Preventing a Chol Hamoed Fiasco: How to Entertain Children Successfully | Dr. Meir Wikler

Parents must provide recreational opportunities for their children which are necessary for the children’s proper physical and emotional growth and development. As Harav Shlomo Wolbe emphasizes: “Playing is a very serious matter for a child … One who
disturbs a child at play is actually stealing something from the child.”

But parents must also provide proper limits, otherwise even a long-awaited Chol Hamoed excursion can turn
into a fiasco. The need for parentally imposed limits is nowhere as prominently pronounced as it is in the area of entertainment. This chapter will spell out the significance of developing structure and setting limits which will help enable children become happily adjusted and contented rather than discontented, disgruntled
and unappreciative.

month before Yom Tov: Mr. Cohen, a yeshivah alumnus, is now a computer analyst for a large data-processing firm. He has just returned home from Ma’ariv after his daf yomi shiur, and he is settling down at the kitchen table with his wife for a little snack.

The conversation leapfrogs from topic to topic and then, referring to the upcoming Yom Tov, Mr. Cohen muses, “I think I have a few vacation days coming to me.”
“Do you think you could take off on Chol Hamoed?” Mrs. Cohen asks. “The kids would be thrilled if we could all go out together. Yom Tov is still four weeks away, and Shimmy is already
asking what plans we’re making for Chol Hamoed.”
“Well, it’s not going to be easy,” Mr. Cohen replies with a deep sigh. “So much piles up at the office over the two days of Yom Tov.
But, I suppose, it’s worth the effort so we can give the kids a good time on Chol Hamoed.”

Finally the Cohens decide to go “somewhere
special” with the children on the first day of Chol Hamoed.

Three weeks later, Mrs. Cohen is busy cleaning for Yom Tov while 8-year-old Shimmy peppers her with questions. “Where are we going on Chol Hamoed? Are we going to an amusement park? Can we each have our own ticket-book for rides?”

“Now, wait a minute,” Mrs. Cohen interjects, urgently. “We don’t even know for sure whether or not we’ll be going to the
amusement park. We’ll see.”

“But you promised we’d go ‘somewhere special,’” Shimmy protests, with the determination of a veteran litigation attorney.
“Only the amusement park is ‘special.’ That’s the only place with rides. And we wanna go on rides!”

“Wides! Wides!” chimes in 3-year-old Suri, picking up on the cue.

“Can I go on the fire truck this time, Mommy?” asks 5-year-old Yanky. Then, turning to Suri, he adds, “You can come on the fire truck with me, too, if you’re good.”

“Fire twuck,” Suri responds approvingly.
Ominous weather forecasts finally give way to a surprisingly sunny first day of Chol Hamoed.

The Cohen children wake up an hour earlier than usual, as Mr. and Mrs. Cohen give up their dream of sleeping an hour later. The same children who are always late for the school bus miraculously manage to negotiate negel vasser
and breakfast unassisted.

“I thought we might visit the historical museum,” Mr. Cohen suggests. “I just read in the paper that they have a special exhibit
for children on….”

“A museum?” Shimmy interrupts. “A museum?! What’s so great about a museum? You just look at old stuff. That’s not for children. You promised we’d go ‘somewhere special’ on Chol
Hamoed. We wanna go on rides!”

“Wides! Wides!” shouts Suri, with impeccable timing. Yanky begins to cry.
“I don’t want to go to any dumb museum,”

Shimmy continues his offensive. “My whole class is going to the amusement park.” Finally the coup de grace, “This isn’t just any day; this is Chol Hamoed!”

On the way to the amusement park, the Cohen children seem to be oblivious of the rides as they openly speculate about the refreshments of the day. “When we get the chocolate bars, let’s have half right away and then save the rest for later,” Shimmy counsels his protégés.

“Who said you’re each going to get a chocolate bar?” Mrs. Cohen demands.

Falling back on his earlier successful ploy, Shimmy reminds his mother, “But it’s Chol Hamoed!”

Three minutes into the amusement park, the Cohens accept the impossibility of preserving the unity of their family. So Mr. Cohen
takes Shimmy on the Devil’s Slide, and Mrs. Cohen takes Yanky and Suri to the fire trucks. But Yanky wants to go on the Turbo
Wheel first and Mrs. Cohen thinks he’s too young for that ride …

At 3:30 the family meets at the entrance gate as planned. Mr. and Mrs. Cohen agree that they’ve had enough. They disagree only as to how much earlier they really should have left the park.

All three Cohen children begin shouting simultaneously. Each one cites the ride he or she really wanted to go on but which was
missed, so far. Mr. Cohen is firm, Mrs. Cohen waffles. Shimmy proposes a compromise. They should stop at the souvenir stand and each pick out something “small.”

Mr. Cohen agrees, albeit reluctantly, as his patience wears paper thin. The negotiations that then take place at the souvenir stand make nuclear disarmament talks sound simple. Suri grabs for anything within reach. Yanky and Shimmy display bargaining tactics with their parents that would impress a vendor in the
Arab shuk.

After 20 frustrating, unproductive minutes at the souvenir stand, Mr. Cohen announces that his offer to buy souvenirs has been rescinded and the car is leaving, with or without the rest of the family. At this point it is difficult to determine exactly who is shouting at whom.

What is clear is that on the way home, Mr. and
Mrs. Cohen are sitting silently in the front while all three children are crying in the back.

What was planned as a joyous Chol Hamoed outing has ended in a total fiasco. The children’s disappointment is matched only by their parents’ frustration and sense
of having been abused.

What Went Wrong?

Mr. and Mrs. Cohen are, unfortunately, not alone. In fact, when they left the amusement park on Chol Hamoed, they received minor consolation from the shouts of protest and crying emanating from many of the other cars pulling out of the parking lot.

Lots of parents begin with plans and expectations similar to the Cohens’, all motivated by the desire to go “somewhere special” on Chol Hamoed. Somehow, more often than not, it doesn’t work out quite as “specially” as everyone would have liked. So perhaps we should review the scenario to analyze just what went wrong.

In analyzing the Cohens’ expectations, it is important to separate those of Mr. and Mrs. Cohen from those of Shimmy, Yanky
and Suri.

Let us begin with the parents:
Mr. and Mrs. Cohen had the right idea when they wanted their children to look forward to Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed. But they had the wrong idea when they thought in terms of “somewhere special.”

The enjoyment a person has from any experience is inversely proportional to his expectations. The more he expects before the
experience, the greater the chances are that he will be disappointed later. Increased expectations drastically reduce the enjoyment
actually experienced. Or, to put it more simply, the most fun is often had when it is least expected. If this is true for adults, it applies even more so to children.

So returning to the senior Cohens, their first mistake was thinking that to insure a good time for Shimmy, Yanky and Suri, they had to go “somewhere special.” Had they lowered their own expectations of what constitutes a good time, perhaps they would have planned for Chol Hamoed with a better perspective.

Chazal, of course, recognize the importance of including children in plans for simchas Yom Tov. As the Shulchan Aruch states
(Orach Chaim 529:2): “A man is obligated to be happy and with a joyous heart on Yom Tov together with his wife and children,” to
which the Mishnah Berurah (529:16) adds: “Chol Hamoed is included with Yom Tov regarding simchah.” The Shulchan Aruch then asks, “How does one make them happy? For children, he gives them toasted grain and nuts.”

That’s all? Perhaps these are guidelines only for the poor? Surely those who could afford to should provide more for their children than simply toasted grain and nuts!

The Shulchan Aruch, however, goes on to explain that, “for his wife, one should buy clothing and jewelry, according to his
financial ability.” The latter qualification is stated regarding purchases for his wife, but not regarding those for his children.

How are we to interpret “according to his financial ability”? Do these words come to suggest that clothes and jewelry are minimum
requirements and if he can afford more he should spend more? Or are these maximum guidelines, implying that one with
limited financial means may spend less? The Bi’ur Halachah answers these questions quite definitively: “According to this, ‘financial ability’ [means that] if he cannot afford [to buy clothing and jewelry] he should at the very least buy new shoes [for her] in honor of Yom Tov.”

By contrast, we can assume that toasted grain and nuts are not simply minimum guidelines for children’s simchas Yom Tov.

Of course, it would not be prohibited to provide more, but that goes beyond the expectation of Chazal. Perhaps Chazal are trying to teach us this basic principle of human nature — that enjoyment is increased when expectations are reduced.

There is another principle we can infer from the words of Chazal. Expectations, especially for children, should be clear and specific, not vague and open to speculation. Chazal knew that whenever children are given general promises, their wild and creative imaginations will inevitably lead them to expect more than
was intended. “Toasted grain and nuts,” however, leaves little room for speculation.

This leads us to Mr. and Mrs. Cohen’s second mistake. By telling their children that they would go “somewhere special on Chol Hamoed,” they were planting the seeds for future disappointment. And by leaving the plans up in the air for weeks in advance, they were watering those seeds every day.

Instead, the Cohens should have planned something modest and promised something as clear and specific as possible. “We
haven’t decided, yet,” is better than “something special”; — and “We’re going out to Hartley Park for a picnic,” is even better. The picnic trip may include a stop along the way, but that is not included in the contract; and, if an extra stop is made, it would be the proverbial icing on the cake.

Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Cohen had immediately decided on a trip to the amusement park and promised that to their children. Would spelling that out in advance have prevented their Chol
Hamoed fiasco? It certainly would have helped, but that alone would not have guaranteed a successful outing.

Setting Limits

All people need structure in their lives; children even more than adults. Adults, hopefully, have internalized many forms of
self-regulating structure that, as was discussed previously, children have not yet developed.

For instance, adults can sense the passage of time, even without a clock or a calendar, while children cannot. As a result, children can enjoy any experience much more if elements of structure are provided for them by their parents.

This will minimize the chances for disappointment later on and will help the children to fully delight in the experience.
Certain questions, therefore, should be answered in advance of a trip to the amusement park. How long will we stay? How many rides will we go on? Will we be given refreshments? If so, how much? Will we come home with souvenirs? How much money can we spend? Of course, sound judgment would dictate that the age of the children be taken into consideration when addressing such questions, and not every question needs to be
answered in advance.

What is important is the principle: The more children know what to expect and where the limits are, the less likely they are to feel deprived and disappointed later on. So the third mistake Mr. and Mrs. Cohen made was not to offer their children any limiting guidelines for the trip to the amusement

Parents should always spell out some clear limitations to their children in as concrete a fashion as possible. It will take some forethought and planning and it may reduce spontaneity, but it’s well worth the price. “We will stay for two and a half hours or
for six rides each, whichever comes first,” might sound funny to some parents. But after all the “What if …?” questions subside, it’s
amazing how relaxed the day can be. As mentioned, all children possess an underdeveloped awareness of time, especially when they are having fun. To be told
abruptly, “It’s time to leave,” literally shocks their systems. They need gentle reminders — even a 3-year-old can grasp the meaning
of, “This is the next-to-the-last ride.”

“Isn’t it mean to remind children that the trip is almost over?” some parents might argue. “Why not let them enjoy themselves fully while they’re having fun?”

In fact, however, it is not reminding children of the time that is cruel. Just listen to all those crying children at the exit of the amusement park — they’ve all just been told that it’s time to
leave. Adults do not throw a tantrum when they must end their own entertainment or vacation, because they have been cognizant
all along of the impending end. Why not give children the same opportunity to adjust?

The Cohens’ fourth mistake, therefore, was not helping their children to anticipate and thereby adjust to the eventual conclusion of the trip to the amusement park.

Teaching Appreciation

Nothing rankles parents more than extending themselves to make their children happy — and receiving no appreciation for their efforts.

What parents need to realize, however, is that appreciation is not a genetically transmitted trait; it must be acquired. Children must learn to exercise their appreciation muscles, and
we must teach them using the same methods employed for teaching any other skill.

No one teaches a child to ride a bike by giving a lecture on the principles of physics. Parents simply put the child on a bike and walk him or her through the motions, offering tips here and there, until the child can pedal independently.
Learning to exercise appreciation muscles is no different.

Parents have to help guide their children through the motions until they become automatic.

This brings us to the Cohens’ fifth mistake.

Whenever Mr. and Mrs. Cohen take their children on a Chol Hamoed trip, or any other outing, they wait for their children to express gratitude. If no appreciation is forthcoming, they may sulk quietly, castigate themselves
for not giving their children a good enough time, or simply tell themselves, “What can you expect? They’re only children.”

That’s precisely it: Now they are children, and they will never acquire adult appreciation skills tomorrow unless they start learning them today! On the way home, the Cohens should have insisted on hearing some words of gratitude from their children, not to reward themselves, but to fulfill their obligation of chinuch with their children.

Of course, considering the circumstances, the Cohens could only expect to have heard the most begrudging “Thank you,” uttered in barely audible tones. But that would be enough for the time being. No child learns how to ride a bike in one day, either.

Hopefully, with years of practice and training, several years hence, on the way home from a Chol Hamoed outing, Mr. and Mrs. Cohen just may hear a “Thank You” before the children are reminded.

And, oh, how sweet that will be!
_ _ _
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Meir Wikler’s Partners with HaShem Vol. I (Artscroll, 2000)

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