Dear Dr T,

How do I get my children – ages two to ten – to sit and co-operate at the Shabbos seuda?

They know all about Shabbos,  but they just won’t do what they are supposed to do. The shabbos table is such a struggle, and by the time it is over, everyone is frustrated and out of sorts.

Are there behavioral techniques I could use to get everyone on par?


Dr T,

Can’t or won’t?

Are your children unable, or are they unwilling to meet your expectations?

Are they deliberately sabotaging the meal, or are they not ready to handle a longer, more structured seuda?

The ‘can’t vs. won’t’ conundrum comes up frequently in child rearing. There is a tremendous difference between the child who can’t do whatever and the child who refuses to. Whereas the child that ‘can’t’ needs to learn some skills, the child who ‘won’t’ often lacks motivation or is in power struggle with his parent. Obviously, you wouldn’t blame a child for what he is incapable of doing. But, you also want to develop some smarts in working with the child who is turned off.

It often takes some skill to determine whether it is a ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’ situation – and sometimes it is a little bit of each. But figuring out why your child does or doesn’t do what he is supposed to do is often helpful in figuring out how to deal with the situation.

Let’s look at the ‘can’ts’ and ‘wont’s.’

Children are not mini-adults and there are many things that they just cannot do for a variety of reasons. You know that – an infant cannot feed himself, a child cannot drive a car, a teen cannot do Ph.D. level physics. Our difficulty lies in the fact that we sometimes don’t understand our children’s limitations and develop unrealistic expectations. A common example of that is to expect that siblings always get along – no fighting ever. Realistically speaking, jealousy and envy are just human nature and we, however unwillingly, must allow for it.

The reason for ‘can’t’ is often developmental. Development is an ongoing process that is not discernible to the observer. As the child matures, there is development in many areas such as reading, attention and focus, physical prowess, and self control. More importantly, development is unique to the individual: we all mature at a different rate. When a child develops the ability to tackle the next step – whether it is giving up the pacifier or learning to read- we call this readiness. Readiness means that the child is available for learning. It is now up to the parent to help him develop the skills to do that which we want him to do. {It is important to note here that some children are challenged by learning differences, attention issues or physical/emotional limitations and may not achieve readiness without special instruction.]

When the child has readiness - he can. However, if he then ‘won’t’, we are looking at an entirely different picture.

‘Won’t’ presupposes ability- the child can perform the desired action but he chooses not to. He may lack motivation: why should I give up my pacifier? Or, why bother to sit nicely at the Shabbos table? It is the parent’s role then to use behavioral techniques to create motivation: to provide positive reinforcement so that the child is happy to perform. So, for example, a parent may provide a small toy or treat each time a child drinks from a cup rather than a bottle. The child may see no reason to graduate to a cup, but the rewards motivate him to use the cup.

“Won’t’ may also be more than just lack of motivation: it may represent a power struggle, an expression of resistance, or even a small rebellion. “Won’t means that the child is developmentally ready and has the requisite skills, but he chooses not to do whatever is expected of him.

Dealing with ‘won’t’ mandates that the parent use an entirely different skill set: it requires figuring out and understanding what is going on. Is the child testing you – saying ‘no’ when you say ‘yes’? Or is he feeling too controlled, too under the microscope and is engaging in passive resistance? Or, is this a child who is angry because he is pressured to perform beyond his capabilities? Parents would need to know what is going on with their child before deciding on a course of action that would restore both discipline and harmony in the home.

As far as your situation – is it a can’t or a won’t? Though I am not there, I would venture to suggest that there is a lot of can’t there. A Shabbos seuda is just too long for the little ones- and though the older children probably do have greater attention span, I would imagine that they are distracted by the younger ones.

So, why not use an ‘ayin tov’ and judge your kids favorably: they have the short attention span which is typical for their age and it is unrealistic to expect them to sit through a meal. However, eventually, with your good modeling and efforts in skill building, they will develop readiness – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Until that time, create a structure that is realistic and that your children can follow. Perhaps they can eat before and only come to the table for Kiddush, challah and dessert/benching. Or, maybe divide the bunch- and ask each to participate according to his level. Give some thought to how you could make the Shabbos table stimulating – yet age appropriate.

Whether it is can’t or won’t, your children aren’t there yet. But, with your understanding and support, you can anticipate seeing them grow into successful adults –who can and will do what needs to be done.



Reprinted with permission from Binah Magazine