Amy McCready, the author who created the Positive Parenting Solutions resources, suggests that the real reason children misbehave is not out of defiance. To parents, it may seem like opposition for the sake of opposition, but the underlying reason, according to McCready, is about the need for belonging and significance. “Belonging” is the sense of connection and positive attention we seek in our interactions with others, and “significance” is the sense of autonomy and capability that empowers us.
In her parenting tips, McCready says that children act out when they feel that one of these needs isn’t being met, and she offers disciplinary strategies that work to fulfill these needs rather than offer a temporary solution (yelling, time-outs, etc).
Parshat Chukat, our Torah portion this week, is a perfect illustration of the often-used analogy of the relationship between God and the Israelites to that of parent and child. We have actual examples of how the Israelites revealed a desperate and oppositional nature through their behavior. Here’s a quick summary of the parshah. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. When Miriam dies, we’re given one more water miracle on her behalf, with water flowing from the rock. We also learn that the reason Moses and Aaron are not allowed to enter the land of Israel is because of the incident in which they struck the rock out of frustration instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The text ends with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.
In the midst of these major plot points, the Israelites complain about the journey out of Egypt, as we see them do several times. Specifically, in chapter 20, verse 4 the Israelites plead with Moses, “Why did you bring us out to the desert for us and our beasts to die here?” In this moment the congregation is thirsty and discouraged. They left Egypt full of hope and optimism as God’s chosen people, but things are different when they’re “alone” in the desert. They lack belonging and significance. In isolation, they don’t feel the sense of belonging they had in Egypt. As terrible as bondage was, at least they knew they were connecting to something. And in the wilderness, with God and Moshe and Aaron making all the decisions, how could they feel significant? How could they feel like anything other than cattle being moved laboriously to another pasture?
But of course there’s more to this lesson than just a warning about whining in the desert. Even as the Torah shows the negative impact of this tantrum-like behavior, we also see time and again the reminder that things like community and prayer are the antidotes. When we feel disconnected or in turmoil, our Jewish community provides the sense of belonging and the help we need. When we feel like life has spun out of control, prayer offers a sense of significance, a feeling that we do have the power to change for the better.
May we go into Shabbat with feelings of both belonging and significance, and hopefully the tantrums will be few and far between.