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Constructive Criticism; A Dish Best Served Warm
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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4/27/10

As parents we have a sacred obligation to be teachers and guides—morei derech—for our children. We are mandated by our Torah to teach them right from wrong, to train them how to conduct themselves, to show them “the light”.

CHARTING A PATH FOR YOUR CHILDREN

It is not in our children’s best interest—nor is it in our own best interest—to become their friends. That is, we should be friendly, but we do them no favor if we allow them to do as they please. At times, it is grueling being a parent and having to guide a child who doesn’t particularly want direction. It’s much easier in the short term to allow misdeeds to go unnoticed. But in the long term, you face an increased risk of raising unruly children whose moral compass may be underdeveloped.

It is of utmost importance to give clear guidelines and direction to your children. Setting limits for your children and establishing boundaries are crucial for the success of your children – at home and in school. Having a set of house rules and expectations for appropriate behavior, dress, and language are all critical parts of the ‘mission statement’ of any family (subjects which will be addressed in later columns).

And while it is true that our children will learn more from what we do than from what we say, guidance in the form of constructive criticism is an integral component of parenting.

Our challenge is to couch the criticism in a constructive way so that:

1) Our children internalize the important messages that we wish to convey to them, and

2) The end result is improvement and a desire to grow, not increased friction and tension that may harm our relationship with our beloved children.

A DISH SERVED WARM

Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky zt’l offered an insightful commentary on delivering proper tochacha (constructive criticism). He pointed out that in the initial encounter between Yaakov Avinu and the shepherds of Lavan, Yaakov addressed the shepherds as “My brothers”—““Achai; me’ayin atem, my brothers, from where do you come?”[i]

Rabbi Kaminetsky explained that Yaakov’s sense of honesty and integrity was offended by the fact that the shepherds had finished their workday early and were, in effect, being dishonest with their employer by cheating him out of a full day’s work. Yaakov wanted to rebuke them—and, in fact, did so later in the conversation—but decided to begin with words of brotherhood and friendship.

There is a famous expression, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” I’d like to paraphrase that and say that “criticism is a dish best served warm.”

If you have a message to give to deliver, make sure that the message is delivered calmly and, most importantly, with love. If you cannot do that, then wait until you can. If your child feels that you’re just venting your anger and you are disgusted with him or her, then no matter how articulate you are, what comes across instead is: “Mommy or Daddy doesn’t like me.”

FINDING THE RIGHT MOMENT

It’s very important that the message of tochachah does not get blurred by the static of anger. And, of course, this is very difficult to do when there’s a tumult and emotions are flying high. That is when it is best to delay saying anything.

One Friday morning, I got a phone call from a fellow whose son got suspended for a full week from an out-of-town yeshiva for a series of infractions. The boy was flying home for the week, and his father wanted to know what to say to his son when he picked him up at the airport.

I said, “I think you should tell him that you’re disappointed in what he did, but that you love him unconditionally, and that you’ll always be there for him.”

He was surprised. “That’s it?”

“You should also tell him that you’re terribly upset that this happened, but you want to make believe he came home for an unscheduled visit. And that you’ll discuss this important matter with him after Shabbos.”

“Nothing else, after what he did??!!,” the father asked me

So I told him, “Look, he’s expecting you to attack him as soon as he gets off that plane. He is going to be highly defensive and is not likely to listen to whatever you say. You are probably just going to get into a bitter argument with him. But if you say nothing now, he will be very relieved and grateful. And when you speak with him after Shabbos, you are going to have a much better chance of having a meaningful conversation with him, because he will be listening to you at that time. You will have a much better chance to make a positive impact when he is calm and grateful for your patience.”



[i] Bereshis 29:4



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