The Psychologists are Wrong About My Son by Jessica Wolff

The Psychologists are Wrong About My Son by Jessica Wolff

I am an intern in child clinical psychology and an oddity in my professional circles- a religious, female, Olah.

Classical psychology teaches that children are, in their essence, bad. Deep down they are full of tendencies toward paranoia, psychosis, and aggression.

Judging by my 3-year-old Yedidya’s behavior for a great deal of the day, I can relate.

But as a Jewish parent, I also cannot ignore the very relevant, very concrete reality of the existence of my child’s soul.

And these were the thoughts that were running through my head when I left home with Yedidya this morning….

My son did not want to leave the house and started throwing a tantrum. I stopped for a moment and tried to figure out what to do. I did not want to raise my voice or lose my patience. I tried a few parenting techniques- which left him completely and utterly unmoved.

Then I remembered something I heard at our Shabbat table….

The final verse of the Song of Songs reads “Hurry, my beloved, and be like a gazelle on the mountains of spices.” This refers to the fact that when gazelles are hunted they know, instinctively, to run to fragrant fields so that the hunter’s dog loses track of the goat’s scent, enabling it to escape. This is compared to a person who feels that the evil inclination is on his or her heels. If you run into a holy place like a synagogue or a place where Torah is being learned, the evil inclination is thrown off by the pleasant scent of the holiness and will leave you alone.

It occurred to me that my son’s tantrum was his evil inclination overcoming him, and I realized I had to do something to help him overcome it. So I brought him a tzedakah box in one hand and some coins in my other and said, “Yedidya, come, let’s put some money in the tzedakah box.” My 3-year-old paused, looked at the box and the coins, collected himself, took the coins, and put them in the tzedakah box.

That calmed him down, and we headed off for gan.

The author and her husband


At the stairs beneath his gan there is a shul. As we started to climb the stairs Yedidya noticed that the door to the shul was open and men inside were learning Torah. We both stopped and peeked inside. It was such a beautiful sight, so holy and simple.

And Yedidya did not want to leave it behind. He said, “Eema, I also want to learn Torah!”

I was so touched by his natural attraction, gravitation to something holy. I told him, “That’s great! Soon you will, but right now we have to go… I have to make it to work and you have to go to gan.”

He was upset at my response and said, “Can we just go inside and say ‘Hi’?”

As I stood there hesitating a young man noticed my son, rose from his book, picked up a box of cookies and brought it over. He asked me if I would allow my son a cookie, and I nodded.

The man bent down to my son’s level, and offered him a big smile and a cookie, and planted a kiss on his head. And with cookie in hand, Yedidya very happily continued walking up with me to gan.

I don’t know to whom this moment meant more- me or my son.

This stranger was not just offering my son a cookie, a smile, a token of affection, he was saying- you are welcome here, you are part of this, you are holy- so holy I got up and left my studies to greet you.

I feel so blessed to be a Jew. I feel so blessed to have this wonderful challenging son, whom I raise and who raises me up as well.

I am a clinical psychology intern working with phenomenal at-risk children and adolescents living outside their homes. I made Aliyah over 10 years ago from New York, completed both my degrees at Bar Ilan University, met my mensch-lich husband 5 years ago, and have a 3 year old boy and a 7 month old girl. We live in Jerusalem.

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9 comments

  1. Michal

    so inspiring. thank you!

  2. Another great story. Thank you for bringing this article to our attention!
    a

  3. so nice to meet you!
    thanks Chana Jenny for introducing us to this author!
    G-d bless the man who stood up and brought the cookie. I want to be like him. Tuned in to the needs of others.

  4. Hadassah

    How inspiring to know that we can work past the tantrum by appealing to the Yetzer Tov! May she see nachas from her son as he grows older and joins those learning Torah on all levels.

  5. Janet Caterina

    I really don’t know where you got the impression that psychologists say that children are intrinsically evil. I think that from one individual to another, whether they be professional or lay people, religious or secular, this idea is a negative interpretation based on a subjective bias. I meet more religious Jews who hold this than non-religious. I actually thought it was limited to the religious community, who call their children, “little yetzer haras” and condone beating them for their own good. I have never seen it represented by any psychology textbook or system and wonder why you would say this. I am glad you dealt with your son in a gentle and uplifting manner. There is something to be learned from that. It takes the behavioral methods a step farther to include the spiritual. I raised five children in Toronto, and though I can’t say I ever had any real skill as a mother, I never went into the profession with any belief in childish evil. With a family of eight small children downstairs from me now in Israel, I can hear by their continual temper tantrums that there is no grip on any method of calm guidance that will enable them to bring their self-expression into line. I see all too much emphasis placed on punishment among religious families here, and when it is encouraged, it generally, if not always, leads to over-application. I have recently seen very significant and effective guidance with love taught by family therapists and therefore think it is a misrepresentation on your part to lead people to believe that psychology is based on this premise. Interpretation is largely in the eye of the beholder, and there is a wide divergence in wisdom across the board, whether religious or not.

    • Jessica Wolff

      Janet, Thank you for your input. I wanted to clarify that when I wrote “Classical psychology” I was referring to theorists such as Freud, Klein- very influential in the schools of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and in academic curriculum, whose theories speak about children’s natural ultra-aggressive, destructive urges and fantasies. In terms of interpretation, psychoanalytic schools are attended to assist in proper professional interpretation, heavily based on these theories. While, such theories can be very useful, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy has also greatly benefited from those who chose to develop these theories and brake off from them. I personally find that I can benefit from other theories regarding the soul that predated classical psychology’s ideas of the psyche. I agree that practice does not always reflect theoretical predication.
      What you are describing is really saddening and unfortunate. Parenting is very complicated. That is why I really appreciate forums such as these.

    • as someone frum from birth, i have never heard anyone call tehre children little yetzer horas. That is terrrible. Just the opposite, i hear little tzaddik very often!

      Also, a family of eight young children is bound to have plenty of tantrums. I have 2 small children, and you can do everything right but at the same time they are in there terrible 2s!!!

      • Yocheved

        I’ve heard the Yetzer Hara comments, but it was explained to me that it was not “evil”, per se, but rather the animal side of our souls, the part of us that is self centered and directed by instinct and survival. Without Torah, we would indeed be animals, but without the Yetzer Hara, we’d be eaten by animals!

        Our job as parents is to teach out children to listen to their Yetzer Tov, to think of others, be charitable, kind, compassionate – all these things that do not generally come naturally. Toddlers simply do not have the mental development to grasp those concepts, except through our examples. A child’s behavior is not a character flaw, it’s a character in the process of becoming more like G-d.

        Life lived properly is a constant process of rising up from our toddler, animal nature, through steady refinement. We should all strive to greater heights until our last day.

  6. I found this to be an amazing article. At the moment, I am sick with a fever and a very bad cold. I thought may the author’s thinking could be translated to an adult who is being pursued by the yetzer harah by being ill. I decided that before I go back to bed, I will put coins in my tzedaka boxes and read Tehillim. If my energy surges, I will continue with Tehillim.

    Thank you for a beautiful article.

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