by A. Ross, M.Ed.
In the recent Parshas Vayera Family Section, Miriam Adahan
raised the point of the demands made on children in school,
especially in the first few grades. Many of these demands
are rather pointless: e.g. coloring in numerous pictures for
homework. Some assignments, she says, are work for mothers
and not for the children. Children are not university
students and should not be treated as such. As she wrote, it
is not likely that the people for whom the article was
written would read it, but if only one of the clients is
saved the considerable hardships she describes, the article
will have served its purpose.
As always, there is another side to the coin. There are a few
schools who have, indeed, incorporated Mrs. Adahan's views
and cater mainly to the weaker children, who are praised for
every small achievement and develop self confidence which
they would never acquire if they had to compete academically.
These schools are not `special needs' schools. They have two
or three weak children in each class of about thirty
children, two or three very bright children, and the rest are
of average ability.
Although many people may not approve of the fact, competition
is part of life. Every game we play is competitive. Whether
it is a team game, a board game for the family or one where
two individuals play against each other, they are all
competitive. When children are very young, every sensible
mother makes sure that they win. After a while, as they
improve their skills, it is wise to let them lose once in a
while. Everyone has to learn that failure is not such a
distressing thing. We all learn from our mistakes.
When a child starts school, he soon learns that the
classroom, too, is a very competitive place. While we might
agree that stress should be put on middos, character,
and not achievement, this will not work in practice. Perhaps
for 20% of the children, it might be an ideal situation. I am
not discussing the very bright children. They are a law unto
themselves and it is a rare teacher who can stimulate them at
the same time as trying to give the rest of the class their
due. It is the 70% of the children in the middle who concern
me. They need praise for high marks if they get them. Many
have worked very hard to attain them and praise for high
marks will make them want to do even better in the future.
Naturally, teachers have to inculcate good middos, and
equally self understood is the fact that children should not
be punished for not achieving. However, most children try to
live up to what is expected of them. If a teacher expects
high standards, most children will take pride in their work
without feeling overly pressured.
Some children are born with a jealous streak in them. Most
children suffer from jealousy at some time or other, whether
they are conscious of it or not. But in some, this trait is
quite destructive. They are always looking at the other child
to see if he has a slightly larger portion or a better mark
(which is surely undeserved in his opinion). These children
may well become clients for Mrs. Adahan. It is quite likely
that even if the achievement is not praised as such, the
child is demanding it of himself. This was mentioned in an
article on perfectionism.
It is not necessarily pressure from the school or from
parents which is causing the child untold unhappiness. Some
parents attempt to treat all children the same. If they buy
one a gift, everyone has to get a gift. No child is every
singled out for a special treat. In commenting on the story
of Yosef, Chazal say that it is unwise to single one child
out from the others. However, a normal home cannot be run on
regimented lines. Some families celebrate individual
birthdays, others make a fuss of a particular child who
happens to need the extra attention. Some mothers make a
point of taking one individual child out with them when they
go without keeping a strict check on whose turn it is. Each
family is run according to the way the parents decide.
Nevertheless, however they do it, there may be one or two
children who are consumed with jealousy for no obvious
reason. They are the ones who always feel hard done by. If
they grow into adulthood carrying this trait with them, they
are unfortunate individuals.
There is a Yiddish expression `to fargin' (accepted in
modern Hebrew, as well). There is no translation of the word
in the English language. It is the opposite of to begrudge.
Some children are born with a sunny disposition and
fargin everything to others. Others unfortunately
begrudge success, happiness and popularity to their siblings
and peers. They even begrudge themselves by looking at the
18% of the wrong answers instead of the 82% of the correct
ones on their exam papers. They are unhappy people who need
help in overcoming their problems.
However hard parents and teachers try to help these children,
they do not always succeed. Yet frequently, as they mature,
the children suddenly realize that it doesn't really matter.
They turn into successful adults in their own right without
looking over their shoulder at what others have achieved, or
let those achievements be an impetus to them. We as educators
have to do our utmost to give the children in our care as
much work as they can cope with, to stimulate without
overburdening them, and to try to develop their middos
at the same time.