How Teens (and Parents) Are Like a River

river rapids flowing under bridge

I recently came across Haim Ginott’s classic, Between Parent and Teenager. Published in 1969, his examples often relate to hippie teens and “square” parents but the principles remain the same. In his chapter on criticism, Ginott explains the long-term damage parents can cause by assigning negative traits to children like laziness or stupidity. Those voices can stay with you for a long time. He also advises against recalling past faults (“You always lose things”) or “futurizing” (“You’ll never keep a job if you can’t even remember to take out the trash.”) Here’s how he sums up dealing with teenagers who don’t behave as we like:

Don’t attack personality traits. Don’t criticize character traits. Deal with the situation at hand.

Failing a test, for example, is not the end of the world. Parents can express their emotions without blaming or attacking, listen with sympathy to the child’s point of view, and help the child take responsibility for doing better the next time. Ginott concludes the chapter with an inspiring quote from Tolstoy:

One of the most widespread superstitions is that every man has his own special, definite qualities. That a man is kind, cruel, wise, stupid, energetic, apathetic, etc. Men are not like that . . . men are like rivers . . . every river narrows here, is more rapid there, here slower, there broader, now clear, now cold, now dull, now warm. It is the same with men. Every man carries in himself the germs of every human quality and sometimes one manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.

Related: Stepping Off Your Teen’s Emotional Roller Coaster Guest Post: Miracles of Motherhood What Defines Israeli Parenting?


  1. My youngest turns 20 in less than 2 weeks. I am now going to work on proving that there is life after raising teenagers. (B’h, survived 24 years of teenagers)

  2. oops, make that 14.5 years

  3. The rambam states clearly extensively on mishne torah, halachot deot that you have 3 ways of acquiring traits…. and by the way there are traits that cannot be acquired they have to be given. Make an effort an open the book and see for your self. Please contemplate on the possibility that by quoting Tolstoy you may be misleading people.

  4. I’ve had teenagers in my house for over ten years, and have several left to go. Very good reminders for me. Thank you for always posting such positive wisdom.

  5. Ms. Krieger says

    Thank you for bringing Tolstoy’s quote to mind…he evoked character so painfully well on paper. He was gifted with special insight.

  6. Love the photo. Wondering where it is… could not possibly be Israel.

    I’m going to have fun arguing with Tolstoy…I’ve met some stupid people. And stupid they will stay. My 14 year old son argued that when one takes an IQ test, it is supposed to be the same whether you are 8 or 38. And he’s never heard of Tolstoy… we came up with “Toll Story by Warren Piece.”

    • Stupid is not a personality trait. Neither is beauty, for example. Tolstoy probably didn’t think in those terms, but beauty and intelligence are largely inherited. Kindness isn’t. “Dull” here might not mean stupid, but even smart people are stupid about some things.

      • Ms. Krieger says

        Tolstoy was predominantly concerned with how people moved through life in the face of changing political events and fashions. He was particularly interested in how they responded to changes in situation…hence a single character might regard war as heroic when he is a young married man living as a member of the moneyed aristocracy. He might then become an officer and behave with honor, but be punished for it…and then return to the shallow Russian aristocratic party scene in Moscow and begin to behave in a craven manner as his spirit is broken and he no longer believes in honor, patriotism, etc.

        As the man moved through the river of life and was thrust into different situations, his character attributes and the way he behaved shifted…that is what Tolstoy was getting at.

        In the same way, a teen dealing with the stresses and ridiculous fashions of adolescent life may disappoint her parents with her behavior at that time. But if they have modeled good character for her, her behavior and characteristics may strengthen and change for the better as she gains more life experience.