Reactive Or Proactive?
By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber

Further comments about our reactions to our childrenís actions * Why is the reaction so important? * What is the point in reacting after the fact?

In the previous article we examined the rule for reacting, emphasizing the importance of the principle of consistency. In this article we will attempt to analyze and understand the idea behind consistency of principles.

It might sound like word play, but when we closely examine it, we will find that this phrase actually communicates important and foundational rules to achieving positive goals through the proper response.

Some readers of the previous article may have been surprised by the emphasis on reacting. Why do we seem to sanctify the reaction? What is the point in reacting to something that happened Ė yes, every time it happens Ė after the fact?

The rationale behind these questions can be quite convincing:

A negative response can adversely affect the emotional connection between educator and child. The child feels his privacy being encroached upon and his independence being undermined. This naturally causes him to close up and become distant. Approaching him in this state becomes much more challenging and complicated. Isnít it better to make believe you donít notice, at least some of the negative instances, and instead to look for the positive and accentuate that?

These concerns and others come from a certain lack of understanding of what the goal of the reaction should be, as well as not knowing what the guiding principles should be when choosing to react or not. (Itís important to remember: Not reacting is also a reaction, though its significance depends on the specific circumstance.)

The test of any reaction is what will result from it. In order for the result to be productive we must be guided by certain principles, through which we adjust our reaction and change the situation, from one of muna (reactive response) to one of meiniía (stimulus). In other words, moving from a situation in which oneís response is reactive, to one in which the response is proactive. If we want our chinuch approach to have the desired effect, it must be proactive and planned.

In halacha we find that in reprimanding a member of oneís household who did not behave properly it is forbidden to actually be angry; one is, rather, supposed to merely appear to be angry, for educational purposes. With this example we can distinguish between a reactive response and a proactive response.

Anger is a personal feeling that is a reaction to someoneís specific, undesirable behavior. This personal emotion is then outwardly expressed so that the other person feels it and sees it and knows that the reaction is a result of negative behavior on his part. Yet the one who is angry is completely absorbed by his feelings. He is reactive and responding emotionally, and under these circumstances itís hard for him to be proactive.

On the other hand, when a person just appears angry, he isnít truly angry. The inner process he is going through is more logical and rational than emotional. He knows that something negative took place and that he has to clarify the situation in a way that prevents the event from recurring. So he puts the proper expression on his face to show what he thinks about the matter. This is a proactive reaction, which has the potential to move things in the desired direction.

So what are the guiding principles?

The reaction has to be such that it has the ability to halt the childís negative action for a certain, reasonable length of time. The reaction can absolutely not be part of the childís game and a collaboration with him. What do I mean by that? There are children who, for psychological, subconscious reasons, desire any reaction at all, not necessarily a positive one. Such children will even welcome negative attention. Reacting to them is sometimes synonymous with relating to them. These children will often act out simply to get a response, a word, a scolding, a conversation, in short, attention.

When this is the reason for negative behavior, not reacting is actually a thunderous response, though not in the way the child anticipated it would be. He realizes he lost the game this time, and did not achieve what he wanted. He concludes that he has to find a different approach to achieve what he lacks.

It is very important that the type of reaction be positive. One shouldnít tell a child, "Why did you do that?!" Rather, the approach should be, "What should you have done? How should you have behaved?" Or, "How could you have prevented what happened?" "What other, better way could you have chosen?" These responses are all positive.

Hereís an example: My child comes home late from school. Itís not terribly late, but late enough so that I notice. He did not let me know ahead of time about it and did not ask me permission. The parent paces back and forth and waits for the moment when he/she can finally say, "Where were you all this time? or "Whatís the problem, you donít like it here? Itís better at your friendís house?" or "I was so worried! Why werenít you on time?"

These responses often hide suspicion, raise doubts, and express pain over what happened, all for the purpose of causing the child to feel guilty for his irresponsible actions as they were experienced by the parent.

For the child, a response like this is sort of a sentence of guilt: "You are suspect!" "You are a criminal!" "You are insensitive!"

Our dear child who feels judged, argues, justifiably, about this judgment passed on him. The debate continues and leads to war. All this distracts us from our goal, which is: focusing on what happened, recognizing it as being negative, and understanding how to act positively. Suddenly, without realizing it, we find ourselves in a storm of legal proceedings in which the accused stands up to the prosecutor and tries to prove his innocence. If we donít manage to get out in time and in the right way, this little courthouse will grow to include other lawyers for the two sides, and sooner or later a demonstration will break out.

Another classic example, this time from the classroom:

A child comes home from school with a note from his teacher that informs the parents of the childís misconduct in class. Here are a few common responses: "Iím really surprised at you!" "Youíre starting in with your nonsense again?!" "Iím worried about you! Tell me, whatís going to be with you?"

Once again we have sentenced him, and the battle begins. The child wages a defensive war, and all wise people concur that the best defense is offense.

The proper way to consistently follow principles is first of all, to know and understand what our goal is. What do we want to achieve with the child? When he misbehaves, our goal should be to get him to change.

The proper consideration of what lies behind our reactions will lead us to say things like: "Do you feel good about this?" or "You certainly realize that this needs to be corrected, and you want to fix it. We will help you." You can also say: "A note like this from your teacher is really not pleasant, but the teacher has one goal: he wants us, your parents, to help you improve your behavior. We are ready and willing to help you."

For more serious situations there are other rules which we will deal with at another time.

It pays to remember that when we enter into a debate and allow the situation to get out of control, we donít need to despair. We can quickly recover and make a decisive statement that can get us back on track, and back to the guiding principles which lead to consistency of principles.

Letís go back to the first example, to the boy who came home late. A more appropriate reaction, which has a far greater chance of halting the recurrence of negative behavior and will prevent the deterioration of the situation is a reaction like (of course, you donít use these words per se; Iím just demonstrating the message you should be conveying): "There is certainly a reason for your lateness and we are waiting to hear what it is, because clearly we parents need to know, and itís important for you to tell us. This will allay our doubts and fears for the future, and both of us will gain from the experience."

In this reaction the emphasis is not on the fact that the child came home late, but to what degree he will cooperate with us and how loyal he is within the limits we have established. This is a general goal, but it is very basic and of supreme importance in chinuch.

Both parents and children have to create an atmosphere of mutual trust. The child knows that when the parent trusts him, he is given a lot more freedom and latitude. His parents arenít constantly on top of him. They arenít following him around. He understands that it pays for him to act in a way that makes his parents trust him.

When a parent expresses understanding for a childís feelings and shows respect for them, a trusting relationship develops between parent and child. As a result, the child is willing to accept guidance and to follow it, and the parentís authority is strengthened.

(Questions can be faxed to Eretz Yisroel to 03-960-7289)


It is very important that the type of reaction be positive. One shouldnít tell a child, "Why did you do that?!" Rather, the approach should be, "What should you have done?


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