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From: Stephanie in Tucson, AZ

Dear Rabbi,

This past Shabbat I was with my children in the shul playground and a boy came up to my son and started pushing him and wouldn’t let him down the slide. I asked him to stop and told him it wasn’t nice, but he wouldn’t listen. So I forcibly took the boy off the slide and shook him as I reprimanded him for how badly he was behaving. Then his mother came over and started shouting at me and accusing me of the worst things, when it was really her fault for not watching after her own child. Needless to say, the incident ruined my family’s entire Shabbat and I couldn’t help wondering if I was wrong for being right. Do you have any advice on how I should have dealt with this and what I should do if this situation ever happens again, G-d forbid?

Dear Stephanie,

It’s very good that you’re asking advice on what may mistakenly seem a ‘minor’ issue. The intensity of your feelings as well as the reaction of the other mother shows that this is not just kid’s play. Everything that has to do with parents and their children is a very sensitive issue and has a significant bearing on the child’s education and what type of person he will eventually be. So it’s very important to know how to deal with these types of situations. And the reality is that they often arise.

The overriding guiding principle is that, aside from situations of danger, one must not use or resort to physical force with others’ children. This means that if a child is doing something physically dangerous or harmful to himself or to others, one may use physical means, i.e. force, to stop or prevent the danger or harm. This is not punishment but prevention. Otherwise, a person may not use physical force against another child for typical playground pushing, shoving and pestering. This is too close to punishing, which may only be done by the parents.

This makes sense for several reasons. A non-parent and non-educator of the child has no educational or disciplinary effect on the child in such a scenario. A violent reaction will just cause a child to rebel against what he’s being told and resent the way he’s being “treated”. Also, a forceful reaction, even if intended to knock some sense into the kid, only reinforces and validates violence – not only in the child’s eyes, but for other children as well, including our own. They learn by example that force is the way to solve even non-dangerous problems. They also learn that the application of force is a function of size: if adults can shake kids, larger kids can shake smaller ones.

We are all very eager to come to the defense of our kids and usually become quickly excited and indignant over wrongs against them (although when our kids are not involved we usually see it as “normal” playground mischief). It’s therefore very important to keep your cool. The first thing to do is to try to speak nicely to the child and think of creative ways to encourage sharing or at least to diffuse tensions. If that doesn’t work, it’s not worth fighting about. Take your child to another part of the playground. Has the offensive child won or been rewarded by getting what he wanted? No. His anti-social behavior has won him one less playmate. If he continues this way he’ll find himself alone.

If the offensive child is very mean or persists in pursuing your child, you must still keep your calm, but take recourse by speaking to his parents.

If the parents are good people, and you respectfully explain what’s happened, hopefully they’ll deal responsibly with the situation. However, often these children are problematic precisely because their situations are problematic. He might have good parents but a behavioral problem that they are aware of and can do little about in immediate terms. His parents might not be around at all, which is the source of his misbehaving, or this might even be a child who is left unattended on a regular basis for any number of unfortunate reasons. Another possibility is that his parents may be there, but are themselves the source of his obnoxious behavior.

Regarding any of the above, you are entitled and should approach the parents. But just be aware of the possibilities and accept the likelihood that the parents probably won’t deal with the problem to your full satisfaction. It’s human nature for them to de-nature complaints against their kids, just like it’s human nature for you to over-champion the rights of yours. Calmly and respectfully explain what their child has done. State your interest in everyone playing together. And express your hope that they will encourage their child to act appropriately. If they are receptive, great. If not, at least you tried, and you’ll realize whom you’re dealing with.

Just as you distanced your child from theirs, so you’ll distance yourself from them. No aggression, no hard feelings, just a realization that these are not the type of people you need to interact with nor the type to get bent out of shape over or to let ruin your Shabbat or your family.

To conclude on an optimistic note, offspring are often compared to fruit. Indeed, the Torah states, “Be fruitful and multiply”. We usually associate children with the sweetness of fruit. However, when you think about it, the childhood years should correspond to the unripe stage when fruit is hard and bitter. From this unpalatable state, properly nurtured fruit becomes tasty and luscious. This teaches that all children have bitter streaks. Yet if tended to and nurtured properly, even seemingly bitter fruit is so only because it’s unripe, but it can still grow and mature to a sweet and pleasant yield.

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