's a group effort, with a recently minted list of "Rules of the House" only reflecting that approach. "We make rules, like the government does sometimes," says Yehonatan. "It's nice to be a part of something."
"There were things that really bothered us at home, and we wanted to change - like bringing food upstairs to the bedrooms, which was a mess," Noa explains. So the Ozers turned to another Adlerian tool and called a family meeting to make some changes.
Posted on the front of the fridge, the rules read: "In a family meeting we decided that we want to change the atmosphere at home, to make sure things are straightened up and, most importantly, that we have good relations among us based on mutual understanding and consideration." Among the rules: "No eating upstairs," "No leaving dirty utensils or dishes anywhere in the house," "Make beds in the morning" and "Homework and preparing schoolbags for the next day must be completed by 8:30."
"If we all give more, we'll all get more in return," they conclude.
"First of all, at a certain stage I decided they were old enough to have a say in what goes on... We sat around the dinner table and I said: 'You know, there are lots of jobs to be done around the house, and I think it's time that everyone pitch in.' Then I presented a list of what I thought they could do, and they all chose," says mom.
It wasn't easy for Sigal. "To save myself the craziness or mess that might ensue, I would simply prevent them from doing things, or not ask them to even bother... Today I let them do many more things, even when it comes with spilling."
That includes letting Avia cut up cucumbers and avocado for dinner. "I'm cutting up vegetables!" she declares proudly.
"It's so nice for me that we can work together," Sigal tells her. "It's really important to recognize the child's abilities, and also to challenge them... to discover what they're capable of."
But jobs aren't the only topic addressed at the meetings. Itamar's surprise defeat in his class elections left him with "a trauma," he told his family at the dinner table that night. "We explained that we understood he was disappointed, and everyone tried to encourage him," says Segal.
Tonight, Noa raises the upcoming family trip, while Yehonatan brings up Itamar's being late for the twins' after-school pickup. A solution's found that everyone can live with.
WATCHING THE soccer game is fun, but some potential red cards are dealt with afterward. Coming home, Avia bursts into tears, demanding one more go on the swings. "We said we were only going out for a short time," Sigal reminds her, grabbing her in her arms. The tears are gone in seconds, and besides, she says, offering cogent advice, "I always try to remember the sentence: 'They don't always have to be satisfied.'"
When the boys' "five minutes" of extra time at the field drags on, they're called on it, but let off with a warning. "That's not okay. Now go wash hands and start setting the table," says Mom. There's visible remorse on their faces.
But seconds later, Sigal's facing down another parenting challenge, as Avia puts Natasha on the dining room table and brings the garden broom into the living room. Instead of sniping at her daughter, however, she calmly suggests that such behavior "isn't a good idea," offering instead that Avia help set the table.
"It's less my thinking, 'She's doing this on purpose' or 'She's trying to annoy me,'" says Sigal, referring to an Adler class tool called efrat, short for irua, perush, regesh, tguva (incident, interpretation, emotion, response). "I interpret things differently... Today I understand she needs to get my attention, and I see things through her eyes... My response is in keeping with that. I react in a more relaxed way, or sometimes even ignore it. That's also a response - you're not taking me there."
As she checks the clock in the kitchen, Sigal's confident that while surrounded by hubbub, everyone's on the same track: having a pleasant evening together. Not everything's going smoothly - Itamar and Avia are wrestling on a mat, rolling over in laughter, momentarily forgetting they're meant to head up for showers - but before long they're upstairs showering, mom having agreed to Avia's request to be carried upstairs on her back as part of their mutual agreement to go to bed "pleasantly" tonight.
Not that it's always like this; the four kids aren't Stepford children. "Even today there are nights where things are a mess," confesses Opher. "But today we know how to do things better... with less anger, stress."
Of the class, he says: "It's a new world. Now things flow more... I recommend that all parents go, especially young ones. It will put them in a completely different place."
Upstairs, bedtime is flying by faster than Sigal and Opher could have imagined before the course. As Noa observes while straightening up her room, Yehonatan's showered and in PJs in a flash, showing a guest his book collection. Itamar's close behind, displaying his soccer medals. After her bath, Avia cuddles with obviously tired but game Sigal, who reads her a book about an elephant. It's a magical, warm moment.
Not every day's such a triumph, but fortunately, Sigal, who's studying to be an Adler facilitator herself, notes "The theory has within it a certain degree of compassion for the parents: that every day is another day, that even if the child doesn't do the right thing today, tomorrow there's another chance. And that a relationship is a constantly developing thing... I think I got many tools without which things would definitely be different. I got a gift."
The biggest booster of the class, however, turns out to be Itamar, who slips downstairs in his pajamas, hair still wet, to say good-bye, insistent on getting in the final word as the Ozer family gets ready for lights out: "The Adler class helped us get our lives in order," he says, "and I recommend it."
Options for parenting courses include the various branches of the Adler Institute, whose number in Herzliya is (09) 951-8455, and the Shilav children's furnishings store chain, whose offerings are available at www.shilav.co.il. In addition, many local community centers offer such courses, and more are in the process of opening up.
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