The Rod to Greatness

By Doron Beckerman

The tongue of the wise will approve of good sense, and the mouth of imbeciles will cause folly to flow. (Mishlei 15:2)

When I’m not writing pieces for Cross-Currents, I’m involved in face-to-face education. As my years in the field pile up, it is inevitable that I expand my repertoire beyond just knowing how to teach Torah, to developing techniques for dealing with the students who are less motivated. This lack of motivation can be attributed to various causes. One critical area of concern is general lack of belief in oneself as a valued person, as one who has the potential for greatness. This feeling is one of the primary indicators of an at-risk child.

It is well known that one of the basic lessons of education, for parents and teachers alike, is the necessity of positive reinforcement. Focusing only on the negative, while being blasẻ when something good happens, is often a recipe for bitterness and despondency.

There is an educational approach known as “The Nurtured Heart Initiative,” or “The Inner Wealth Initiative,” developed by Dr. Howard Glasser, that takes the above to the next level, inverting the equation altogether. The concept is that “difficult children seek intense relationships, and they quickly learn that they can readily engage and control others through negative behavior. These children can become almost addicted to the rush of this kind of relationship” (The Inner Wealth Initiative, pg. 165).

What this approach does is intentionally pour on huge amounts of positive energy when the student is doing something positive, and reflecting it back at him as a display of his own greatness being realized. This includes being specific with praise, consistency, and constantly being on the lookout for displays of the values you want to instill -responsibility, social grace, honesty, good judgment, etc.

These positive interactions will sometimes involve being creative in recognition of when the child is doing something right, or even manufacturing such situations. There are endless opportunities to see a child doing something good, even the difficult child. If you see your young child closing the door to the car, pour it on. He is showing concern for his personal safety, acting responsibly, etc. Let him know that. Put it in the context of the Torah’s appreciation of these traits – and he is thrilled to be a Jew. The point is a relentless, sincere appreciation of the child’s realization of the myriad talents he possesses, as milestones on his road to gadlus, Torah greatness.

“Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted Bnei Yisrael to accrue merit, therefore he gave them an abundance of Torah and Mitzvos” (Makkos 23b). A major benefit of this approach is that the child senses that rules are not there only to be adhered to or broken, a burden and a bore, but they are there as opportunities for growth.

It is told of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l, that part of his greatness as a mechanech was his ability to take any question asked by a student and rephrase it as a masterpiece of learning, always leaving the student with a sense of dignity and self-worth, even if sometimes clueless as to what it was he purportedly asked. This occasionally takes the brilliance of a Rav Isser Zalman. However, any Rebbe can celebrate the achievement of his withdrawn student asking a question! Energetic, warm, sincere praise for the interaction, stated as a reflection of the student’s quest for knowledge, is like rain in a parched desert for many relationship-starved, unmotivated students.

It seems that this is the meaning of Rav Wolbe’s assertion in “Building and Planting in Chinuch” , based on the verse in Zecharia 11:7, that the “rod” in the verse “He that spares the rod hates the child,” can also be referring to the rod of pleasantness. He writes: “We must recognize that the rod of pleasantness is also a rod, but it causes no pain. When I offer encouragement, it too is a rod.” Perhaps encouragement is called a rod because its effectiveness depends on the energy that is expended in its use.

On the negative side of things, problems and poor choices should not be given much attention and energy, and they thus become unnecessary as a way to gain relationships. To be sure, rules are strictly enforced, but not with high intensity interactions, long-winded lectures and the like. These reactions are perceived by the relationship-seeking child as an energetic reward, and encourage more of the same. The “action” happens when good things take place, and that is where the student naturally wants to be.

There are other elements to this approach that are beyond the scope of this piece. I would encourage parents and teachers of unmotivated or difficult children to do further reading, and ascertain whether it is worth a try in their homes or classrooms. I believe it has great potential in making many amongst our youth, who lack the crucial feeling of inner wealth, believe in themselves once again.

[Rabbi Beckerman is a Ram in Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim]

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14 Responses

  1. josh werblowsky says:

    Rabbi Beckerman makes good points.
    However I would not emphasize the greatness aspect but the value and growth of the individual aspect.There is too much emphasis and burden placed on greatness in our community
    Also one needs to be careful of ‘to pour it on’ because kids are very perceptive.

  2. CJ Srullowitz says:

    In his classic business management book, The One-Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard advises that one should “catch employees doing something right.” We seem, lulei demistafina, to jump at chances to correct children’s bad behavior, but are less mindful in encouraging their good behavior.

    A fine piece, Rabbi Beckerman.

  3. Doron Beckerman says:


    I think there is too much emphasis on particular, narrow definitions , of greatness, such as scholastic achievement. Expanding the parameters and avenues to greatness, within the framework of Torah, may be lacking. A person who is Makpid to buckle up even when it is a bit of a bother, even on short rides, is a manifestation of greatness in taking Venishmarta seriously. There is greatness, real greatness, in always driving at or below the speed limit, in spending a bit more time on a Berachah, in overcoming some inhibition to ask a question in Shiur, in how you greet strangers and guests, patient listening to others, ad infinitum. To quote Rav Neventzahl shlit”a based on Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l:

    מו”ר הגאון ר’ חיים שמואלביץ ז”ל הביא בשם “ספר חרדים” – שאם אדם כבד את אביו ואמו בכל מה שההלכה מחייבת, לתת להם את המאכלים הטובים ביותר, המשקאות המעולים, והכל בסבר פנים יפות, ואת כל שאר הדברים שההלכה מחייבת ביחס להורים, אבל הוא חושב בלב שהוא עושה זאת כי כך ה’ גזר, גזירת הכתוב, והוא לא מבין שאבא ואמא הם “חד בדרא”, שמגיע להם שיכבדו אותם, שיש להם מעלה עליונה, אז אמנם לא עבר על “כבד את אביך ואת אמך”, וגם לא על “איש אמו ואביו תיראו”. אבל עבר על “ארור מקלה אביו ואמו” שהוא מבזה אותם בליבו, הוא לא מספיק מבין את הכבוד שלהם. שאל הגר”ח ז”ל האם כל אבא ואמא הם “חד בדרא”? וענה: כן כל אב ואם הם “חד בדרא” בדבר מסוים שבו יש להם מעלה מיוחדת. ודאי לא מדובר על אב ואם רשעים, שאותם ע”פ דין אולי לא חייבים אפילו לכבד, אבל הורים שהם שומרי תורה ומצוות, הם
    “חד בדרא”, כלפי כל ישראל הם אינם עד כדי כך, שיצטרכו כל ישראל לכבד אותם, אבל כלפי בנם, יש להם איזושהי נקודה בהם הם בולטים על כל שאר האנשים. ****לכל יהודי יש נקודה מסוימת בה הוא בולט על שאר האנשים**** וכולי

    I believe it possible to discern some elements of greatness in each child or student and reflect it back to them.

    And, I agree, it is vital that the “pouring on” be sincere. As you say, children are very perceptive.

  4. josh werblowsky says:

    Rabbi Beckerman I appreciate your broad definition of ‘greatness.’
    If this were followed and internalized in our community it would work wonders.
    Since you brought up the beautiful statement of Harav Nebenzahl,shlit’a and parents .I will quote one other important comment he stated about parents.
    Your parents are considered your Rebbe Muvhak.(Sefer Assia 6-p.145)

  5. cvmay says:

    Rav Nebenzahl’s piece is a classic for parents & educators.
    Greatness can be found in every aspect of life, the paradox is to believe that ‘safety concerns’ is a factor in greatness of responsibility.

    Thank you Rav Beckerman, your talmidim are blessed to have you as their rebbe.

  6. Dana Parkoff says:

    Thank you Rabbi for writing about The Nurtured Heart Approach/Inner Wealth Initiative! I was trained and mentored by Howard Glasser. For the last several years as a Certified Advance Trainer of the Nurtured Heart Approach, I have been teaching it within a Torah framework, to parents and educators around the world. The broad definition of greatness allows us to see our children and students in a way that perhaps gives us a glimpse of the way Hashem already sees them. Intersting to note that many parents, after taking my classes have noticed that they have a difficult time noticing their OWN greatness. What begins as a way to help deal with their children, ultimately becomes a source of growth for themselves.

    Dana Parkoff, Nurtured Heart Parenting & Teaching

  7. Joel Rich says:

    Glad to see we agree on some things 🙂
    Now if we could only bottle the elixir that will allow us to set souls on fire….(but I suppose that would defeat the nature of our bechira)
    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu


  8. Heshy Grossman says:

    At the most recent Torah Umesorah convention this past May, Rabbi Yisrael Teichman and I presented a session on how to create an environment that will motivate and inspire even the difficult child. Our aproach was based upon the writings of Howard Glasser’s Nurtured heart approach, and indeed, our new Yeshiva high school – Yeshivas Ohr Yosef in Tenafly, New Jersey – now entering its third year, has successfully implemented many of these guidelines.

    The sad truth is that difficult children make up a disproportionate percentage of our drop-outs, and we all need to develop new and innovative ways to insure that our students can thrive in their formative years.

    Though it is hard to pin one reason for the drop-out phenomenon, the common denominator of all is this: they cannot identify or find a place for themselves within our community structures. Hence, every rule or standard that defines our institutions actually makes matters worse for these children, for often, it is precisely the definition and guidelines that they are fighting

    Glasser’s Chiddush is this: THE DIFFICULT STUDENT IS ACTUALLY MORE NEEDY, and keeping this in mind should revolutionize the disciplinary structure generally in use in most of our schools.

    Two: THESE CHILDREN NEED ENERGY AND THRIVE UPON IT. But they have learned that their interactions with adults and authority energizes and excites. It doesn’t matter that these experiences are negative and frustrating. At least there is a relationship, and the terms of engagement become addictive.

    IN a nut shell: rules and parameters are helpful only when they define the boundaries, but if they become instead the focus of our day, all of our energies are distracted towards ant-social behaviors, and everyone is frustrated. Rather, the focus of attention must be with our students’ minds and hearts, and not their behavior.

    Here are some recommended guidelines for a softer disciplinary approach:

    1) NO CONFRONTATIONS, EVER. It is always “Yatza Scharo B’Hefseido.”




    5) NEVER CRITICIZE AT THE MOMENT OF AN INFRACTION – at most, a slight raise of the eyebrows, if you must notice. Pointing out a student’s indiscretions of a student should not be confused with Chinuch: to truly bring about behavior modification requires great thought and strategy, and cannot happen merely by always pointing out deficiencies.

    Heshy Grossman

  9. Mark says:

    R’ Heshy,

    I’d love to hear a recording of your presentation. Do you happen to know if it is available through Torah Umesorah or some other venue?


  10. Harry Maryles says:

    I completely agree with you on this one, Rabbi Beckerman. You students are indeed lucky to have a Mechanech who sees the critical importance of positive reinforcement. It makes me wonder what kind of Chinuch the rioting youth in Meah Shearim receive.

  11. Ak says:


    Manipulating children with praise , trying to get them to do what you wants with rewards undermines their chances for attaining greatness. Extrinsic motivation undermines intrinsic motivation and the internalization of values

    Good painting!” may get children to keep painting for as long as we keep watching and praising. But, warns Lilian Katz, one of the country’s leading authorities on early childhood education, “once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

    In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

    Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

    So what is important is getting a reaction out of the adult

    check Dr Sorotzkin’s site – the dangers of rewards and contests

    The concept is that “difficult children seek intense relationships, and they quickly learn that they can readily engage and control others through negative behavior. – this is a poor explanation of the difficulties many kids have, that their behavior is manipulative to get a reaction out of you.

    Imho for a more Jewish approach to education check ‘ constructivist education, also the Collaborative Problem solving approach , check Alfie Kohn – Unconditional Parenting ( not the conditional parenting of NHS)
    If you like the name Glasser , try William Glasser of Choice/reality theory better than the Behaviorism of Howie Glasser.

  12. Doron Beckerman says:


    The types of praise you describe (“Good painting”, “Good sharing”, “Good job” etc.) is not at all in consonance with the Nurtured Heart Approach, and Dr. Glasser strongly cautions against it.

    In the beginning of the process – yes, they’ll need the praise. But when the praise is not merely stated as appreciation for what they’ve done but as a display of their own internal greatness being realized then they gradually no longer need the praise because they have been reinforced with internal values and they believe in themselves irrespective of the praise. They have been shown again and again that they have greatness – and they want to live up to their image.

    You pinpointed the difference: Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult.

    When the praise is not stated as empty praise, but as something valuable in its own right that the child/student apparently appreciates and follows through on – then the building of the child’s inner wealth bears its own fruit.

  13. Doron Beckerman says:

    I would also add that I would encourage parents and educators to do the research on their own. The success of Dr. Glasser’s approach in dealing with some difficult issues is impressive and undeniable. I am personally very aware of cases of difficult children where the parents implemented the approach with impressive results. I am not saying it will work for everyone. But I am certainly advocating looking into it.

    I also dispute the appelation of “conditional parenting” to this approach. Done correctly, there is constant, failsafe, recognition of positive values being realized. It may take some creativity and/or manufacturing of these situations – but they are inevitably there.

  14. Ak says:


    Glasser’s work is based firmly on behaviorist theories, positive reinforcement , praise, using a point system to leverage behavior , time-outs (no matter how short ) to deal with problems, freezing spending of credits if the kid is not compliant , earning priveleges, getting bonus points foro doing a time out properly, catching him being good if possible in an artificial way , giving positive energy to good behavior, being neutral etc for negative behavior. Don’t try to talk about problems or problem solve – this is giving relationship to negative behavior , you are reinforcing negative behavior , the motivation behind negative behavior is just the kid manipulating you to get some action , you are his toy in a video game. Could it be that a kid has valid concerns or needs that have been unmet, could it be that a kid has poor coping skills and his behavior is not just attention seeking. Behaviorism is about getting compliance , getting a kid to jump when you say so.

    Even when the praise goes beyond the good job , the basic problem with praise remains – the implicit judgment of the child , that in order to be feel lovable and loved and accepted the kid has to perform , he becomes dependent on others for his self esteem , and it does not matter if we use positive recognitions liberally. Kids don’t have to live our lives, meet our expectations , they don’t need to be continually judged.
    What kids need is to be accepted and loved for who they are , and not for what they do or don’t do . Instead of focusing on self esteem , on the self , give kids a chance to enjoy their learning , support their autonomy , let feel that their actions are an expression of their choice , not a need to please you. Help them become competent and foster relationship and not just become objects of our praise. Check out Deci and Ryan – Self determined theory , they have an article why we don’t need self esteem.
    Where is the whole child , his feelings , his motivations ?

    I have spent quite a lot of time on a parenting forum in which Howie Glasser participated. A lot of kids can see through the ‘ stroking’ , no longer become interested having a contractrual /econmic relationship with their parents , needing to earn everything with good behavior and some kids just need more help and lack cognitive skills especially in the areas of flexibility and frustration tolerance and of course in most cases they are not being heard, their needs and concerns are not being addressed.

    For sure parents who have been using rewards, punishments and consequences , doing to kids , NHS just requires modifying the doing to.
    The alternative to doing to , being conditional, is to avoid the rewards, verbal praise to manipulate behavior and work with your child, deal with his problems without time out, or earning credits . Let them do the talking , we listening , let them reflect on their actions , on what people they want to become , the less we talk the better.

    If you are looking for a non-behaviorist working with approach for children , check out CPS , collaborative problem solving –
    Alfie Kohn – Unconditional Parenting, Punished by Rewards, Beyond discipline , moving from compliance to community , his site has many articles. Also check Dr Sorotzkin site. Enough on the focus on externality and the lo lishma

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