Life & Culture

'Self-esteem is an issue for Jewish kids'


You have heard of the life coach, the business coach and the football coach — now meet the parenting coach.

Bebe Jacobs is not some New Age guru or tough-talking television nanny, but a Jewish mother with 25 years of experience as a child psychologist and educator. Her job, she says, is to help end the sleepless nights of parents driven to distraction by the behavioural problems thrown up by babies, toddlers and pre-adolescents — with an emphasis on the little ones.

“The terrible twos can start well before the second birthday — and if they’re not nipped in the bud they can go on and on,” says Bebe, known to congregants of Alyth Gardens synagogue as the head of their cheder programme.

“It’s all about a cry for attention,” she explains. “And there’s a reason babies want attention. First, they cry so they’ll get fed and survive, then they crave attention to help them feel secure and build their self-esteem.”

Self-esteem is not an issue, you might think, for Jewish parents, who tend to idolise their children and make them the centre of their world.

“That’s a bit of a myth,” says Bebe, whose three children are in their 20s. “Family life is important to Jews, but life in a Jewish home can be frenetic.

“Parents are often busy working, or ferrying children from one activity to the next. What they don’t tend to do is get down on the floor and give one-to-one attention by playing with them.”

Not to mention that talking-at or over, rather than to, other members of the family is a more popular Jewish pursuit than listening. Bebe views positive language as a secret weapon to overcome the wilful wiles of difficult youngsters. “There are huge issues over food in Jewish families — and the way to get children to sit well at a table and eat their food is not to scream ‘eat up, eat up’, but to try and make the experience fun,” she says.

“You might say: ‘The sooner you finish your meal, the more time you’ll have to go out and play’ — but parents have to be good role models too. And that means saying: ‘Let’s sit and eat this together’, which doesn’t come naturally to the mother too busy serving everyone else to sit down herself.”

But not all eating issues are benign, admits the coach, who despite years spent working with children in Israel and Canada as well as London does not believe her psychology degree makes her a know-it-all. “I don’t pretend to be a nutritionist, so I’ll refer for more serious eating issues, especially if anorexia is suspected.”

Language is also important when it comes to praising kids, she says, pointing out the approach of “darling, you were the best thing in the show” is phoney and unhelpful.

“If a child only has a small part in the school play, he knows that kind of praise is insincere. It’s better to say ‘I liked the way you played your part’ — it’s more specific about the child’s achievements as well as more sincere.”

Then there is setting boundaries — an essential part of parenting. “If you don’t try saying: ‘Wait five minutes, then I’ll play with you or help you with your homework,’ next time the child will be even more demanding.”

In a typical coaching session at her office near Brent Cross, Bebe takes a family timetable and identifies trigger points: “Is there more likely to be trouble first thing in the morning or last thing at night?

“Is getting a child dressed for school a trigger point, and how can that be combatted by showing the child there are benefits to not dawdling? It’s down to language again.”

Bebe will soon be putting workbooks online so stressed parents can consult relevant chapters in the small hours and email her questions.

When it is time for the little darling to leave home and get socialised, Bebe, who assesses nursery school teachers in many Jewish kindergartens, has just published an online book detailing how to choose a nursery school. “It’s amazing how little attention parents pay to the place where their children will spend hours of their most formative years.

“The most important thing to find out is how closely the nursery will observe your child and report concerns to you. It’s not a given that the nursery gives feedback weekly; some only have parents’ evenings once a year. Parents need to know all the right questions to ask — most pertinently, whether they would feel comfortable themselves in this place they’re considering leaving their child.”

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