Respectful Parenting: Discipline Through Ahavas Yisrael and Chesed

Yosefa Wood-Isenberg, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chinuch / Essays 2019

There is a well-known story of the Mitteler Rebbe, that while he was engrossed in learning, his child fell out of bed. He was so engaged in his learning that he did not hear the child crying. The Alter Rebbe, his father, closed the sefer he was learning and went to the child to comfort him. The Alter Rebbe later said to his son, “No matter how lofty your involvements, you must never fail to hear the cry of a child.” The Rebbe told this story and applied it to children falling out of the “cradle of their heritage”. However, it is important to also take this lesson literally. We need to hear our children’s cry, let them express their feelings and help them.[1] We live in a world of sleep training and scheduled feedings; a world where children are often seen as manipulative and time-outs are the norm. However, little attention is paid to the emotional state of the child and few approaches come from a place of compassion and respect. This latter approach is often called respectful parenting, and is the approach that is most in line with the principles of Chassidus. Through the concepts of Ahavas Yisroel and Moach Shalet al ha Lev, this essay will outline three fundamental tenets of a more respectful way of parenting:  treating the child with respect, disciplining from a place of kindness, and taking care of your needs while parenting.

Picture your toddler in the middle of a tantrum having just thrown a toy car at your newborn’s face. Or spilling the pasta that you just made all over the floor within seconds of it being on the table. To understand how to respond to our children, we must first understand why they do what they do. Children act on impulses. Often times, negative behavior is connected to something that a child might need. They could be hungry, tired, or maybe there is a big life change happening that they are still adjusting to (i.e. the addition of a new sibling). Parenting expert and leader in the approach of respectful parenting, Janet Lansbury explains that toddlers “have a developmental need to express their will, and they have very little (if any) impulse control.”[2] The child throwing a toy car is not being malicious. He may just be hungry, tired, or in need of attention. Putting that child in time-out wouldn’t help solve their need at all. To come from this perspective is to come from a place of respect for the child.

The starting place in our relationship with any other Jew also begins with respect. One of the fundamental mitzvahs in conduct between Jews is called Ahavas Yisrael (love of a fellow Jew). The mitzvah comes from the verse, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself.” [3] The Alter Rebbe discusses this mitzvah in Tanya. In chapter 32, he states, “There can be no true love and fraternity between those who regard their bodies as primary and their souls as secondary.”[4] Essentially, it is easier to perform this mitzvah if we view the other person as a soul. The more we focus on the body instead of the soul, the more we are divided from each other. This is the same for my children. They’re not just children, they are each a neshama, a soul, that G-d entrusted me with to care for. Regardless of the size of their body, we need to view them as a complete neshama and treat this being with Ahavas Yisrael. This means respecting them and their feelings, just as I would an adult.

With all of this in mind, what does respecting our child look like? It starts from asking ourselves whether we would treat another adult this way. In a disagreement with someone, would we negate their feelings or take them to time out when it’s not going our way? Likely not. Most likely, we would try to understand where they are coming from, acknowledge their feelings, and try to help them communicate what is bothering them so we can resolve their concern. Similarly, although their bodies are small, as Janet says, “Babies are whole people – sentient, aware, intuitive, and communicative.”[5] For this reason, tactics like distraction, the silent treatment or time-out undermines their intelligence.[6] Instead we need to understand where they are coming from and acknowledge their feelings rather than negate them. To a child who is afraid of a dog Janet suggests avoiding statements like “Don’t be scared, it’s just a dog,” because that negates the child’s feelings. Instead it is better to acknowledge how they are feeling saying, “You seem upset by the dog, would you like me to pick you up?”[7] To a child in the middle of a tantrum it is important to recognize their point of view saying, “You wanted to throw the truck and I said No. It’s upsetting when you can’t get what you want.”  Although it is hard to do this in the middle of a tantrum, just as the Alter Rebbe encourages us to see another person as a neshama, we have to treat our child in the same respectful way we would another adult.

The second tenet of respectful parenting is to come from a place of kindness. As the Rebbe says, “Chinuch should be conducted through love and closeness… this approach is more effective than educating through fear and intimidation.”[8] We should approach chinuch with “the right hand drawing near”.[9] The right hand represents chesed (kindness). As the Rebbe mentions, “When we approach children pleasantly and peacefully, we influence them more successfully and quickly than through other means.”[10] The mentality that we need to have is kindness. The Rebbe is not referring just to educating but also the way we discipline our children. Even our discipline must come from a place of kindness. This is the opposite of time-outs, taking things away, and G-d forbid hitting. Our speech should be pleasant and we need to talk to them with composure. Sometimes, this is not the natural response. When someone hurts you, it is natural to feel like screaming. This is why we need to use another concept to help us, Moach Shalet al ha Lev, the brain controls the heart. This concept means that regardless of how we feel emotionally, our brain can control the heart. The Alter Rebbe discusses this concept in Tanya in regards to taming our animal soul.[11] We can also apply this in parenting. When we have an emotion, for example frustration, we may feel like we want to yell or scream, but our mind must control the situation. We can think to ourselves, “My child is asking for something, I need to help him.” As a result, we can become calm and handle the situation in a more holy way.

Lansbury gives a practical framework for how to have chesed in our parenting. There are two pieces: preventing negative behavior and responding to negative behavior. In preventing negative behavior, Lansbury discusses routines, communication, and avoiding multitasking. Children find comfort in a set routine. If something out of the ordinary will happen on a certain day, it may cause emotional turmoil for the child. Therefore, it is important to give advance notice (ie. telling our child that he has a friend coming over and asking which toys he’d like to share with his friend). This can help prevent taking toys away from his friend and seeing him as an intruder in his personal space. Another suggestion is communication and as Lansbury says, “Communicate with even the youngest infants.”[12] I remember that shortly after having my son, he had a heel-stick test done. The midwife said to him something like this, “Hi sweet boy. I’m going to stick a needle in your heel. You are going to feel a tiny prick.” I was so impressed by it. I never heard anyone talk to a baby like this. It makes so much sense. Babies are people. When we are going to brush our child’s hair or put food in his mouth or take him somewhere, it’s only sensible to tell the child beforehand. The final preventative suggestion is not to multitask. “Children need our undivided attention during…cooperative activities.”[13] When we are with our kids, we need to fully be present. Children act out in response to our distractedness. Whether it is feeding them dinner, reading a story, or playing a game, we need to put the phone away and give them our undivided attention.

The second piece of the framework of chesed in parenting is how to respond kindly to a misbehavior. Lansbury suggests the following: staying calm, block the action when necessary, acknowledge feelings, and give an appropriate alternative.[14] The example that she brings is when a child colors on the sofa. Our initial instinct may be to yell and scream. This is where, Moach Shalet al ha Lev comes in. Lansbury suggests to stay calm and breathe, before reacting. One suggestion that Lansbury uses, although it may seem silly, is that she imagines herself “donning a superhero suit equipped with a protective shield that deflects… emotional outbursts.” When we are calm, then we can respond from a clearer perspective. At times it is necessary to physically stop the action while staying calm. Two such instances are damage to property and harm to others. For instance, in our sofa example, physical property is at risk so it is appropriate to swiftly take the markers out of the child’s hand gently. Whether physically intervening or not, the response includes firmness and empathy. While taking away the markers, the parent acknowledges the desire, saying “You really wanted to draw on the sofa and I wouldn’t let you.”[15] Then the parent gives an appropriate alternative such as “You can draw on paper or find something else to do.” This type of response embodies kindness, because the parent is calm while speaking to the child, the child’s feelings are acknowledged, and the child is learning what is appropriate.

The final piece of this approach to parenting is taking care of yourself in the process. There is a phrase sometimes used in reference to this aspect, “You can’t pour from an empty glass.” Meaning, if your needs aren’t taken care of, how can you take care of someone else’s needs? It is pretty obvious, that if one hasn’t eaten or slept, it would be very hard to take care of children. There is a well-known story of Rebbetzin Rivka. Her doctor recommended that she eat as soon as she woke up. However, she wanted to daven first, so she woke up early to daven and then she would eat breakfast. The 3rd Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, her father in law, heard of this and said, “A Jew must be healthy and strong. Concerning the mitzvos it is written[16], ‘One should live with them’ which means that one must invest the mitzvos with life. And in order to be able to bring chayus (vitality) into one’s mitzvos, one must be strong and happy.” The Tzemach Tzedek concluded, “Better to eat in order to pray than to pray in order to daven.”[17] G-d gave us the commandment to have children. Just as all other mitzvahs, like the Tzemach Tzedek stated, parenting must also be done with joy and vitality. Practically speaking, I need to make sure that as I’m caring for my children, my needs are met too. This includes eating healthy meals, getting a decent amount of sleep, self-care, exercising, and spiritual needs such as learning and praying. These items will look different for everyone. The Rebbe stresses the importance of women taking care of their spiritual needs in a sicha given Parshas Emor, 5750. The Rebbe mentions that women are obligated to learn Halachas that apply to them and to learn Chassidus, since this helps with the mitzvahs of loving G-d and fearing G-d.[18] It is certainly not easy for women to find time to learn, especially when we are busy with taking care of the kids, cooking and cleaning, however it is just as important to feed the body as it is to nourish the soul.

Janet Lansbury gives an approach to how to communicate our needs with our children. She stresses the importance of the parent having the time and space to take care of their needs. In our relationship with our children, we learn about them and as she says, “they need to know us – our likes, dislikes, our pet peeves, our limits.”[19] We need to do our best to give our children what they need but we have needs as well and don’t always have to give them up for our children. For example, we might need a few minutes to have a coffee, go to the bathroom, or prepare food. It’s okay to tell our child, “I need a few minutes to prepare dinner.” When our child expresses their disagreement by crying, we can say to them, “You’re upset with me about how long I’m taking in the kitchen.”[20] But that doesn’t mean that we have to stop what we are doing, just acknowledging their feelings is enough. It is important to note the difference between a cry of urgency and a cry of protest. A cry of pain or distress would be a cry of urgency which requires an immediate response. However, a cry of objection to you asking for a few minutes is a cry of protest. Cries of protest do need an acknowledgement of feelings but do not require you to drop what you are doing.

Parenting is complicated. As we all know, there are tons of books in both the Jewish and secular world on how to discipline children. When you look from the eyes of ahavas yisrael and chesed, the approach that most aligns with Chassidic values is respectful parenting. This means seeing our children as little neshamas, communicating with them with firmness and kindness, and taking care of our needs in the process. This path is not easy. It requires constant working on ourselves, including allowing our mind to control our emotions to help us stay calm. Nonetheless, through this process we can raise a confident and compassionate generation of children.


[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/115281/jewish/The-Cry-of-a-Child.htm

[2] Lansbury, Janet. (2014). No Bad Kids. JLML Press. Page 77.

[3]Vayikra 19:18.

[4]Likutei Amarim Tanya Bilingual ed. p. 146

[5] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 7

[6] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 28, 44

[7] Lansbury, No Bad Kids,  p. 22

[8]The Rebbe on Chinuch p.108, Hisvaaduyos 5750 vol 3 p. 194

[9] Sanhedrin, 107b

[10]The Rebbe on Chinuch p. 108

[11]Likutei Amarim Tanya Bilingual ed., p. 48

[12] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 38

[13] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 39

[14] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 42

[15] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 42

[16] Vayikra 18:5

[17]Tackling Life’s Tasks, Ha Yom Yom, Yud Shvat, p. 88

[18] https://www.batshevalearningcenter.com/rebbe-s-vision

[19] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 26

[20] Lansbury, No Bad Kids, p. 27