How to make demands of our children

Rabbi Binyomin Wurzburger shlita
Rosh HaKollel

The following article is a synopsis of a talk delivered by the Rosh Kollel. It was prepared for publication by Mr. Avrohom Kaye


We all know that chinuch cannot begin too early - but even at the fledgling stage, the correct motives have to be present. The Talmud Yesrushalmi 1 relates the history of Elisha ben Avuya, who became one of the most prominent sages of his generation, only to go off the path and end his life as an apikores.

At his son's bris, Avuya invited all the prestigious people in town, including Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. Their learning of Torah together brought down a Heavenly fire, and Avuya was overwhelmed. He wished for his son to emulate them and was determined to raise Elisha in their footsteps. On the surface, this was most admirable, but his motive was flawed. He wanted his son to publicly be able to display great learning - he was not interested enough in raising him to be a true oved Hashem.

In pursuing most mitzvos, we say one can start lo lishma in order to graduate eventually to lishma. In education, this is not an option. Rav Dessler says that success in Torah, as seen from above, comes only through pure motivation 2. Any ulterior motives will cause character flaws that may take years to surface.

When parents make demands of their children, it must be in order to educate the children to be a true ovedei Hashem, not for any ulterior or selfish motive. There is a colloquial saying that 'the first mitzva a Jew has, is to make another Jew!' The purpose of marriage is to produce children who will become talmidei chachamim and ovdei Hashem 3. For this reason, the Avudraham stated that someone who is mesameach chassan v'kalla is zocheh to Torah, because he was involved in promoting a marriage that is for the purpose of promoting Torah 4.

Chana, who was childless, prayed at the Beis Hamikdash. Her prayer revolved around the type of child she would raise if Hashem would grant her desire. From the earliest practical moment after the birth of Shmuel, Chana dedicated his life to service of Hashem.

If this is to be the focus of our chinuch, we must ask ourselves: are the demands we are making made in order to enhance our service of Hashem or to enhance the child's service of Hashem (these two objectives are not necessarily identical), or neither?


Kibud av v'eim is a vital aspect of chinuch and therefore it is clear why it doesn't apply when it doesn't foster avodas Hashem. For example, if a diabetic father tells his son to give him a chocolate, it would be detrimental to the father's health for the son to obey him. If the parents' request of their child is contrary to the service of Hashem, the child must not obey. Another example is a situation where the father holds ill feelings towards someone in his family. When this member of the family invites them to a wedding, the father forbids his (adult) child to attend. This act is promoting hatred between Jews and is not to be listened to by the child. (Please note that this is just a general example and specific circumstances could alter the halacha). Obviously, such demands should not be made and we must analyse the demands we do make to ascertain that there are no subtle aspects of this nature in them.


The idea that the mitzva of having children is to produce talmidei chachamim and ovdei Hashem, lends an understanding to the verse 'these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe...' where the names of Aharon's four sons and not Moshe's sons are then mentioned 5. Our Sages tell us that Moshe is considered like their father, as he taught them Torah 6. By assisting Aharon in achieving his parental goals in chinuch, Moshe became a "partial-parent."

The Maharal 7points out that Moshe taught all of Klal Yisrael - this is obviously true, but it was at Hashem's behest. Any teacher "doing his job" can be commended, but when one teaches over and above the call of duty, then that teacher becomes a partner with the parents and achieves this special relationship. We can achieve much by asking our children to learn with us, particularly when we invest extra efforts into their chinuch.


The well-known verse from Mishlei says 'educate the child according to his way' 8. Shlomo Hamelech stresses the uniqueness of each child - likes and dislikes, strengths, characteristics, etc. Our institutional education is stereotyped and is not conducive to fulfilling this provision. We have to supplement the schools' education in order for the child to develop into a balanced personality. Our demands and expectations must vary from child to child.

A most important point is not to pressure the child at too early an age, or place upon him/her unreasonable or unsuitable demands. This could end up being counter-productive. In his well-known letter to his wife, the Vilna Gaon wrote, "Don't overtax the children." How amazing that this advice came from a man of such brilliance, whom we may imagine might have felt a gap between himself and his children. Surely he would have been inclined to push his own children! On the other hand, we cannot allow our children to waste their potential - we must coax them to utilise it to the maximum. The word "melamed" (teacher) is related to "malmod" - a goad.


Should we make demands of our children, not knowing whether they will obey or disobey? If we request something, knowing in advance that the child will not obey, there are two possibilities:

a) the child won't obey and therefore by asking him or her, we are merely training the child to disobey;

b) if we don't make our stand and let the child err (without our request or at least unsolicited guidance), then the child will surely continue with the undesirable behaviour.

I have had experienced such a dilemma - whether to give corrective advice to a pupil, suspecting that such advice would be resented and ignored, or not. Harav Elya Svei was consulted and the recommendation was made to definitely give the advice to the pupil. It turned out that the student accepted the advice and changed his ways, much to my surprise and relief.


A loving relationship between parent and child can have an enormously positive effect on one's requests of his/her child. Sometimes the child may love the parent so much that the request becomes superfluous, i.e. the child's forethought and consideration make him act before the request is even put into words.

On other occasions, the love between parent and child may make a difficult demand more acceptable. A story has been told by Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, son of the famed Rav Moshe, zt"l. Rabbi Reuven's son was having his bar mitzva on the same day as the Annual Convention of Agudas Yisrael. Rav Moshe was the keynote speaker and his presence as the gadol hador was very significant to the whole success of the convention. Rav Moshe explained the situation to his son and grandson, and he did not attend his grandson's bar mitzva.

Afterwards, several people remarked to Rav Reuven, "Weren't you hurt? Does your father care more for communal matters than his own grandson's simcha?" Rav Reuven replied that he had no doubts about his father's love and concern for the family, which had been demonstrated many times during his lifetime. One example of this was as follows: when the Feinstein family resided in Manhattan, Rav Moshe would arise early to study. In winter, the heating in the apartment came on quite early, but the room took hours to warm up. In the early morning, Rav Moshe would collect the children's clothing and place them on the radiator. When he woke them up at six o'clock, they could put on warm clothes and be comfortable in the cool apartment. Such continuous demonstrations of his father's love made Rav Reuven realise that all of his father's decisions and actions were made with his family's best interests at heart.


Parents' personal conduct is a most important part of a child's education. The demands parents make of their children must be congruous with the parents' actions. We must be careful to "practice what we preach." Children observe conduct closely and cannot be fooled!

The Gemara 9 relates the story of Miriam bas Bilga, daughter of a Cohen, who married a Greek general. After the Greek conquest of the Beis Hamikdash, she kicked the altar and said, "Wolf! Wolf! How long are you going to devour Israel's money?" When this became known, the family was penalised in the Temple. Why was the family punished? The reason is that what a child says generally originates from the home - from the talk of the parents. Even infants absorb and mimic their parents' discussions. We must ensure that what is copied is worthy of imitation.

If a promise is made to a child, ensure that not only is it fulfilled, but that it is perceived to be fulfilled, otherwise the child simply learns to lie. This is what the Gemara 10 teaches. This is vitally important in order to maintain the respect necessary for our demands to be effective.

Another issue necessary for maintaining the effectiveness of our demands is that if we want our children to practice kibbud av v'eim, we must do so to our own parents. The children will learn from our treatment of their grandparents. The Shelah is said to have told a story that dramatises this point: A wealthy man gave his inheritance to his son during his lifetime, retaining the bare minimum to maintain himself until the end of his days. He lived longer than he had anticipated and he became needy. He went to his son, who grudgingly gave his father the funds he required. Winter was approaching and the father felt that that the blanket he had used until then was not providing enough warmth. He was therefore compelled to ask his son for another blanket. Reluctantly, the son agreed and asked his own son to bring the Zeida a blanket. Soon after, the Zeida returned to complain that he had been given only half a blanket. The father called his son (the grandson) in for an explanation, and he said, "I only gave Zeida half a blanket because I need the other half for you, Father, so that when you get old and cold, I can give it to you!"


When giving rebuke, always start off by mentioning some good aspects of the child, says Rav Yisroel Salanter. Build the person up by stating what you truly appreciate and then deliver the rebuke in a gentle, positive fashion. Do reward children for their successes, however modest the reward may be. Something material, such as a small gift or delicacy - as well as praise - can have a tremendous effect. The Vilna Gaon 11 encouraged his wife to do this.


In regards to physical punishment, Rav Moshe Feinstein indicated that one is allowed to strike a child, but only for the purpose of instruction (and definitely not in anger) 12. The actual hitting is not to be painful. The message to be conveyed is that the child has displeased the parent, and the parent has therefore had to resort to this measure. There is a well-known story about Rav Carlebach of Hamburg. The Rav would reward his children for their prompt arrival at shul by spreading jam on their breakfast rolls. Once a son came late. At breakfast, Rav Carlebach said, "I am sorry that I cannot give you jam. To show how much it pains me, I will also not have jam."

Through setting the right example in our day-to-day lives, we can hopefully demonstrate and encourage our children to develop their midos and mature into responsible and considerate people, true ovdei Hashem, without making demands.

1 Chagiga 2:1.
2 Michtav Me'Eliyahu Vol. 3, p.175.
3 Based on Sefer Hachinuch, mitzva 1.
4 Birchas Nisuin, 363 s.v. V'amrinan.
5 Bamidbar 3:1.
6 Rashi.
7 Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 3:1.
8 Mishlei 22:6.
9 Succa 56b.
10 Succa ibid, 46b.
11 In his letter to his wife.
12 Igros Moshe Even Ha'ezer 4:68.

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