Question: A common theme in your articles is “choosing your battles.” My husband and I are trying to figure out which battles are worth fighting so we can make the proper decisions. How do we know when to fight a battle and when to let something go? We have two girls, ages 15 and 11, and a 7-year-old boy. Thank you for your avodas ha’kodesh.
Answer: That’s a fair question, although I actually don’t need the ages or genders of your children to answer it. I do frequently say to choose your battles, and I think that choosing them wisely is one of the common denominators of good parenting. Actually, the word “battle” is incorrect since you and your children are all on the same side. Nevertheless, there will be things that you will disagree about, and for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call them battles.
In my opinion, there are three types of battles you’ll end up fighting.
- Religious battles
- School battles
- Personal battles
Religious battles include issues like washing negel vasser and being on time for davening. While some of these battles can be very important, others should not be fought. As a general rule, when in doubt, ask your rav. For example, if your son is completely against wearing a hat and jacket for minchah, you should ask the rav if it’s a battle worth fighting. Together, you can make educated decisions. Fighting every one of these battles can really push your child away.
School battles are usually behavior- or grades-based. For example, your child didn’t do well on his test or missed doing his homework a few times. These issues are important, since they not only affect his grades but also teach him responsibility. You should be fighting most of these within reason. If he wants to have a friend over or play on his iPad, he needs to complete his homework first. When there is an upcoming test, he should be studying. If he insists that he already knows the material, you can tell him as follows. “I’m OK with you not studying at all; however, if you don’t get above a 90 percent, you have to spend at least an hour studying with me for the next one.” (Obviously, the test score and amount of time are flexible and should be based on the child’s abilities.) It’s always a good idea to involve the school when necessary. It’s important that children realize that their parents and their school are in constant communication.
Personal battles are the toughest of all three. Some examples of personal battles include making beds, table etiquette, babysitting siblings, bedtime, and so on. It’s hard to know when this type of battle is worth fighting, but here are some tips that might help you decide.
- Many “battles” can be avoided by ensuring that simple requests don’t turn into arguments. For example, if your daughter didn’t make her bed earlier, call her upstairs. When she arrives, simply say, “You forgot to make your bed; please take care of it.” And then walk away. She might grumble, complain, or even ask why it’s so important. Just walk away.
- When you’re having a discussion, don’t yell. (This is sound advice for marriage also!). When you yell at your child while trying to make a point, he will either tune you out or think that you lost control.
- Some battles are not worth fighting. If your eight-year-old daughter insists on wearing socks that don’t match her skirt, it’s OK. It doesn’t make you a bad parent if she expresses some individuality. The only issue would be if it’s something that’s really off. An example would be if she decided she doesn’t want to wear socks at all in the winter. You need to be careful as to how much room you’re giving her to improvise.
- Don’t fight a battle that you can’t win. If you take your kids shopping with you in a crowded mall, they’re going to be kvetchy. That’s not a battle you’re going to win, so be prepared.
- If you’re having a bad day, or your son is having a bad day, don’t begin any battles. You (or he) won’t be rational.
- If there is a serious battle to be fought, prepare him. Here’s an example. If he really wants to go to a certain camp, and you’re sending him to a different one, you can be sure he’ll be very unhappy. Before beginning the discussion, make sure you’re relaxed, prepare his favorite snack, and call him in. Let him know that he’s probably not going to like the conversation, but you trust that he’s going to act like a ben Torah. If you do this correctly, it won’t even be a battle.
- There’s no shame in losing a battle. If you and your daughter are having a discussion about something and it turns out she is correct, you can tell her she’s correct. It’s a great lesson for kids when their parents admit they made a mistake.
- The best advice for knowing when to choose a battle is thinking ahead. As a parent, you probably have a very strong understanding of how your child will react to a specific discussion. If you understand what your child wants, and you preface your statement by acknowledging what he wants, it’s more likely to be successful without becoming a battle.
I would like to end by pointing out that it is not OK for a child to argue with his parents. Whenever possible, you should ensure that your discussions are conversations and not arguments. If at any time you lose control of the discussion and you find yourself in an argument, you need to stop. Say, “We’ll continue this discussion later,” and walk away. Otherwise, you’re validating the concept of arguing with parents.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly emails and read the comments, visit YidParenting.com.