Archives for July 2005

Mailing list survival

If the office and the school are places where we hold ourselves together, put on a good face, act “normal,” even polite, then the home, is the place where it all hangs out—where suddenly we don’t have to be “together” or friendly or polite, or even nice. To some extent, that it true, I suppose, although kindness, politeness, and good cheer are probably more important at home than anywhere else, because, after all, aren’t we trying to have our closest, most satisfying relationships with the people with whom we live? In healthy families, we give our parents, siblings, and children some latitude to express their anger, hurt, pain, fury, rage, but in verbal ways. We don’t allow hitting or destruction of property. Part of the job of parent is teaching coping skills so that negative emotions can be expressed in socially acceptable ways that harm no one. So we teach our child that instead of saying, “I hate my brother/sister and wish he/she would die” to say, “I feel very angry with my brother/sister.” Later on, if the parent does a good job, the child will learn to affix a “now” to the end of the sentence which then acknowledges the possibility of a future rapprochement.

There is another place where people feel free to be themselves: the internet. All you need is a hotmail/gmail/yahoo account, with your favorite alias name “topcat 672”- and you are in business. “Topcat” then can join mailing lists and begin stirring up trouble. He can pose as an expert on psychiatry on one list and on iron smelting on another. He can be a movie stuntman, a physicist, and the president of his local Rotary Club. He can write about his vast experience, take on the role of expert, and when questioned, write scathing, ad hominem replies. Recently I have seen innocent people on a listserve terrorized by a member who insists on misinterpreting what they write in the worst possible way.

DrSavta’s mailing list survival hints:
1. Always be skeptical of someone who uses a name that isn’t a real name (e.g., “topcat”).
2. When someone is a new member of a mailing list and suddenly starts posting a lot, watch out for trouble
3. When the person begins to become outrageous, simply correct any misinterpretation he/she may have made of what you said and DO NOT respond to him/her
4. The fewer responses, the sooner he/she will go away (with his/her tail between his/her legs.)

And one more thing, I don’t want to violate my own rule and so I will tell you about the name DrSavta.

My real name (posted at the bottom of each page) is Rona Michelson. Two miraculous things happened to me in the 1990s. The first is that I became a Savta (grandmother in Hebrew). The second is that I received my doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. It is because of these two wonderful things, one which came as a gift and the other after hard work, that I adopted the internet name of DrSavta. (and now you know the rest of the story….)


I went to elementary school in the 1950s. It was a time when children sat in long rows and teachers stood at the front of the classroom with decorated bulletin boards and elaborate chalk writings on the blackboard. We learned reading and arithmetic and how to be good citizens. We were taught with painstaking care how to draw our script letters so that everyone in the class had beautiful penmanship. The message we had conveyed to us again and again was that our education was important and that we were the future leaders of the country and we needed to take responsibility and we needed to learn as much as we could to equip ourselves to take over when we were old enough. We had a responsibility to the society we lived in.

We also were taught something else… We were taught to take time to consider the world and its Creator. Back then, each morning began with the Bible being read for a period of a few minutes. Usually the readings were from the book of Psalms. My teachers seemed to favor Psalms 1, 8, 23, and 24. Sometimes the readings were from the book of Genesis- about the creation of the world. Sometimes they read from Proverbs and we learned about time to sow and time to gather and time of war and time of peace. The beauty of the King James translation was awe-inspiring. Each day began with a glimpse of the infinite.

And then, before our snacks, we said a poem.

Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.

I think that we learned that we were part of a very special created world and that we had the obligation to be grateful for all that was given to us. We could take nothing for granted. Everything was a gift of God.

I believe that that is precisely what is missing in the world we inhabit today. Children are not taught to be grateful. Their parents try to please them—they buy them things, take them places, and the children take it for granted! They even criticize the parents for not taking them good enough places or buying them nice enough presents. The children simply have not been taught gratitude.

As with other values, gratitude is both taught and caught. Children who see their parents as people who are grateful, who do not take their good fortune for granted, will themselves be grateful. Showering children with too many toys and gifts and treats gives them the message that the world owes them something. They expect to continue to receive and receive. Children who are taught to give of themselves—to help others, to take responsibility, begin to value what others do for them.

The concept of gratitude is more important than most people realize. In my practice, I have seen hundreds of children. Invariably, the meanest, surliest, most unhappy children were those who had been given everything. After a while, nothing means anything to them. They just want MORE! Conversely, parents who enable their child to earn a wanted item (a new bicycle, a scout uniform) produce a child who is grateful and happy when he finally earns his object of desire.

There are no hard and fast rules, though. I know one family where the children have every toy known to man (woman, and child!) However, these children appreciate any little toy or trinket they get. I believe the answer to this mystery is that the parents never have taken their good fortune for granted. They have worked hard for whatever they have and they are themselves grateful people.

Warning signs that you may be raising an ungrateful child:
1. You give your child a gift and he complains about it.
Reaction: “You don’t like this gift? OK, I will take it back.” Do not apologize or offer to get something better. Your child says he doesn’t like the gift; then he doesn’t get to keep it.
2. Your child focuses on what other people have.
Reaction: “You wish you had what Tommy has. Maybe you could think about something that you have that you like.” Do not go and buy the child the object. Do not sympathize that he doesn’t have it. Do not apologize that you can’t afford it. Life really isn’t fair. We don’t all get everything we want.

In the Jewish tradition we have a maxim that says, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” Parents need to believe this and then they need to teach it to their children


Now that I am feeling a bit better, I was looking for something to write about when I saw that someone had gotten to my page by searching for “teaching children to respect parents.” I thought, “What a great idea!” and so here are the beginnings of my thoughts on that subject.

I have talked about respecting boundaries, and how that type of respect must be mutual. It is difficult to demand that your child keep his hands off or your things when you might take his or her things and use them and misplace them. Most parents don’t realize it, but that Cinderella pencil is sacred and the Harry Potter bookmark is an object of reverence.

However, there are other types of respect that parents should receive from their children and that children should receive from their parents. Very early on, children need to have their behavior shaped so that they are not misbehaving in public. If the child doesn’t misbehave in public, then the parent will never have to publicly humiliate the child. That means actually helping the child to change the undesirable behavior rather than yelling across two aisles of the supermarket “you have to stay with me.” That means that parents of young children should make sure that their children don’t get into bad habits in public like:

1. Running away from their parents or hiding in a store. That is totally unacceptable. It is not funny and it is not amusing and the child should not in any way be rewarded for it by the parent smiling and saying, “Oh, there you are!” As much as possible, the parent has to have their eye on the child so that he or she doesn’t get away. If they should begin to wander away, then the parent immediately needs to stop the child. If the child is able to slip away, the parent must immediately find the child and tell him or her how worried the parent was when he or she disappeared and how that can’t happen again. I have seen parents literally say, “I don’t know where he is, but at least he’s not bothering me; I’ll go and get him when I’m done shopping.” This is a very very bad thing to do. It teaches the child that what is unacceptable is acceptable. This one comes back to bite the parent later. A child who tends to wander needs to be in a stroller or shopping cart or holding onto one. Children who repeatedly wander need to know that they are not able to go shopping with Mom or Dad until they are more reliable.
2. Carrying on for a toy or snack. A child who carries on and is rewarded (“OK, if you are quiet for the next 15 minutes, I will get you that ice pop”) learns to carry on. Rather, the parent should decide from the beginning whether he or she will be buying the child a snack or toy. If the parent thinks it is appropriate, it should be a treat, not a payoff. It is easy to train children not to nag in a store. All you need to do is be consistent in refusing to be blackmailed. The parent needs to realize that the higher the stakes, the more of a fuss the child is making, the worse it is to give in. Children who are not demanding in stores tend to be more pleasant to shop with. Every successful parent/child interaction builds not only the child’s self-esteem, but also the mutually respectful relationship between parent and child.
3. Fighting with siblings. Of all of the ways in which children act out in public, this is probably the worst because the parents just want to be swallowed up by the ground and disappear. Children should learn early on that fighting with siblings is a very bad thing to do, especially in public. It means that no one will get a treat, should there have been one in the offing. It also means that the parents will have little desire to go out with the children.

The reason I speak of these three specific examples is that one of the biggest obstacles to mutual respect of parents and children is the issue of public humiliation, both on the part of the children and on the part of the parent. No parent should “lose it” in public and no child should be embarrassed, yelled at, screamed at, etc. in public. Such mistakes can be devastating to the parent/child relationship. Children should be assisted to act in a kind and respectful manner, having their behaviors shaped by the parents, little by little, ensuring that the child will eventually, on his own, interact in society in a polite and respectful manner.


Well, I have a diagnosis. It’s called CMV, Cytomegalovirus. The good news: I will get well. The bad news: there’s nothing to be done for it and so I will just have to wait it out.

However, it has given me some new thoughts about the world.
1. I can’t believe how kind and caring people are. My sister, who saved her hard-earned money came from the US to visit me for two weeks and caught the two worst weeks of my life healthwise. She was gracious and caring and loving and didn’t seem to resent spending much of her vacation looking at the outside of my eyelids.
2. I had forgotten how very precious old friends are. Ah, Marcia, my dearest friend from my Fort Campbell period (1972-1976) with the most expansive heart and the kindest words, hugged me from Tennessee, and I felt the warmth from here. Edie, from my Fort Benning (1980-1983)/Fort Sill (1984-1987) period, there with her wisdom and gentleness and love.
3. And how can I fail to mention my cousin Diane, always loving, always laughing, always a treasure?
4. I appreciate that I have friends who feel able to be honest with me. We had been invited to someone’s home and when my diagnosis became known, they were concerned that they could carry my virus to a family member with a compromised immune system. I was glad they felt comfortable enough to tell me. I never would have wanted to harm them or anyone they loved.
5. Oh yes, human frailty. By now I believe in it, but I really don’t like it.

The Alien

The last two weeks have been a fevered blur to me. Something, likely a virus, has taken over my body and rendered me senseless. This is not a good thing for a person who feels responsibility for keeping the world running. However, the frailty of the human condition sometimes intrudes on our perceived invulnerability.

I’ve been a lucky person. I’ve only been hospitalized for births: my own and those of my children. Doctors were around for inoculations and an occasional antibiotic. Suddenly, I am seeing my doctor three times in a single week and the people at the lab look at me with sympathetic eyes and the four bottles of tabasco sauce (blood) I gave them to culture give me an insatiable taste for tomato juice.

Which leads to the next problem: everything tastes awful. I barely eat. Excellent, I’ll lose weight, I think (always looking for the bright side)… but in fact, after two full weeks of near starvation, I have gained 8 pounds. And… I have no swelling in my fingers or ankles that would indicate it’s fluid. Is there an alien being growing inside?

I know that it’s not growing in my abdomen, because I had an ultrasound yesterday.

So I sit and ponder and have faith that soon this will be a distant memory and both the alien and the fever it brought with it will depart.

Boundaries 7 — Couples

Couples often have trouble maintaining their boundaries with their parents. Usually the problem stems from a sense that it is disloyal to exclude one’s mother or father from important decisions.

If parents have done their job well and have prepared their children in each stage of their lives to take on greater and greater responsibility, then it seems logical to conclude that as the child reaches adulthood, the parent can sit back and feel good about the fact that they have raised a fully-functioning individual.

Unfortunately, that happens all too rarely. Many parents think that they are still responsible for their adult children’s decisions and must protect them from making “terrible mistakes.” Parents may fear that their children’s decisions will reflect badly on them or will not reflect their preferences. In short, allowing one’s children to grow into independent adults means being able to release oneself from responsibility for them and to trust that they will know what to do.

The young couple, having grown up in homes where their parents were even moderately successful at creating a decent home life, may feel that their parents possess wisdom that they don’t have. That is true, and that is why parents can be called upon to give information, advice, and to help problem solve, but the ultimate voters on what to do are the husband and wife, and the information that they choose to regard as helpful should be determined by the helpfulness of the information, not by whose parent supplied it.

Some parents are satisfied to intervene in a very minimal way. If their children ask for information, advice, or help, the parents are available and they accept that their input is part of an information-gathering enterprise. Other parents, when asked, will immediately see an open door to take over the decision making process. And some parents, even when not asked, still offer their opinions in heavy-handed ways.

Both husband and wife need to know where the boundaries are. It is not a “mine vs. yours” game. It is simply a challenge to both of them to adapt a strategy to minimize the intrusion into their lives.

Here are some hints:
1. Never discuss with intrusive parents something that you are still very unsure of. The less sure that you are, the more sure they will be.
2. It is not disloyal to “manage the news.” There are lots of things that go on in a home that do not need to be shared with anyone, but least of all with intrusive parents. Preserving your marital boundary is something that shores up your marriage and makes it strong. It is loyalty to your spouse who should be number one!
3. Never mention to one set of in-laws the information or assistance given to you by the other. For intrusive parents, that is a casus belli. People who want to control become enraged when they think that someone else has been more successful than they at influencing their child!
4. Have some ideas about questions you wouldn’t mind them answering like how to prepare a specific sauce or where one might find a specific type of book. The more they feel consulted, the less they will feel the need to intrude.
5. Remember that these people raised your spouse, a person who you love and with whom you are building your future.


In the face of unspeakable horror, I am struck dumb. I hate the idea of writing about the heinous terror attack in London because to put it into words limits it to something finite that can be picked up, read, and be over. But that isn’t what terror is. Terror, once created, cannot be neatly contained or dismissed.

This week, our friend Chana turned 35. Her parents, husband and daughter took her a cake in honor of her birthday. But Chana is in a coma, close to four years now, since the murderous attack on the Sbarro’s restaurant in Jerusalem. Chana has not been able to see her daughter grow and learn. Her family lives with the pain each and every day. It is not over. It will never be over. Even if Chana is able to wake up and return to her family, can anyone calculate the price of this evil attack on her family?

Last night, we went to a concert. The Israel Philharmonic played a wide range of music. As I sat there, I marveled at the range of behaviors that people can engage in. Here were a large number of people, each an artist in his or her own right. All of them played together, pausing waiting, knowing just what to do and when. I watched as the harpist played and the cymbalist clanged and I saw their complete dedication to producing something beautiful. It was a task that none of them alone could accomplish, but together, ah the beauty!

And then I thought of the people who orchestrated the horror in London and the thought stabbed at my heart. How can people, endowed with such potential for good, choose to use that potential to plan horrific attacks on innocent people?

And when I hear that it is poverty or humiliation that causes these attacks, I want to scream. I know lots of people who had similar problems and none of them blew up innocent people. How can anyone even entertain the notion that such acts have any justification!

I hate the people who did this, mostly for shaming their Creator and taking what was so lovingly granted them and using it for evil. I hate them for sullying the name of the human race.

Boundaries 6 — Couples

As adults, boundaries are also an ongoing issue. The first task that a new couple engages in is defining the boundary around them as a couple. They define the extent to which their nuclear families are able to intrude on their relationship. Early in a marriage, loyalty to individuals’ nuclear families can make them a defacto part of the marriage. He thinks his mother is the best cook in the world. She thinks that her father is much more considerate than he is. “My father wouldn’t” and “My mother would never” are often the way arguments about married life begin. Neither partner is willing to yield because that would mean disloyalty to the family from which they came. Carl Whitaker, a ground-breaking family therapist once said that he saw marriage as an arrangement in which two families each send out a representative to do battle with each other.

The very same mother who was so overbearing when he lived at home, now has become the epitome of womanhood. The way that her parents served their family dinners- each person receiving a plate full of food – is the only way it should be done. He extols the superiority of “family style” serving. And that is how the wars continue. The meaning of the war is, “I have to find a way to be married to you and still remain loyal to my family.”

All of this takes place without even the least bit of interference from the parents. Now add in parents who don’t know how to let go….

Suddenly, his mother decides that she must approve all decorating choices. She knows a better store, can get a better price, and after all, green would look hideous with the furniture they have. What could his wife be thinking of! Suddenly her mother tells them that they really should wait an optimum time before they have children. They mustn’t have them “right away,” but they mustn’t wait too long because, she informs them, “Your fertility will decline.”

A couple who is successful at forming a real marriage must draw their boundaries very tightly at first. Since each of them will think that the other’s parents are interfering too much, there should be a clear understanding that some things in the marriage remain between the spouses and ONLY between the spouses. Here are some of them in no particular order:

1. Budgets
2. Choice of residence
3. When and if to have children
4. Arguments that the spouses have
5. Career choices
6. Use of leisure time (hobbies and vacations)

This is not to say that parents can’t be consulted, but their experience and opinions should be weighed and used as additional information and not as a vote in the outcome.

As in other relationships, clear boundaries, consistently applied actually work- not the first time, but over time.

The best way to establish and maintain boundaries is by each spouse dealing with his or her own parents. The other spouse should not be named or blamed in the process. The drawing of the circle around the couple is something that each of them is responsible to do. In no way should that lessen one’s love for their family of origin or in any way fracture that relationship. It should, however, make clear to one and all who is the first priority. For a couple, it needs to be each other!

Boundaries 5– Teens

I have already said that if a child is given healthy boundaries early in his life, then the adolescent years will be easier. Those clear boundaries help a child not only to know what he must not do and that he is separate from his parents but that he also has his own mind, likes, dislikes, abilities, interests and talents. The more complete a picture that a child can draw of who he is, the less he will have to struggle to find out—and the struggle in the teen years is invariably with parents and authority figures.

A “well-bounded” child still has issues in adolescence because as his or her body begins to change and as hormone levels change, and as they suddenly grow tall in a very short time, their lives seem unpredictable and out of control. Suddenly her blouse is looking different on her and perhaps her new curves feel embarrassing in the beginning. Suddenly when he tries to talk, he is not sure which voice will appear. Worse, all of their friends are going though the same thing, so there is nothing stable to hold onto outside of themselves except their parents and teachers.

Therefore, the parents’ job becomes difficult, because as the parents must hold the boundaries and remain steady, the teens often engage in verbal and physical behaviors that infuriate and enrage parents. When the teenage daughter appears in an outfit usually only seen in the movies or in the redlight district, the parents’ first reaction could be to become angry, to “ground” her, to insist that she change immediately—who does she think she is? What would the neighbors say? The more visibly upset the parents become, the less likely it is that the girl will want to change. She now has power and better yet, she is able to define herself as not old and stodgy like her ancient 35-40 year old parents.

A while back when one of my daughters was a teen, she and I were shopping together and we came across a shirt that she desperately wanted. It was at a highly reduced price, but it was not a blouse that I would feel comfortable having her wear. She said to me that she always wanted to have a blouse like that, just to see how she looked in it. We bought the blouse with the understanding that she wear it only in the house and only when there were no males present. And that is what she did. I don’t know if she would have gone out and bought that type of blouse without me and worn it when I didn’t know. All I know is that it satisfied her need at that time in her life and she got over that phase painlessly.

Parents need to remain calm, but firm. The calmness is to allow the teen something solid to hold onto when everything is changing. The firmness is to allow him to know that there still are boundaries.

A teen can become totally single-minded in his or her quest for something. A boy may get it into his head that he must have a motor scooter and talk about it constantly. The parents will hear that everyone else has one, that they will save money on transportation, that they won’t have to ferry him from one activity to the next, and that he will even (gasp) run errands for them. Ah, these teens have the ability to persuade. But suppose you are parents who believe that motor scooters are dangerous and that no matter how safe a rider he may be, if he is hit by a careless driver, he could be seriously hurt or worse. If you believe that it is unsafe, then you need to maintain that boundary. “yes, I know you want it and yes, you have made excellent points, but I love you and care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt, so even though you believe that it would be safe, I cannot allow you to do this. When you are older and responsible for yourself completely and have more experience in life, then you might make a different decision, but for now, I need to protect you.”

About 15 years ago, one of our sons was at home for the weekend and had told one of his friends that he could drive him back to college on Saturday night. When Saturday night came around, there was a fog so thick that one could barely see five feet ahead. We told him that he could not drive back to school. He became indignant. How could we do this to him! He had promised his friend. Worse yet, people in the dorm were making his friend a surprise birthday party and unless our son took him, he would miss it. We looked out the window, listened to the traffic reports, and responded that it would be better for his friend to miss his party than to miss the rest of his life. Was our son upset with us? And how! Did we do the right thing? I believe we did. The fog was treacherous and the drive would have been very dangerous. Several weeks later, our son told us that he thought we had done the right thing.

And that is the key. Often when teens are fighting for what they want, they know that really, the parent is right and they rely on the parent to protect them from themselves. We serve as the teen’s superego—that part of them that should protect them from destructive urges. During the teen years, they often need the parent to take that role for them. If we fold, we fail them. If we give in, then what is it we actually stand for? Can they really respect us?

Even in the teenage years we are called upon to provide what Winnicott termed the “holding environment,” the structure in which the child feels safe.

On Our Anniversary

Thirty-nine years ago (gasp!) I was clad in white- looking at myself in the mirror, on the verge of taking a leap into the unknown. Who was this man I was going to marry? I barely knew him. We had met at camp five years earlier. He was a counselor, a college graduate, entering seminary. I was a camper, entering my junior year in high school. We had written letters to each other, and in the past year I had visited him at Fort Knox twice and he had visited me in Philadelphia twice—the second time to apply for our marriage license. I believed from his letters that he was a kind and gentle person, intelligent, witty, and honest. But life with him would mean a complete transformation for me, a journey into uncharted waters. I would be a married woman, I would be living far away from Philadelphia, and I had no idea of what the future would bring.

Ah, would that I could have been there to whisper into my young ear what the future would yield—years of adventure- moving from place to place, five perfect little children to love, to rear, and to teach, the spouses they chose (our children now too), and the twenty precious grandchildren; a home in Israel with a verdant, fragrant, fruitful garden. “Don’t worry, little bride,” I would say, “you have chosen well.”