Hocheiach tochiach es amisecho (Vayikra 19:17)
It would have been more logical to say hocheiach tochiach l’amisecho, give reproof to your fellow [because hocheiach tochiach es amisecho implies “with your fellow” rather than “to your fellow”]. However, our Torah haKedosha is a treasury of mussar, interpersonal life skills. It has embedded a life lesson in these words. The plain meaning is to give reproof. The underlying life lesson is how to give reproof. This is alluded to by the term es amisecho, engaging in conversation with your fellow.
Do not approach him with an attitude of “I know you did something wrong, why did you do it?” If you approach him this way, you shame him, causing the color to drain from his face. You will not achieve your goal. He will become enraged and defensive.
The Torah teaches us the strategy to avoid shaming the one receiving reproof and thus achieving our goal. You should approach your fellow tentatively, curious about the event, not critical of the person.
Begin by asking “what happened,” not even judging the event by saying, “how could that happen?” Engage him in an analysis of the event and what led up to it. Invite him to evaluate the event and his involvement; to consider, in retrospect, his judgment of his behavior rather than yours... This is alluded to by the word es, you invite his impression of what happened [instead of imposing yours]. You invite him to speak, and you listen. (HaKsav v’Hakabala on Vayikra 19:17)
In short, you reword your statement of tochacha from “why did you do that?!” to “what happened?” Not because it is more polite. Because it is more effective. Rather than triggering defense you elicit reflection. Most people would rather be spoken with than lectured to. The key word to avoid is “why.” The replacement word is “what.”
There are other words that thwart effective parenting, and each one has a replacement.
The following story contains another word that should be avoided.
Genendy and Gilbert Sullivan sat down across from me and presented their song of woe.
Gil’s a wonderful father of our children, each one,
Our youngest is Pinny, age 4.
He’s a lively fellow and a challenge sometimes,
Our youngest son, Pinny, age 4.
I love our children,
They’re as wonderful as can be,
But our Pinny, age 4,
Never never listens to me!
Hardly ever! He hardly ever listens to me!
In this example, the word to avoid is “never.” Also to be avoided is never’s evil twin “always.” These words thwart parents because children quickly do two things with them:
One: they realize that neither of these words is true.
Two: They use these words against their parents, e.g. we never get to…, you always say…
The replacement words are often, sometimes, rarely, seldom.
It’s interesting how parents notice the inaccuracy when their children use these words but not when they use these words at their children. Eliminating inaccurate words from your active vocabulary will reduce the likelihood of your child’s using these words.
When a child does use an inaccurate word, parents are more effective when they tolerate it. A common mistake parents make is allowing an inaccurate word to derail a conversation with a child. Here’s what that sounds like:
Child: But dad, every kid in my class has a [fill in the blank]!
Dad: How do you know that every kid in your class has one? You asked every kid in your class?
Child: No, but I can tell! It’s normal! Why can’t you let me be normal? Kids think I’m weird and I have weird parents! It’s so not fair!
Dad: So it’s not every kid in your class. You see! You do that every time! You exaggerate and make things up. How am I supposed to know when you’re telling the truth? And who says “normal” is right? Is it normal for kids to talk back to their parents? Maybe it is nowadays. That doesn’t make it right! And just because some people have lowered their standards doesn’t make people who have held onto their standards “weird!”
What has this conversation accomplished? Nothing. The item the child had requested was never addressed. If the parent had focused on the request rather than on the inaccurate “every kid in my class” statement, they might have come to a resolution of the original issue. The child was exaggerating. The parent’s response to it was exaggerated. As a parent, you’ll do better when you stay on a topic and postpone other issues that arise during the discussion.
One other parental pitfall occurred during this last scenario. Dad launched into a lecture. I believe that the only thing a parent’s lecture can ever accomplish is to cure a child’s insomnia.
If you’ve made your point and your child has deflected it, making the same point with different words is just going to be deflected again.
L'olam yeshne adam l’talmido derech kitzarah. Always teach your disciple in a concise manner. (Pesachim 3b)
One more semantic sinkhole is the word “must” along with its partner in verbal crime “have to.” Hashem has told us many things we are to do and many things we are not to do. Do we have to? Of course not. Hashem gave us bechira chafshis. Like it or not, children have bechira chafshis, too.
Ergo, telling a child that he has to do something is simply not true and he knows it.
The alternative is to ask a child to do something you would like him to do.
If he never never does what you ask him to do, sit down with him and don’t ask him why. Ask him what’s happening. Sooner or later, if you’re calm and gentle, he’ll probably tell you.
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575