By Rabbi Dov Brezak
Read Part I of this discussion.
The main value of positive discipline is that it harnesses a child's willpower and motivates him to want to do what we want him to do. It is therefore an invaluable tool for the chinuch (education, raising) of our children, especially nowadays.
Yet many questions remain. Is positive discipline the best approach in all situations? Can rewarding a child for specific behavior be considered chinuch? And, as many parents ask, "Will we always have to work with incentives? Aren't we teaching the child to always expect a prize for what he does?" Let us take a look at these areas of parental concern.
Is positive discipline the best approach in all situations?
Not necessarily. In extreme situations - and they certainly exist - stronger measures may be necessary. Also, when a child is being disrespectful and taking advantage, he need not be given incentives to stop. Saying, "If you behave and act respectfully for a while we will give you a present" is the wrong approach. It is not the right time to apply positive discipline; it is the right time for a punishment.
However, even as a punishment, positive discipline, with a slight variation, has its place. When a child deserves a punishment and is punished by taking away a privilege, this will in effect force the child to cooperate and behave properly because he wants to get back his privilege.
Let's look at an extreme example.
A girl of 14 liked spending time in her room to the extent that her parents rarely saw her because of all the time she spent there. She would come out only reluctantly for family meals, which she would sit through resentfully. Immediately afterward, she would retire to her room and close the door.
If her parents wished to speak with her, they would have to knock on the door and wait for an answer. They would sometimes have to knock several times before getting an answer.
Even after all of the above, the daughter would not open the door (that was the parents' job). She would just unlock the door and "allow" the parents to come into her room. The parents would find her sitting on the bed reading a book or something like that. If the parents asked that she change her attitude, the situation only became worse.
Interestingly enough, this girl was the delight of her teachers in school. It was only at home that she would be rude and obnoxious.
One day, as they were eating a meal together, the father made a joke and his wife laughed. Their 14-year-old daughter didn't seem to like the joke and made a nasty comment calling both her parents by a derogatory name.
The parents were totally shocked and finished the meal in silence. That night, the parents talked. The next day, the girl came home from school to discover that her room - her very own private room - had no door!
The girl came running down the stairs to the living room and began to rant and rave about wanting her door back.
"We gave your door away," her father told her.
He then went on to explain that she would be without a door for a whole month. At the end of the month, a family conference would be held to review her behavior. If her behavior was sufficiently proper, they would allow her to buy a new door - from her own money. But if she acted disrespectfully even once, they will have to begin counting the month all over again.
"By the way," her father added. "The month begins in exactly one hour."
Needless to say, the daughter stepped back in line and quickly turned over a new leaf.
This is certainly an extreme case, and this method should not be used without proper guidance because sometimes the damage done offsets any gain. Yet the principle applied here may be useful: When a child is a meizid, that is, when he is deliberately acting chutzpadik (fresh, obnoxious) and deserves a punishment, taking away a privilege can be very effective. (If this is planned out with the child beforehand, and he knows what he will be getting himself into if he misbehaves, it is even more effective.)
Can rewarding a child for specific behavior be considered chinuch?
A great man once told me an important principle of chinuch. I was having difficulty with one of the students in my boys day school, and I figured out a way to reach him with positivity. (I knew that negativity would not work with this particular boy.) Yet, I felt that this boy should be taught a lesson, for the sake of his future development. My question was, should we deal with him positively at a time when he needed to be disciplined.
The great man told me that the purpose of discipline is to get the yetzer hara (evil inclination) in line. If you can get the yetzer hara in line with positivity, than you have achieved your goal: to get the yetzer hara in line.
Besides, getting the child to tap into his own desire to accomplish - in other words, motivating him - is the most effective chinuch there is.
I recently asked Harav Wolbe, shlita, about positive discipline and its benefits. He told me that those who understand how to educate nowadays realize that this is the way to do so. Those who disagree do not understand chinuch in our time.
Many parents ask, "Will we always have to work with incentives?
Incentives are a crutch. They are the means, not the goal. They are meant to help the child overcome any obstacles on his way to developing proper habits.
However, once the child begins to do well, many other variables take over, such as the child feeling good about himself for being successful and behaving well. (In all honesty, the one who loses out from acting belligerent is the child himself, and deep down, every child knows it.)
There is yet another point to be stressed. When a child is offered an incentive, it creates a positive association in his mind. He then begins to enjoy the behavior for its own sake, not only because it earns him a prize.
In our neighborhood we have a group for boys on Friday night. Toward the end of Maariv (evening prayers), they stand in the ezras nashim (women's section) and answer "Amen" and "Amen, Yehei Shemei Rabba" to the kaddish. After Maariv, the children are rewarded for their efforts with a small treat.
The boys in the group are awarded points, and, at the end, those who receive the most points get to receive an extra treat (aside from the regular treat given to everyone). Last week's special treat was a bottle of cola. When the points were totaled up, three boys wound up having the exact same number. This was a serious problem since there were only two bottles of cola.
The leader of the group decided to make a quick quiz on the parashas hashavua (weekly torah portion). The two boys who gave the best answers would be the winners.
The questions were asked, and the two winners were given their cola. Yet the leader felt very bad for the third boy, especially when he saw how his face dropped and he seemed on the verge of tears.
The leader had a brainstorm. He had a bag of small candies with him. He turned to the third boy and asked him to hold out his hands. "I'm going to pour candies into your hands," he told him. He did, until the boy was holding about 15 candies in his hands.
"I'm going to pour again," the group leader told the boy, "and you can keep as many candies as you can hold in your hands without dropping them on the floor."
The leader wound up pouring three times until the boy had about 50 or more candies in his hands.
Leaving the issues of health and sugar aside (not that they're points to be ignored, but a different point is being brought out here), not only was this little boy's neshama (soul) not broken, he will automatically love coming to the group and saying "Amen, Yehei Shemei Rabba" because of the positive association. The impression formed may even last him a lifetime.
There is yet another point. The positivity and prizes the child receives will open the child's heart to the various messages the learning, davening (praying) and more are giving. A child is young and can't always relate to the depth of content spiritual activities have to offer. Nevertheless, if the experience is made positive for him on his level, he will absorb the message being given at that particular time, whether that message will be a love for davening, learning, listening to a shiur (class) or whatever else is offered.
This discussion will continue in Part III, to be posted next week.
Check back soon!
The author is principal and director of Talmud Torah Ezrat Torah, Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Brezak can be reached, year-round, by fax at (718) 338-2533 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Brezak's tape series can be ordered through Irgun Shiurei Torah at (718) 853-3950 or (718) 851-8651. Copyright Yated Ne'eman 2001