Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Sivan 5764 - June 2, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

The Black Sheep
by A. Ross, M.Ed.

Many families, whether they have numerous children or just a few, are blessed with one who seems to revel in being a troublemaker. He is one who will break up an almost completed jigsaw puzzle on which four children have worked for days. He will claim it was an accident: how was he to know that his football would land right in the middle of the board? He will keep the family waiting for Kiddush on a Friday night with no real excuse. The examples are trivial but very annoying to the rest of the family. Frequently, this phenomenon is reserved for the home! Outside, he is charming, intelligent, polite and helpful.

Till about thirty years ago, the professionals who were asked for advice assumed it was some hereditary trait and the fault was in the child. Nowadays, research has shown that it is often the way he is handled at home which makes him into the family `black sheep.'

We are inclined to label our children at a very early age. One is the family Mr. Fixit. He has `golden hands,' they all say, and can mend anything. Another is a wonderful shopper, and yet a third is a natural baker. Whatever she attempts is successful. One child might have exceptionally good traits while another is beloved by his teachers and does brilliantly in school. Our `ugly duckling' does not seem to be outstanding in any field. He started out as a normal sweet baby, and after a couple of years, Mommy brought home a new baby. When he tried to poke out her eyes, he was told off. When he copied her, he was told not to be such a baby. Gradually, he became known as the troublemaker. As the years went by, he began to excel in his field.

It does not have to be because of the birth of a new baby. He may really be a shade less gifted than the rest of the family. Or he might be suffering from ADD and be a restless sort of child. In that case, let him excel in something not connected to academic achievement. Let him be the best cleaner, the one who really makes the room look neat. Remember, he is not a `special' child with special needs. He is a child who needs a label to distinguish him from others. Some parents might say that this is almost impossible with a hyperactive child. Yet there are many families who give these ADD children great confidence in themselves and they are ordinary members of the family.

However, most of the troublemakers in families are ordinary intelligent children. Why should a bright child choose to be like this? It is usually because he feels he isn't getting enough attention, so he gets it by making himself the center of attention in a negative way. Families cannot always blame themselves for things which go wrong. It is just that when they see the warning signs, they should be extra careful not to blame the child, and to give him as much attention as they possibly can. He may have an unfortunate nature which makes him feel inferior to the others ("A Chip on His Shoulder" -- Parshas Tazria) and then nothing will be quite adequate for him. But those are not usually the ones who revel in being bad.

Not every family has a troublemaker, of course. There are not that many black sheep around. When there are two close-born children and one is always more successful than the other, that is the time when the weaker of the two will develop a poor self image and try to make up for it by excelling in aggravating his siblings.

If he is halfway down the family, one of the older ones might be quite willing to give up his title of e.g. the one who always wins in games, or something else positive. By saying repeatedly, "You are just like Dovid used to be. Now he is in yeshiva, of course, but when he was your age he also always..." Thus this child can become the best shopper or Mr. Fixit, instead of the older brother or sister, depending on what his bent is.

If parents are aware of the problem yet the children are resentful of this brother or sister who seems determined to annoy them consantly, there is one way of dealing with him which will not work in all families. Call a family meeting with the older children and explain that this child is really not doing it consciously and intentionally. Try to get them to be particularly kind and considerate to him for four weeks and see the results. He will refuse to participate in the jigsaw puzzle or in the board game unless they really coax him and make life easy for him. In the end, it may not work, but it is difficult to keep annoying people who are so constantly kind to you. If the child feels useful and important in the family, he may change of his own accord.

As these children mature, they sometimes lead two completely distinct lives. They are happy, well balanced people when they are away from the family, yet continue to be the black sheep at home.

Grandparents or a beloved teacher can play a significant part in turning this ugly duckling into the swan he was meant to be. Their love and approbation is usually unconditional, so the child will never allow his inferior side to show in their company. They believe in him and might convince him that he is as valuable as everyone else in his house.


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