The debate over the most effective parenting styles has been ongoing for decades, with some parents advocating for tough love while others opting for a more nurturing approach. Amy Chua, also known as the Tiger Mom, famously contrasted the Chinese approach to raising children to the American one in her 2011 book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Chua believes that children are far more capable than we give them credit for, and that we can’t be afraid to demand more from them by pointing out their deficiencies and pushing them to their limits. She suggests that American parents are too concerned with their children’s self-esteem and are hesitant to discuss their shortcomings, leading to an inability to handle failure.
On the other side of the educational spectrum, we find the “Self Esteem” approach to parenting, or as Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard’s School of Education, calls it: the “praise craze.” Weissbourd says that by age 12, some children have been so overpraised that they regard compliments as implicit criticism. Other children, he says, become so dependant on praise that they are what he calls “praise sponges,” becoming incredibly needy for praise.
What is the correct appraoch to parenting? Should we be more critical of our children, give them the honest truth about their abilities and effort and engage in more frequent discipline? Or should we focus solely on building up self-esteem and our kids’ feelings of self-worth?
The Mishna in the 10th chapter of tractate Pesachim tells us how we should format the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt at the Passover seder:
“According to the understanding of the son, his father teaches him. He begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.”
The sages of the Talmud explain that it is essential to discuss our spiritual and physical journey from idol worship and slavery to redemption and freedom. But why must we begin with shame and negativity? Why is it important to discuss the way we used to worship idols, or how miserable our slavery experience was? Wouldn’t it be better to fully focus on God’s miracles and His incredible salvation instead of mentioning the shame?
The 14th century Spanish commentator, Rav Dovid Avudraham, suggests that the shame enhances and expands the praise. In order to truly and profoundly praise God for our good fortune, we need to understand and acknowledge the depths of how far we had sunk. We need to understand, and even re-live, slavery and exile in order to properly appreciate redemption. According to this approach, the shame has no inherent value, it is only necessary in order to make the praise that much more impressive and remarkable.
I’d like to suggest a different approach that ties the shame and praise to the the fundamental command of the seder night: “You shall teach your children.” The Mishnah says: “According to the understanding of the son, his father teaches him. He begins with disgrace and concludes with praise.” The father should teach his child by beginning with shame and ending with praise. Meaning, when we teach our children we need to strike a healthy balance between shame and praise.
Like the Tiger Mom, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our children about what they need to work on. We shoudn’t practice revisionism or censor the reality of their mistakes. We are not be afraid to point out our collective errors, and we must not be afraid to point out to our children their challenges and where they need to improve. In other words, we should not avoid the “shame.”
But at the same time, we must also make sure to focus on our children’s strengths and accomplishments and to highlight their successes. Even when beginning with shame, we must always try to finish the conversations with our children on a positive note; to leave a them with a good feeling and a strong self-worth! We begin with shame, yes, but we always finish with praise.
While the need to strike a balance between criticism and praise probably seems obvious, many of us still find ourselves constantly struggling to find that balance. For some of us, our children can do no wrong; they are the apples of our eye! The problem is that if we are not careful, our kids can become lazy and start to feel entitled. For these kinds of parents it takes real effort to start with a little “shame.”
But there are also some of us who intuitively excel at highlighting our children’s (and spouses) faults and deficiencies. They are fantastic at “shame,” but these people need to work on making sure that all of their criticisms are expressed with love, and that they end with praise.
What the sages of the Mishna teach us through their approach to the Passover seder is that we need a healthy balance between discussing our children’s shortcomings and encouraging them to achieve, while also highlighting their strengths and accomplishments. When we teach our children, we need to begin with “shame,” but always end with praise, leaving them with a positive feeling and a strong self-esteem. By doing so, we can help our children develop the resilience they need to handle failure, and the confidence they need to succeed.