Positively Chinuch: A Positive Approach to Reproach

A group of Mechanchim recently met with the Belzer Rebbe, shlita. Among other things, they discussed with him the current philosophy against corporal or otherwise harsh punishments. They questioned why what was acceptable and standard in the days of our grandparents is no longer looked at as suitable. The Rebbe opened a Chumash Bamidbar and turned to the end of B’haaloscha. When Hashem is telling Moshe that Miriam must remain a metzora’as for seven days due to His disapproval of her actions, the passuk says, “Aviha yarok yarak befaneha,” literally, “her father spat at her,” a very strong show of disapproval and rebuke. Targum Onkelos, written over 1,000 years later, continued the Rebbe, alters the description to,”Avuha minzaf nezif bah, her father chastised her,” a less forceful show of disapproval. Finally, Rashi, some 1,000 years after Onkelos, describes the father’s demonstration of displeasure as, “her father shows her panim zo’afos, a face of anger,” yet an even less powerful display of anger.

This is a symbolic indication, said the Rebbe, that with the development of time, those receiving rebuke are not as strong as they used to be, and our approach towards rebuke must be softened.

In and of itself, the Rebbe’s message is well understood – and actualized by mechanchim and mechanchos everywhere. Today’s children are more sensitive, with more emotional fragility, and we approach discipline and rebuke bearing this in mind. We speak of “Discipline with Dignity” and discuss protecting the feelings of our talmidim/talmidos. We refrain from humiliating talmidim/talmidos wherever possible, and we are more cognizant of and in tune with the emotions of the 21st century talmid and talmidah.

The following story, however, can serve as a springboard to take this awareness and sensitivity to an entirely new level in which positivity versus negativity is more than just about protecting the talmid’s feelings. In fact, maintaining a positive approach to reproach is actually more effective and more long-lasting in comparison to an approach which is of a more negative nature.

Rav Pam looked at the guest sitting across from him in his office. “So, about your son…” began the Rosh Yeshiva, zt”l. The visitor, an esteemed Rov in his own right, had come to ask Rav Pam about the progress of his 16-year-old son who was learning in the yeshiva. Rav Pam was honest about the young man’s learning. “When he has the cheishek, the desire to learn, he does so with great kishron and capabilities. There is, however, a weakness in the consistency of that cheishek, and he is not reaching his potential.” The father stood up abruptly. “Let me bring in my son, and we’ll talk about it.” The Rosh Yeshiva’s heart fell. He immediately regretted having told the father the less than perfect reality. Now the boy would surely be devastated, as he would be ranked out in front of his rebbi. All efforts to further his development would be largely hindered in the face of the scene that was surely about to unfold. The two returned a few moments later. The Rov turned to his son, as Rav Pam looked on with a heavy heart. “My son,” began the Rov, “your rebbi tells me you are learning gantz gut, quite well. With even more effort, he says you can learn gahr gut, amazingly well. Let’s just put forth that additional effort, and we will surely see you learn with amazing results!” The boy broke out in a big smile, thanked his father and rebbi, and left the office with a spring in his step. Rav Pam sighed with relief. Years later, when he related the story, Rav Pam shared that since that day, the young man stepped up in his learning, and went on to become a magid shiur and a great talmid chochom. In Rav Pam’s words, this is “chinuch mit guttens”, or, as we might say, positive Chinuch.

We are all well aware that positivity in the classroom helps to create and maintain a healthy and happy learning environment. By using positive redirections (e.g. “Dovid, be sure to get to bed on time tonight, and I’m sure tomorrow’s davening is going to be just amazing!”) rather than negative ones (e.g. “Chaya, you didn’t daven a word today!”), we can reach our intended goals without the “collateral damage” often incurred when criticizing or redirecting.

Certainly when there is a tone of anger involved, the reproof is most often counterproductive. In fact, in a powerful statement, Rav Pam says, “ha’roshem shel kaas mevatel ha’roshem shel tochachah, the effect of anger counteracts the effect of the admonition.” The behavior may have stopped for the moment, but the administering of chinuch is lost in the echoes of anger. However, even without the underpinnings of anger, a negative rebuke most often pales in its sheer effectiveness in contrast to a positive redirection. It’s simply more productive to use positivity.

Indeed, a classroom management tip that I have shared with many rebbeim and teachers in the past and for which they have effusively thanked me, is as follows: Instead of asking 25 children to open their books or simply sit down, and then redirecting all those who don’t respond with immediate compliance – “Dovid, Yossi, Avi… please open your Chumashim” – just say it once, and then when the inevitable one or two children respond with compliance, use their lead for a dosage of the positive antidote to the problem. “Chaya, Chani, Aliza… your Siddurim are opened… excellent!” Without fail, the other talmidim/talmidos will follow suit. Rebbeim and teachers have come back to me in amazement. “No more, ‘Yossi sit down’, ‘Yitzi sit down’…” they exclaim. “It’s magic!” But of course it’s not. It’s simply “chinuch mit guttens”.

Some may feel that in the above scenario, indeed the intended goal of having all the students open their seforim, for example, is successfully met, but nevertheless, the non-compliant talmidim/talmidos have not received the necessary and deserved mussar for having been remiss in the expected classroom routine and behavior. True, some may argue, as a general rule, it is certainly less abrasive to engage in the above stated approach; but there comes a time when the student needs to hear it “like it is.” The child has to be called out for his/her misbehavior, and taught right from wrong in no uncertain terms. That is the necessary course of action, the mandate of the moment. I strongly posit that this is not the case. The positive message they receive, which we can see internalized by the merit of their subsequent obedience, is far more effective than the alternate, negative reproof. This is not to say that a negative redirection is never acceptable. As mechanchim, we certainly must always differentiate our approach based on the particular student, individual situation and specific offense. But as a rule of thumb, positivity should be our “default setting.” A recent, most fascinating study, which yielded very compelling results, well concurs with this idea.

An experiment was conducted in the University of Toronto with close to 300 children, ages three to seven.  Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room for a minute to get a book, instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist, as captured on hidden cameras.

When the experimenter returned, she read the child a story, either “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinocchio,” “George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and as a control, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a tale totally unrelated to honesty.  Afterwards, the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she peeked at the toy.

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — which associate lying with negative consequences, such as public humiliation and even death — were no more effective at promoting honest behavior than a fable unrelated to honesty, in this case “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Of the youngsters read these tales, over 60% were dishonest.

Only the tale about a young George Washington seemed to inspire the children to admit to peeking: Children who heard the tale in which the future first president is praised for confessing his transgression were three times more likely to tell the truth than their peers who heard the other stories.

The researchers now had some questions to answer. Was it the fact that the story of Washington is believed to be true in contrast to the others, which are clearly fictional? Did the youngsters better relate to a real, live person as opposed to the fictitious characters of the other tales? Or was there another explanation?

An additional component to the experiment was conducted: The researchers changed the ending of the George Washington story so that it took a negative turn, where he lied and was reprimanded for being dishonest. The children who heard the new version of the story were no longer more likely to admit to peeking than those who heard the other three stories. The results of the new group paralleled those to whom “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” were read. This clearly indicated to the researchers that the positive focus of the George Washington story was responsible for children’s honest behavior.

Let us explore a few scenarios: Chaya is tapping her pencil during the lesson. This is not the first time she has done this. “Chaya! Stop that tapping already!” Negativity. The optimum approach would simply be to walk past her desk and quietly lay the pencil down. She will certainly get the message in a most non-confrontational way. (We will perhaps elaborate on this important and timely topic of the “non-discipline approach to discipline” in an article at another time.) But for the sake of our approach, let’s offer a more positive rebuke than the harsh one mentioned. “Chaya, you’re listening so well. Let’s just put the pencil down so it doesn’t disturb us further.” Dovid is whispering to his neighbor. Again, the best redirection is walking near his desk or looping him into the lesson, avoiding confrontation entirely. But again, let us look at two contrasted, direct reproaches. “Dovid! What is this?!” Negativity. “Dovid, I know you have lots to say – soon I’m expecting a good kashya from you!” Much more positive… and you may even get a great question out of it!

Baruch Hashem, we live in a generation blessed with rebbeim/moros par excellence, who are focused and attuned to the feelings and emotional needs of their talmidim/talmidos. With a continued focus on maintaining a constructive, productive – and most of all positive – approach towards reproach, we will continue to watch our students grow and thrive. They will believe in themselves, feel confident and safe in school, and rise to the occasion.

Wherever possible, let us engage in chinuch mit guttens. Positive chinuch works. Positively.