Trusting our children

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a mother was about relinquishing control.

“Training” my children to do things before they were developmentally ready wasted time and emotional energy. How I regret those power struggles.

Eventually I realized that there were many things I didn’t need to teach my children. I could trust them to meet certain milestones without incentives, threats, or persuasion. These milestones included:

  • Sleeping through the night.
  • Learning to use the bathroom i.e. toilet train
  • Weaning from breastfeeding.
  • Getting onto a “schedule” for meals and naps. Babies generally fall into a routine after a few weeks or months.
  • Eating enough to grow and thrive, if offered a variety of nutritional food, a fork and a spoon.
  • Separating from me without a fuss.
  • Dressing themselves.

I believe that my job is to provide a secure emotional base and a reasonable level of encouragement. I had faith (at least in those areas) that my children’s inborn mechanisms and a natural desire to mature would kick in eventually. Unfortunately, in our culture, this isn’t simple. Dozens of instruction books help parents train children to do what they would eventually do anyway. It’s so frustrating to find out that your child is abnormal; i.e. he is not doing what the books say he should be doing. Until you realize that the problem is the book, not the child.

Not all babies sleep through the night at six weeks, or six months. And it’s normal for children to nurse for a few years; both the Talmud and the World Health Organization consider two years a minimum. Kids will sleep all night by the time they are bar or bat mitzvah. And (hopefully) when it’s time for them to get married, no one will ask when they got out of diapers.

Yes, there are exceptions. Sometimes a child who develops later than average needs an evaluation. Sometimes we have to speed things along, like when we wean a child from diapers in preparation for preschool, or leave a baby with a sitter. But most children will do what they need to do if we take for granted that they can.

I’ve listed some behaviors that I don’t believe parents need to worry much about. The question that interests me now, and which I hope to explore in a future post, is what *do* we need to actively teach our children?


  1. When I worried to my mother that my kids weren’t doing what the books said they should be doing my mother answered “hmmm, maybe they haven’t read the book yet”. Smart woman. Happy mothers day.

  2. When our children get older, we can usually trust them to do the right thing IF we’ve provided them with good examples to follow.

  3. Great post. I wish I could take back some of my worrying because it was an absolute waste of my time.
    I’m looking forward to your upcoming post about what we should be worried about. Perhaps language development. .. not are our kids speaking quickly enough, but do we speak to them enough? Are they in an environment where they can hear what we say?
    Another area: are our children learning self-discipline? Are they developing the ability to control their emotions when they hear no? I wrote about this based on the book No! reviewed on my blog. Interesting issue, especially given our talk about reliance on bribes, etc.
    Can’t wait!

  4. Good topics! Seems like a multitude of them here.
    On separating: I find it’s mommy that needs the training on how to separate. At least that’s been true in my case. I remember my middle son crying and crying and crying when I left him to go for a twenty minute swim when he was a baby. He’s fine now! (and was fine then, too.) I still have a hard time separating from my daughter.
    Important for a parent to recognize one’s own feelings and how we project them unto our children.

  5. Wonderful post! I find it a bit ironic that the same people complaining about how fast children grow up today are the same ones pushing their children to self-soothe, potty learn, wean, etc.

  6. yom tova says

    I think they need to be taught middos, basic respect for other people (which seems to be sorely lacking these days), to say please and thank you, to hold open doors, to clean up their messes without (eventually without being reminded).

  7. you have an excellent point, and I see what you describe on my kid. I think a big problem is when we, the parents, sabotage our kids’ learning process. I see that when decide on some activity that conflicts with my daughter’s eating and sleeping schedule. She’ll end up not eating and not sleepind enough and will take 2 days to go back to normal. And I try so hard to always follow her schedule, can’t imagine what would happen if I didn’t.

  8. An excellent post MIL. I so regret all those early food battles with my oldest (who would only eat for the metapelet, never for me). Now I’ve got a daughter who really and truly won’t eat and I’m a lot calmer. She’s growing, she’s thriving, she’s JUST FINE. She’s just doing it on a much more limited diet than I’d like.
    As for what to teach our children? To me, one of my most important jobs as a parent is to teach them filters – to look at the world through gentle, tolerant eyes, to look for ways to make things better instead of worse, to learn how to evaluate opportunities they’re given, especially by their peers (i.e. learn a new card game = good, make derogatory comments about those who are different = bad). That and to teach them to listen to and respect themselves, and to understand why they deserve that.
    Don’t mind me, I’m apparently feeling all sorts of introspective today. We of course also need to teach them practical information like their own phone number LOL and what to do if they get lost.

  9. as somebody wise once told me (I do not remember who), she will be walking, not crawling, to her chuppah. If she learns to walk at 10 months or 12 months or 14 months does not make much of a difference, so why push her….

  10. I also found that once there were two kids the oldest took care of “training” the younger one. When the oldest got those cute little panties because she was trained, the next one in line wanted them too. When the oldest one said please and got a cracker, the next one learned to say please too. Children learn from their peers, not just their parents.
    Yeah, my mom always told me also that no kid goes to the chupah sucking on a pacifier and wearing diapers.

  11. I struggled with this with my 2 year old and eating. She was never a good eater (she refused solids until she could pick up finger foods. Spooned mush was forbidden to her lips). She’s 2.5 and still can rarely eat a meal sitting in one place and at one sitting. I try to be relaxed about it most of the time, saying eventually she’ll grow out of this and eat normally at normal times. Her weight and height are fine, so clearly she’s getting enough. And i have to be thankful that she errs on the side of fruit and vegetables and not sweets.
    But every once and awhile I get all “You need to sit and eat because I say so” (usually when i’m tired and I don’t want her up all night asking for milk because she didn’t eat enough supper). We get into a food fight and then i feel foolish, because it really is ridiculous.

  12. Manners. Courtesy. Politeness. How to stand on line. Good driving habits. Good Study habits. Responsibility.
    Actively discourage smoking and drugs.
    Staying out how late on a school night is too late?

  13. sylvia_rachel says

    All so true. I only have the one kid so far, but I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from the wisdom of several older mums in my family (my mother, my aunt, my sister) who have said to me things like “they all toilet train eventually” and “never mind how often she nurses. look at your diaper pail! if it came out, it must have gone in”. If, on the other hand, I had a nickel for every time one of my sisters-in-law commented in a shocked voice about how I was still nursing that child or told me that if we didn’t get her out of our bed ASAP she would be there for years before I learned to just say, very politely, “Nu?” I would have a lot of nickels :P.
    We are still working on the food thing, because my daughter is extremely picky, and it’s difficult to take her anywhere when she won’t eat anything on her plate. (Or anything they serve at daycare, for that matter — she comes home from school every day and tells me she ate bread for lunch. At least it’s whole-wheat bread.) Every so often DH or I will get all hot and bothered about the eating issue, which is really unproductive, although most of the time I think we handle it OK (that is, by not making a big deal).
    I think what we need to teach kids — not necessarily by pushing, or at a certain age — is to think about other people, how their words or behaviour affect other people, how everyone’s feelings are valid and okay but not every way of expressing those feelings is OK. That actions have consequences, and the thing to do when the consequences are not so nice is to get through it, learn from it, and move on. And also — I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I have a five-year-old who comes home from school with some, er, interesting ideas picked up from her peers — that everyone is different in all sorts of ways, and that’s okay, in fact it’s good.

  14. Great post!

  15. The milestones become more critical when a school’s eye is cast. I remember one morah of my 3-year-old telling me my child was not up to par because the other children were already able to use a scissor and not she. When I checked with an evaluation team, though, I was assured the range of normal for such things were not quite as narrow as the teacher presented.

  16. Respect for others and for themselves. Flexibility. Problem solving. Responsibility. Positive attitude. Shmirat Halashon. Appreciating their own gifts. Manners! Honesty! Self discipline. How to entertain themselves. To be happy with what they have. How to offer “criticism” (“Thank you for making me my noodles. Next time, would you mind giving me less cheese?”) We don’t need to teach them to use their imaginations, but we do need to not destroy their desire and ability to use their imaginations. Delayed gratification. How to place a phone call or answer the phone. Typing. Swimming. Reading a road map. Street names in their town. What to do if they get lost. To trust their own instincts and to get out of a situation that seems iffy. That we will help them, even if they get themselves in trouble. How to bathe (my 5yo’s are currently learning this). Being a good sport. Organization. Composition (the school system here doesn’t seem to teach it, except for the English teachers for the English-speaking kids. Thank goodness for them)! Frugal spending and saving habits! Housekeeping skills — and the understanding that they are expected to use them for the good of the family (dare I add, even on their own initiative). NOT TO INTERRUPT ME WHEN I’M ON AN IMPORTANT PHONE CALL!!!
    It would also be great to teach them basic home and car maintenance / renovation skills, but that is completely beyond me. Not that I’ve succeeded on the above list, but I’ve made a start.

  17. basically more of what everyone said – respect for others, and how to take care of themselves and their stuff, how to care about the world, and be a little less selfish. Lessons I would have loved to learn at a younger age.

  18. mother in israel says

    Chedva, I love using that line.
    Ortho, as long as we are sure that the child is communicating with us (non-verbally), we can generally trust him to speak on his own schedule. There are wide variations.
    Leora, yes, our own feelings are critical here. See what all the therapy taught you?
    Raizy, absolutely.
    yom tova, I’ll be talking about that.
    Rachel, I agree, overcontrolling can backfire.
    Robin, I enjoy your introspection!

  19. mother in israel says

    And to the rest, thanks for the ideas. You will just have to wait and see what I have to say. . .

  20. so true
    excellent post
    nothing for this ol’ granny to add

  21. Thanks so much for this post! As one of those moms who occasionally leaves Tipat chalav sniffling and dejected, it’s nice to hear from a respected source that we’re not failures if our children don’t fit the mold. Even being confident 99% of the time leaves room for that nagging little voice to bug us the remaining 1%!
    Children need to learn menchlikite and to have love for and form a relationship with Hakadosh Baruch-hu. Of course this means that parents need to learn these first. đŸ™‚

  22. curious- did you follow up on this post with what to actively teach our children? i would love to include something like that in the mitzvot unplugged roundup this week.