The threes

The other night when I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I began to think about how old I am and how impossible it was for me to believe that I am not still in my thirties. And then I did a little exercise with myself that I found interesting. I imagined myself and my situation at every age that ended in 3.

3– At three years old I lived in Philadelphia with my parents. We lived in an apartment over a store space where my father fashioned items out of plastic. He made plexiglass forms that he painted and mounted on wooden platforms and wired as lamps. In a little over a year, he would be convinced that there was no future in plastics and to join my mother’s family in the floor covering business.

13– This was the year of my bat mitzvah. How happy I was! I had waited a long time and finally it was here. My parents and grandparents were excited too. I remember standing on the pulpit wearing a white robe over the totally inappropraite dress my mother had gotten me and little satin kippah with a tassel that my grandfather had made for me and taking part in the service. I remember when everyone turned around with the last verse of L’cha Dodi, my parents who were sitting in the front row and hadn’t been to shul much, didn’t know to turn around. I never mentioned it to them.

23– By now I was married and had a sweet little boy. In the just over two years my husband and I were married at that point, we had moved three times. I was now living in Somerset New Jersey on Sweetbriar Lane. The address itself seemed idyllic. The congregation he served there was not. Just before Rosh HaShana, I found out that I was pregnant and we called our parents to wish them a happy new year and to tell them that we had a wonderful surprise in store.

33 — We were now living in Germany and there were five children, the youngest born there, now 5 months old and just getting over her colic. We had done some traveling in the country, some volksmarches, and generally enjoyed living there. We had just returned from a month-long visit to Israel!

43– After living in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, we finally moved about an hour and a half from Philadelphia. By then, my father had already passed away and he was not able to enjoy our proximity. Our oldest son was in the Israel Army and our older daughter was also in Israel. A son who was studying in the US was away at Yeshiva in Israel for the year, another son was studying in New York and we had only our youngest at home with us. I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania for a doctorate in social work even though I had been trained, licensed, credentialed, and working as a marriage and family therapist. It felt like I was squandering the family fortune on tuition. Well, actually, I was.

53– I had moved to Israel 3 years earlier and I had moved into our current home, the 18th since we got married, about three months earlier. What a joy it was to be in Israel, close to all of my children and grandchildren (there were 9 by then) and waiting with great anticipation for the day when my husband would join me.

63 — Now there are 29 grandchildren, my home is just about the way I want it to be (OK, we could use cleaning help), and I get a special thrill out of tour guiding to China and Vietnam/Cambodia! Who knew how many turns my life would take, how much would happen over the years. Stay tuned for more updates!

Today at the hospital

I’ve been pretty lucky. I raised 5 children and never had to endure surgery on any of the children. My daughter is not so lucky. Her son, Ephraim, 5 months old, had his second surgery today. He is fine. He was back to himself in no time and he is a healthy little boy who has every chance at living a perfectly normal life. But today was hard.

Yesterday, I referred to the prep day at Hadassah Hospital for children about to have surgery. I thought that it was wonderful for the older children although Ephraim much preferred to think about drinking milk and manipulating his little teething rings.

Today we saw all of the same parents and children. Two by two, children were sent up to the operating suites accompanied by family members. When Ephraim’s turn came, his mom was able to enter the operating room with him and to stay with him until the anesthesia took effect.

Then we waited. The truth is that the surgery didn’t take very long. I think he was out of our sight for about a half an hour. But it was a difficult time. My daughter went to get some coffee, anticipating a much longer wait. While she was gone, the doctor came to call her to be with her child. I went with him and when I heard Ephraim crying I got tears in my eyes, grateful that he was awake and alert and hungry. I started feeding him the milk his mother had expressed and when his mother came in a minute or two later, he snuggled into her arms and continued to feed, feeling safe and secure.

The staff was amazingly kind and friendly. The doctor explained what he had done and assured us that everything was fine and he should have no problems in the future. The clown from yesterday returned to spend time with the children in the recovery room and although Ephraim was not old enough to appreciate him, my daughter and I appreciated his clever way of dealing with us and the others. He was funny and gentle and caring.

Once we left the recovery room we went back to the children’s area where we had been yesterday and where we started out in the morning. The nurse there, the other parents and children, the national service volunteer, all made the stay pleasant. When finally the anesthesiologist came to release the children, we left with our little Ephraim, relieved.

Norms and deviations

Many years ago when I was studying for my doctorate, I took a course in psychological testing at the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. My professor, a singularly brilliant man, made this seemingly dry subject fascinating. He also helped us to understand tests and measurements in a new way. He gave us, for our final exam, a matching exam. On the left side of the page were 36 terms and on the right side of the page were 36 answers. We simply had to match the right one on the left side to the right one on the right side. As simple as that seems, my classmates and I puzzled over the answers for 2.5 to 3 hours. Not one person left the room before 2.5 hours were over– because for every term on the left, there were easily 2 and sometimes 3 or 4 answers on the right- and we had to find the correct one for each.

One of the terms on the left was “John’s IQ.” Strangely, that was the easiest one to answer. Because, of course, his IQ was 100. We knew that the mean score on an IQ test was 100. We knew that with a normal distribution, which IQ tests had, that within one standard deviation, 68% of the people tested would fit. We also knew that with the principle of regression to the mean, those who scored very high, would likely score lower the next time they were tested and those who scored very low, would likely score higher the next time they were tested. It was a good guess that John’s score would be 100.

I bring this up because although all of us are unique individuals, we also share a lot that makes us human. That means that none of us can fly without any apparatus on our own power. It means that all of us need to eat and to sleep. It is possible to posit certain norms.

So, when I have a family with a “problem child” who is noisy, rambunctious, demanding, and intrusive, I often will ask “How much sleep is this child getting?” Invariably, the response I get is, “He/she doesn’t require that much sleep.” The parents then go on to tell me that the child is up until midnight or later, but s/he is “wide awake” and “active” and “raring to go.” If the parents are willing to listen, the very first thing I tell them is this: “Your child does require a good night’s sleep and you need to help him/her get in the habit of getting it.” If the parents listen to me (and usually they do because they’ve invested their time, energy and money into the session) and begin to enforce reasonable sleep hours for their child, usually the second session begins like this:

“S/he’s a different child! I can’t believe it!”

And it’s true. People, all people, even your child, need adequate sleep or they become hyperactive, hypersensitive, irritable, and just plain annoying to be around. I used to tell my children, “I know it’s time for you to go to sleep because I am tired of your behavior.” I said it in a joking manner, but it was true. When children become unruly, often it is because they are tired.

Of course a side benefit of getting children into bed at a reasonable hour each evening is that the parents have a bit of time to themselves, something that is essential to keep the marriage healthy.

So, trust me, your child does require a full night’s sleep. I guarantee it!

Sleeping Abigail and friend

Sleeping Abigail and friend

The Pope and I

All week I have been preoccupied like most of the world, with the death of the Pope. Watching the ritual and ceremony, the dignity and respect that are being expressed, I am stunned. The Catholic Church has provided a beautiful tribute to the Pope. It is not a Hollywood production, but a ritual prescribed by their history. It is authentic and majestic at the same time as being restrained and respectful.

Ritual appeals to people on a deep level. It transcends words and travels directly to the soul. People crave ritual from their earliest days. A child wants to know what to expect of his world. He or she wants to know that in the morning there is getting washed and dressed and eating and then he or she is off to play or to school. Bedtime rituals allow the child to wind down from the day. Rituals provide a structure for life. They provide regularity and emotional safety. It is within the structure of ritual that a person can feel free. I like to think of ritual in the way I used to think of a playpen for my children. In the confines of the playpen, there were only safe toys and everything that happened inside that structure was safe and healthy. Likewise, in our lives we need that structure which is provided by ritual.

Families naturally create their own rituals. Family members may kiss hello and goodbye. The husband may bring coffee to his wife each morning. Children might show their parents schoolwork each evening after supper. The family might go out to eat every Sunday evening. Regularity and predictability are hard-wired needs.

Cultures and civilizations also create rituals. Holidays are ritual observances. Preparing for holidays, special table settings, linens, decorations are all part of the excitement of the holiday.

Rituals are not just actions performed on a regular basis, but on a spiritual level, they are specific symbolic actions. Immersion in a baptismal font or a mikva is not just a physical cleansing, but a spiritual cleansing. Lighting candles for mood is not the same as lighting candles for a holy day. The connection of action and meaning, the connection of past and present, the connection with others throughout the world along with regularity are all parts of what makes ritual so powerful.

Years ago, my husband and I took care of two little children, aged five and six for a couple of weeks. These were not Jewish children, but in our house, they experienced shabbat- the candle lighting, the kiddush and wine, the formal table settings, the prayers and songs. Of course they dressed up in their nicest clothes as did the rest of us. About three days later, one of the children asked, “Is tonight shabbat again?” She told me that shabbat was special. This child was not sophisticated. She had no understanding of the meaning. It was the ritual that spoke to her without words.

So often, people want to throw away things that are old and outdated. Modern, educated clients have come to me. They are successful in business, they have satisfying home-lives, but they are unsatisfied, and depressed. They feel their life is devoid of meaning. Ritual does not provide answers. It is instead, the spiritual home that helps us feel connected to other people, to the world, and to ourselves.

The Pope and I—we had that belief in common. May he rest in peace.

Norah Jones

My husband mentioned to me this morning that Ravi Shankar turns 85 today which made me wonder if I was remembering correctly that he was Norah Jones’ father. I did a search and found out that yes, he is. Amidst the information I found was a rather contentious conversation about what, if anything, his talent had to do with his daughter’s given their lack of contact for most of her life.

It reminded me of one of the most interesting parts of getting to be a grandmother. Four of my children are parents and as I look at their children, I see features that belong to my parents, my in-laws, and the grandparents on the other sides of the family. I notice how cousins sometimes look more alike than siblings and I wonder how some genes have more power than others to predominate over generations.

I see not only their physical features, but their personalities and preferences. Can it really be that the love of pens and papers that my father had and that my sister and I shared and that my daughters share really has been genetically encoded? What a joy it was taking my granddaughter to town one day and stopping into a stationery store and seeing her fascination with exactly the same objects.

Of course that goes both ways. One daughter-in-law can’t really understand why none of my children are sports fans. I jokingly told her that there were no known sports genes on either side of the family. Was it really a joke?

As a therapist, I have been engaged with the nature/nurture controversy for years. It seems that the pendulum has recently swung in favor of nature based upon a number of studies. In view of the demanding lifestyle that most parents live and often their lack of time and energy for their children– in the creation of human beings, that might have been a very prudent design feature.



One of the concepts that concerns practically all parents who consult with me is self-esteem. If only little David had more self-esteem, he wouldn’t
(a) beat up all of the other children in his class
(b) do so poorly in school
(c) be friendless
(d) be defiant
Yes, and a whole lot of other things.

So what parents want is the answer to this question: how do I give my child self-esteem? Some parents tell me that they have been careful never to criticize their child. Others have said that they praise whatever the child does. They are dismayed that all of this has not led to increased self-esteem in their child.

I have a twofold answer to this conundrum. First, it is not poor self-esteem that creates anti-social behavior. In fact, studies have shown that many convicted criminals have very high self-esteem—so high, in fact, that they consider their judgments of right and wrong as more valid than those of society. Low self-esteem is not the reason for a child’s negative behaviors. It may be his reason for feeling sad or frustrated, but certainly not for disruptive behavior.

Second, self-esteem cannot be conferred upon someone else. It is something that results from one’s own actions. Imagine feeling really bad- inadequate, useless. If your best friend said, “no, you are not inadequate; you are wonderful” would it really make you change your mind? Would your negative feelings really go away? If you have done a poor job, skipped steps, left things undone, will praise make you feel as if you did a good job?

All of us feel inadequate and useless when we have not contributed in any way to our surroundings. Take the person who is at home raising children. If he or she looks around the home and sees all sorts of unfinished projects, dirty laundry, unwashed floors and then spends the day just keeping up with the children, at the end of the day he or she will feel frustrated and upset. If he or she makes a stab at getting something- anything- done, then he or she will feel better.

The same is true of a worker whose company is not making use of his or her talents. Sure, the money is still there at the end of the month, but as the days go by and he or she feels as if nothing has been accomplished, he or she will feel useless.

What is the answer to the self-esteem question? Self-esteem is gained by doing things that are useful, helpful, kind, caring. When we do these sorts of things, we feel better. We look at what we have done with a feeling of accomplishment or pride. We don’t need others to praise us because we know that what we have done is worthwhile. Sure, praise is great, but if it isn’t based on some sort of effort or accomplishment, it is meaningless.

A child who scribbles a drawing is not going to believe you when you say it is wonderful. As someone once said of children, “they’re short, but their not stupid.” If a child has worked hard at something and receives praise for it, the praise is regarded as legitimate and the child’s self-esteem is enhanced.

In building a family, it is important for all the members of the family to feel that they are contributing members of the family. That is why it is important to give children chores around the house when they are still small. At the earliest stages, children can be taught to care for their own things. They can be taught to put away their toys and to throw their laundry in the hamper. As they get older, they can be taught to fold napkins, set the table and to clear it. I still can picture one of my sons standing on a stool in front of the sink at about 5 years old with his hands full of soap suds and a big grin on his face. It only took him a short time to learn to do a really excellent job washing dishes. Vacuuming, dusting, folding laundry all are activities that children can be taught that allow them to be valued members of the household.

Caring activities also build self-esteem. Caring for plants and pets also helps a person to feel a sense of purpose. Helping parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors makes children feel important. Giving to others makes it easier to receive.

A friend and mentor of mine, Sol Gordon, talks about “mitzvah therapy” for depressed people. He points out that if you do good deeds that you will feel useful, that others will be happy to see you, and that your life will take on meaning.

Self-esteem isn’t something you can give to your children, but you can present them with opportunities so that they can create it for themselves.


I would like to welcome surfers worldwide to my new blog.

I will be writing on a variety of topics that are related to family life, child rearing, interpersonal relationships, and spirituality. I will be sharing experiences I have had that influence my feelings on these subjects and will be sharing the expertise I have acquired through my education and training.