Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Mattot 76 - Anger - Validating concerns, not feelings

The Parasha talks about the battle against Midian for the purpose of avenging the harm done to Israel and  the slight to, and contempt for  God's honor.  After the blessings of Bil'am and the great military victories over the mighty kings Sichon and OG, the children of Israel felt a certain arrogance and ובעל גאווה נמסר ביד יצרו   - and arrogant people are controlled by their desires.  In their arrogance –that they  were independent and did not need to ask for water from the surrounding nations - they drank from the well of Shitim without any fear, knowing that the waters of the well make one drunk with a desire for sexual immorality. This made them fall to plan of Bil'am and be enticed by the daughters of Midian and commit sexual immorality and idolatry. As result of sin , many of the children of Israel  died in a plague.

 The army is victorious, destroys cities and takes spoil and captives.  The returning commanders are met by Moses, Elazar and the elders. Moses gets very angry with the commanders as they kept the females alive.ויקצף משה על פקודי החיל  There are certain values which are greater than life, so you have to give your life and not commit idolatry, sexual immorality or murder. These women had lost the right to live as they enticed Israel to commit sexual immorality and idolatry.   Moses had not given the commanders specific instructions as to how to act in the war. For Him, the whole purpose of the war was to destroy the enticing females. Moses continues and says' it must have that you have sinned with the females, like in Shitim, as it is for this reason that you kept the women alive.' The commanders answered that no one sinned but they still wanted to offer sacrifices to atone for and make amends for any sinful thoughts. Moses could not help but praise the army who aspired to high levels of holiness even in war,  and achieve the ultimate goal of the army, conquering the enemy within and without.  

Although Moses' anger was justified, anger has negative side effects – one forgets one's learning and loses one's wisdom.  The laws of Kashering of  the vessels  that were previously used for non-kosher food הגעלת כלים  had to be taught by Elazar as Moses had forgotten them because of his anger .' The purpose is to get rid of the absorbed taste of non-kosher food in these pots and pans etc These laws allude to the importance of getting rid of negative emotions and atoning for sinful thoughts of the returning soldiers. The returning soldiers are described as ' coming TO the war ' and not from the war as one's personal struggle with refining one's character is made more difficult by war, so the battle never ends. – הבאים למלחמה  (מנחם ציון )'

A collaborative problem solving approach would look like this - Moses:  I see that you have kept alive the women, what's up?  The commanders share  their perspective or concerns - the greatest revenge is to take the women of Midian and let them become part of the national effort of the people of Israel. Moses could then shares his perspective , corrects their mistaken thinking and gives instructions how to deal with the captive women, deals with the  concerns of the soldiers  for atonement and teaches the laws of kashering the vessels. In hindsight Moses was initially justified to feel angry about the situation rather than being angry at the commanders, who although did make a mistake, yet they  inspired  the army to great spiritual heights.

Although our anger about an issue shows that the issue is important to us, but how we manage our anger is important if we want others to internalize our message. The problem with anger or even attaching threats of punishments or consequences to future misdeeds is that people don't internalize the actual message and the value involved. They only  remember  the anger or threat of punishment. We want people and especially kids to internalize the value, so the misdeed, the  inappropriate behavior, the sin  and the  עבירה  is the punishment  'עבירה היא העונש 'and the good deed or mitzvah is the reward itself- שכר מצווה מצווה.

So what should we do about our anger and other emotions and those of our children or students?

It may be important for us to acknowledge our emotions or feelings and more important ' gut feelings', but we have to put them aside and evaluate them later at the end of the problem solving process. Identifying feelings doesn't help with the problem solving process. Some authors talk about validating the feelings and emotions of children but not validating their actions. 'I see that you are angry, upset, frustrated when your sister ….. Etc. . . . The problem is that when we validate feelings we can actually trigger more anger and upset. Talking about and naming feelings   can be valuable in problem solving in that it may help to convert emotional expression into thinking  and we then externalize feelings so we can put them aside and start solving problems. Trying to solve problems in the heat of the moment and deal with emotions is not a good idea.

'Children can feel in control of themselves and their world when they can use words and describe how they are feeling. If a kid has a vocabulary that describes a full range of emotions he is in more of a position to describe how he is feeling. Many kids when asked how they feel say things like ' good, terrific, bad, awful, or terrible. Very few answer ' happy, sad, frustrated, or afraid. When a kid names his feeling ' I am frustrated ', he then continues to give the reason – I am frustrated because I have an unmet need, concern etc., he is then in a position to actually do something about it. A child might do something different if he feels sad than if he feels frustrated. Just thinking he feels ' bad, terrible or awful will not help him make an informed decision about his next step. '- Myrna Shure Thinking parent, Thinking Child 

The vital step in collaborative problem solving is to help the child articulate his concerns or unmet needs and put them on the table.  In the heat of moment of conflict or a meltdown, when a kid is struggling with the emotional rush, naming emotions can give fuel to them. Because naming feelings does not contribute to solving problems, the focus should be in clarifying and understanding the kids concerns. Out of the moment - Talking with children about feelings and emotions is important. We can talk about ' what makes me happy, what do you think makes your sister happy, sad, and angry, frustrated, disappointed etc. This helps kids to consider other peoples' views and feelings. 

So instead of validating feelings, focus on validating concerns and needs which is vital for collaborative problem solving.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Pinchas 76 - The most important word in the world - YES

In our parasha a census of the men takes place in preparation for the distribution of the land of Israel amongst the tribes. The daughters of Zelophehad came forward with their complaint. Because they had no brothers, their family would be without a share in the land. They therefore requested a share in the land among their father's brothers. Moses brought their claim before God- Hashem. God answers Moses with a YES to their claim. -  כן בנות צלפחד דברת   . The word Yes here implies that they have spoken right, properly, exactly, they have made a fair claim and they should be happy as God agrees to their words.

When it comes to relationships the word YES is the most powerful word in the world .As we have seen the word yes can communicate many meanings – Yes, I agree... Yes, you are right, Yes, that is a great idea, Yes, .. I understand you. The psychologist John Gottman suggests that we try to introduce as many yesses as we can into our conversations. We can answer Yes, that's a good idea, or Yes, that's a great point, Yes, I hear you.Yes, means agreement and connection. Yes passes on your power and presence to the other person, your friend, partner, your spouse and child, your team and employees. God answered the daughters of Zelphehad with a Yes and transferred His power and presence to them.

 Dr Dan Siegel asks us to notice how we feel when we read these words, no, no, no, no,no,no, and how you feel when you read these words, yes, yes, yes, yes,yes,yes,yes …. When you hear no, you feel scolded, stressed, alone and start breathing heavy. When you hear yes, you feel relieved and relaxed. Yes makes us more receptive and when we are more receptive presence can created, which is vital for thriving relationships.

Yes opens the doors to collaboration, cooperation and co-creation. The question is – does the word Yes have a role to play in resolving conflicts and problem solving .?  The advice that parents regularly hear is to say ' No' a couple of times during the day, so that  kids learn that they can't get everything that they want and they learn to accept the No word. For many challenging kids saying NO triggers the cortisol hormone which puts the child in the ' fight – flight mode. 'What follows is kids either go ballistic, explode or implode accepting that their parents don't consider that they have legitimate concerns or feelings. There is the assumption that parenting is about win-lose scenarios , kids resisting parental control and parents trying to get kids to do what they want them to do. If we really want our kids to ' hear us ', hear our concerns and experience learning when they interact with us, we need to help them live by Hillel's words - If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself, who am I. ? We need to help them go through the thinking process and make meaning of what is happening, we need to get them talking and reflecting, exploring situations and addressing both their own concerns and the concerns of others. Saying No is essentially only one solution to a concern or a problem. Because the solution only addresses the parents concern we are using Plan A, imposing Adult will on the child.  Traditionally kids have never had their concerns heard. Some parents will empathize with a kid and validate their feelings or concerns but at the same time demand compliance. They do so, just to make compliance easier for kids to swallow. This is called ' Perfunctory empathy, not true empathy. Kids need reassurance, that  when we use collaborative problem solving -  Plan B that we are not trying to force a solution, but we first want to hear their perspectives and concerns and work on a mutually satisfying solution that addresses all concerns.

- I like the phrase - ' I am not saying No ' 

Of course this does not mean I am saying yes, it means ' I just want to hear your concerns, can you tell me more?' Our purpose is to get a conversation going with the child mainly speaking and us listening , and focus on solving the problem.When the solution addresses the concerns of parents, we have in fact set a limit with the child.

The psychologist Dan Wile says that we can manage conflict with a Yes. We don't have to say – ' I am not saying No' – we can say Yes and yes, I will seek to understand your problem before I seek to solve it. Yes, I will work to cultivate empathy for your point of view. Yes, I will respect your dream. Yes, I will dialogue with you, even when I disagree with you and try to solve problems in a mutually satisfactory way. Yes, I will remember to talk to you like I talk to somebody I love. So we can introduce what we say with a yes,-  yes , I hear you … Yes , can you tell me more, Yes, I am concerned that …. Yes makes us more receptive, gives us presence and helps us connect with kids crucial for the CPS - collaborative problem solving process.

For sure, there will be situations when compliance is vital and we say –' you have to or you can't.' Children are more likely to comply with parental demands ,if parents generally focus on cooperation and allow children to participate in making decisions, rather than demanding obedience all the time. Kids will trust their parents and comply even if they are a bit unhappy about it, because in the past their parents solve problems in a collaborative way,   give reasons for their positions and take into account kids' concerns and best interests... God in his Torah does the same. He builds trust by sharing reasons that man can understand, but there is also חוקת התורה – פרה אדומה - the decree of the Torah, the law of the Red Cow, which is beyond our understanding and so beyond criticism.

In situations which are non-negotiable, we can still have discussion and try and be as non-confrontational as possible,- make the request and back off to give them some space, which helps maintain autonomy and dignity. We can give them a choice of how to do the request, when or with whom. We can validate their feelings and be honest that our request is not much fun. We can try and compensate for loss of autonomy in other  areas and respond with many yesses.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Chukat- Balak 76 Self-control and Self-discipline

In our parasha, the children of Israel, defeat Sichon and capture the capital city of Cheshbon.  Sichon had captured the city Cheshbon from Moav with the help of the curses of 2 famous sorcerers Bil'am and his father Be'or. The Torah relates this with the words –Numbers 21:27 Regarding this the poets-  those who speak in parables - would say  Come to Cheshbon ….עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן The Talmud  Baba Batra  78b translates ' moshel '  as ruler and ' cheshbon ' as an account or calculation . The righteous people who have attained mastery over and rule their evil inclinations proclaim – make an account and a calculation. They live their lives with thought and circumspection. They calculate the loss or cost involved in doing a mitzvah against its profit and the gain of a transgression against its loss and calculate the impact  of their actions on  the world. על כן יאמרו המושלים וגו' המושלים אלו המושלים ביצרם בואו חשבון בואו ונחשב חשבונו של עולם הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה ושכר עבירה כנגד הפסדה

The Talmud talks about the value and virtue of self –regulation, having self- discipline and self-control. Self-discipline is about marshalling one's willpower to accomplish things that are generally desirable and worthwhile, while self-control is using the same willpower to stop oneself from sinning, doing something undesirable or to delay gratification. In educational circles, the famous Marshmallow test by Walter Mischel and its conclusion echo the same message. Children were left alone in a room after having been told that they could get a small treat – one marshmallow,  by ringing a bell at any time to summon the experimenter or if they held out after his return they would get a bigger treat – 2 marshmallows. Children who had better self –control and could delay gratification, scored better on measures of cognitive and social skills about a decade later and also had higher SAT scores.  Mischel says that home environment and not the ability to delay gratification might have been responsible for the children's achievement found 10 years later. Also,  it was the ability to distract themselves  and focus on something else and  not grim determination, self-control and will-power  that helped children to wait longer. One cannot engage the evil inclination head on, but we have to use   תחבולות, tricks and other strategies. The Talmud Baba Batra 78b says that those people who can control their evil inclinations do so, by engaging their thinking, their prefrontal cortex, rather than their emotional and  animal brains. They focus on values and do a cost-benefit analysis of their actions or plans and  make an account or calculation, not only for themselves but for the world as a whole.  In delaying gratification and not sinning, the reward may be in the distant future in the world to come, but when we do good God supports us in this world  so that we can do more mitzvoth and good - מצווה גוררת מצווה.  What's more important than a future reward is the intrinsic reward of doing the mitzvah itself– שכר מצווה מצווה. The Talmud goes further and takes us out of the realm of the ' self 'and self -interest , even if the  focus is on spiritual self- interest. The Talmud says; make a calculation, an account for the world. As an individual you can tip the scales of the whole world by doing a mitzvah.  Our actions can impact on others, the community and society in either a positive or negative way. A concern for the community and a spirit of altruism should be guiding our behavior , and help us overcome any temptation.

In schools, there is a new focus to help children acquire ' grit' – the power of passion and perseverance. It is quite understandable that we should want kids to be able to persevere and persist at worthwhile tasks, but is grit a character trait that should be promoted by teachers without qualification   - as a character trait that can stand alone? Grit is problematic in its own right in that not everything is worth doing, let alone for extended periods. Persistence can be counterproductive and unhealthy when a problem resists solution or persisting in a task no longer provides satisfaction and also one can end up with missing out on new opportunities. In schools the focus is on test-scores and compliance so ' grit' teaching promotes these limited goals and the  focus on the process of learning, discovery, curiosity and collaboration, experimenting and being more interdisciplinary etc is pushed aside . When  goal is persistence and it does not matter if the student's learning is driven by interest and passion, by a competitive spirit where others kids are seen as obstacles in your way to success or a desperate need to prove competence. The problem is that schools are focused just on fostering  persistence and perseverance and ignore passion. Not all kids have the resources to find their passion, or teaching, coaching and mentoring to inspire them to keep digging in. The solution is not just in the individual kid, being able to persist and persevere but providing the ' structure' and resources that support passion and perseverance. And even when kids do display grit and do well in school, it does not guarantee a future if grit does not come with privilege. Kids need ' agency', the ability to leverage opportunities to change their circumstances, to acquire social capital and connections that will open doors for them. While children might believe that education works on the whole, he or she might not think that it works for him or her and that depends a lot on parent's level of education and whether peers are dropping out or graduating from school and furthering their studies. The Talmud Nedarim 81A says that educators should be zealous in teaching the poor and providing them with the resources and opportunities to succeed. This is learned from the verse in parashat Balak, Numbers 24:7   - Water = (the Torah) will drip from its well = mi'dalyo. We read this like mi'dalim, from poor people. הזהרו בבני עניים שמהן תצא תורה שנאמר יזל מים מדליו – מדלים ,שמהן תצא תורה .   
Unlike the rich who can be very focused on what they have, the poor focus on who they are as people who love learning so they have the potential to become great Torah scholars.

In Parasha Balak, Bil'am says of the children of Israel –That God - He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel Numbers 23:21 לֹלא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.  The word a'mal = perversity has a second meaning – toil, work that is exhausting and laborious. Bil'am says that God sees no exhaustion, toil or drudgery in Israel's service of God and the learning and study of the Torah. Because they are whole-heartedly devoted and dedicated to doing the mitzvoth and learning Torah, and  they do so with a passion, they  are therefore tireless in its pursuit. Their  passion fuels persistence and perseverance.  And when there are challenges and obstacles in the way, self-discipline supports the intrinsic motivation and  passion for what we do. Intrinsic motivation and passion is promoted when kids feel self-directed, autonomous, and competent and have a sense of belonging and support.

Self-discipline and self-control must be expressed in the context of  a passion for values, of doing things that are worthwhile and making a contribution to others.