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Constructive Criticism Part Six - Communicating Understanding
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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When we attempt to offer constructive criticism to our children, we are often met with “You just don’t understand what I’m going through. You have no idea how difficult this is for me.”

Our children do have a point. We don’t really understand, because the drives and temptations of a child—or a teenager—are not the same as those of an adult. As much as we think that we empathize with them, it may be difficult for us to remember what it was like when we were young.

Indeed, the Rambam addressed this issue in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:1). He states that complete repentance occurs when a person is placed in the same set of circumstances as the time that he or she committed the original transgression – and finds the fortitude to withstand the moral trial the second time around. However, if the person transgressed as a young man and in mid-life faces the same situation without faltering, the Rambam says this is not an indication of complete teshuvah. The reason is that the temptations of a young person and a middle-aged man are very different, so the situation cannot be described as “the same.”

Given that it is so hard to put ourselves in their place, it is important, when delivering tochachah, to communicate to our children that we are stretching ourselves to understand their reality – trying to see the world through their eyes.

A talmid of Mori V’rabi; Rabbi Gedalia Schorr, zt’l, the renown Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, related to me that when he was in his thirties and very involved in his professional career, Rav Schorr let him know that he needed to make time to study Torah as well. How Rav Schorr did this is an apt illustration of communicating understanding when delivering tochachah.

Rav Schorr began the conversation by asking the man about his personal and professional life; affording him the opportunity to describe with pride how his medical practice was progressing. Then Rav Schorr complimented him. He said, “I’m very proud of you. I see that you didn’t become a machine. I can understand that when you’re making $300 an hour, it’s very tempting to take on more and more patients in order to expand your practice. But I see you don’t do that. You make plenty of time for yourself and for your family, and I’m impressed that you have your priorities in order. I imagine that this must be a tremendous test for you, and I am pleased that you have passed it very well.”

The man was extremely flattered. He thanked Rav Schorr for his insight and for his kind words. And then my Rosh Yeshiva looked at him and said with a smile, “So, do you have time to learn Torah at least 6 hours per day?”

In relating the story to me, the man said, “What an incredible message of tochachah! My Rebbi wanted me to know that he understood exactly what I was going through. I know that he didn’t have to deal with the same issues in his professional life as I did in mine. And yet he communicated to me that he understood me.”

It’s no coincidence that this man finished Shas several times in the thirty years since this conversation took place.

Our tochachah has a much greater impact if, when delivering it, we can communicate to our children that we have some measure of understanding of their reality. When we do so, it is much more likely that our children will listen to what we have to say with receptive ears.


The renowned author and lecturer, Rabbi Avi Shulman,  delivered an in-service workshop titled “Effective Classroom Discipline” to the Rebbeim of Yeshiva Darchei Noam, where I serve as Dean.

During his presentation, he vividly described how impressed he was by the sensitivity of his dentist. When Rabbi Shulman was getting a cavity filled, he was informed by his dentist that a shot of Novocain would be given to him to dull the pain of the ‘drilling and filling.’ Rabbi Shulman related how he watched with interest as his dentist held the vial of Novocain with both his hands for a few moments before injecting it into Rabbi Shulman’s mouth. He explained to Rabbi Shulman that in addition to the sting of the shot, patients are often discomforted by the room-temperature Novocain injected in their 98.6 degree body. He therefore warms the Novocain in his hands before injecting it into his patients.

What a powerful message to educators and parents! We have a sacred obligation to guide and direct our children. At the same time, we must keep in mind the importance of projecting warmth and protecting the dignity of our children when we deliver these important messages. Warm the Novocain; warm the Novocain!

© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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