Setting Limits

I have three children, aged one, three and five and they always want everything right away! We try to tell them to wait until Shabbat before eating the chocolate or to wait until their birthday for us to buy them a new toy. But all we get in response is tantrums! We try to hold our ground, but is it really worth all the trouble?


Dear Jessica,

This is a constant challenge for all of us in this generation! Parents are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with setting limits for their kids because they fear upsetting them.

We especially face this challenge when kids are playing with digital devices which offer no limits to the music they can listen to or the websites and videos they can access.

So your question is: Is it worth taking a stand? The answer: Absolutely!

As tempting as it is to give in to our children’s demands, when we do so we teach them that they can get their own way in life by becoming emotional. Instead, we want them to develop the capacity for self-control, so they understand the meaning of ‘enough’ and ‘stop’. We want them to learn that reaching a state of calm is not dependent on getting their own way. And we want them to grow into adolescents and adults who manage their emotional challenges intelligently and effectively.

This is also true for your younger children. You can’t give your toddlers whatever they demand and then, once they reach the age of five, expect them to develop patience. Accustom your kids during their earliest years to realise that they won’t get their way through screaming and being rude.

Here are some practical tips for teaching your children this lesson:

  • The great 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that we should be careful not to forbid anything unnecessarily. However, once you forbid it, stick to your guns!
  • If your child reacts by having a tantrum, validate his feelings and help him to identify the name of his negative emotion.
  • Then, guide him toward finding another way to calm down, such as listening to music or listening to you read his favourite book.

Good Luck!



I have two children. One of them is an angel! Of course, I love the other one, but he is so difficult – always fighting and never doing as he is told! How do I guide him, so he can behave better?


Dear Mike,

There is a famous phrase in the Book of Proverbs: Educate the child according to his way. That means that each child is unique and, as such, we must raise them in a way that is tailored to his or her personality.

There was a great Chassidic Rebbe who was murdered in the Holocaust, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He challenges parents (and teachers) to reach the hidden soul spark in each child and nurture it. He explains that this involves understanding the way the child thinks and speaking to him on that level.

So, practically, what does this mean?

Firstly, don’t demand something of your child that he or she is not ready for or is not ready to understand. For example, not every child is ready to sit at the table throughout a long meal. To force him to do so, is counterproductive.

Secondly, identify the positive in your child’s characteristics. Jewish tradition teaches that all characteristics have some positivity and the challenge is to apply them appropriately. If your child is always fighting, he must have a great deal of energy. Maybe he can use that vitality to do a project that can help people. If he doesn’t like to do as he is told, he obviously has a strong independent will. You can use his initiative to develop ideas for family activities. Obviously, he must be taught to balance his ideas with the preferences of other family members, but the starting point is to take his strengths and abilities and teach him to use them for something positive.

As he develops more strengths, you can help him to think about how he can put them to good use. If he loves reading, he can volunteer to read to the blind. If he enjoys writing, he can be a pen pal to an overseas orphan. Affirm and cultivate his talents and you will nurture his soul.

A final, beautiful piece of advice which is offered by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Once a week, take a moment to praise each of your children by highlighting a unique talent or attribute he or she possesses. This will compel you to discover that which is distinctive and about each of your children.

Anthony Knopf is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Ora in Montreal and the father of four children.

If you have a parenting question for Rabbi Knopf to be included in CJN, please email him on [email protected]

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