Let’s open the window and lift our shirts and shake our titties at people…Let’s play a trick on your sister… That is so gay… We don’t want to clean up and you can’t make us… If you say no, I will throw this at you… This is stupid. They are stupid. This whole party is stupid. You are stupid. We’re going to play the game my way.
These are all things that have been uttered by young guests in my home. As parents, we know what we want to teach our children about their own behavior and about how to be respectful of other people’s feelings. We know what we’d say to them if they uttered any of the above comments. But when the offending children aren’t my own and when their parents aren’t around, responding to bad behavior gets more complicated. Do we discipline the child? Do we hold back in case our sense of bad behavior is different from the way the child’s parent thinks?
Jewish tradition teaches that we have a responsibility to discipline; it also provides guidance as to how and when to do so responsibly. For our own children, we are obliged to educate and guide, but for other children the principle of hocheach tochiach et-amitecha, you must certainly rebuke your fellow, applies. The commandment comes from Leviticus 19:17, the holiness code, where we find mitzvot such as: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hocheach tochiach is traditionally understood as a commandment to correct others when you see them doing wrong. The hocheach tochiach verse continues, “but incur no guilt on their account.” The grammar indicates that if we don’t reproach a neighbor, we are partly responsible for the wrongs he or she commits. Our responsibility does not stop at our own door or with our own children, as evidenced by this talmudic passage: “Those who can stop members of their households from committing a sin, but do not, are held responsible for the sins of the household. Those who can stop people of their city from sinning, but do not, are held responsible for the sins of the city. Those who can stop the whole world from sinning, but do not, are held responsible for the sins of the whole world.” (Shabbat 54b)
Though we clearly have a responsibility to rebuke, rabbinic sources are equally clear that we must do so responsibly. Since the purpose of correcting another is to help set our neighbor on the correct path, it must be done appropriately. We can imagine that screaming at a child in front of others is not going to have the desired effect. Rashi notes that Jacob waited to rebuke his son Reuben until he was on his deathbed so as to avoid damaging the father-son relationship. He also notes that Moses waited 40 years to rebuke the Israelites because he feared he wasn’t eloquent enough to get it right. We can apply Rashi’s examples to the case of young guests and hold back if we know our discipline will cause a rift in a relationship or instil fear and mistrust in a child. The Talmud (Yebamot 65, interpreting Proverbs 9:8) supports the notion of holding back if the parent has reason to believe that the rebuke will cause scorn or an “attitude.”
Maimonides offers practical advice on how to rebuke another effectively. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dei-ot 6:7) First and foremost, it should be done in private. In our case, that means saying to the offending child, “I need to speak with you alone for a minute” and making sure our own children are not in earshot. Second, we must speak “gently and tenderly.” As horrified as I was that a young child suggested that they flash their “titties” in public, I had to assume my daughter’s friend had no idea that her actions would offend some people. I said: “You may not know this, but calling breasts ‘titties’ offends me. A lot of people think it is not a nice way to talk about a part of the body.”
Finally, Maimonides says we are to speak only for the wrongdoer’s own good. (However, using that exact phrase on a modern child is unadvisable). We should focus on the future, as in, “When you call people ‘stupid,’ they are not going to want to listen to your ideas for the game, no matter how good those ideas are.” Our rebuke should not be a response to our own anger or an attempt to avenge our hurt feelings.
We must maintain these three guideposts from Maimonides when the parent arrives to pick up the child. If we inform the parent about the incident, we should do so privately, gently, and with the child’s education (and not criticism of the other parent’s child-rearing techniques) as our priority.
In reacting to the misdeeds of a visiting child, Judaism asks us to walk the tightrope of discipline and tenderness even more carefully than we do with our own children.email print