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Constructive Criticism Part Three - Avoiding Hurtful Labels
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

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The Vilna Gaon z’tl says that the best tochachah (rebuke) —the only valid tochachah—is focused l’haba, on future improvement. That is, we should not dwell on what happened in the past, but be clear what kind of behavior we would like to see in the future. That’s a positive message: “Yesterday you may have done something wrong. Here’s what I would like to see from you tomorrow.”


When disciplining your child, try to frame the discussion in terms of consequences as opposed to punishments. Framing the consequences as logical outcomes of improper behaviors makes for less resentment on the part of your child. It will also, in all likelihood, result in long-term improvement.

A consequence can loosely be defined as an outcome of one’s poor behavior. There is a direct correlation between the misdeed and its consequence. Your child can learn positive, long-term lessons about avoiding these types of consequences in the future by exhibiting self-control and avoiding the behavior that resulted in the consequence.

A consequence of a child leaving a messy room would be to have him or her clean it up during a time that he or she would rather be out with friends. A punishment would be not allowing him or her to go to the park later in the day after the room has been cleaned. The punishment in this case, has nothing to do with the misdeed.

Obviously punishments are in order when misdeeds are done, and there are many types of poor behaviors that cannot be presented as consequences. But creatively thinking in terms of outcomes and consequences will hopefully get your child to grow from the unpleasant experience of being on the receiving end of your tochacha.


Several years ago, I was invited by the owner of a summer camp to conduct a staff development lecture with his counselors. I addressed several topics, among them, the subject of constructive criticism. I began by asking for a volunteer willing to describe the last time he criticized a camper.

It was quiet for a few moments. Then a fellow, a very charming young man, raised his hand. “I admonished one of my campers today in front of the whole bunk,” he proudly stated.

I asked him to describe what happened.

So, in his self-confident, teenage manner, he began, “Well, I caught him going through my things in my cubby. He was reading a private letter of mine. And … you know … I told him what he had to hear.”

Before he launched into any further details, I immediately told him that unless he was an angel, I was quite confident that he had not handled this situation well. I explained to him that he was simply too close to the situation. The offense was not something that he’d observed being done to someone else; it had been perpetrated against him personally. And he didn’t have time to think about it and carefully formulate a response.

Sure enough, his response was that he told his camper – in the presence of the entire bunk, “You’re a thief, and I’m never going to trust you again. And, he informed the child, “I’m going to tell your Rebbe about this.”

I was quiet for a moment. Then, I asked him, “Can you think of a time when an adult figure in your life called you a less-than-flattering name? What was the label that the person gave you? What do you think that person was trying to convey to you? And finally, how effective was his criticism?”

The young man related how he was admonished for his (admittedly) inappropriate dress on a school day, and how a member of the faculty used a label with negative connotations when delivering the tochacha. Of course, he shared with his peers that the tochacha was ineffective, and upon reflection, he mentioned that he was clearly resentful that he was given an insulting label.

I suggested to the camp counselor that instead of calling the boy a thief, another way to handle the incident would have been to say to him—privately, without humiliating him in front of his peers—“You’re a nice kid, and I’m very disappointed that a boy like you would invade my privacy and take something belonging to me.” We then spent the better part of an hour discussing techniques for delivering effective and meaningful tochacha.

© 2005 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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