Parenting: Join me

A group of religious women, many from settlements, have developed a new approach to child rearing that has high expectations from kids.

girl washing dishes 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
girl washing dishes 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A mother of five was having trouble with one of her children. “My kids help clean up every day after lunch,” said A, whose story appears on the Internet site of Merkaz Shefer, a women’s forum that has developed a new approach to child rearing.
“Someone sweeps the floor, someone clears and wipes the table.
“The difficult job is washing dishes. For a while, one of my children – the five-year-old – refused to do it. I tried everything. I got angry, I threatened, I punished, but no matter what I did nothing worked.
“But after taking part in Merkaz Shefer’s parent guidance course, I learned that deep down every child really wants to cooperate around the house. I just needed to be convinced that there was nothing my children wanted more than to help out.
“When I made the switch in outlook – without punishment, prizes, unnecessary talk – things changed.
“Now my five-year-old usually washes the dishes. Occasionally, when he doesn’t want to, I wash dishes – not because I caved in to him but because I want clean dishes.
“Sometimes I invite my smallest child – the two-year-old – to wash dishes with me and then – surprise – my five-year-old shows up and wants to join in as well.”
Merkaz Shefer, established this summer, is a group of about 70 women, the vast majority  religious, who have articulated a new approach to child rearing. Using a philosophy based on the psychological theories of Alfred Adler and borrowing from traditional Jewish sources, they aim to fight what they see as a worrisome trend in the Western world that is producing spoiled, maladjusted children who are unable to cope with the challenges of being adults.
They get across their message by organizing parental guidance seminars for groups of between 12 and 20 mothers that meet once a week for a few months. During this time mothers are taught the basics of Merkaz Shefer’s approach. They are encouraged to raise problems they are having with their children at home and are offered solutions as part of a general change in perspective.
Reading A’s success story – just one of many touted on Merkaz Shefer’s Internet site – I could not help but wonder whether it wasn’t asking a little too much of a five-year-old to wash the dirty dishes produced by a family of six. A poor child perched on a chair, his little hands getting all wrinkly from the dishwater, made for a disturbing image.
Cynics might note that A, who identifies herself as a resident of Elon Moreh, has had five children in seven years. She can use all the help she can get around the house. Enlisting the toddlers in domestic chores transforms them from a liability to an asset – at least from a utilitarian perspective.
And if you can teach mothers that the children actually enjoy doing various chores around the house, you’ve killed two birds with one stone: Kids are productive contributors and mothers don’t feel guilty about putting them to work.
ACCORDING TO Yael Elitzur, Merkaz Shefer’s guru, the approach was not developed to enable religious mothers to have a lot of children without going crazy, although that is definitely a positive side effect.
“Parents are being faced with a total breakdown in their authority, coupled with constant feelings of guilt that they are not doing enough for their children or that they are demanding too much of them,” says Elitzur, 64, who brought up her six children in Ofra.
“Slowly, over the past few decades the entire emphasis in child rearing has changed. In the past the child was expected to join the grown-up world, accept responsibility and become a productive member of society. Today children’s needs – not their responsibilities – have become the only thing that is important. And these needs are constantly growing.
“We, in contrast, teach that a child should know his place and should cooperate and accept responsibilities. Parents should not think that if they demand too much from their children they will have a nervous breakdown. Rather, by putting faith in children’s abilities, we are empowering them. The message needs to be, ‘Come join us in the grown-up world.’
“But instead we are bowing down to our children. As a result our children are not growing up. They are not taking responsibility for their actions, and parents are continuing to be involved with their children long after they cease to be children. They are entering the army with them or supporting them economically until late in life.
“Or people are simply not having children because they do not want to be bothered.”
Still, isn’t it a little cruel to expect a five-year-old to be washing the dishes?
“No,” says Elitzur. “Not unless your working assumption as a mother is that your child needs to be brought up to think that he is the king of the house and that your job is to serve him.
“But if our job as parents is to prepare our children to join the real world, they need to learn to cooperate, accept responsibility and take an active part in the building of society. And it starts with participating in the upkeep of the house.
“Did you ever see the deep satisfaction, joy and sense of competence radiate from the eyes of a child after finishing his chores that his parents expected him to do?
“If it is unacceptable from the mother’s point of view to eat and expect others to clean up after you, then so be it. The child should be expected to cooperate.”
Elitzur makes it clear that neither she nor the other parental guidance counselors at Shefer make judgments about parents’ values or the way they choose to bring up their children.
“If parents expect a five-year-old to be washing dishes, that is fine. If, on the other hand, they think that it is unfair to ask their child to wash the dishes, then they can do it themselves. And if they prefer to have their child sitting quietly reading a book or even watching TV all day, that is also fine.
“The basic idea is that children should be expected to cooperate with their parents’ values whatever they may be. A clear hierarchy should be created in which the child knows his place and does what he is expected to do.”
YITZHAK KADMAN, executive director of the National Council for the Child and champion of children’s rights, has a different approach.
While he agrees that parents should not become their children’s lapdog, he believes that the child should be made to feel respected. “Good communication and mutual respect are essential for the rearing of happy, successful children,” says Kadman, “not strict family hierarchies.”
Relating specifically to the case of the five-year-old dishwasher, he says that he is not opposed in principle as long as it is done properly. “If you want your child to have the feeling that he is doing his part around the house, that’s okay – as long as you give him a plastic bowl that can’t break and you don’t mind washing the bowl again so it comes out clean.
“But if you tell that five-year-old that he cannot go outside until he washes the dishes, including sharp knives and glass, that’s something else altogether.”
According to Kadman, a balance must be maintained between the parents’ needs and children’s needs.
Elitzur disagrees.
“What Kadman is saying is that the child is the focus of our attention. If washing dishes is good for him, if he has fun doing it, then we should allow him to do it,” said Elitzur. “But in the end the child’s needs are at the center of our attention. What we are saying is that the natural mode of the child is to cooperate by doing his part to help out.”
Elitzur also takes issue with Kadman’s overly protective approach, which sends out a message to the child that the parents do not have faith in his abilities.
“The child senses when his parents are allowing him to help out in order to make him feel good. The unspoken message is, ‘We know that you are small and weak and that you don’t know how to wash dishes without cutting yourself. But we will let you wash a plastic bowl and we will wash it again because we know you can’t wash dishes.’ That type of approach weakens the child.
“But when we expect our children to do chores like grown-ups, we are sending out a positive message to them that we believe in them and that we know that they are capable. This empowers them.”
THE BEGINNINGS of Merkaz Shefer go back to three decades ago when Elitzur searched for educational tools to deal with the problems she was having with her children.
“It would drive me crazy when my friends joked that their children are cute when they are asleep. Is this the reason we gave birth to children?” She found solutions to her problems after meeting Bilhah Shefer, one of the founders of the Adler Institute, which disseminates the psychological methods of Alfred Adler, a German psychologist who broke with Sigmund Freud after World War I.
Shefer, a German Holocaust survivor, left the institute after reaching the conclusion that she needed more Jewish content. It was about this time that Elitzur met Shefer. The aspect of Adlerian psychology which made the most impact on Elitzur’s thinking, and which also resulted in Adler breaking away from Freud, was his emphasis on the individual’s free will. Adler viewed human behavior as goal oriented and not causal.
Unlike Freud, who believed human behavior could be explained by discovering its causes, or behaviorists who argued that humans could be conditioned, Adler argued that human behavior was goal oriented and that a child’s primary goal was to achieve a feeling of belonging. So if the expectation in the home is that all able hands must wash dishes, the child will agree to wash dishes and in the process satisfy his own need to belong.
But Shefer also incorporated aspects of Jewish thought. She developed the idea of the “good eye,” to choose to look only at the positive behavior of one’s child. This helps the parent to focus on and encourage the child’s positive behavior, allowing him to express his need to belong in a productive, cooperative way.
After studying with Shefer, Elitzur spent two decades traveling around the country teaching her special approach to child rearing. During this time she fine-tuned it and articulated it more succinctly.
In recent years through the Center for the Study of the Jewish Family, which belongs to the modern Orthodox women’s movement Emunah, Elitzur began training other women to become parental guidance counselors. Today there are about 70 certified counselors who teach the Shefer approach to groups of mothers. Elitzur alone has helped thousands of families and about a thousand families a year are exposed to the seminars given by her students. Some counselors also provide advice on a one-on-one basis.
Judging from the testimonies posted on Merkaz Shefer’s Internet site, the approach seems to work. Mothers who struggled with bed-wetting, problems at school, lack of cooperation in the morning when in a rush to work or a myriad of other child-rearing difficulties, say they were helped.
IN A RECENT conference of Merkaz Shefer’s counselors at a Jerusalem branch of Emunah, various strategies were discussed on how to increase Shefer’s influence beyond mothers.
Yael Zlotnick, a veteran high-school teacher and one of the counselors, lectured on how the Shefer approach could be used in schools.
“The main role of the teacher should be to place full trust in her students that they are capable and can and will do what they are expected to do,” said Zlotnick. “And the best way to do this is to transfer full responsibility to them.”
The underlying message to the student who is given full responsibility is “I know you can succeed,” explained Zlotnick.
In contrast, when students are given various breaks in their course work to allow them to “experience success,” this undermines their confidence because the underlying message is that “we know you have a problem with challenges. Don’t worry, we will do it for you.”
“That approach is well-intentioned,” said Zlotnick. “But in a way what the teacher is doing is giving the child crutches instead of wings.”
Nearly all of the women who took part in the conference were visibly religious. Because of the social dynamics of word of mouth, most of the mothers who are exposed to the approach are religious as well, although there is a growing number of secular families participating in the seminars.
Is the approach only appropriate for religious families?
“Definitely not,” says Elitzur. “But I admit that it is easier for a religious family to implement the principles we teach. The main message is that the individual is expected to join something larger than himself, to cooperate with the values and goals of his family and society.
“In religious families this idea is more familiar, since there is a recognition of something higher. One’s sights are aimed at God and everyone aspires to serve God, both parents and children.
“Also, the idea of parental authority is also more easily internalizedsince one’s parents are considered God’s representatives in this world.This is the source of parental authority.
“In contrast, in secular families it is easier for parents to fall intothe trap of turning the child into the center of attention since thereis more of an emphasis on the individual’s rights and freedoms.
“But the same principles apply for secular families. The basic idea isthat the children are expected to take on the values and goals of theparents – whatever they may be. Parents lead and children follow, notthe other way around.”