Picture the scenario: Your little boy comes home from kindergarten and you tell him to do something he doesn’t want to do. He responds with the ethos of the playground: “Mommy, you’re stupid!”
There are typically five kinds of maternal reactions (all of which I’ve actually seen, at one time or another), depending on what kind of day you’ve had and on your own personality. But before I get to the typical responses — and the proper responses — I want to explain to you the concept of chutzpah.
In many ways, our present society can be characterized as a time of chutzpah. This handy Hebrew word is almost untranslatable into English; the dictionary offers such terms as impudence, arrogance, presumptuousness, rebelliousness, and so on, but none of these seems adequate. Perhaps the best way to understand it is in terms of an old joke: Chutzpah is the quality exhibited by someone who kills his parents and then demands mercy from the court on the grounds that he’s an orphan.
The Talmud tells us, in the last mishna in Sota, Bë-‘iqvoth Mëshicha chutzpa yisgé (“In the steps of the Messiah, chutzpah will increase”), and then goes on to describe this generation characterized by chutzpah: “The young will put elders to shame, and elders will rise against little ones, ‘son shames father, daughter rises against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the members of his household’ [Micah VII, 6]. The face of the generation is that of a dog, and son is not shamed before his father….”
It sounds like a description of daily life around us.
So, getting back to the kindergarten boy who is mouthing off to Mommy, here are some of the typical responses:
1. You’re so hurt by the outburst that you simply say nothing; the tears begin to well up.
2. You philosophize: “What can I do? That’s how kids are these days.”
In both of the above two examples, you’ve already surrendered and chutzpah has won the day.
3. You respond, “I ask you to speak nicely.” You ask? This offers the chutpadik kid the choice of not “granting” your request.
4. You yell back, “Well, you’re really stupid!” You’ve just reverted to your own childhood. Al ta‘an kësil kë-ivvalto (“Don’t answer a fool according to his folly”; Proverbs XXVI,4). You’re the one who is supposed to know better.
5. You slap the kid. This last is especially dangerous. A slap in the face is never appropriate and is not a punishment; it’s a degradation. The child doesn’t learn from it that he’s done wrong; he learns that Mommy hates him.
Do you see yourself here? You’re not alone. But it doesn’t have to be this way, at least, not in your family.
Like every other character trait, chutzpah grows in the young, and like any other weed, it can be uprooted and eradicated. With a few simple steps, you can prevent it from taking root in your children, and thereby give yourself a serene home life and raise them to be well-adjusted adults. So what is the appropriate response?
Our example, as with so many other things, is biblical. Not for nothing did all the early leaders of Israel, the Patriarchs, Jacob’s twelve sons, Moses, and even King David manage flocks before managing people. Indeed, in the Song of Songs (in which Israel is metaphorically termed G-d’s bride), King Solomon advises us what to do: “If you do not know, most beautiful of women, go out in the steps of the flock, and herd your kids by the shepherds’ tents” (I,8). The shepherd who provides us insight in this instance is Moses.
The Book of Numbers (beginning with chapter XVI) tells the story of the revolt of Korah. At the beginning of his challenge, Korah tells Moses and Aaron: “Rav lachem, You make much of yourselves: For the entire community are all of them holy and Ha-Shem is amongst them, and why do you raise yourselves up over Ha-Shem’s congregation?” (XVI,3).
You hear? Chutzpah. As though Moses and Aaron had appointed themselves leaders, rather than having been rather reluctantly dragooned into service by G-d. The Talmud tells us, Kol ha-posél pësul bë-mumo posél (“Anyone who finds fault with another, does so with his own flaw”; Qiddushin 70a). Korah was hungry for honor and status, so he accused Moses and Aaron of the same thing.
And what was Moses’ response? First, Va-yishma‘ Moshe va-yippol ‘al panav (“And Moses heard and he fell upon his face”; ibid., 4). The most humble of men (ibid., XII,3) didn’t hide his head in the sand, but he did allow the words to sink in and calmed himself before responding with a counter-challenge: “Tomorrow, Ha-Shem will make known what is His, and what is holy….”
How do we translate this into practical advice?
First, compose yourself; don’t answer in anger. Also, don’t think that this is a moment when you can educate the child concerning proper behavior; education comes later, when he’s being a good boy and things are calm. What you want to do now is stop the bad behavior in its tracks. So:
1. Look him straight in the eyes. Bend down, if necessary, and speak to him in simple words appropriate to his age. Rather than descending to his emotional level, bring him to yours; simply tell him what he’s done wrong: “You only speak nicely to Mommy, not the way you just spoke.” The speech should be direct and the tone should be clear and commanding, accepting no nonsense. In this way, you not only preserve your own dignity (“I’m Mommy; you’re my child”), but you also protect his.
2. Do not issue threats and do not offer choices; you don’t want to give him the option of not obeying. Children are looking for direction. They need you to set limits for them and show them the right way to behave.
Speaking in a clear and commanding tone does not mean shouting at him; still less does he need, at this point, a detailed explanation of why it’s wrong to talk back to you. It’s enough that he knows that he’s done wrong and what he’s done wrong. Almost always, the behavior will stop.
I’ve used the example of Mommy and her son, but the advice applies equally to both parents, children of both sexes, and of all ages. Apply these simple tools, and you’ll do yourself, your child — and the society at large — a huge favor.