Raising Children with the Heart Works Approach


By Chaim Drizin, MA, LMFT

Parenting is the most rewarding job of all—and often, the most frustrating. We all want our children to grow happy, successful, observant of traditions, strong in their appreciation of who they are and empathetic towards others. Yet despite our best efforts and advice from countless experts and parenting books, many children fail to live up to their potential. Can parents find any way to make an immediate, visible, meaningful—and lasting—difference in their children’s lives? It is important to first look within, and examine how -three hundred years- Chassidic teachings could be employed. A person who consulted with me named Al, who grappled with reticent parenting issues, serves as a real-life testimony of the transformative effects of these practices.

The term “Heart Works” is based in a Sicha (Likutei Sichos Vol. 19, pg. 168, Hilcholt Melachim, Chapter 3, Halacha 6), in which Rambam compares a king to the heart: “His heart is the heart of the entire congregation of Israel.” Just as the heart’s entire purpose is to pump and supply the body with blood, so, too, a king exists entirely for his people. Parents, the most important people in children’s lives, likewise need to act as the heart for those children. We do that by supporting, uplifting and educating them in a way that leads to a joyous and meaningful life.

On the other end of the spectrum, Al’s story illustrates the dangers inherent when parents as well as teachers deflate rather than empower children. The scars can linger long into adulthood. It seems that when Al was in fifth grade, a teacher gave him a failing grade on a test and remarked, “Al, you are not very bright.” The boy’s mother reacted by reinforcing the message, and told her son to try as best he could. But for Al, the message that he wasn’t smart played like a broken record, etching its way into his subconscious and defying years of evidence to the contrary.

Despite graduating from high school, Al figured he wouldn’t stand a chance in college. He enrolled in trade school to become an electrician and later apprenticed himself to an elderly gent in a small shop. When the owner was ready to retire, Al took over and grew the business to multiple shops.

When I met Al, he had just sold his business for hundreds of millions of dollars. Imagine that a man, no matter how much he achieved, could not see his intelligence. How, after so much time, could I help Al see the truth about his gifts? Telling him he was smart wouldn’t help. Instead, I began asking him detailed questions about how his business grew and the steps he took on the road to success.

As Al relived his business career, the story of how a brilliant man grew a huge business, slowly gained in dominance. He began to see what had been minimized or made invisible from him. Through my questions, we re-storied Al’s life, allowing him to clearly see that it was his intelligence, with some luck, at the root of his remarkable achievements.

After months of hard work, we accomplished just that. Today, at age 68, Al is studying for a law degree (he already earned a bachelor’s), and maintains a 3.97 grade point average.

Part of the lesson in Al’s story is the enormous power of our words. In Proverbs, Chapter 18, Verse 21, King Solomon says, “death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” Words can mean the difference between life and death. Al’s teacher and mother told him he wasn’t bright, and those words stayed with him until the day he arrived at my door in late middle age.

Today’s parents are more careful than Al’s mother not to reinforce negative messages. Before we speak, we have to ensure that our thoughts about our children are positive, something the Rebbe often stressed when he said, “Tracht Gut Vet Zayn Gut.” (Think good and it will be good.) When you think of your children, always think positively; always believe in them. That is the Chassidic approach to raising children. For our beliefs to have real impact on our children, we need to believe in our children’s potential with our whole hearts and souls.