Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Judging Favorably

This past Shabbat, Mel Tockman led the first of three study sessions/discussions around Pirkei Avot ("Verses of our Fathers"). If you don't know Pirkei Avot (often just called Avot), it's a collection of Rabbinic sayings from almost 2000 years ago, and some of the most famous sayings in Judaism come from here.

In the first chapter of Avot (1:6), we read that Joshua ben Perachya teaches to "judge everyone favorably." Now, Avot being as famous and well-read as it is, quotes like that tend to get skimmed - it's nice sentiment, something that might be found in Chicken Soup for the Rabbinic Soul, but nothing profound. Mel, however, had found a modern commentator who, when talking about this verse, told a story of a woman who was eulogized as doing precisely this: seeing the good in everyone. What those who knew her related, though, was that her insistance on seeing the best in them made them more determined to live up to her judgments. In other words, they found themselves wanting to be the person that she saw, even if they didn't' see it yet.

The current thinking in parenting techniques seems to be pretty strongly in favor of positive reinforcement, over negative. In other words, the books now tell us to praise the heck out of our kids when they do something right, and go easier when they mess up. Some say that this is how we create spoiled children, but the research seems to show that isn't true. Studies are showing that negative reinforcement - chastisements, punishments, etc - don't effectively change behavior. They just get kids to be sneakier about it. But, positive reinforcement works very well, indeed. Make the reward for good behavior good enough, and your kid will work harder to be good (the reward can just be praise, although my experience is that chocolate is also a powerful tool).

So, assuming that the modern thinking and research is right, it dawned on me, when Mel was passing on the story of that "positive thinkier," that there's no reason to think that what's true for kids isn't true for us, too. Ask yourself honestly: how do I react to criticism, and how do I react to praise? Which one is more likely to get me to do what I should? Which is more likely to get me to try to be the best version of me that I can?

If, like me, you respond much more strongly, much more lastingly, much more profoundly to praise, then the next question is, of course, "how do I treat others?" Because, if kids don't respond to criticism, and I don't respond to criticism, then who, exactly, does?

If you want to hear more, come to the next session on Avot - Saturday, Feb 21st at 9:00 a.m.

1 comment:

Wendy Withers said...

Chocolate also works as positive reinforcement for adults.