Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman, LMHC
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…"
Look at the power of that one little three letter word, "but." It took away the success of a 97 and turned it into a failure for not getting 100, and although that's not what mom intended, it is what Chana heard.
It's Chana's fault for not understanding what mom meant. It's mom's fault for not expressing herself in a way that Chana would know what she meant.
Here we arrive at the precipice of the blame game. There is no value in assigning blame. This does not mean that when something goes wrong you should ignore it or pretend it's okay. When something goes wrong there are some very specific steps to take if you're hoping to see it go right next time. Affixing blame is not one of them. Assigning responsibility is.
Here's the difference between affixing blame and assigning responsibility: when you affix blame you usually reduce a child's self-esteem, when you assign responsibility you often build it.
Here's how Chana's mother affixed blame, (notice how subtle this can be):
but look at this mistake. If you had been more careful you could've gotten 100.
Please join me on a journey into Chana's mind to see how she processed her mother's words: I did something wrong I was careless and I lost three points because I was careless and it's my fault that I didn't get 100 when I could have and I should have and it just proves again that I'm not as smart as my mother wishes I were and no matter how careful I try to be I always manage to get something wrong
Remember, all of this is happening inside of Chana's mind, it is not what her mother said and it's not what her mother intended AND that doesn't change the fact that it's how Chana heard it and how it has reduced her self-esteem. Incredibly, this all started when she brought home a 97!
How did mom go from celebrating the 97 to blaming her for the carelessness that cost her those three points? By using the 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?
Mrs. Blitkin, how do you think it will sound to Chana when you say, "I see you got a 97 on your math test. I think that's good, Chana, what do you think of it?" What do you think Chana will say to you?
Mrs. Blitkin (turning to Chana): I do think you did really well to get a 97 on your math test, Chana. What do you think about it?
Chana: I thought it was really good. I just wish I could get 100, sometimes.
Mrs. Blitkin: Yes, I also wish sometimes you would get 100. I think you could. What would you need to do differently, Chana?
Right there. Did you see it? Mom just shifted from affixing blame to assigning responsibility. Let's go back into Chana's mind and see how she processed mom's words this time: I did something really well, and mom thinks so too! Wow, if I could do that well maybe I could do even better. And my mom thinks I could, too! I'm going to think about this, and see if I can figure out a way to get that 100 next time.
When children perceive that kind of message from you, you can almost see their self-esteem growing before your eyes.
But what of Ben Azzai's dictum al ti maflig l'chol davar? If we translate this as "don't discount any word," how can I justify my exhortation to expunge the word "but" from your vocabulary? But if we don't expunge it, isn't it always harmful?
As usual, "always" is not accurate. Here's an example of the use of the powerful word "but" in a way that is heartening.
U'mosar ha'adam min habahaima ayin, ki hakol havel; aval anachnu … BUT!
The words of this tefila, echoing Koheles, remind us that despite all that is vain, we can be a source of nachas to Hashem, and merit much nachas from our children.
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.