Home Perspectives Advice Parent column: ask Rabbi Anthony Knopf

Parent column: ask Rabbi Anthony Knopf

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Question: My six-year-old son gets upset and cries when I tell him off. Rather than learning from his mistake, he just takes it personally and often tantrums. What should I do?

What a great question! Many parents fail to discipline their children because they fear the negative reaction. You are clearly seeking a different path in trying to find a way to teach him to behave without him getting too upset.

The rabbis teach that we shouldn’t see ourselves as bad people. To help your son, you want to make him feel good about himself whilst recognizing that he needs to improve his behavior.

It is, therefore, very important that you don’t tell your son that he is naughty, violent or selfish. This will make him feel bad about himself rather than learning from his mistake.

So, if you’re are not to tell him he’s naughty, what are you to do?

Research shows the importance of discussing with your child how what he did is against your moral principles. Amongst other literature, Samuel and Pearl Oliner have documented that this was a technique used by many parents of those who intervened to help Jews during the Holocaust. The parents would sit the child down and try to explain to him why they believed his behavior was wrong. If the child had hurt someone else, they would explain to him that his behavior caused someone else to feel pain or sadness. If you do this with your son, it will cultivate his empathy and moral standards.

You can also be a role model for your son. Talk to him about how you have made mistakes and how you did your best to put it right and improve in the future. That way, he comes to understand that doing something wrong doesn’t make us bad. The important thing is that we learn from our mistakes!

My husband thinks I praise our kids too much and that it’s not good for them. I believe that praise is a good way to reinforce their good behavior. What’s your view?

You are certainly right that praising kids can reinforce their good behavior! Research shows that praising children for behaving well is more effective than giving them rewards. I also love that you are concerned to use praise to cultivate your children’s good character. Many parents heap praise on their kids for their academic achievements, their extra-curricular accomplishments and their appearance. When we reserve our greatest praise for their good character, we send them the message that it is this that we consider most important.

At the same time, your husband also has a point. Don’t overdo the praise for your children when they are doing things which are their responsibilities. You should teach them that household chores such as taking their plate off the table and tidying their room are things which should be expected, rather than warranting special praise. If you praise your children too much, they will be motivated to do good deeds only to get parental approval. It all lies in the balance!

But it’s not just about how frequently you praise. It’s also about the way you compliment your children. I recommend that you specifically mention the value or virtue that they are showing through their behavior. Remark to your child that he showed kindness by sharing his candy with his friend or that he showed appreciation by calling his grandparents to thank them for a gift. I’d especially recommend that you learn the Hebrew terms for the different character traits and teach them to your kids. That way, they become familiar with Jewish ethical concepts which become part of the way they look at the world.

One more piece of advice: Research has shown that praising a child’s character is more effective in reinforcing his behavior than praising his actions. So, try to compliment your child for being a very nice and helpful person rather than for doing a nice and helpful thing. This is particularly effective for children of around eight years old, who are in the process of developing a sense of moral identity.


Anthony Knopf is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Ora in Montreal and the father of four children.

If you have a parenting question for Rabbi Knopf to be included in CJN, please email him on [email protected]

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