My 8-year-old has an obsession with fire. It drives me crazy. When I’m cooking he loves to stick his finger in the fire from the stove, or asks me if he can light a candle with that fire. He likes to take a magnifying glass and set paper on fire outside. The other morning I was woken up by my other kids running in to my room, telling me that their big brother put one of his playing cards on top of my memorial candles. You can imagine how that morning started out.
At first I blamed my husband for my son’s problem, because it turns out he was quite the pyromaniac when he was younger! But alas, that didn’t resolve the issue. It seems that every day is getting worse. I’m not yelling as much, and my smacking rate is down by about 95%, but I still have that tone in my voice that even I can’t stand when I talk to him. It’s so yucky-sounding! At this point it takes all of my self-control (or lack of it) not to yell at him, so this is the best I can do for now.
Sometimes, if I am more aware of it, I can hear a voice in my head telling me, “He’s not the problem, woman! You are!” I try and try to listen to that voice, to allow it to stop me from the almost inevitable spiritual fallout of my explosion, but many times I just can’t. I’m still so focused on his misbehavior and not focusing enough on my own misbehavior.
The other day, I got a real slap in the face. He came to me and out of nowhere said, “Ima, I’m not worth two shekels.” At first, I looked at him like he was crazy. “Of course you are. You’re worth more than all the money in the world! You’re a very special boy, and you’re super smart,” I told him, though not with much feeling. It was more annoyance than anything.
Later that night, I had a chance to think about what he said. I was heartbroken over it. How could I have led him to feel so low about himself? Did he really feel that way? Oh, my goodness- if it’s true, I really messed up. And what’s guilt without self-persecution: I’m so horrible; I’m a terrible mother to make him feel so unloved.
Then came the bewilderment- how did this happen? How did we get to such a negative dynamic? How does he really see me?!
I was a wreck. Did I really turn into a wicked witch? What about all of the good things I’m doing? Do they not count for anything? Am I bipolar?
There is a fundamental principle in Judaism that if you really want to know the character of a person, look at how he behaves at home. Everyone has two personalities- the one for the outside world and the one at home. The outside personality is like heavy makeup- you can’t see who the woman really is underneath the mask. It looks beautiful and alluring, but its beauty is only skin deep. The outside personality is no less superficial. The inside personality is like a woman who just took her makeup off. Sometimes it’s a bit frightening! Only the family gets to see the person underneath the layers and layers of mascara and foundation. Some kids might not even recognize their own mothers if they passed them on the street! So it goes with the inside personality- it’s real, and it’s not sugar-coated. What you see is what you get, wrinkles and all.
But seriously, I feel like this type of person. It’s very scary for me. I just can’t understand why I keep failing over and over again. What’s the big deal to just keep my mouth shut and put a fake smile on my face, just as I would do in the outside world? Do my kids really control me that much? Is my emuna really that low?? Why is it easier to see that everything happens for my ultimate benefit when it’s happening outside the house?
This morning, as I was wallowing in my pity party, asking G-d to have mercy on my poor soul, who wants to do the right thing, but is so caught up in the Evil Inclination’s trap, when an unbelievable thought materialized in my mind.
“You’re playing with fire,” the voice said. “If you don’t stop treating your son this way, you’re both going to get burned.” OMG. I’m still processing it, but it’s truly an amazing revelation for me. My son is a sweet boy- underneath all of his crazy and hair-raising behavior, he is a good kid. I took a good objective look at my behavior, and I realized how I was well on my way to destroying him, G-d forbid.
Here is how he sees me: the mother who always talks to him with an annoyed tone of voice, who rolls her eyes at him, who gets very frustrated with him, who punishes him, and who rarely has something positive and nice to say to him. When I wake him up in the morning and when he comes home in the afternoon, I do my best to put on a smile and be the warm, loving mother that I am, though it may be hidden at times. But then a fight starts between the older two brothers, or he does something to upset me, and it’s a total loss at that point.
It hurts so much.
I was literally burning him up with my negativity and torching our relationship. Not only that, but I was potentially destroying his view of women in general. How is he ever supposed to have a healthy marriage if he hates women in his heart?
Maybe there is a connection between his fiery obsession and my fiery behavior. Maybe not. But one thing is for sure- he is my reflection, and as soon as I tame my own inner fire, his behavior will straighten out on its own. This is a promise from Rav Arush.
If you have difficulty handling your children’s behavior (and who doesn’t), do the best thing for yourselves and your children- get Rav Arush’s new book, “Education With Love.”