Who rules your child? Who decides what she is going to do and what she is not going to do? Do you as parents make these determinations? Does her school make these decisions for her?
Does it depend on her age? Do you think you choose for her until she begins school and then school makes the choices for her? And when she becomes a little older, her peers make the choices?
None of the above. No matter how old she is. She was born with b’chira chofshis, free will, the ability to make her own choices. And chofshit is to be taken literally. No limitations, nothing is outside the realm of possibility. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never observed a two-year-old in action. Or a teenager. And, unfortunately, some adults make choices that you would have thought are outside the realm of possibility.
You may have noticed bichira chofshit being asserted by your child as an infant. Even though Gerber baby foods are tested by a panel of babies “to assure they are liked by tiny taste buds,” your baby may have had some different opinions on the matter. And when you attempted to cajole her into eating some, she may have freely chosen to empty the bowl onto the floor or fling it at you. Perhaps you tasted it and found it to be quite palatable. Why is your baby being so ornery?
She may not be ornery about it. She may find the taste unpleasant. How can that be if you’ve ascertained that it tastes fine? While Gerber is correct that a baby’s taste buds are tiny, that is true only objectively. Relatively speaking, according to Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, "Children have the same number of taste buds as adults, but their tongue is a whole lot smaller, so the flavors are more intense the younger you are. That's why little kids don't like bitter foods and really like sweet foods. The effect is magnified" (Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2013).
Be that as it may, her behavior is a clear expression of b’chira chofshit. She makes the choice. No one else.
That doesn’t change. What changes is your ability to limit the range of her choices? While she is a preschooler, you have control over her environment. While you cannot force her to make any particular choice, you can make things or foods unavailable to her. She may still choose nothing from the selections you provide, and she will display her displeasure loud and clear. Now the choice is yours; either choose to tolerate the tantrum or choose to make something more to her liking available to her.
I would urge you not to think of this as “but if I give in to her, she wins.” I don’t want you to compete with your child, to win or lose. And I don’t like the term “choose your battles.” Parenting should never be a battle. Effective parenting is built on a relationship of respect and cooperation. That goes both ways. Sometimes you choose to cooperate with your child because something you don’t like is very important to her. Sometimes you relinquish your desire that she do something or eat something because she is strongly averse. I hope that much of the time she will choose to cooperate with you.
So we have seen that while you make rules for your child, she chooses to follow them or not to. And you have some control over the range of her choices when she is young.
Then she begins school. All of a sudden she is faced with a whole new set of rules. She is also provided with a new, expanded range of choices provided by her teachers. What happens when the school’s rules and choices are not the same as the ones you prefer?
Of course, you chose the school partially based on the school’s rule and range of choices. You sought a school whose standards align with yours. But most of the time, that alignment is imperfect. There are going to be some choices your child will make that you disapprove of. What do you do then?
I was dismayed when my daughter came home from school with her hair in a pony. I had sent her to school that morning with her hair on her shoulders, the way she has always worn it. I asked her why she put her hair into a pony and she said that she didn’t, the teacher did. She said the teacher had frowned at her at told her that edel girls don’t wear their hair on their shoulders, they always wear it in a pony. I was shocked. My daughter is five years old! Should I call the menahelet and complain?
No. You should call the teacher. Tell the teacher you were surprised that she put your daughter’s hair into a pony, and you’d like to know if this a school policy. Keep your question short and precise. Do not criticize the teacher or put her on the defensive. Be away of the tone of your voice. Don’t make the call until you are calm and can stay that way. If you cannot express yourself as curious about the school policy rather than annoyed that the teacher upset you or your child, ask your spouse to make the call. No matter what the teacher responds, do not argue. If you don’t like the response, tell the teacher that you intend to discuss the matter with the menahelet. Never go over someone’s head behind their back. The outcome is usually very unpleasant for you in the long term. Tell them you intend to take it to the next level. If they choose to work with you, that would be great. If they choose not to, they have chosen to have you bring their superior into the situation. Let them have the choice.
What’s the makor for that suggestion? Hillel. He told the prospective convert “if you wouldn’t like it done to you, don’t do it to someone else.” (Shabbat 31a)
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting.