Have you noticed that we seem to have preferential memory for the unpleasant things that happen to us? Try as we might to provide our children with good experiences and positive memories, it is the memories that evoke fear, pain, sadness, etc. seem to be the ones that stand out. I lived in Atlanta for six years, years of good, happy and fun times, yet the memory that stands out is my experience with chicken pox. A few years ago, my family had an amazing time at a Shabbaton in a luxurious hotel. The food, swimming, activities, and beautiful hotel room with a view of the Jersey shore, were part of a beautiful experience. Yet when we returned to the same room in the same hotel this year, they identified the room with their most striking memory of the previous experience—this was the room that their brother got (slightly) injured in while playing on the porch. Three days of sheer enjoyment, yet their recollection was of the mild injury.
The preference for the unpleasant memory makes it particularly important for parents to use positive words when reprimanding their children. We can have a long, seemingly productive conversation about working harder at school, and then we slip and use a derogatory term. The result? The negative slip of the tongue is all the child will remember from the conversation. Instead of taking the conversation as a lesson in change, the child will think his parents think that he is stupid and can’t succeed. That one word will be the only memory he or she will take from the lengthy conversation. Feedback is often important, but it should be wrapped in a nice box and topped with a bow. If we want to convince others to change and grow, it must be done in a way that will be accepted and hopefully appreciated.
The verse in Devarim (25:3) relates to the punishment of lashes, “Forty stripes he may give him, he shall not exceed; lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then your brother should be dishonored before your eyes.” The verse seems to be repetitive, giving us two forms of warning to refrain from administering too many lashes. Some explain that the first warning is for the judges, a reminder to refrain from giving too many lashes, while the second warning is for parents and teachers; our rebuke of children should be done softly, not in a harsh manner and laced with anger.
The Steipler Gaon z”tl was once asked about disciplining children, and he responded that discipline must be administered according to the nature of the child. Not only should the punishment be appropriate for the “crime,” but our manner of discipline and choice of words must match the personality of the child. For example, one must be more careful with a sensitive child. The Steipler Gaon quoted the Vilna Gaon as saying that discipline which emerges from anger is always prohibited. If our goal is to evoke change in the child, then we must leave him with the impression that we love him and that it is worthwhile to listen and change.
Ironically, as adults we are fully aware of the difficulty of changing ourselves—our eating habits, smoking habits, behavior and relationship patterns—yet we expect children to change instantly just because we ask them to! We must realize that children also need help to change their habits and traits, and they may need support to calm themselves from a tantrum (more than telling them to “stop crying”!).
It is important for children to see that the purpose of rebuke or punishment is for self-improvement and to teach them a lesson, not as revenge or as an outgrowth of the parents’ anger. It is explained in halacha that rebuke must be given out of love; the person hearing the rebuke must hear words of love, and the person receiving the rebuke must feel the love that you have from them.
I recently heard a stirring eulogy delivered by a son for his father. From his father’s method of discipline, he knew that his father loved and cared for him. After misbehaving, children are often sent to a “time-out” location until they were ready to apologize or do teshuva. In this particular home, the pantry in the kitchen was the time-out location where he was sent to contemplate his misdeeds. When he was “exiled” to the pantry, his father would join him! He sat next to him, put his arm around him, and told him that, as his father, it was his responsibility to teach him to behave. The father made the son feel that he loved him and communicated the feeling that if the son misbehaves, the father was also responsible and therefore must join him in his punishment exile, until they both together were able to rectify the situation. They waited together in the pantry until the lesson was learned, whereupon they would join the family activities. Thus, the son clearly saw that his father’s rebuke stemmed from love, and the direct result of the punishment was a stronger feeling of his father’s love for him.