Accept or Expect? Can We Do Both?

Mushka Feldman
Essays 2020 / Finalists

Something is being lost in the translation. The numbers just aren’t adding up. With all the effort that educators around the world are investing, how are so many children still falling through the cracks? As much progress as we’re making, so many teenagers are still struggling with feeling misunderstood by their parents and teachers. Words of acceptance and love, of discipline and expectation, are falling on deaf ears. There are many different approaches that educators are constantly implementing to create an environment where the perfect balance of good cop, bad cop can exist. Every principal, teacher, and parent is ultimately asking the same question: how do we educate our children in a truly effective manner? How do we show our children that we understand them, while still maintaining our expectations of them and encouraging their growth? Being that I am still transitioning from my role as a student to that of an educator, I will try and bridge the gap between their conflicting, but equally relevant views, by turning towards Chassidus. Within Chassidus, we find a clear approach that needs to be taken into account when educating our children. This paradigm shift that Chassidus demands of every parent and educator will create a foundation so that our children will feel valued and empowered.

Disproportionate success

In today’s day in age, many children feel judged, criticized, and alone. Although the educators may have the students’ best interests at heart, somehow, the students don’t always feel it. Incredible progress has been made over the years. However, too many children still feel hurt and confused which often results in them searching for another path that might give them the acceptance they’re craving. Shockingly, this is a powerful and growing issue among Chabad communities worldwide. I say shockingly because according to Chabad’s results in their outreach work, we would expect the same success rate when speaking about children raised in Chabad communities and homes.

Chabad houses are known to have a welcoming and accepting environment regardless of where you are coming from or what you have done. This reputation causes tens of thousands of unaffiliated Jews to flock to Chabad houses where so many of them reconnect to their heritage. Sadly, this is not always the case within Chabad communities. There are children raised in Chabad homes that are struggling to maintain their connection with their Judaism. Many of them will attribute this to a negative experience or relationship they had with an authority figure in their lives. The key to solving this problem, and the key to educating any child (whether born religious or not) in a balanced manner, is to understand the approach written in the Tanya about acquiring an outlook that allows us to be truly non-judgemental towards others.

Try standing in his shoes – you can’t

The Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad Rebbe, provides us with a method that will enable us to view everyone with a genuine understanding[1]. He quotes a passage which states, “Don’t judge your fellow until you have reached his place[2].” The Alter Rebbe explains that there are two definitions for “his place”. The first refers to his life circumstances. Some people are in a more challenging situation than others. Therefore, being that another person’s circumstances may be much more difficult than yours, and you may never know it, who are you to judge him? For a person whose career involves teaching Torah every day, to be doing the right thing is much easier than for someone who’s working on Wall Street and facing temptation on a more regular basis. Therefore, being that another person’s situation might make it harder for him to do the right thing, there is no room to judge him.

Now, let’s say you’re working on Wall Street with him. You have the same challenging circumstances. Do you then receive a license to judge his actions if they are not on par with your own? The Alter Rebbe answers this question by explaining the second definition for “his place”, which is his nature. Here, the Alter Rebbe acknowledges that no two people have the same nature. One person may have a fiery nature which would cause him to desire the wrong thing very passionately. In contrast, another person might have a calmer nature which would make his struggle in these areas automatically easier. The Alter Rebbe explains that for someone who has a fiery nature, to stop himself from sinning at the last moment, he would need to use the same amount of inner strength that is accessed by someone who is giving up his life for Hashem.

Put a price tag on it

The Alter Rebbe is telling us that we can never truly understand another person and therefore should never judge them. How, then, do we approach the people in our lives, when so many of them are craving to be understood? The closest we can come to understanding another is to magnify the Alter Rebbe’s explanation of how much effort overcoming a struggle demands. Based on that we can formulate a 5 step process called “putting a price tag on the effort”.

Imagine you had another person’s life circumstances and their fiery nature. Now, put an estimated price on how much effort it would take you to overcome that challenge that they are struggling with. True, you may not have this struggle. To understand him does not require you to relate to the physical aspect of what he is struggling with. Instead, ask yourself this: overcoming this struggle would take approximately 85% of this person’s effort. Truthfully, when was the last time I put 85% of my effort into something that was challenging me?

Let’s take an example: meet Johanna, an unaffiliated Jew who grew up her entire life barely knowing that she was Jewish. She meets the love of her life and they are happily engaged to be married in two weeks’ time. Side point, he isn’t Jewish. Johanna passes by a mall on Friday and a Rabbi (a title she’s never heard of before) starts up a conversation about the importance of marrying Jewish (another thing she’s never heard of before). Let’s be honest, what percentage of her effort would Johanna need to access for her to cancel her wedding because of something someone with no significance in her life said to her? I’d say more than 100%. Now ask yourself, when was the last time you genuinely invested 100% of your effort into any area of your life? That’s called “putting a price tag on the effort”.

With this mindset, Chabad houses all over the world have engaged thousands upon thousands of people. This view has allowed so many non-religious Jews to feel welcomed and accepted. They know that at Chabad, their effort is valued. At Chabad, it’s not all about results, and because of that, Chabad has astonishing results.

An educated error

Seeing the phenomenal success that Chabad houses have, we are forced to ask ourselves, why is this different within our own communities? Should we have a different mindset when we are dealing with our children? A Rabbi once met a friend of his who had grown up religious but had left everything behind. When inquiring about his lifestyle choices, the man explained, “I’d rather take off my Kippa and have people count my Mitzvos (good deeds), then wear my Kippa and have people count my Aveiros (sins)”.

The truth is, the reason that this method of acceptance is found less among Chabad communities is because of a fundamental Chabad principle. It is known that the fifth Chabad Rebbe (the Rebbe Rashab) would say[3] that we were born with two eyes, the right one (which represents Chessed/kindness) to look at others, and the left one (which represents Gevurah/severity) to look at ourselves. One of the many qualities that define a Chossid as someone ready to go above and beyond the letter of the law, is that he knows when and how to be productively hard on himself. He recognizes when he is being lazy, and he doesn’t let himself get away with it. This is an admirable attribute and something that is essentially necessary for any person’s self-growth. However, a problem arises when we apply that same attitude to our children. When we treat them as “ourselves” instead of treating them as “others”.

My child, an outsider?

Why should you treat your child as an outsider? You raised him, therefore, should you not hold him to the same standards you set for yourself? Yes, by raising your child you automatically and rightfully expect more from him. However, your child has not completed a fundamental element of his journey, which you already have. Therefore, treating him as if he was in the same place that you are will only stunt his growth.

Every morning, when reciting the prayer of Az Yashir in our Davening, we say[4], “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him. The G-d of my father and I will exalt Him.” Why the strange terminology? There seems to be a duplicated message here. The Lubavitcher Rebbe  explains[5] that this passage comes to teach us something critical about raising our children.    It is not enough for our children to serve Hashem because He is our God, that is only the first step. Once we have raised our children with a Torah foundation, they need to internalize all that we have taught them, transforming Hashem into THEIR God. We must show them the beauty that we have found within Judaism so that they can continue doing what they have been doing for years, only with added enthusiasm and understanding[6]. But until they reach that level, looking at them with the same harsh eye that may be positive when used for ourselves, will be harmful to them. The same outlook of “putting a price tag on effort” needs to apply when approaching our children.

Children nowadays can sense honesty and they are drawn to it. They are done listening to people preaching and not practicing. When we demand certain things of a child, we have to recognize where they are coming from. The fact is, that they may need to access 50% of their effort for something that we can do easily. The question an educator needs to ask himself in such a situation is, “When was the last time I pushed myself to the point where I used 50% of my effort?” Our children are the ones who should challenge us to look deep within ourselves.

With that perspective in mind, an educator can then approach a child without judgment or resentment. Understanding the child’s effort will show him that you are on the same team, tackling the issue together. The Rebbe said[7] that whatever you are expecting from a child, you need to expect even more from yourself, and deliver. This does not mean only in the result, but also in the effort. If you expect your student to come on time, you too should give much importance to being punctual. But, you are not your student. So, your attempts to relate to him are going to be ineffective because his challenges differ from your own. Instead, a more effective approach would be to “put a price tag on the effort”. If your student has to exert himself to make sure he’s on time, you as the educator, need to be exerting yourself in your own areas. By comparing the number on his price tag to your own, you will recognize that his effort itself has immense value.

The balance

Does this mean we give up on our expectations? If we try to understand our children at their current level, does this mean we condone their inadequate behaviors? Put an end to all the rules? This method of “putting a price tag on the effort” does not mean we drop our standards. The more we educate our children, the more we should expect from them. Limits and guidelines are a vital part of education. This new lens and open-mindedness does not mean we call an end to any of these critical boundaries. At the end of the day, the one that matters most is the child we are educating. Taking away our guidance will only harm him.

We find the perfect balance of acceptance and expectation in our relationship with Hashem. There is a place within Hashem, where what we do doesn’t matter. Whether we sin or we are righteous, He loves us all the same[8]. Yet, we see that He does demand that we fulfill His Mitzvos, that we do good, and that we make this world a better place. So, which one is it? Does He love us unconditionally or does He have demands? The answer is yes, to both. Hashem loves us unconditionally and therefore, He demands that we do good.

This approach of “putting a price tag on the effort” needs to be accessed specifically DURING a time when a child is being given limits. The most productive way to guide a child is to approach him without judgment. Recognize his struggle and the tremendous effort he will need to overcome it. Find that place within yourself that understands and loves the child regardless of his results. Only with that in mind can you begin to set limits for him. By internalizing this mindset before approaching a child, you won’t need to tell him that you understand him because he will feel it. He will be able to see that you care about HIM. A heart reflects emotions in the same way that water reflects a face[9]. When a child feels your love and acceptance towards him, it will be reciprocated. He will be able to feel that his best interests are at the center of the boundaries you are setting and that true love is hiding just beneath the surface.

Everyone, Everywhere

Although the success of this method is seen so vividly in Chabad houses internationally, and the need for this method is so clear within the Chabad community, this concept in Chassidus applies to every educator. Whether religious or secular, Jewish or non-Jewish, this mindset is a necessity for every educational interaction. When we recognize a child’s effort before guiding him, we will be creating a major foundation for him to feel understood and a basis to help him overcome his challenges.

Practically speaking, here is how you do it:

  1. Recognize the child’s life circumstances.
    Keep in mind that as much as you may know about your student or child’s life and struggles, there can be many things that you are unaware of. So, try keeping an open mind and be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Throw in a fiery nature and multiply the struggle.
    The characteristics a child was born with can turn a typically easy struggle into the hardest challenge of his life. Even if you cannot relate to the exact struggle he is going through, recognize that this may be the most challenging thing he has ever dealt with and that it will require immense effort on his part.
  3. Put a price on it.
    How much effort would you imagine such a person, in such a situation, with such a nature, would need to overcome this struggle? Yes, you will never truly know the exact number. However, when we talk in terms of effort, an unrelatable struggle becomes something very real. Effort is a universal currency.
  4. Time for some introspection.
    Ask yourself, “When was the last time I invested that much effort to overcome my own struggles?” By translating that child’s effort into your own life, you will understand him in a completely different way. In a real way.
  5. Now, you can approach your student.

As educators, we need to be looking in the mirror as we are looking at our students. Parents too, need to judge themselves before judging their children. By approaching our children and students with the balance of understanding and boundaries, we will be creating a generation of people who feel heard and understood by authority. This will motivate them to invest the effort needed to raise themselves to the highest of standards and have this same outlook when approaching others. We will be creating a positive cycle of appreciation, acceptance, and expectations which can tremendously improve our methods of education and ultimately transform children into the best versions of themselves.

[1] Tanya, Chapter 30

[2] Pirkei Avos, 2:4

[3] Toras Menachem, Chelek Chof, Page 175

[4] Chumash Shemos, 15:2

[5] Likkutei Sichos, Chelek Tes Zayin, Mishpatim, Aleph

[6] It is important to note that this is not the final step. Ultimately a person’s service of Hashem should reach a level which is above logic and understanding. Transforming Hashem into a personal God is a necessary level which will help a person achieve the ultimate connection to Hashem.

[7] Toras Menachem Parshas Vayikra Tof Shin Mem Beis, Seif Mem Tes

[8] Likkutei Sichos Chelek Aleph Parshas Mishpatim Seif Yud Gimmel

[9] Tanya chapter 46