Excerpted from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s Question and Answer series on Naaleh.com
My eight year old son often hurts his friends with words. I know he’s clearly acting out when he feels bad about himself. How do I balance giving rebuke and elevating his self-esteem?
There are a few concrete things you can do.
Talk to him before or after he’s in the act, but not while he is acting out. Catch him when he’s available emotionally and tell him a thematic story. It could be about the animals in the barnyard who put down the weak horse or the new Russian boy in cheder who was excluded. You should convey the point that the good guy is the one who saves the persecuted ones.
Once he identifies with the good guy, then you can say, “I wish sometimes that I was like that.” Many times when I read about heroes in the Holocaust who saved hundreds of people I wish I could be like them, but of course we can only do what we can. At least we should never hurt anyone or call them stupid or clumsy. Then list all the words he says without him knowing that you are talking about him. It may not work right away, but it’s sure to enter his heart, even if he doesn’t give you any signs.
If you catch him stumbling again, you could tell him, “These are things we don’t say. They hurt people’s feelings.” He already knows from your stories that that’s what the bad guys do. He may say, “Yes, but he really is stupid.” You could then respond, “That may be true, but how do your words make him feel? You’re supposed to try to make him feel good. This upsets him.”
If you’ve done the preliminary work, he’ll get the message.