Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

PTA conferences have always been perplexing for Shimon’s parents. All of the Rebbeim and teachers deliver the same report: “Your son is an angel and I wish that all of the boys were as respectful, cordial, and well-behaved as your son.” Indeed, whenever Shimon goes to a friend’s house to play, his parent wait for the inevitable phone call describing how Shimon is an absolute pleasure to have over, and that he is a role model for all other children. Shimon’s parents have yet to see that side of their son. When he is home, he gets into fights with his siblings, occasionally has a temper-tantrum, rolls his eyes at his parents, and even yells at them. His mother gets the worst treatment of all as Shimon is especially rude to her. Does this sound familiar?

If you have had such an experience with your child, you should begin with a pat on your back. If you have raised a child that can go out into the world and be polite, respectful, considerate, well-mannered, and courteous, then you are doing an excellent job as parents! You are definitely doing something right. So, how come your child is the polar opposite when he or she is home? That requires some background in attachment theory and behavioral psychology. 

Emotional wellness is heavily influenced by the nature of one’s attachment to primary caregivers in childhood. Children are considered as having a secure attachment to their parents when they feel that they can rely on their parents to provide emotional support, physical protection, and to attend to their needs. Such a child can function well in their ventures out of the home (such as in school) since they have the peace of mind of their secure base. 

A side-effect of feeling their home as a safe space is that they have the freedom to misbehave! For many children, being cordial and respectful outside of their home requires an enormous amount of effort and energy. When they come home, they are emotionally exhausted. Their home is their sanctuary where they can misbehave as much as they want and will still be unconditionally loved. In other words, view your child’s behavior as the greatest compliment. They feel how much you love them!

Another factor in this phenomenon comes from behavioral psychology. When behaviors are rewarded, we tend to increase the frequency of those behaviors. When children are outside of their home, they quickly learn that they can gain the affection and admiration of the adults by being courteous and polite. Each time an adult outside of their home compliments them, their behavior is reinforced. 

In the home, this does not work so well. Your child learns very quickly that your love and affection is unconditional and therefore they do not need to be little angels in order to win your unconditional positive regard. Moreover, the opposite form of reinforcement is commonplace. Many children learn that if they whine and nag you long enough, they can compel you to do what they want. Do not call this manipulative! It is simply a learned behavior that you conditioned them for.

This begs the question, what exactly should you do with your child when he or she turns into a monster when they walk in the door? Alas, that will have to be the focus of another article. But for starters, bear this in mind. Your child is not fully developed and cannot be expected to have the emotional maturity to regulate their emotions. As parents, you are in the position to teach them how to calm and soothe themselves when they feel agitated or stressed. Unconditional love combined with guidance is a winning combination to raising children who will, B’Ezras Hashem, grow into emotionally mature adults. Keep up the good work!

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