But out of it! Part 1

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC

In the al chait list of the viduy, one of the sins we mention is vulgar speech. I'm sure you rarely, if ever, use any of the proverbial four letter words in any situation, and certainly never in the presence of your children. My concern today is with a three letter word that no one considers a curse word, yet I hope you will rarely, if ever, say it to your child.

Why my concern with this word particularly today? Because children have just returned to school and this word wreaks havoc with children during the school year in ways that parents usually don't realize and certainly don't intend. So much so, that I would be tempted to consider this word, in many contexts, to be a curse word.

According to the dictionary, the verb form of the word curse means, "to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon." As I mentioned, parents never wish to invoke any of these things on their children, chas v'sholom. Yet I'm sure you'll agree with me that to reduce a child's self-esteem is an injury and a calamity. And that's exactly what happened to Chana more than once during the past school year.

I am never good enough for my mother, Rabbi Ackerman. You heard what my mother just said.

Chana, I never said you're not good enough. What I said was, it is good that you got an 86 on your midterm, but if you'd study more, you could get 90s.

That's what my mother always says to me. A few weeks ago, I got a 97 on a math test. She looked at my test paper, and said, "This is good Chana, but look at this mistake. If you had been more careful you could've gotten 100." No matter what I do, it's always, "yes but you could have…"

Obviously, mom never intended any harm to Chana's self-esteem. Nonetheless, when Chana says that she thinks she is never good enough for her mother, it sounds to me like there has been some harm to Chana's self-esteem.

What went wrong here, what did mom say that Chana took as such a demoralizing criticism? Mom said a three letter word that I consider toxic, and those of you who learn Gemara will understand exactly what I mean.

It's a three letter word in the Gemara also: aleph, lamed, aleph. We've seen what happens when the Gemara tries to make a point or support an argument and then says elah. Many lines of text and sometimes an entire page are nullified when that three letter word is invoked. "It was a good try, but it wasn't good enough. We're going to have to take a different approach, start all over again, because our prior attempt failed." That's the intended implication of the word elah in the gemara. It's the unintended message you convey to your child when you use the word 'but.'

It's the message of failure that Chana inferred every time her mother used the word. It's how Chana came to believe that she is never good enough for her mother, how her self-esteem was damaged. You build your child's self-esteem every time you notice and acknowledge her success, and you tear it down when you turn success into failure with that vicious little word 'but.'

But Rabbi Ackerman, I think she could do better than the 86 she got on her midterm and I think if she had been more careful she would have gotten 100 on her math test; why can't I tell her that?

Note to those of you who know me: yes I did take a deep breath having just heard 'but' and 'why' in the same sentence!

I would encourage you to express your expectations to Chana, and I'd like to help you figure out how to do that in a way that doesn't negate Chana's accomplishments up until now. Unless, you don't consider her 86 and her 97 to be worthwhile at all? What do you think of them, Mrs. Blitkin?

I think she did okay, but she could've done better.

Mrs. Blitkin, how do you think it will sound to Chana when you say, "I see you got an 86 on your midterm. I think that's good, Chana, what do you think of it?" What do you think Chana will say to you?

First of all I think Chana will assume that I'm perfectly happy with her getting an 86 when I'm really not because I think she could've done better.

So you would rather Chana think that you're totally unhappy with her 86 rather than thinking that you're perfectly happy with it.

No, I would rather Chana think that I would like her to work harder so she could do better.

That's fine, Mrs. Blitkin, and it's why I want you to ask her what she thinks of the grade she got.

G-d willing, in our next article we'll look at the rest of this conversation with Mrs. Blitkin and Chana. In the meantime, if you see any commentary on the words Elah (but), and Alah (curse) being similar or related, please let me know at [email protected].

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC, created The Nachas Notebook , and has been working with parents for over 30 years. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.