Effective Reproof

"Rules are made to be broken", says an old adage. In the
context of child education, what does this saying mean?

One of the fundamental responsibilities of a teacher and
parent is to make rules, give guidelines and offer clear borders to children.
This, in order to help each child use his abilities and characteristics in a
beneficial manner. Just as a strong and energetic horse needs a harness and a
rider to put it to good use, so too a child needs rules (equiv. to harness) and
a parent or teacher (equiv. to rider) to harness his energies and

Without guidance, many rules will be broken; with guidance,
the child will more or less do what is expected of him. Thus, while adults need
to make rules, children will try and break them, and adults have to watch over
and direct children as much as is needed so that slowly but surely they will
internalize what is expected of them and know what is permitted and what is not.

In any case, a child will break rules from time to time. How
should a teacher or parent react? Should he/she react strongly and offer harsh
rebuke, or should he express his disapproval of the child’s actions in a
tempered manner?

Harsh rebuke may turn off the child completely, to the point
where he loses his self-confidence and his sense of self-worth. The following
true story exemplifies this idea.

A particular yeshiva bochur (student) was not finding success
in the Yeshiva. He had trouble learning and wasted much of his time with small
talk. After numerous attempts to arouse the student’s interest in learning, the
mashgiach (rabbi in charge) lost his patience and told the bochur
that he was worthless.

The bochur, although aware of his lack of
accomplishment in the Yeshiva, was shocked by the words of the mashgiach,
and lost the last bit of interest and respect he had for the Yeshiva and the
life-style it represented. He said to himself, "If he thinks that I’m worthless,
then I’ll be worthless and do worthless things." The bochur decided that
he was going to go to a particular place to sin. On the way, a friend of his
from the Yeshiva crossed his path, not knowing the bochur‘s intentions.
"How are you", he asked. "Fine", returned the bochur. "Where are you
going", asked his friend. "Nowhere special", answered the bochur, "see
you later." The bochur continued on his way and a few minutes later he
suddenly stopped in his tracks and thought to himself, "Wait a minute, my friend
showed interest in me. It must be that I do have value, not like the

The bochur abruptly reversed his direction and headed
back to the Yeshiva. Slowly but surely he built up his self-confidence and got
back into learning until he became, himself, a talmid chochom.

A few years later, the bochur met the friend who had
crossed his path that day and told him that the simple ‘sholom aleichem
(greeting) that he gave him and the minimal interest he had shown him that day
had a monumental effect on his whole life.

A child is not a pillar which needs to be knocked down, but a
human being who needs to be strengthened. In order to effectively reprove a
child, one must not only not discourage him, but quite the reverse.

The rule is, as I heard from my Rebbe, Rav Shammai Kahas
Gross shlita, before giving a child reproof, one should settle the child down
and say something positive, about him, if possible

Rav Gross explained that Hashem’s method of giving reproof
can be learned from the incident with Miriam when she spoke against Moshe for
having separated from his wife because of his status as G-d’s faithful servant.

At first Hashem called to Miriam and Aharon and told them of
Moshe’s greatness and sanctity (see Rashi Bamidbar 12:5). Next, Hashem
explained to them the difference between Moshe and the other prophets (ibid
12:6-8). Only then did Hashem show anger for their actions (ibid 12:9).

If we take a closer look at the wording of these pesukim, we
can get an even clearer picture of how a parent or teacher should offer rebuke
to a child or student.

Posuk 12:4

"פתאום" ("suddenly") – Hashem appeared suddenly to Moshe,
Aharon and Miriam, catching Aharon and Miriam in a state of spiritual impurity,
which usually precludes the ability to receive prophecy. Rashi explains that
they learned "on their own skin" the reason why Moshe separated from his wife:
to avoid such embarrassing incidents.

From here we can learn three lessons concerning reproof:

  1. Explain to the student what he did wrong and why it was

  2. Try and enable the child to learn the lesson through his
    own experience and not just via verbal rebuke.

  3. Use the medium of exacting punishment in order to hone in
    on the exact sin committed.

Posuk 12:5

"וירד" ("He descended") – Just as Hashem descended to rebuke
Aharon and Miriam, so too a teacher should descend to the level of his student
so that he is sure that his words of rebuke are heard and understood.

"וירד…בעמוד הענן" ("And He descended…in a pillar of cloud")
– This teaches us that the rebuke should be given lesheim Shamayim, and
not out of personal interest, anger, disgust or as a substitute for a more
fitting response.

"ויעמד" ("And He stood in one place") – At the time of
rebuke, a teacher or parent must be totally focused on the child. Why?

  1. So the child feels the seriousness of his misbehavior.
  2. So that the child will respect the adult’s words.

Just as Hashem appeared suddenly to Aharon and Miriam,
grabbing their full attention, so too a teacher or parent should try and
maintain an undisturbed and focused discussion with the child.

"פתח האוהל" ("The door of the tent") – The meeting between
the adult and child should be held in the right location and at the right time.
Many a time, an adult will spontaneously begin to rebuke a child without first
considering whether the proper time (and place) has arrived to offer his rebuke.
This can cause great embarrassment to the child as well as convince him that you
do not have his best interests in mind.

"ויקרא" ("And He called") – ויקרא is a call of endearment.
The child should feel that even at the time when rebuke is necessary, the adult
loves him and is only offering his reproof because of that love, as Shlomo
Hamelech says in Mishlei (3:12), "The one whom Hashem loves, he shall
rebuke." A child truly wants to be directed in the right path, but only by
someone whom he feels truly cares about him.

Rav Gross shlita brought an additional proof that one should
always begin on a positive note. Hashem had already decided to destroy Sodom (Bereishis
18:16-17). However, before the wickedness of the Sodomites was mentioned in the
posuk, Hashem began to flower Avraham with blessings. Only afterwards were their
sins revealed.

In order to achieve the intended affect of reproof, an adult
should first make a positive, encouraging remark to the student, preferably
about his own achievements or behavior. Only when the child seems settled and
ready to listen, should the words of rebuke be said. When the child feels the
adult respects him and loves him and only rebukes him for his own good, he will
be ready to listen and even change his ways for the better.