By: Aviva Porush
Few, if any, are the parents and educators who don’t consider encouragement as one of the important “ingredients” in child rearing. Among the possible answers I get when surveying the meaning of the word ‘encouragement’ is: compliments, rewards, prize; in short, positive reinforcement. If you finish everything on your plate, you’ll get dessert. If you behave with the babysitter, I’ll take you out for pizza. If you tidy your room, you can have extra time on the computer. Many are the parents who are so “hooked onto” the child’s need for positive reinforcement that it’s almost unheard of that a child should do what he’s told to, or more correctly, behave as expected, without some kind of reward, be it a compliment, a fuss made over him, or a prize varying in value from a chocolate chip to…a new i-phone! Raising the banner of ‘encouragement’, we feel that this is the way we strengthen our children and empower them. But is it?
It was an adorable three-year-old child who got me thinking about the concept of positive reinforcement and its close association with encouragement. My neighbour was toilet training her two-year-old toddler. At his first success at the toilet, practically the entire building heard the sounds of applause from his mom. “Good for you! You’re such a big boy! You see, you can do it!” It didn’t take long before mere compliments were replaced by cubes of chocolate. The ritual was fixed; each time the toddler made in the loo he’d get a cube of chocolate. A few days later, I happened to be at my neighbour just as the toddler had finished his “grand visit” and was on his way to getting his chocolate cube. His older brother, all of three-years-old, already toilet trained for some time and who, at first, joined in his parents’ excitement at his younger brother getting toilet trained, turned to his mother and asked, “Why don’t I get a cube of chocolate every time I go to the toilet?” He continued enquiring curiously, “Does Daddy get a chocolate cube too?”
The subtle message behind the three-year-old’s innocent query hit home even harder when I, as a veteran teacher, analysed what most often goes on in the classroom. To illustrate my point, consider a student who never does his homework. When the teacher comes around to check the homework assignment and finds, to her surprise, that the entire class has done the homework, which student will no doubt be praised more than anyone else? Of course, the student who generally does not do his homework will receive the most praise. “Great! Well done! Amazing answer! Please read it out to the class.” It seems so obvious to us as educators that we must seize the moment. Give positive reinforcement. Make a fuss of it. Notify his parents, the principal, perhaps the Minister of Education! We fear that, if not, we might “lose” him and never have him do his homework again. What about the other twenty-eight students? They religiously do their homework every day. Where’s the fuss over them? Where are their compliments and the rewards?
Let’s be honest with ourselves as educators and parents alike, who do we really encourage? We encourage those whom we least expect to succeed. Busying ourselves with positive reinforcements subtly conveys a message contrary to what we want, as if we’re saying, “You’re weak and not quite capable. You need help. I don’t really expect you to succeed.” After all, when it comes to those people whose positive behaviour we can count on, we wind up taking such behaviour for granted and it doesn’t even occur to us to give them positive reinforcement. Dad doesn’t get a chocolate cube after going to the toilet! Neither do we feel the need to make a fuss over our students who are doing what they should, such as doing their homework every day and behaving well in class. And isn’t it amazing that those “good students” continue being good even without receiving constant positive reinforcement? There’s something about our high expectations of them that seems to silently “reinforce” their positive behaviour.
We need to redefine what encouragement is. Genuine encouragement is synonymous with trust or belief, as opposed to positive reinforcement, where we spend our time complimenting, supporting, praising, and rewarding. Trusting, on the other hand, involves no actions or energy, and it’s far more than a mere wish, hope, or aspiration. It’s a feeling inside our hearts, a certainty in our minds, an unshakeable belief. We can believe in something even if it’s abstract and intangible, even if it’s in disguise or it appears the opposite of how we expect it should. Someone who sincerely believes in G-d, for example, as abstract as He is, will continue to trust and believe in Him, even when challenged with difficulties and hardships.
A crucial prerequisite to encouraging our children is to have trust in them. It’s an understanding that a child is born wanting to follow after us and thus gain his sense of belonging. He wants to behave favourably in accordance with the specific expectations of his particular family. As parents, we are educators. “Educate” originates from the Latin word “educat”, meaning to lead. We can only succeed in our mission to lead when we have faith and confidence that our children want more than anything else to follow behind and join us in the world as successful, capable, and cooperative members of the next generation. Trusting strengthens our role as leaders. Picture the mother duck swimming along, never looking back, certain that her ducklings are following behind her. Trusting frees us from the fear that our children are incapable, weak, or uncooperative. Fear the “terrible twos” and you’re sure to experience them. Fear the teenager blossoming in your home and he’ll be sure to give you what to fear. When we have faith in our kids, we raise our level of expectations. It’s these silent expectations of our children that encourage them, more than anything else, to cooperate and grow into the adults that we dream of.
While it’s easy to have faith in a child who is well behaved, responsible, studious, caring, and concerned about others, what about the “difficult child”, the non-co-operator? How are we able to have any faith in him? He’s always messing up, losing things, failing at school, and fighting with his siblings. What’s there to trust? What we have to understand as parents is that this is not the “real” child. A child who has wandered astray in “mistaken ways” and is acting in a fashion contrary to the principles of his upbringing is hiding behind a disguise. Are we going to fall for the “costume” and get into a panic worrying about what has become of our child and what lies ahead for him in the future? Will we expend endless efforts “encouraging” him via positive reinforcements to reroute his path, hoping he’ll step back in line? Or will we strengthen our level of trust all the more so, realising that it’s only a disguise, and see beyond the “fake child”, the “costume” of impudence, misbehaviour, or the like, thus connecting with the genuine child hiding behind it all?
To better understand the analogy of the costume, think about someone who has dressed up in one of those very realistic costumes of a gorilla, covered from top to toe in black fur attached to a mask that looks like an actual gorilla. Upon seeing the “gorilla”, would you climb up on the table screeching for help, or would you quickly overcome your initial fright, perhaps even laugh, knowing that it’s all merely a costume. It’s that level of “knowing”, of unquestionable certainty that we need to strive for when trusting our children. Regardless of what utterly convincing mask we may see in front of us, it is our duty to see beyond their disguises.
Our Sages refer to the simple farmer as a model of what true faith is all about. Why? The farmer digs a hole in the ground, buries a seed inside, and trusts that a beautiful bud will grow and blossom. He doesn’t uncover the soil to check on its growth. He doesn’t pull at the off-shoots, “encouraging” them to grow. Having done his bit, the farmer lets go, patiently trusting to see the outcome. To successfully “let grow”, we need to “let go”. We mustn’t get despondent with decay; it gives hope for new life.