Sara Teichman, Psy D.
Dear Dr. T.,
I’m not sure whether I have a problem or I am making a mountain out of a molehill. My two boys – ages 10 and 12 – share a room. I’ve been noticing that the older brother always gives in to the younger one for the sake of peace: letting him cheat at games, monopolize the room, etc. Yet, although the older one seems increasingly resentful, he makes no move to assert himself. Lately, for example, he’s allowed a lethal Lego “set up” to overtake the bedroom. So, do I leave well enough alone or do I intervene? Is the older brother displaying good character or just plain being passive?
My compliments to you for paying attention to family dynamics, especially when you could so easily – and conveniently – just turn a blind eye. We all realize that the family is where we learn future habits. Our childhood patterns haunt us down the road, well into adulthood.
Start by talking to your older son and asking him how he feels about his “looking away.” This is probably easiest done in context, i.e. when there is an example on the table. The Lego example seems perfect: ask him what it’s like to have to risk life and limb to get to his bed. Does he honestly not care?
Ideally, your son will voice some of his resentment or a feeling that it’s “not fair.” But, I wouldn’t count on it. More than likely, he will parrot the refrain of, “It’s okay, it doesn’t matter,” and it will be up to you to ferret out the real deal.
Before you begin the “talk,” think about the many reasons that a child may choose to behave like your son. Does he think it is good to give in graciously for the sake of peace? Have these feelings been reinforced by the praise he receives for engaging in such behavior? Does he suffer from low self-esteem and feel unentitled to having his wants or needs met? Or, could he be imitating the “nice guy” style from some other family member who lets people step on him?
Of course, you will base your response on your son’s particular profile. But, here are a handful of suggestions that you can customize to your situation.
• Help your child learn that good character means caring for another person and making sure that our speech and behavior reflect that care. It does not mean putting other people’s needs before our own when it costs us self-respect or safety. A person of character chooses – but is not compelled – to put another person first, but does so without feeling victimized, put-upon, angry, or resentful.
It doesn’t mean letting your brother cheat at Scrabble, but it may include letting a younger sib “win” at checkers.
It does include lending both money and possessions, but with the expectation of return as per agreement.
• Help your child understand that we all have wants and needs that should be honored. Failure to attend to these issues often leads to frustration and rage, so while we don’t want to encourage selfishness, we do want to give our children the permission and the courage to take care of themselves, even in the face of disapproval.
It’s great to play a game of touch football when your sibs “must” have you for the team, but, not if you want to work on your science project.
And, it’s fine for you or your child to ask for that sweater back, even if the friend thinks you’re being petty.
• Teach your child to deal: to negotiate fairly without giving up his needs and wants. It’s not only “my” way or “your” way. We can also compromise or come up with a new way. Developing these skills in the safety of the family is a wonderful way to prepare your child for future relationships.
Asking me to handicap myself in a game because I am older is fair. Cheating is not.
Your Lego creations are amazing! But, they need to be put out of the way at night so I have access to the room.
I hope this is useful – not just for your son, but for you, as well. Though the line between taking care of ourselves vs. others is sometimes unclear, helping our children learn how to find it is well worth the effort.
The Book Nook:
Chinuch in Our Turbulent Time by Rabbi Dov Brezak, a parenting expert and author of “Parenting That Works” in Yated Ne’eman. This book tackles the hard topics like chutzpah and bullying – with a special emphasis on discipline.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, LA’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com