Rewarding Bad Behavior

From: Aaron

Dear Rabbi,

One of my sons, he’s 8, is really a source of tension at home. His behavior is totally unacceptable. And what’s worse, no matter how I punish him, it doesn’t help. He gets this rebellious spirit that won’t break. My wife and I are very disturbed by this, and are losing hope. It’s as if there’s this power struggle going on and he’s winning, as his siblings watch from the sidelines. What can we do to avoid things falling apart?

Dear Aaron,

I understand your feelings of frustration and growing sense of helplessness, which is only exacerbated by the fact that it’s being caused by an 8 year-old, your son, who you’d much rather love and be loved by, than war with.

While I’m not a psychologist, and seeing a professional to help you all work through this to find the best solution might ultimately be what you need, I can offer some advice for starters to at least alleviate some of the tension, and may provide a long-term solution as well.

Given the type of situation you describe, and the way you describe it, there are usually three major considerations that make reconciliation with the child so difficult and challenging: 1. The feeling of “giving in” which seems to demonstrate weakness and undermine your parental authority. 2. “Rewarding” bad behavior which would seem to encourage more of it. 3. Setting a bad example and precedent for your other children.

Punishment should be exercised not to harm or humiliate, but to demonstrate, relative to the severity of the wrong doing, the ramifications of wrong, thereby educating the child to refrain from what he comes to recognize as unacceptable behavior. However, in your case, based on your own admission, the various forms of punishment that you have used not only have not helped, they’ve resulted in a spirit of rebellion and confrontation.

Without knowing more details about the family dynamics and the child involved, I can’t know why that might be. But whatever the reasons are, the punishment approach has not worked, and will probably only get worse.

At this point, you should battle rebellion with love, pride with patience and temper with tolerance. In fact, it’s quite possible that it’s not his intention to challenge your authority at all, but rather to challenge you to love him.

This can be done in a way that doesn’t look like you’re giving in, becoming weak or undermining your authority but rather exercising your parental prerogative to choose a different option which you have the authority to decide will be more beneficial for your child. Nor would this approach in your situation be viewed as encouraging bad behavior. This son cannot take punishment, which means punishing is encouraging bad behavior. Showing abundant love and understanding, particularly when things are less tense, is much more likely to defuse conflict. Finally, you can avoid the possibility of setting a bad precedent with your other children by continuing to reward their good behavior with love, which they certainly would rather earn by being good than bad.

One last point: This new approach should not be implemented all at once but gradually. Ideally it should start on the few occasions that he’s not misbehaving, but eventually even if he is. And don’t be concerned if it seems that you are thereby showing preferential treatment to this son over your other children, since more likely a lot of what’s behind his behavior is his feeling, whether correct or not, that he’s being treated differently than his siblings for the worse.

By taking this approach in your specific situation, you would actually be in line with the great Rabbi Moshe Cordavero. In Tomer Devora, which analyses in depth the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy, he writes regarding the trait “He doesn’t maintain His anger forever” (Ch. 1, attribute 5) that while G‑d punishes transgression, when that punishment does not have the desired corrective result, and the sinner continues to do wrong, G‑d Himself gradually reduces punishment despite continued rebellion and sin, with the hope that if punishment doesn’t serve as a deterrent, love will.

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