Yetzer hara: a child’s worst enemy and best friend

By Ellie Grossman

Stay-at-home-moms are much like corporate executives because we problem solve all day long. We all know this by now, but it’s worth repeating. The only difference is that our boss is four feet tall and considers Lunchables a gourmet meal. And another thing — no one recognizes our everyday accomplishments, big or small, such as the many times I salvage artwork from the bottom of a trash can after it’s already soaked in cream of mushroom soup. Even though we don’t get the same perks as businesspeople, such as expense accounts, office parties, and a private cubicle to call our own, moms are on a fast track all right, with no plans to slow down anytime soon.

I always look for creative ways to solve problems. Sometimes I’m worthy of a promotion; other times I deserve to get fired. As a Jewish mom, one of the more challenging, long-term assignments on my agenda is to identify and understand my children’s yetzer tov (impulse for good) and yetzer hara (impulse for evil). As I understand it, the yetzer tov is the angel that reminds us to follow God’s law when we are tempted to do something forbidden. The yetzer hara is more like the devil that stops at nothing to satisfy our personal needs. The yetzer hara is thought of as a selfish desire, but without it, there would be no marriages, no babies born, no deals made in the business world.


The rabbis in the Talmud period believe that God gives everyone at birth a yetzer tov and yetzer hara. The Talmud notes that both impulses — the self-restraint of the yetzer tov and the burning passion of the yetzer hara — are essential to human survival. How we balance the two forces in our lives describes the essence of free will.

Especially in children, the yetzer hara gets the most attention, at least at my house, because it’s the loudest and most demanding. For Jack, it’s an intense mental and physical focus on the ball field that drives him to pitch another shutout inning. That’s a good thing. His relentless yetzer hara also bullies him, and he can be way too hard on himself if he doesn’t perform his personal best. That’s a bad thing.

For Sari, her yetzer hara is the tenacity to question everything that doesn’t seem right or fair, such as the grading scale that she helped revise in first grade. Any positive change is a good thing. However, the yetzer hara also makes it harder for her to go with the flow. Many times the yetzer hara gets stuck in the negative and shadows the bright side of a situation. And that’s a bad thing.

When guided in the right direction, the rabbis tell us, the energy of the yetzer hara is what gives our child a one-of-a-kind spunk in his or her personality. It’s the fire that burns inside our child, and no parent has the right to extinguish it. The trick is to find our child’s greatest strength hidden inside his or her worst quality. The first step is to look at ourselves in the mirror. Where do you think our child’s mishegas comes from in the first place? Not a pretty sight.

With that in mind, one of my goals is to change the part of my 7-year-old daughter’s yetzer hara that likes to kvetch. So I’ve conducted a family experiment called the “complaint container,” in which we all learn a little something about ourselves. For every complaint we make throughout the day, we put a penny in the pot to get a better understanding of how we all contribute to this problem. Although my parenting technique isn’t necessarily approved by the “experts,” it sure makes a good story. Read how it all went down in next week’s column.

“The Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to [email protected]