The Heart Vs. the Mind

When It Comes To Disciplining Our Children, An Internal Battle Rages On

By Sarah Wildman

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My daughter, Orli, has reached the ripe old age of 18 months. She’s sure on her feet now: She runs, she hops, she climbs, she twirls. She can be the sweetest child that you’ve ever met, especially if she greets you at the door with arms and mouth wide open for an embrace and a shriek of joy. When music comes on, she moves immediately, raises her hands in the air, throws back her head and laughs. She’s coy and savvy; she’s silly and vivacious.

Kurt Hoffman

That’s the good part.

And then there’s the hard part.

The other day, Orli’s baby sitter came back from playgroup looking serious. Orli had pulled a kid’s hair, she said. Hard. And, tried to bite him. I couldn’t quite believe it. Then I observed it myself — first at a play date with a friend from Orli’s “Itsy Bitsy Yoga” (yes, we go to yoga — you should see Orli’s Downward-Facing Dog): a yummy, fantastically friendly little girl named Ellis who conveniently lives just four blocks away. Ellis bopped Orli on the head with a wooden ball, and Orli, retaliating, pulled Ellis’s hair. Hard. A few days later we were invited to another kid’s house to play. Again, hair-pulling. Argh.

I took Orli aside and told her we don’t do that. We don’t hit. We don’t bite. We don’t pull hair. She scrunched up her nose, twisted away and ran off toward the kid’s head.

“We have to leave,” I said. I was mortified, despite myself, and despite the protests from the others. “You don’t mind if we discipline her?” one parent asked, after chastising my totally deserving kid.

Not at all. But do I feel like I’m doing something wrong? Yes.

Are we all in need of some discipline? Does structure make us more whole?

In the same passage of proverbs that gives us lovely phrases, darchei noam “… and all its pathways are peace; it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it…” we also find, “God admonishes the one he loves, and like a father, he mollifies the child.” (Proverbs 3:12).

But what if mollifying is hard to come by? Did I mention the tantrums? The I-don’t-want-to-change-my-diaper hysterics, where she buckles her knees, cries like the end of the world has come and drags you to the ground? Or when she doesn’t want to get back in her stroller, and kicks and screams and bellows, and the rest of the library looks at me like I’m the worst mother ever?

The crazy thing of it all is how fast it blows over. Blink, and she’s back to the giggler, the girl who’ll run to give you a book, who shares her nectarine with you — her blueberries if you ask really, really nicely.

My father suggested I say “no” more often. Yet, I seem to be saying nothing but “No!”

The pediatrician said that 18-month-olds — that magical chai! — have no sense of judgment. She has no sense of consequence. She is, to borrow from Freud, all id, all impulse, all want, all need.

It’s up to us to set the limits. And sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don’t.

This we discovered the other day, when, my back turned for what couldn’t have been more than 15 seconds, my daughter managed to snag an unopened bottle of wine, smash it against a chair, and fill the dining room with glass and alcohol. She was stunned, fortunately, by her own power, so I had the three seconds I needed to dash in and pluck her up, still holding the neck of the smashed wine bottle, before she cut herself.

So what to do? How do I not become hysterical myself in the face of Orli’s histrionics?

Rabbi Aron Moss, who teaches Kabbalah and Talmud in Sydney, Australia, has a nice essay on the website about handling tantrums and discipline in those too young for discipline.

“The Kabbalah teaches that there is a parent/child relationship going on within every one of us. In that relationship, intellect is the parent, and emotion is the child,” he writes. “Emotions,” Moss continues, are “like children… wild and untamed, impulsive and erratic. Emotions know no boundaries…. This is because our heart is full of vitality and energy, but lacks one important skill: It has no direction…. A cool and clear-thinking mind can calmly direct the heart to feel the right emotion at the right time, when to love and when to fear, when to get excited and when to hold back. The same holds true for being parents to our children. A child is a bundle of emotion, spontaneous and moody, passionate and irrational. This is what makes children so lovable and so impossible. They have not yet developed the ability for mind to direct heart. And so, the parent must stand in and play the role of the mind for the child, to help them tell right from wrong, to guide them to channel and control their emotions.”

In other words, with no innate rationality (yet!), we must overcome our own impulsiveness and meet Orli’s impulses with calm, measured direction. It’s so hard not to join her in her anger sometimes, so hard not to be overwhelmed by it.

There is a story about the Baal Shem Tov: “A father once came to the Baal Shem Tov with a problem concerning his son. He complained that the son was forsaking Judaism and morality, and asked the rabbi what he could do. The Baal Shem Tov answered, ‘Love him more.’”

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and for Politics Daily.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.