You probably recognize the words, “the jury will disregard.” It is the instruction judges give jurors to ignore inadmissible testimony after it has already been offered in open court. Of course the jury, composed of human beings, cannot forget what it has already heard — even if they try. The integrity of the proceedings have [sic] already been damaged.
(Stephen Stromberg, The Washington Post, November 6, 2016)
It may be that some jurors will make a conscious effort to disregard the words that were deemed inadmissible as they deliberate in the jury room, but the bell cannot be unrung. The words cannot be entirely unheard. Words always make a roshem, like the clang of a bell. They have a visceral impact even after we learn that the alarm bell had been rung in error.
While in some cases an express instruction to the jury to disregard testimony injuriously admitted is properly held to cure the error, yet the courts are cautious in the application of this rule. It is not an easy task to unring a bell…(Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Allen McBride; May 9, 1912)
Justice McBride is credited with creating this metaphor and it rings true in parenting as well.
The words of parents ring loudly in the ears and hearts of their children no matter the amplitude at which they are expressed. Telling a child at some later time to disregard those harsh words is no more effective than the instruction to a jury.
When a parent sincerely apologizes for the damage done, a child hears what it means to feel and express remorse for a mistake, an valuable lesson indeed. When a child experiences the damage repeatedly he wonders how sincere the apologies could possibly be. This is the child who, some years later, informs his therapist that he has “trust issues.” When asked, “who lied to you so often that you now have trust issues,” he doesn’t know. It takes time and work to discover that bell deep in his heart that tolls the warning that people don’t mean what they say.
You don’t think his parents were sincere when they expressed their remorse?
I think their remorse was incomplete and thus not entirely sincere.
Could you please explain what you mean by that?
I mean that the step after charata, vidui, and azivus ha’chait is kabbalah al ha’asid and these parents did not demonstrate kabbalah al ha’asid, l’maaseh. If these parents had truly regretted their harsh words, they would have worked much harder to do better. Verbal mistreatment is a serious matter.
Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: Greater is the transgression of verbal harm than the transgression of monetary exploitation. With regard to verbal harm, the pasuk concludes: “And you shall fear your G-d.” But with regard to monetary exploitation, the pasuk does not mention: “And you shall fear your G-d.” And Rabbi Elazar said: Verbal harm affects one’s body; monetary exploitation [only] affects one’s money. Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says, with monetary exploitation there is the possibility of restitution, but there can be no restitution after verbal harm. (Baba Metzia 58b)
This mitzvah [the prohibition of inflicting pain with your words] applies in all places and at all times for males and females. And even with children, it is proper to be careful not to hurt them with words more than what is appropriate, unless it is extremely necessary in order for them to accept rebuke. This applies even to one's sons and daughters. One who is lenient with them, not to cause them such pain, will find life, blessing, and honor. (Sefer HaChinuch 338)
The Minchas Chinuch disagrees with the Chinuch’s statement that “it is proper” not to hurt children with words. After asking, “why it is different if it is a child who was humiliated,” he cites Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 420:37, as a source that vadei muzhar alav, we are certainly commanded [this prohibition] regarding him, a child, as well.
The Mechaber, in the Shulchan Aruch cited above, writes, one who humiliates… a child who experiences painful shame is culpable.
This psak is based on the following gemara:
Is a person culpable for subjecting a child to humiliation? Rav Pappa said: Yes, in the case of a child who when shamed by another feels humiliation. (Baba Kama 86a bot.)
Rashi: When shamed by another feels humiliation: when you shame him he feels pain.
As we prepare for the unknown scenarios of the coming school year, one thing is sure: shaming a child is almost always helpful in the short term and damaging in the long term. Ringing the shame bell will get her attention and change her behavior. And you will never unring that hurtful bell.
There is a more gentle bell that parents often ring. The problem with this bell is one of quantity rather than quality. The tone is soft and gentle. But it goes on and on and on. If lecturing your child has been helpful in the past, keep doing it. But if your child looks like he’s spacing out, he probably is, and you’re accomplishing nothing other than boring him. The only thing he’s hearing is his own thought, “when will this end already?” If this has been your experience with your child and you don’t know what else to do, ask for help.
Note: Yelling at a toddler may startle her into submission. Don’t do it unless she is about to do something truly dangerous. If you yell at your toddler every time she’s about to knock over a cup of milk she will take your yelling in stride; it won’t mean anything to her. Chas v’shalom, when you yell at her as she is about to run in the street, she will ignore you. Invest in high quality paper towels and save your emergency voice for emergencies.
Finally, make sure you ring your bell of celebration loud and often when your child succeeds at anything and everything. She’ll hear that sound forever, too.
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