My children just finished their first semester in school and we received their report cards (Why couldn’t they just email it to me?  Do I need more junk mail?!).  I took a quick glance at the report (Who has time to read all those teacher comments?) and I couldn’t believe how many A minuses and B’s I saw.  I immediately called the kids over to grill them about their poor performance.  Had they not paid attention in class?  Had they not studied adequately?  What’s their problem?

In Parshat Vayechi, Yaakov is lying on his deathbed and calls over his sons to bless them.  He begins with the eldest Reuven: “Impetuous like water, take no more, for you mounted your father’s bed, then you desecrated the One Who ascended.”  Next two sons: “Shimon and Levi are brothers, stolen tools are their weapons.  Into their plot, may my soul not enter!  In their congregation, do not unite my honor!  For with their rage they killed men and with their will, they uprooted an ox.”

What kind of blessings are these?  Instead of blessing them, it sounds like he is cursing them one after another!  Why at the end of his life does Yaakov rebuke his children as opposed to leaving them with good thoughts and advice?  What’s more, it seems like he is focusing on each of their weaknesses and rehashing all their misdeeds.  Why would a father want to leave their sons to be remembered in such a manner?

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, known by the name of his famous sefer, the Sefas Emes, once stayed up all night long learning Torah with his chavrusa (study partner).  Wanting to refresh before davening, he put his head down for a few minutes in the morning, but ended up sleeping a few minutes longer and walking in late for the services.  His grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim strongly reprimanded him for his tardiness.  He stood there listening and when his zayda was done, he apologized.  His friend witnessed the entire episode and was flabbergasted.  Why, he asked Yehuda Aryeh, did he not simply tell his grandfather that he had been up all night learning?  The Gerer Rebbe replied, “When Zayda rebukes, every word is golden.”

Our patriarch Yaakov recognized each of his children’s strengths and knew how much greater they would become.  He wasn’t rebuking them to curse them.  He was rebuking them because he loved them.  Every word from their father was golden.  While it seems like he is being negative what he’s really doing is focusing on each son’s weakness in order to make them even greater.   He knew that they were each special in their own way and that they had already achieved greatness.  The only thing now that was holding them back was their individual challenges.  So Yaakov leaves them with the advice of turning their weaknesses into their strengths. He advises them on how to transform their challenges and use them for the good.

But the Midrash says something striking about their reaction to our patriarch’s words.  When the sons of Yaakov heard their father’s rebuke, they retreated into a corner of the room.  Nobody wanted to step forward and receive the next “blessing.”  Why not?  Shouldn’t they have been as excited as the young Gerer Rebbe?

What’s clear from the Midrash is that throughout Yaakov’s lifetime, he would encourage and praise all his children.  However, now lying on his deathbed, he realizes that this would be the last time he could help them reach their ultimate potential.  And so he shows them tough love, making sure that they have the tools to achieve their destined greatness.  Until now, he focused only on the positive; but his parting words were the whole truth.  That’s what he means when he begins by saying “do unto me kindness and truth.”  Kindness meant building up their self-esteem; truth meant ultimately being brutally honest.

So I’m about to berate my kids over their report-card performance and I suddenly remember: in the twenty-first century, we are told that children should be given only positive reinforcement.  We should be stressing the wonderful things that our children do.  Instead of focusing on how they made a mess baking a cake we should tell them how happy we are that they made it.   Yes, there were a number of B’s, but why had I glossed over the vast majority of A’s?

“My dear kinderlach,” I said to them, planting a kiss on their foreheads, “I can’t believe how lucky I am to have you as my offspring!  These entire report cards are overflowing with A’s, they are shining as bright as you guys shine!  You give me such amazing nachas!  You make me so happy!”

The truth is, in Judaism, that attitude is nothing new.  Yaakov kept his children all devoted to him by building them up with positivity.  But what’s different from our twenty-first century advice, is that it wasn’t the end of the story.  As he lay on his deathbed, Yaakov didn’t tell himself, ‘Let me make sure they remember me in the best light possible.’  Instead, he used the opportunity to make them truly great.  How?  By rebuking them.  Why would he rebuke them now when they were least expecting it?

Psychologists teach the 80/20 rule.  For every time you criticize your child (or anyone, for that matter), you should praise them four times as many times.  The problem today in parenting is almost the reverse – we are so busy showering praise upon our children and stroking their egos that we forget that if we truly want to rear decent, upstanding individuals, there’s a time for criticism and rebuke as well.   When is the right time to rebuke?

Yaakov teaches us that the right time is only once they are ready to hear it.   They’ve come to him seeking his blessing.  They are all ears.  And so now is the time, he realizes, to truly bring out the best in them, by giving them the 20 along with the 80.  When your children know how much you love them, you have earned the right to criticize them and make them the outstanding people they have the potential to be.

The problem today is that we are so absorbed in our own lives, checking our Facebook, Twitter feeds and emails that we end up just telling them, ‘I love you, you’re wonderful and beautiful, now here’s twenty dollars.’  That doesn’t make you a good parent. That’s not love.  That’s not real praise.  It’s pretty much a cop-out when you can’t be bothered to take the time to read all the painstaking comments your kids’ dedicated teachers have laboriously written.  On Facebook it might be okay to ‘like’ or ‘friend’ someone without meaning it.  It’s time to stop Facebook ‘loving’ your children.

Take an active interest in your kids’ lives.  Treat them like you would treat your biggest customer or client.  That means even if you couldn’t care less about their hobbies and dreams, at least pretend you do!  Of course, you do care deeply about your children.  You know that; but they need to know as well.  When they know that you truly love them and are not merely boosting their egos, only then can you offer the tough love that will be accepted wholeheartedly by them and make them incredible human beings!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya