Make Me, Don't Break Me
Motivating children for success at home and in the classroom. A practical guide for parents and teachers.
By Rabbi Moshe Gans
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Can you recall a time you were motivated to reach a goal because someone expected you to reach it? That person may have been a parent, teacher, friend or relative. He or she expected the best of you and had confidence in your ability. You may even have thought that it could not be done, but you made the effort and met the expectation.
How did this person motivate you? What was the secret? The answer is that he or she believed in you, expected the best and treated you as a winner.
This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. A prophecy is self-fulfilling when the expectation of an event induces behavior that increases the likelihood of the event. It is also called the Pygmalion effect. It is more than an abstract idea or concept; it is a reality, a fact of life.
A self-fulfilling prophecy can work vis-a-vis a persons expectation of himself and his subsequent behavior, or his expectation of someone else and that persons subsequent behavior. We will be discussing the latter -- how a parents expectation of a childs success induces behavior that increases the likelihood of that success.
The Self-fulfilling Prophecy
Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wrote about the self-fulfilling prophecy. He wrote that parents should expect the best of their children and treat them as winners.
To explain the idea, he told a story of a rabbi who accepted a position in a new community. Some people, with good intentions, wanted to help him by making a list of all the community members along with a short description of each members character. But the rabbi rejected the offer. Here, in his words, is the reason:
In most instances, this knowledge holds the rabbi back from performing with proper guidance and influence. It is better to assume that each person has good character and to firmly resolve that they all want to be straight and ethical, with love for other people and prepared for sacrifice, compromise and mitzvah performance.
When the rabbi publicizes his opinion to the community, every person will try to prove that the opinion is correct. As the relationship between rabbi and community grows, people practice these traits and an impact is made on them. The person who lacks a particular trait will become the kind of person the rabbi wants him to be.
This rabbi used the self-fulfilling prophecy to shape and improve people. He expected the best from all community members and treated them as if they already were what he wanted them to be. They in turn met his expectation by behaving that way. He prophesied good behavior, and because he treated the people with that expectation, the prophecy was fulfilled.
Another recognized educator once said that this technique can be used to change the habits of a miserly person. Praise a miserly person for being a gracious contributor and treat him as though he already were this way, and his buried trait of philanthropy will be uncovered. The newly found trait soon wins over his miserliness, and he becomes a bona-fide philanthropist.
In the same way, you can bring out the best in your children. Search for their good traits and articulate your expectations. Share your belief and confidence in your children by saying things like, You are such a capable person. There is no doubt that if you apply yourself, you can reach your goal.
Experiments have demonstrated the self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers have performed many experiments to demonstrate the effect of expectations and the self-fulfilling prophecy. These experiments involved ordinary people in social settings, athletes in sports settings, patients in medical settings, workers in occupational settings, children in school settings and animals in laboratory settings.
One researcher studied members of a bowling team. The researcher observed that on any given evening, members knew how each player would bowl. When a particular player was expected to bowl well, he did. When he was expected to bowl poorly, he did. The expectations of team members seemed to determine the performance of the players.
The researcher explained that team members subtly communicated their expectations to each player, which in turn influenced performance. Players who were expected to perform well received encouragement. This increased their motivation to perform well and decreased the interfering effects of anxiety. But players who were expected to perform poorly received negative messages. This increased their anxiety and hindered their performance.
In a social setting, a shy and socially inept woman became relaxed and self-confident when she was among people who deliberately treated her as a social favorite.
Another researcher made an interesting observation in an occupational setting. In the early 1900s, the United States Census Bureau installed a new machine called the Hollerith tabulating machine. Mr. Hollerith, its inventor, trained the first group of clerks. He told his trainees that the machine was very difficult to operate and that he did not expect them to punch more than 550 cards per day.
Once the clerks became acclimated to the new machine, they found that they were able to comfortably process 550 cards per day, just as Mr. Hollerith expected. When they tried to exceed this number, they became tense and exhausted.
However, clerks who were trained afterward were able to process three times as many cards. The only difference between the two sets of clerks was that the second group was not informed that the machine would be hard to operate.
Yet another researcher showed how expectations play a role in a medical setting. He was working in a psychiatric hospital and told the nurses and attendants that he had administered a new test to ten patients. The test, developed at Harvard, predicted that six particular patients -- and he named them -- would begin to have a surprising improvement in their condition. Nothing was said about the other four. The nurses and attendants now had different expectations for the two sets of patients. What they and the patients did not know was that all ten patients were randomly selected to be part of their respective group.
At the time of discharge, the six patients who were expected to improve actually did improve more than the other four.
Another interesting study was conducted in an animal setting. Students in an experimental psychology class were divided into twelve groups, and each group was given five laboratory rats. Six groups were told that they had specially bred bright rats, and six were told that they had specially bred dull rats. In truth, all the rats were ordinary laboratory animals.
The students were to train their rats to run to the dark side of a maze by rewarding them with a bit of food every time they reached their destination. After five days, the experimenters gave their reports. The groups that believed their rats were brighter reported more successful runs and viewed their rats as more pleasant and likeable than those that believed their rats were dull. They also handled their animals more often and more gently than the other groups did.
The most successful groups expected the best of their animals and treated them that way. The animals believed to be better performers became better performers.
Two researchers reviewed these findings and posed the question: If animals perform better as a result of their trainers positive attitudes toward them, would school children perform better if their teachers think they are bright?
The researchers set out to answer the question. They administered tests predicting future academic progress to children of a San Francisco elementary school. Teachers were given to believe that those with high scores would show a spurt of academic progress during the school year. They did not know that the test scores were randomly assigned and did not correlate at all with the students true potential.
The researchers tested the students again at the end of the year. They found that those who were expected to have a spurt in their performance actually did improve. Their teachers also rated them as intellectually curious, happier and less in need of social approval.
The only difference between the two sets of students was the expectations the teachers had of them. The teachers nurtured and motivated the high expectation students more than they did the others, treating them as winners. The children began to believe it; and in choosing to live by their strengths, they attained success -- the same success that the other students could have had if they had been treated the same way.
You can deduce teacher and parent expectations. If you carefully observe the interactions that teachers and parents have with children, you can often deduce the kind of expectations the adults have. Their gestures, body language, facial expressions and tone of voice are more positive and encouraging with children for whom they have high expectations. They watch these children more closely and give them more compliments. They give them more time to respond to questions. They are also polite, saying please and thank you, to these children more often than to those for whom they have low expectations.
Children respond to the expectations adults have ofthem. When teachers and parents have high expectations of children, their attitudes and behavior toward the children are advan-tageous. The converse is also true. Children sense it and respondin kind.
During the three Shabbos meals, Mr. Schwartz discusses the weekly parashah with his twin sons, Tzvi and Moshe. They are both of average intellect, but Tzvi is vivacious, full of self-confidence, and ready to show how much he knows, while Moshe is reserved and slow to share his thoughts. Tzvi actively participates in the discussions while Moshe hesitates.
Mr. Schwartz has learned to expect more from Tzvi than from Moshe. When he asks a question, he looks at Tzvi with an anticipatory gaze. If Tzvi does not respond, he looks at Moshe, but without the same anticipation. He also gives Moshe less time to respond than Tzvi.
If neither knows the answer, he encourages them both by saying, Come on. You can do it, but he looks at Tzvi with a smile and may even give him an encouraging touch on the hand.
Mr. Schwartz loves both his sons and wants to see them both succeed. But as they mature, Tzvi continues to take the lead while Moshe continues to lag behind.
Moshe needs prodding and more time to respond. Thats how some people are; there is nothing wrong with it. If Mr. Schwartz would provide for his need, Moshe would probably progress at the same rate as Tzvi. Instead, Mr. Schwartz has instinctively assumed that Tzvi is both knowledgeable and interested in his Torah discussions, while Moshe isnt. He has grown to expect more from Tzvi, and without realizing it, treats his sons differently. The differences are subtle, but Tzvi and Moshe are aware of it, and they respond in kind.
At first, Moshe probably said to himself, Father knows Tzvi has the answer, so he looks at him and gives him time to think. But he feels I dont know the answer, so he doesnt do the same for me. With this attitude, Moshe doesnt even try to participate at the next table discussion. Why should he? In his mind, he has already decided he is inadequate. And even when he does try, his self-confidence is so low that he gives up quickly. His negative attitude carries over in school, where he also gives up quickly and experiences many failures. He performs exactly as his father expects, proving to both of them that he is inept. As the vicious cycle continues, Moshe deteriorates -- and the original cause of his failure may never even be discovered.
Tzvi, on the other hand, believes he is capable of good performance. Why not? His father treats him as a winner. He believes in him and encourages him to participate. Tzvis self-confidence grows as a result, and he makes the effort to perform well. The better he performs, the more strongly he proves to himself and to his father that he is a budding Torah scholar. As the cycle continues, Tzvi blossoms.
Mr. Schwartz has brought out the best in Tzvi by teaching him indirectly that he is a winner. But he has inhibited Moshes growth by teaching him indirectly that he is inadequate. Had he looked for Moshes strengths and given him the necessary time and attention, he could have brought out the best in him, too.
Sometimes, a parent may even bring out the worst in a child. Take, for example, a mother who believes her child will behave poorly in public. She subtly conveys her expectation by adopting the role of policeman, guarding the child against imminentwrongdoing. She requires him to stay home or forbids himto participate in certain activities. The child senses his mothersexpectation and responds defensively. An adversarial relation-ship develops. Just to prove his worthiness and independence,he will exhibit the very behavior that his mother wants him to avoid.
I am acquainted with a parent who helped her daughter fail a mathematics course. Here is the story:
Malka did not understand mathematics and was failing every test. The teacher tried to tutor her, but Malka did not even make an effort to understand. She had a defeatist attitude and often said, Im bad in math. Ill never understand it.
The teacher decided to discuss the problem with Malkas mother. As they talked, she discovered that the mother also had a negative attitude about herself, only stronger. She said, I was never good in math, and neither were my sisters and brothers. None of my other children were. My family is just not good in math. Her mind was made up, and her attitude was so negative that she didnt even agree to a plan of action.
The teacher now understood why Malka was failing. Her mother expected failure and indirectly taught her to expect failure, too. She conveyed the message in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Malka knew she would do poorly -- it was in her genes. So she gave up without even trying.
On the flip side of the coin, there is a story of a teacher who turned the schools bad boy into a fine student. When she met her class on the first day of school, she told this boy, I understand that you have many leadership qualities. This class is going to be the best in the school and I expect you to help get us there. That day, whenever he performed well, she praised him and reminded him of his reputation and of her expectations. She did this consistently day after day, until he actually became the leader that she expected him to become.
The teacher bestowed upon this boy a virtue -- she gave him a fine reputation -- which he did not yet have. He did not want to disappoint her, so he felt obliged to live up to it.
There are many stories of parents and teachers who have bestowed labels upon their children, both good and bad, which the children then upheld. One child, for example, always threaded her grandmothers needles. The grandmother was always so impressed and would say, You have goldeneh hendt (golden hands). The girl believed she had skillful hands, and later on she became a dentist. Then there is a story of a little boy who always told his father about the dreams he had. His father would say, Son, you dream on high, but your feet are always on the ground -- meaning that he aimed high but he was also realistic. The son took this attitude with him into adulthood and attributed many good decisions to it.
There are other stories of children who lived up to negative labels until their parents adjusted the labels. One little girl, for example, was constantly being told that she was bossy. She became more and more bossy until her parents adjusted their view of her and began treating her as if she were agreeable. There was also a stubborn little boy who was constantly told, You are a stubborn mule. He continued behaving stubbornly until his parents adjusted their view of him and began treating him as if he were flexible.
You get what you expect. The opinion parents have of a child influences the kind of interaction they have with the child. For this reason, parents should never make up their minds that a child is bad or a failure. If a child is faltering, they should look for her strengths and believe, with sincerity, that she is basically good and has the potential to improve. Then they should convey their belief to the child; otherwise, she may never improve.
The saying goes: Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is; treat a person as if he were what he could be and should be, and he will become what he could be and should be. This does not mean that a parent or teacher can actually control the level of success another person has. There are many other factors, internal and external, working for and against that success. Rather, the saying expresses the idea that parents and other authority figures play a primary role and have a strong influence on the lives of others. Through their expectations, they influence -- not control -- anothers behavior, both positive and negative.
The Shlah saw this concept in the words of Mishlei:
Do not rebuke a scorner lest he hate you; rebuke a wise person and he will love you (Mishlei 9:8). When you rebuke another person, do not degrade or insult him by saying, You are a scorner, because he will hate you and will not listen to you. But rebuke a wise person and say to him, You are so wise. Why are you doing this? and he will love you and listen to you (Shlah, cited in Chovas HaTalmidim, ch. 1).
Treat your children as if they already are what you expect them to be and help them become what they are capable of becoming. Develop high expectations and treat them accordingly, and they will perform according to your expectations. Expectations of success breed success.
Talking to Children in the Positive
If a child steals, dont say, You are a thief or You are not worthy of anything good. The child may continue to steal and become exactly what you dont want him to be. Say instead, You just stole something or You just behaved poorly. Then say, You are better than that and you know better. This generates a positive attitude. The child will probably stop the undesired behavior and will become the refined person you want him to be.
When a child receives a failing grade in school, dont say, You are not living up to your potential. Say instead, You have great potential, and I know you can do well. These grades do not reflect your true ability.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski wrote that as a youngster his wise father would rebuke him with the words, Es past nisht. It means, This is not for you. You are better than that. You are expected to live up to the high standards which you already have. He emphasized how the behavior was incompatible with a child of such high caliber.
When you dwell on the negative, the effects are negative; when you dwell on the positive, the effects are positive. You can bring out the best in a child by being positive and encouraging. You can even tell a scorner that he is wise -- and it is not a lie because he probably does have many wise qualities. He will then respond in kind.
When a child hears encouraging words about himself, he develops a healthy self-image. His confidence grows, and he becomes instilled with an I-can attitude. His expectation of success energizes him to continue trying and develops into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Find ways of expressing your expectations positively. If a child holds a pencil incorrectly, say, Hold the pencil like this ... Its not hard. You can do it. Then you will have a beautiful handwriting. The message communicates confidence and high expectation. It inspires an I-can attitude.
Recognize good performance. Catch your children doing good things and praise them for it. Say, I noticed you doing ... I am proud of you and I am proud that you are part of my family. If they come home from school with excellent grades, publicize the achievement in the home by talking about it at the dinner table and displaying the paper on the wall.
What an impact praise makes! It shows appreciation for the children, and at the same time emphasizes and reiterates the high expectations you have for them. This motivates the children to continue performing well.
If you want, you can add weight to the compliment by providing a tangible reward. It can be food, an extra privilege, a certificate, a star on the chart, or any other item that has meaning to the children.
A Positive Relationship Motivates Children
to Fulfill Your Expectations
A veteran high school teacher once told me his secret to success. He works to develop a positive relationship with his students. Once they learn to love and respect him, they want to please him. They do not want to let him down, so they produce good grades for his sake, to satisfy his expectations. They want him to be proud of them.
This approach is not new. Thousands of years ago, Aharon HaKohen, the brother of Moshe Rabbeinu, used the same technique to motivate people to fulfill his expectations.
When Aharon walked on the street and met an evildoer, he would say Hello. The next day, when that man considered committing a sin, he would say to himself, Woe is me. How will I look at Aharon? He greeted me, and I will be ashamed. That person would reconsider and would not commit the sin (Avos dRav Nosson 12:3).
What was the key to Aharons influence? A simple Hello could not possibly have had such a powerful effect. Rather, his influence resulted from the overall relationship he had with people. People loved and respected him, and they wanted to please him. They knew what he expected, and he did not even have to express it. They met his expectations because they did not want to let him down.
Look for Hidden Ability
How do parents form the expectations they have of a child? Many parents simply observe the childs performances and instinctively derive conclusions about his or her ability, just as Mr. Schwartz did in an earlier scenario. If they conclude that the childs ability is strong, they form high expectations; if they conclude the opposite, their expectations are reduced.
These parents, in effect, have unconsciously appointed themselves judges of their childs ability. If a child performs well and appears interested, as in the case of Tzvi Schwartz, the verdict is strong ability. The child is then awarded high parental expectations. However, if a child appears dull, performs poorly or displays little interest, as in the case of Moshe Schwartz, the verdict is weak ability and he or she is sentenced to low parental expectations.
The problem is that the child may have hidden talents and abilities which are only waiting to be uncovered. If the parents would detect them, they would certainly try to bring them out. Instead, they rely on their own instincts and form negative conclusions, allowing the hidden talents to go untapped. They suppress growth and condemn the child to a life of mediocrity.
Children often have more drive and potential than parents attribute to them. History shows us many such cases. Rabbi Akiva, for example, was an ignoramus up until the age of forty. He and others believed that he had no talent for Torah learning. When he married, the brides wealthy father disowned her because he felt that Akiva was an unworthy individual. We are all familiar with the greatness that Rabbi Akiva achieved.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus is another example. He was also considered inept. At the age of twenty-eight, before he began studying Torah, he did not even know how to read Krias Shema. When he decided to leave home to study Torah, his father wanted to disinherit him. But to his familys surprise, he became a towering Torah scholar.
King Dovid, about whom we say, Dovid, king of Yisrael, lives forever, was considered the least worthy of his seven brothers. When Shmuel the prophet asked Yishai, Dovids father, to present all his sons so he could designate the one Hashem had chosen for the kingship, Yishai did not even bring Dovid from the fields. When Shmuel finally met Dovid, he too felt that this son was not fitting and even asked Hashem to confirm that Dovid was in fact the chosen one. Dovid went on to become one of our greatest leaders.
These world-class success stories were all based on hidden talents which emerged over time. Any child may be a late bloomer, with hidden talents waiting to emerge. Wise parents are always on the lookout for these latent talents. As one expert said, There is something greater than ability; it is the ability to see ability.
For this reason, we are instructed to have many students, even if they are all on different levels, because we dont know how many or which ones will succeed. Even a seemingly unworthy student may surprise us and take a place above all the others. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachai illustrated this point:
Hillel gathered all his students and said to them, Are all of you here? They said, Yes. Then one student said, All are here except the smallest of them all. Hillel said to them, Let the small one come. A generation of people will follow him. And they brought Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachai to him. [The lesson is] we should not push away the small ones from before the big ones because lambs eventually become grown sheep (Rabbeinu Yonah, Avos 1:1).
Every human being has great potential and a wealth of hidden ability, and all are capable of more than they are presently accomplishing. We are all obligated to say, When will my actions equal those of my forefathers? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler deduced that since we are obligated to aspire to higher levels, it must be that higher levels are within everyones reach.
Secular thinkers agree. William James, the father of American psychology, said that people utilize only a fraction of their true abilities. Another expert put it this way: What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters when compared to what lies within us. Yet another student of behavior put it this way: Everyone is a potential winner. Some people are disguised as losers. Dont let their appearances fool you. One self-confident youngster offered his own version of the idea: G-d dont make no junk!
All children are created in the image of G-d and are endowed with pure souls created by G-d. They possess hidden strengths, and you never know how much they will accomplish.
A teacher who withholds a Torah law from a student because he thinks the student will not understand it is called a thief. The student is entitled to that information and the teacher is required to share it with him, no matter how intelligent the student appears. The same can be said concerning any growth opportunity consistent with Torah ideals -- a child is entitled to it and a parent must provide it, even if the parent thinks the child is inept.
The Baal Shem Tov compared the Jewish nation to stars. Stars appear to us as tiny specks, but in reality they are gigantic. The Baal Shem Tov said that the Jewish nation is the same; although it has an insignificant appearance in the world, the world exists because of it. In reality, every Jewish person possesses greatness.
Form Realistic Expectations
With all this talk about high expectations, how high should you go? Does it mean that the higher you set your expectation, the greater the effect? Lets look at a story that answers this question.
Devorah was not doing well in school. She did not study for tests or complete homework assignments. She disturbed the class with loud outbursts and was often reprimanded by her teacher.
Devorahs parents wanted her to improve. They decided to motivate her by expecting the best and treating her as a winner. When she came home with a failing grade, they told her how smart she was and that she could get 100% if she would only try. When she brought home notes about misconduct, they told her that she was capable of being the best-behaved child in the class. They talked with her as if she were already the success they expected her to be.
At first, Devorah liked hearing the positive talk, and she even tried to fulfill her parents expectations. But she never met their high standards. As time went on, she became less motivated and finally asked her parents to stop talking about her great potential.
Devorahs parents were confused. They had tried to treat her as a winner and did not understand why she rejected their efforts.
The problem was that Devorahs parents expected too much. She didnt have the drive or the background to score 100% on tests. For now, 80% was more reasonable. And she was too fidgety to be the best-behaved student in the class.
Devorah tried at first to meet her parents expectations, but she couldnt. And with each shortcoming, she became more convinced of her inadequacy. She no longer wanted to hear about goals she could not reach or abilities she did not have. It depressed and irritated her.
Lets go back to the original question -- how high should you go? There is no rule and no easy answer. On one hand, you should believe that the child has greater potential than he or she displays. On the other hand, you cannot expect more than the child can achieve. It isnt easy to determine.
But one more thing is certain -- if the child is capable of reaching certain goals, expect him or her to reach them. If the child is not capable, do not expect it. Why? Because expecting a child to reach an unattainable goal will result in failure, and failure only adds fuel to a negative self-esteem, jeopardizing future achievements.
So how can you determine realistic goals? Get to know your child as well as you can. Carefully observe his or her performances. Create a total perception of the child, using as many available resources as you can. Speak with teachers, relatives and friends who come in contact with the child and who see him or her under a different set of circumstances. Once you have the big picture, you are in a position to form reasonable expectations.
Consider individual needs. People have many kinds of needs. They have low-level needs such as food, shelter and clothing. They have higher-level needs such as security and safety, and above these the need for such things as love, respect and a sense of belonging. The highest level is the need to excel and fulfill ones potential. Psychologists call this self-actualization.
A person who has not fulfilled lower-level needs does not focus on higher-level needs. For example, a person who does not have food or shelter does not feel a strong need for safety. For this reason, he may do something considered unsafe in order to get food and shelter. Once satisfied, he will no longer engage in those unsafe acts because he now wants to satisfy his need for safety and security. Once he feels safe and secure, he strives for love and respect. Only after he satisfies all his lower-level needs does he begin to be concerned with self-actualization.
Parents and teachers expect children to make school a major part of their lives by paying attention in class, studying at home and doing well on tests. What they are unwittingly assuming is that their children have satisfied all their basic needs and are ready to take the steps toward self-actualization. For this reason, parents and teachers become frustrated when children do not live up to their high expectations.
The problem is that the children may have lower-level concerns on their minds. They may be more concerned with avoiding the class bully than with doing well on a test. They may be more concerned about their low self-esteem and the constant criticism they receive at home than about paying attention in class.
They are not meeting the expectations set by the authorities because they are not on that level. They have more important matters on their minds. Parents and teachers would do better to address those matters first, or at least alongside their other expectations.
Set different standards for each child. Because childrens needs are a function of their personalities and their lifestyles, parents have to look at each individual and understand what his or her particular set of needs is before forming expectations. Otherwise, the standards may be unrealistic. No two children in any family are alike. Each is an individual. Each has his or her own needs, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. One may blossom as a result of a particular treatment, while another sinks.
Therefore, you cannot have identical expectations for each child. Draw a picture of each child and provide the individual treatment that he or she deserves.
Forming Expectations for the Difficult Child
When we observe a difficult child, we are not looking at a whole person. We do not always recognize his or her personal problems, pressures, moods and predispositions. Professional counselors who meet with these children can tell you that they are ordinary people with a particular problem that compels them to misbehave.
If you have a difficult child in your family, make an effort -- and it does take effort -- to discover what is causing the childs behavior.
Try to understand the child. Analyze the relationship you have with the child. Question your treatment to see if it is causing the behavior. Very often, parents treat a child in a way that creates the very attitudes and behaviors they are trying to eliminate. This was discussed in the first chapter.
Ask the child, Do you realize you are acting this way? Can you tell me why? If the child senses that you are sincere, he may open up. The odds are that he also wants to behave appropriately but has a problem that is causing him to misfire. Talk about the problem. Negotiate solutions.
Speak with professionals or other people who understand the way children think. Open your mind to new ideas and new ways of dealing with children. Getting a fresh perspective may enable you to deal more effectively with the child.
Your attitude is the key. Most importantly, develop a proper attitude toward the difficult child. Your attitude and the expectations you have of the child are your keys to success. Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch gives an apt description of the proper attitude:
Parents and teachers should forget the past mistakes of their children. We do not act for the past but for the future. We set our hopes and aspirations on the foundation of the future, not on the foundation of the past ... Hashem is always prepared to erase the sins of our past and to give us the opportunity to lead our future lives in a more careful way ... We should be careful not to express any bitterness toward our children and students even when their behavior warrants it; and not only this, but we should hold in our hearts a love and compassion for them ... There should be a new hope that today, after a period of mistakes, they will improve their ways (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Yesodos HaChinuch, Netzach Publishers, p. 68).
There is a great deal of responsibility placed on the parents of a difficult child. These parents cannot isolate and focus on the childs poor behavior only. They must also examine their own attitudes and behaviors to see if they are thinking and acting appropriately.
Rabbi Hirsch addresses several areas of examination, and we will now elaborate on his insights. But before going further, please go back and review his words carefully.
Disregard past misconduct. The past is gone forever. It may have been very different from the present and future, but what happened then does not necessarily predict what will happen later. For this reason, people should look to the future when setting any kind of goal.
A childs behavior is no different. If a child behaved inappropriately last week, it doesnt mean that he will repeat that behavior this week or the following week. The past does not necessarily predict the future. If it did, the words improvement and teshuvah would not be part of our language. Just as Hashem looks beyond our old misconduct and forms new expectations of good behavior, parents should do the same with their children.
Look for the childs good points; no doubt there are many. Make a list of them. Then, in your mind and on paper, separate the good behaviors from the poor ones. You will soon realize that the child has numerous qualities worthy of praise and appreciation.
Train yourself to focus on the positive. Point your antennae toward the things the child does right. Appreciate his attributes. Be a goodfinder, not a faultfinder. This doesnt mean that you should take a Pollyanna approach and treat the child as if everything he does is perfect. But it does mean that you should adjust your view of the child and form new, positive expectations for him.
There are many stories of children who performed so poorly in school that their teachers gave up on them. When the principals saw what was happening, they informed the teachers that these children had high IQs and strong potential. The teachers, not knowing that the information was not necessarily true, changed their attitudes toward the children. They disregarded past performances and adjusted their expectations for the future. They began treating these low achievers as winners. In time, the children began to improve.
Have love and compassion. Withhold bitterness. Parents typically become disappointed and upset when a child performs poorly or behaves improperly. This is normal, but it is important not to hold bitter feelings toward the child. Even if the childs misbehavior is severe, they must treat him lovingly. Just as Hashem encourages improvement with love and compassion, parents should do the same.
View each day as an opportunity for improvement. Each day is new, holding new potential and new opportunities for improvement. Expect the best and treat the child as if today is his first day of improvement. If there is no improvement today, expect it tomorrow. Do this every day. If the child senses that you have given him a chance -- and he may need many weeks or months to get this feeling -- he may begin to change.
Remind the child how great he can be. Sometimes, difficult children are unaware of their true abilities. Is it any wonder? For years, their parents and teachers have been recognizing them for their inadequacies.
You can change that around. Believe in them and inform them of the possibilities that exist. Let them know that they have the potential to reach great heights. Let them know that you expect it.1
Dont give up on the child. If you give up hope and decide that the child is a failure, not only will the child lose your valuable encouragement, he will also give up on himself. He will begin to think that he is a lost cause and that improvement is impossible.
When we give up on our children and do not persist in helping them improve, they also give up on themselves. They close the gates of teshuvah on themselves, as they think that all the powers in the world are unable to lift them from their low level. Therefore, we should express our hopes to them, and with our support they will be lifted and empowered to overcome their weaknesses ... With every interaction we have with them, they must sense that we are inviting them [to take the opportunity of making this day the first day of improvement] (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Yesodos HaChinuch, Netzach Publishers, p. 69).
Control your personality. All this may sound difficult. It is. Its not easy to disregard past mistakes and misbehaviors, withhold bitterness, praise good performances, believe in your childs worthiness and set high expectations -- especially if at first glance the childs behavior seems to call for the opposite response. It is even more difficult if you have your own personal problems, such as ill health, marital difficulties, emotional instability or other pressing issues. You already feel frustrated, and your natural tendency is to condemn and to lapse into anger and bitterness -- all the things you are supposed to avoid.
However, you dont have to live according to your personality. You dont have to let your natural tendencies control you. Being positive is certainly a challenge when you are feeling down or have a difficult child to deal with. But you can make the effort to be mentally strong and to control your responses. It is worth the investment, because the success you have with your children and the success they have in their lives depend on it.
How to Treat a Child as a Winner
We have been saying that if you treat a child as a winner, he will become one. Now the question is: How do you treat a child as a winner? We have already discussed some basic winning treatment guidelines, but there are more.
All the guidelines share a common ingredient -- a message that says: You are special. You can do it. I have confidence in you. I expect big things from you. I wont give up on you.
The message is sent through words, actions and general attitude. The latter two are important, because if your words are going to make an impression on the child, your gestures and attitudes -- the unspoken words -- must convey the same message. They are all building blocks for a productive relationship where children respond in kind and show how special they really are.
How can you properly send the message that you have high expectations for your children?
Give genuine respect.
Mr. Goldstein is a Torah scholar and spends the whole day and a good part of the night in a kollel. He is a hard worker and sets high goals for himself. He also sets high goals for his children. He often tells them that they are special, and he talks about the expectations he has for them.
But Mr. Goldstein doesnt spend much time at home. When he is home and his children want to be with him, he says, I dont have time now or You didnt do your homework yet or Go study for your test. Thats more important.
Mr. Goldstein rarely praises his childrens good performances. But when they do poorly in school, he is quick to point out their mistakes. When they misbehave at home, even slightly, he responds with a sharp reprimand or punishment.
As his children grow older, Mr. Goldstein begins to notice that they are not responding to his expectations. He is especially disturbed by the ever-decreasing influence he has on them.
Mr. Goldsteins children are probably saying to themselves, He doesnt respect us. He doesnt like us. He doesnt think that we are worthy people. Thats why he always criticizes us and doesnt spend time with us. Why should they think differently? All of their fathers actions lead to that conclusion.
Since the children sense that he does not respect them, they in turn do not have positive feelings for him. And in that case, why should they care about the expectations he has for them? Why should they want to prove to him how special they are?
The childrens assumptions might be incorrect. Mr. Goldstein may indeed respect his children. The problem is that he only knows how to behave negatively toward them. Maybe his parents acted that way toward him. Maybe he feels that it is the proper way of raising children. Whatever the reason, his children dont know it and dont really care. They only care about what they see and experience.
If Mr. Goldstein would show more respect for his children, their relationship would improve and they would want to meet his expectations. Showing more respect means spending more time with the children at home, talking about their good qualities, asking for their thoughts and opinions, taking an interest in their lives and giving them 100% of his attention, whether they ask for it or not. Showing respect means talking with children the way one talks with any important person.
Use positive body language. There is a saying, I cant hear what youre saying because how youre saying it is so loud. A smile, frown, look, touch, jump, handshake, nod of the head or a sincere please and thank you -- or lack of any one -- tells a child what you really think of his actions and how much you really respect him, no matter what you say.
Body language confirms the sincerity of your words. Suppose you told a child how special he is, but when he talks to you, you frown or show little interest. What will he think? He will probably think that you are really dissatisfied with him. But if your face lights up with genuine interest, he will see that you are sincerely satisfied with him. Non-verbal signals always convey their own strong message.
Be sincere. Picture a father encouraging his daughter to achieve a goal. He says, You are capable of big things. Just try and you will do it. After a short pause he adds, And I dont mean what I just said.
How would his daughter feel? She would be insulted by the bogus encouragement.
No parent would ever do this. But some parents do similar things. They compliment their children or offer encouragement, but they arent really sincere about it. True, they do not say so explicitly, but the message will probably get across in some other way. The tone of voice, apparent lack of interest or preferential treatment of another child will make the lack of sincerity obvious. And once the child senses that half-heartedness, the effect is no different than if it had been explicitly said.
Sincerity is the most important element in treating someone as a winner. You know it from your own experiences; you appreciate honest praise and encouragement, but you detest phoniness. Children are no less astute. They can detect insincerity and will respond in kind. They also see through phoniness and manipulation.
Some parents do not talk positively because they do not see positive qualities in their children. They cannot honestly say, You are capable of big things. Because they want to be sincere but cannot, they are not positive at all.
These parents can try the following exercise: Consider the childs potential and take an inventory of his or her strengths. Write the ideas down on paper. As the list grows, it will become obvious that the child really is capable of big things. Now try talking to him or her about it -- sincerely.
Praise good performance with enthusiasm. Suppose a child performs well and you say nothing. What message have you conveyed? Is the child a winner? If he is, how much of a winner is he? It is not clear.
Suppose you say, Good or Okay to the performance. What is the message now? The child knows that the performance is acceptable, but he doesnt know if it meets your high standards? Is the child a winner? Once again, it is not clear. You havent supplied enough information.
Compare these weak responses with an enthusiastic one: Thats great! You did it! Im so proud of you! Now we can answer those questions. Yes, he is a winner. Yes, he met your high standards. The child will then be motivated to repeat the performance. And when you specifically describe the good parts of the performance, the message sounds more sincere and has even greater impact.
Offer encouragement. When a child is faltering and you encourage him or her to perform well, the message you are sending is, I really care about your performance. I have confidence in you and believe that you can do well. Such a message can have a powerful effect on a child who is struggling.
Never give up on a child; believe that each one has hidden potential. If a child is shy, draw him out. If his self-esteem is low, build it up. If a child shows weak progress, help strengthen it. And when a child needs help, give him 100% of your attention.
Even if a child is not competent in certain areas, but he thinks he is, support him. Dont tell him what you really think; it would crush him. Build his self-confidence by supporting his fantasies of competence. He may begin to improve.
Enforce your expectations. Parents may expect the best, but if they dont hold the child accountable, what message will he get?
Tuvia was a cooperative ten-year-old boy. He got along nicely with his brother Eli and always shared his toys with him.
One day he suddenly became uncooperative. His parents wanted to see Tuvia play nicely with his brother and talked to him about their expectations.
The next day, Eli came crying to his father because Tuvia wasnt sharing. His father wanted him to stop crying, so he gave Eli another toy to play with. He then gave Tuvia a gentle reminder of his expectation.
The next day Eli came again with the same problem. His father quickly gave him a candy to get him to stop crying, and again he reminded Tuvia of his expectation.
This went on for weeks, but Tuvia did not improve. A friend advised the father to avoid the easy solution by confronting Tuvia and inducing him to share his toys -- in other words, enforcing the expectation. He did this, and eventually the fighting stopped.
At first Tuvia was getting a mixed message. On one hand, he heard his father say he had to share. On the other hand, the order was not enforced. Tuvia deduced that if his father did not push him to share, it was not so important. He did not relate to the spoken message -- Share. Rather, he related to the unspoken message -- It is not so important to share.
But at the end, Tuvias father began to enforce his words. Both the spoken and unspoken messages became identical. Tuvia knew that sharing was important and so he improved.
Parents can expect the best, but if they do not enforce the expectation in action, it loses its effect. The enforcement tells the child how important the standard is, and that there is a difference between upholding it and ignoring it.
Attribute success to skill, not luck. When a child succeeds at a task -- whether it is solving a problem, passing a test, winning a ball game or creating a Purim masquerade outfit -- dont say, You did that nicely. You are so lucky. Attributing success to luck is another way of saying, You dont have the skills. You arent really capable of succeeding unless an outside force intercedes for you. The low expectation is obvious.
Instead say, You did that so well. I always knew you had the skills to do such a good job. This says that you expect good things from the child because he has the ability to succeed.
Dont play favorites. Several pages ago, we saw how Mr. Schwartz favored Tzvi over Moshe. He assessed his sons abilities and concluded that Tzvi was more interested in Torah scholarship than Moshe, so he gave him more attention and encouragement without even realizing it. Not only did Moshe feel jealous, he began to experience failures in other areas, too. As a result, he deteriorated.
Parents often favor one child over another. Sometimes they realize it, but most times they dont. When parents play favorites, they send the message: I dont expect this one to do as well as that one. That one is better than this one. The less-favored child senses that his position is lower and feels that his parents are discriminating against him. In addition to suffering jealousy, he will not reach his potential.
Frequently, one child is actually more capable than another. If parents were to treat them equally, they would be addressing the needs of neither. The stronger one would not develop quickly enough, and the weaker one would feel unreasonably challenged.
Nevertheless, parents can treat both children fairly and without preference. The answer is to give equal attention and encouragement, treating each child as a winner in his or her own right. Although the level of challenge may be different for each, both will sense that they are expected to do their best, and both will try to meet their parents expectations.