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What Makes Your Kid Lose It?

I was once in a grocery store late at night. Ahead of me was a screaming toddler in a stroller. The child’s mother was frustrated and angry. Ignoring the fact that she had taken her child out close to midnight, way beyond the time a toddler could be expected to control her behavior, the mom reacted harshly to her child’s cries. I was deeply bothered by this situation, but it reminded me of a classic question that many of us ask when learning about the ten plagues which began in Parshas Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-9:35). After suffering through several plagues, Pharaoh attempted to relent and release the Jewish people from servitude. However, God stepped in and hardened Pharaoh's heart, fortifying him to refuse to let them go. The question begs to be asked, how could Hashem punish Pharaoh with all ten plagues when the Torah clearly states that Hashem hardened his heart, effectively preventing Pharaoh from giving in earlier? Was Pharaoh at fault for refusing to release the Jews when supernatural forces were at play giving him steely resolve? Doesn’t this seem similar to a mother punishing her child for screaming in a store when the mother herself is the one who caused the situation to deteriorate so badly? 

The Rambam (Maimonides, 1138-1204) explains this with an answer that has practical ramifications for parents. The Rambam teaches that Pharaoh had free will in the beginning of the process. In fact, during the first five plagues the Torah doesn’t say Hashem hardened Pharaoh's heart.  At those times Pharaoh hardened his own heart.  It was only after he recommitted himself to his stubbornness multiple times that he degenerated far enough for Hashem to take over and continue the process.  Pharaoh began his encounters with Moshe with free will, but through his own actions he evolved into someone who lost his power of choice. This is similar to a person who tragically makes poor choices repeatedly, and eventually finds himself acting badly without consciously choosing to do so. Such a person is simply limited by his previous decisions. 

On a much smaller scale than Pharoah rebelling against Hashem, we all occasionally take actions that lead us into situations where we subsequently have less control over our next actions.  For example, after sleepless nights or skipping meals we often won’t have the wherewithal to respond to challenging situations the way we would ideally choose. We start with actions in our control, (choosing to skip lunch), and end up with situations out of our control (snapping at our child when they move slowly).

While it’s true that adults can get to a point where we lose our ability to consciously choose our behavior, it is far easier for our children to reach that state. A screaming toddler in the store near midnight has no control over her behavior at that time.  It’s too late and she’s too tired. She’s lost her free will just as surely as Pharoah lost his. How fortunate is the child whose parents understand this reality.

A mother can help her children make good choices by striving to keep them in a framework that helps them be successful. A child who is very sensitive to noises may need earplugs at loud events to enable them to stay in control of their behavior. A child who thrives on regularity needs a consistent schedule. With some thought we can identify for each of our children the factors that help them stay in control and those that contribute to them losing self-control.  These aren’t identical for each person and some children get to that point of loss of control much more easily than others.  Once we’ve identified which stressors contribute to our children reaching the point of no self-control we can try to limit those as much as possible. When those situations are unavoidable, we can proactively build in ways for our children to recalibrate or recoup as early as possible. This means that if our child needs plenty of sleep and we know that there will be unavoidable late nights coming up we can plan for other ways to help our child cope during this period.

When a child has lost control, it is not the time to try to reason with them. Consequences or punishments will have no lasting effect and no effective parenting can take place at that time.  What parents can do is provide stability, unwavering support and calmness, while we try to give them time and space to recover. Afterwards, we can address the situation with the necessary follow-up at a time when both the child and parent are calm and regulated. As we learn from Pharaoh, the first step to making good decisions is retaining free will. Parents can help their children do that by setting up the home environment and schedule in ways that help children be their best.

You can still register for tonight's Parenting As Partners! This is is a wonderful opportunity for couples to enhance their marriage and parenting skills. My husband and I hope to see you there!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Menuha Chulati, wife, mother of two, grandmother of four, and beloved teacher, who was burned alive in her home on October 7. A student of hers wrote on Facebook that she was “the reason that I finished school! Always supported, helped, embraced — there are people in this world who leave a mark on you for your whole life, Menuha was one of them… you will always stay in my heart, but now my heart is broken and shattered.”


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