How to Solve the “Black Sheep” Syndrome? 
July 10, 2019
Beis Moshiach in #1173, Chinuch

Rabbi Nachman Yosef Twersky comes up with creative solutions for some common and rare Chinuch crises.

In the world of chinuch there is a distinction between routine educational processes and an educational crisis. A crisis, by definition, is unexpected and often, parents and educators are at a loss as to what to do. This is not because they don’t have solutions, but primarily because they don’t know what the problem is.

In the normal chinuch process, parents and teachers know the child and expect typical ups and downs. When there is a crisis, the unexpected occurs. The child or bachur exhibits bizarre behaviors and we have a hard time understanding why. The main effort in these instances goes to finding the source of the problem because knowing the illness is more than half the cure.

One problem is unlike another and this is why we do not find “Hilchos Chinuch” in Shulchan Aruch, since it is impossible to write any rules. Each generation has its challenges, every child has his struggles.

I present to you examples of educational crises that, with great toil, and thanks to unconventional thinking, educators were able to resolve. They found the source of the problem and then the solution was a matter of investing time and effort.

A HIDDEN CRISIS

Reuven was an outstanding boy, both in his learning and in his Chassidishe behavior. One day, that all changed. He lost his chayus in davening, his desire to learn, and even his behavior with his friends underwent a drastic change for the worse.

At first, his parents began getting notes from his teacher. Then, the notes began coming from the principal and the parents realized something was wrong. When they tried talking to Reuven to discover what had caused the change, they were  faced with innocent and evasive answers. “Everything’s all right,” “I don’t know what the principal wants from me,” etc.

The expert they asked for help tried to get Reuven to open up, questioned the parents and teacher, but came up with nothing. Finally, he told Reuven’s father: There is an unknown cause that is very difficult to pin down; this is really strange. The only advice I can offer is to take off a day from work and go on a nature trip with your son. Eat together, hike together, and enjoy one another’s company.

During the outing do not talk to your son about his situation. Instead, tell him about your childhood and mainly about your own struggles in learning, socially, etc. Try to be as open as you can be with him. Tell him about the difficulties you had and how you dealt with them. Speak candidly as though you are speaking with a childhood friend. When you open up to the boy, there is hope that he will open up to you and reveal what caused the crisis he is undergoing.

The father did this and the boy took a great interest in his father’s childhood stories. His father seemed much more human to him; no longer the omnipotent father but a man like everyone else. At this point, the boy also opened up and he suddenly began to cry. His father waited for him to calm down and then was astounded to hear the reason for his son’s crisis.

Reuven is relatively short for his age but he never made a big deal about it. Now, his body heaving from crying, he told his father that a few weeks before, one of his best friends told him that this age is the last chance to grow and he would remain short all his life. “That completely shattered me. I felt there was no reason to exert myself because in any case, my life is finished. This is why I stopped davening with a chayus and working at my learning. If I remain this short, what’s the point?”

The father was thrilled to finally find out what the problem was and a heavy stone rolled off his heart when he realized it was a “nonsense” issue, but one which had taken root in the heart of his young, sensitive son. He was quick to reassure him that the friend’s statement was absolute nonsense. So that his son would believe him, he said he would make an appointment with a specialist and hear the truth from him.

They went to a doctor who after thoroughly examining the boy said every child grows at his own pace and Reuven would continue to grow.

Just like the crisis began in a day, so too, it ended in a day. Reuven went back to being an outstanding student with good middos.

That is an example of a hidden crisis which is very hard to identify. It wasn’t the fault of the parents or the teachers, nor was it the friends. The crisis did not come as a result of an ongoing situation that lent itself to discovery, but a result of a single comment. It is very possible that the friend who made this unfortunate statement did not remember it the next day but the damage was done.

Usually, a good relationship between father and son is extremely helpful in uncovering the reason for a crisis. But in special cases, like in the example just given, there is a need for extraordinary effort.  Not simply having a good relationship but a special joint outing, along with the candidness on the part of the father toward the son. It worked, as waters reflect a face.

MY FATHER IS NOT INTERESTED IN ME

These days, it is common for parents to send their children to yeshiva out of town. It could be an American bachur who goes to Eretz Yisrael or an Israeli bachur who goes to France or the United States, etc. It sometimes happens that an excellent bachur is sent away and then reports come from the hanhala that the boy is absent from sedarim and is even befriending fringe kids.

Shimon was a bachur like that. When his father got the reports about his sudden deterioration, he tried to talk to his son on the phone but couldn’t get to the root of the problem. He asked a certain educational consultant to meet with his son. During the meeting, the consultant tried to discover the source of the problem and at a certain point he asked the boy about his relationship with his father.

“My father is a very wonderful man who is busy with good things,” said Shimon. Then he said, “But I feel that he does not have time for me … It is hard to get him on the phone and when I finally reach him, he can tell me, ‘I’m busy now, call back later.’”

This might sound familiar since many parents are busy whether working, communal needs, etc. When a child calls, they sometimes think, “Why is he bothering us with his nonsense … he’s a big boy already and he should be able to figure things out on his own.”

This way of thinking is not at all correct. The boy does need us, emotionally. He might be able to manage on his own with technical things, but he needs our involvement in order to feel that we love him and care about him. When parents do not provide their child with the desired relationship, he can develop bitter feelings. These feelings build on themselves, until the child begins to look for someone else to provide him with the relationship he needs. He starts slipping outside of his circle and looking for new friends and suddenly, the problems begin.

This can happen even with older bachurim who are 18-19. Even after they marry, children need a relationship with their parents, at least to feel that they have who to talk to when necessary, that there is someone always willing to listen to them and provide guidance and help.

After the educational consultant called Shimon’s father and explained the source of the problem, the father bought a ticket to Eretz Yisrael and devoted several days to his son. When the boy saw that his father had started to relate to him again, he very quickly got back on track. And of course, after that, when he called to speak to his father, his father was always willing to listen.

MY FATHER HATES ME

Many years ago, I had a boy in my class with severe behavior problems. I was worried about the boy and his future. Although I tried to uncover the root of the problem, I was unable to find it.

One day, before a Gemara test, the boy came over to me and said he really wanted to do well on the test. I told him: Your father is a talmid chacham and surely he can help you. The boy looked at me strangely and said, “My father should help me? He hates me!”

I was shocked. I knew his father as a fine and refined man. I could not connect what his son said to the man I knew as his father. I said: How can that be? A special man like your father hates you? He was insistent and said: Of course he hates me. It’s a fact. He doesn’t talk to me!

After school that day, I called his father and said I don’t mean to pry into the family dynamics, but he should know that his son is sure his father hates him.

Like me, he was stunned by this declaration of his son and said it was complete nonsense.  He had no idea where his son had gotten such an outlandish idea.

From my experience gained over the years, I have learned that the way children think is very different than the way we adults think. Sometimes, children construct entire edifices upon a passing comment of ours and they are convinced that behind the words there lies an entire outlook that is negative towards them…

I tried to figure out with the father why his son would think his father hates him. At a certain point, I asked the father: At the Friday night meal, do you talk to him?

The father thought a bit and then he realized an astonishing thing. This young bachur who had just started mesivta, had fallen between the cracks. The younger children came home with parasha sheets and the older children came from yeshiva gedola with chiddushim or interesting news, while this bachur has no question sheet and no interesting stories from yeshiva. In short, the father did not talk to him at the Shabbos table and because of this, he concluded that his father hates him.

Obviously, after discovering the problem, the father made sure to talk to his son during the Shabbos meal and the boy’s behavior changed completely.

SAVING THE BLACK SHEEP

Until now, we spoke about unusual situations. Now we will talk about a problem that exists in many homes, specifically that of the “black sheep;” the child that feels cast aside, that he is loved less than the other children. Usually, it is one of the middle children but not always.

I will emphasize that I am not talking about a situation in which parents are actually discriminating between children. That’s a topic for another shiur, and as a matter of principle it is something very wrong. As Chazal say (Shabbos 10b) how seriously forbidden it is to discriminate between children; that because Yaakov favored Yosef over his brothers, this caused the descent into Egypt. I am talking about typical parents who try to display love equally to all of their children, but one child feels that he is loved less than the others. This is a problem and must be dealt with.

When a child feels marginalized, that is a slippery slope that can lead him to the worst places. Therefore, when such a child is identified, it must be dealt with immediately and with appropriate seriousness.

Usually, children come to the conclusion that they are not favored when the other siblings have special talents and they don’t. Whenever they hear their parents praise their siblings for their abilities, they immediately compare themselves and conclude: They love my brother because he has this talent and since I don’t have that talent, surely they don’t love me and don’t value me.

Since this is a problem, the solution ought to focus on emphasizing the qualities of the child who feels on the outs.  Every child has something in which he stands out from the other children.  Simply put, we need to search for that thing and sometimes it requires some serious searching.  And after we find his special talents, to emphasize them at every opportunity!

I was once approached by parents of a child who felt like he was the black sheep.  His older brother and younger brother were both gifted, but he was average.  This caused him to feel like the kid who doesn’t fit.  The parents emphasized that they try very hard to not differentiate between the children, but every time that one of the other children receives praise for their talents, he feels like he is a nobody…

After they told me which yeshiva the boy learns in, I suggested that they approach a certain staff member of that yeshiva.  This was an individual that I knew personally as a true educator, and I told them to ask him to devote an hour a week to their son for full pay.  The agreed upon plan was that he would approach the boy four times a week and talk to him in learning.  Each time for fifteen minutes.

The bachur was unaware of the whole thing, but within two months they could already see the change.  In the quarter hour that the staff member devoted to him, he would emphasize his abilities and give him the feeling that he knows how to learn well.  Without the parents ever addressing the topic with him directly, the self defeating notion that he is the black sheep simply flew out of his head.  He never brought up the issue again.

***

Many years ago, when there was a family simcha, the entire family would have yechidus with the Rebbe. There was a family with a child that had behavioral problems. When it was time for their yechidus, they didn’t know what to do with this child. On the one hand, they didn’t want to take him along because they were afraid he would create a disturbance in the Rebbe’s room. On the other hand, how could they not take him along for yechidus?

They ended up taking him and they entered the Rebbe’s room apprehensively. During the yechidus, the Rebbe asked that boy whether he could be tested on what he learned. The boy said yes and the Rebbe asked him a simple question that the child would definitely know. The boy knew the answer and the Rebbe smiled broadly, opened a drawer in his desk and took out a dollar. He gave it to the boy and said: This is for the big nachas ruach you gave me!

When the yechidus was over, the father said that in this yechidus, the Rebbe provided him with the best lesson on how to handle the phenomenon of the “black sheep:” every child has things he is good at; you need to look and sometimes dig deeply, but you must find the positive points and emphasize them!

IMPORTANCE OF EVERY CHILD’S UNIQUE QUALITY

Sometimes, even when we are able to locate the point of light in the child’s behavior and start to highlight it, the child is so immersed in his feelings of inferiority that he simply refuses to acknowledge his good quality. His reaction vacillates between complete denial and an annoyed “Oh, nonsense …” He is so imprisoned by his self conception of being worthless that he finds it hard to value what he does.

In a sicha of the Rebbe on Megillas Esther (Purim 5722), the Rebbe says an interesting chiddush that is worth learning with these children, on their level, to demonstrate to them the enormous importance of their unique actions:

On the verse, “for if you [Esther] will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will stand by the Jewish people from somewhere else, and you and your father’s house will be destroyed, and who knows whether you attained royalty for this moment,” the Rebbe divides Mordechai’s statement into two parts:

1-Relief and salvation will stand by the Jewish people from somewhere else and you and your father’s house will be destroyed, and 2-who knows whether you attained royalty for this moment.

Since things are usually said from that of minor import to major import, obviously, after Mordechai’s first claim had no effect on Esther, he made his second point and it was this that convinced her.

It would seem that the second point is quite weak and how could it be possible that Mordechai’s command did not affect Esther; even his threat that she and her father’s house would be destroyed did not convince her. Only the point that perhaps it was only for this reason that she became queen, convinced her!

The Rebbe explains that when a person contemplates how his soul descended clean and pure to this world and how it will be returning full of flaws, it is completely incomprehensible why the neshama descended to the world.

The explanation is that indeed, the descent of the soul is something incomprehensible, so that over a lifetime it will fulfill the only job that belongs to it alone, due to the source of the neshama. When in this world, we need to fulfill all 613 mitzvos but the main reason for the descent is for one thing that belongs to that soul’s root and only this soul can rectify this matter, which is why it is given this job. It is not understandable but this is the reality.

When Mordechai asked Esther to go to the king, she had logical reasons why it would forbidden for her to go. Therefore, his first point did not help and even the threat of being destroyed along with her father’s house had no effect. It was only after he told her that there was something above reason here and that she should know that the purpose of her soul’s descent to this world is only for the moment she would enter the king’s chamber and work to annul the decree that Esther could not say no.

The Rebbe adds and emphasizes that every Jew has one job that nobody else can do and this job is the reason his soul descended to the world. As the Baal Shem Tov says, sometimes a person lives 70-80 years in order to do a favor for another Jew. This knowledge leads us to conclude that every deed we do, especially when it is something that we have the unique ability to do, might be the reason for the descent of our individual soul to this world.

We need to explain this point to every child and every bachur. They should know that their actions, even if they don’t seem important, might be the reason for which Hashem brought their soul down here!

When a child thinks this way about every action that he does that is unique to him, he also gains a positive and correct view of himself.

THE EDUCATIONAL POWER OF GIVING (ALL YEAR)

In a letter of 13 Nissan 5723, the Rebbe writes: “In addition to the primary religious worth in the mitzva of gifts to the poor, which is one of the mitzvos of Purim … It contains a pedagogical lesson to educate and accustom children to overcome the attribute of childishness and give of their money to someone they owe nothing. This involves deeper feeling than sending mishloach manos to a friend, especially when setting aside tzedaka from his money must lead to, at least through the influence of the educator who will point this out, also charitable efforts with his body and exertion.  These being the most effective guides to weakening the ego, which is the source of all sorts of outbursts and disturbances all the way to actual sin and transgression.

“I won’t deny that as a Chassid, this point is most dear to me, since one of the fundamental principles of the Torah of Chassidus and the subjects that it addresses is the emphasis on how love of G-d and love of Torah and mitzvos are one with love of Yisrael so that they are all one.”

In addition to the mitzva of gifts to the poor, you can also transform the mitzva of mishloach manos into a unique educational opportunity.

I once heard from a Chassidishe man that his son asked him for $25 to buy mishloach manos, since he wanted to give it to five friends at $5 each. The father asked his son: To whom in your class did you not even consider giving mishloach manos? The son said a boy’s name. This boy was very introverted and was hardly involved with the boys socially. The father said: I will give you an additional $15 with which you will buy manos for that boy.

The boy bought a big mishloach manos and first went to this classmate’s house to give it to him. A short time later, the mother of the recipient called the mother of the boy who gave the mishloach manos and emotionally said: You have no idea what a mitzva your son did! Usually, my son does not leave the house on Purim. He is so sad because nobody brings him mishloach manos. Now, after receiving this amazing mishloach manos that your son brought, he left the house for the first time and went to deliver the mishloach manos I asked him to deliver. You revived him!

When I heard this story, I decided to do the same thing in our class. We had a boy whom everyone fought with; and I am sure that nobody considered giving him mishloach manos.

Before Purim, when the boy wasn’t in class, I told the rest of the boys the story I just told you and asked each of them to give him mishloach manos. Boruch Hashem, they cooperated and everyone went to his house with mishloach manos. Not only that but some talmidim arranged to go to his house together and they took the boy out and danced with him in the street!

This big mitzva had an ongoing impact, since after Purim the boy stopped fighting.  The other boys also felt uncomfortable to start up with him after they had given him mishloach manos on Purim. The bottom line is that mishloach manos changed his situation for the better for the rest of the year!

As the Rebbe points out in his letter, a good educator needs to find such opportunities and utilize them as a means to encourage further giving and growth on the part of the giver.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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