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  Chapter 22 from
Positive Parenting
Developing your child's potential.

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski  Ursula Schwartz 


Other Available Chapters
18  27  37 


Who's Fault Is It?

Sometimes I have the feeling that there are four essentials for human survival: (1) food and water; (2) clothing; (3) shelter; (4) someone to blame. The need to blame someone for what has gone wrong is so universal that it seems to be a basic component of life.

Some things enjoy wide popularity because they serve a function. I therefore ask, “What function does blaming someone serve?” Identifying someone who has committed a crime or an assault against a person or one’s property may serve the purpose of punishing the criminal or suing for compensation, but when these factors do not apply, what purpose is there in placing blame?

I believe I have found the answer in my work treating alcoholics. These people are notorious for their propensity to ascribe blame. “I drink because . . . my boss is hypercritical; or, my wife nags me; or, the neighbors make too much noise and do not let me sleep at night, etc.” It became obvious to me that the function of placing blame was not only to rationalize one’s behavior, but even more importantly, to avoid having to make changes. In other words, the person argues, “It is not my fault that I drink. My drinking is a consequence of my wife’s nagging. If she were to stop nagging, I would not drink. Therefore, she is the one who must make changes in her behavior rather than me.” If there were no one to blame, the alcoholic would have to seriously consider discontinuing his excessive drinking, which is certainly a difficult ordeal. Blaming eliminates the need to undergo the distressful experience of stopping drinking. Blaming is thus a defensive maneuver whereby a person tries to justify continuing a particular behavior which really requires modification. Blaming thus preserves the status quo.

Obviously, preserving a status quo which should be changed is destructive. It is therefore important to impress children with the futility of finding fault. Mother hears screaming in the dining room and rushes in to discover Yanky beating Ruchi. “Look what she did! She spilled chocolate milk all over my homework paper!” Yanky has every reason to be angry, but should be told that beating Ruchi will contribute nothing to completing his homework assignment. He should be told that whereas his anger is legitimate, the first order of business is to complete the assignment. If the paper cannot be salvaged, he will have to recopy it on another sheet. After this is done, Ruchi’s offense can be dealt with.

This approach accomplishes several things. Firstly, it acknowledges the legitimacy of the anger. Secondly, it permits getting the assignment done. Thirdly, it allows a cooling-off time for dealing with Ruchi. After all, Ruchi may indeed have been a bit careless, but it is hardly likely that she intentionally spilled chocolate milk over Yanky’s paper. Hasn’t something like that ever happened to Yanky? The anger can be defused, but it is difficult to do so when the passion is at its height.

The tendency to blame and react rather than first attending to the problem is not limited to juveniles. Sometimes our better judgment does prevail, as in the case of a fire, when we first put out the fire and then investigate the cause. Or, if someone has caused you to fall and break an arm or leg, you first attend to the medical problem, and only later file suit against the assailant. This is how we should deal with all problems: First correct whatever has gone wrong, and then attend to the cause.

This rule has often been violated in dealing with psychological problems. For many years, the theory prevailed that the way to overcome a symptom of an emotional disorder is to dig into the past in the hope of discovering the cause, and by gaining insight into the cause, the symptom should disappear. The theory is reasonable enough, but the catch is that very often it does not work. It is common to hear patients say, “I understand everything perfectly, but I just don’t feel any different.”

More recently, an increasing number of psychotherapists have adopted the approach of first correcting the behavior, and only afterwards investigating its cause. Thus, the success of Alcoholics Anonymous is due to its avoidance of considering the drinker’s rationalizations for his use of alcohol. The message is, “Don’t pick up the first drink and be sure to go to meetings.” The pathology is the drinking and that must be eliminated first. Once the sobriety has been achieved, one can then look for underlying causes for the drinking.

Our analysis of the defensive character of blaming fully justifies this approach. Looking for the cause of any behavior may be nothing other than a delaying tactic to avoid making changes in one’s customary behavior.

Proper upbringing should prepare children for the life ahead of them. If we can teach them to first correct the problem and deal with its possible causes later, we will have contributed immensely to their welfare.

It is common for siblings to fight. “He hit me first.” “I did not! He threw that book at me and look at my arm where it hit me.” “He called me a bad name,” etc.

Parent may try to intervene by seeking to get to the root of the problem. This is usually futile. Each child will come up with an account of how the other provoked him first, and that his response was in self-defense or retaliation. Trying to ascertain the facts makes everyone dissatisfied. The only approach that can succeed is “Stop this bickering. I don’t care who did what to whom. The fighting stops now! Each of you go on with what you are supposed to be doing. A bit later we will get together to try to get to the bottom of this so it shouldn’t happen again.”

Do not be surprised that perhaps in a half hour when you wish to convene court to deal with the fracas, the two siblings are playing together, having forgotten the whole incident rather rapidly. You may offer to hold court, and if they still wish to do so, you may set up a hearing in a quasi-humorous fashion.

“Okay, I guess I have to be the judge. Now you don’t have any lawyers, so each one of you will have to plead his own case. In a court, the prosecution goes first but then the defense, but since we cannot establish who is the plaintiff and who is the defendant, the only fair way is to toss a coin. Heads, Sender goes first; tails, Rafi goes first. Okay?

“Now in a courtroom, everyone gets a chance to plead his case. You can’t interrupt to present your side, and all you can do when the other person is talking is say, ‘I object,’ but you have to let the other person finish, and then you get your turn. Now we’ll do this according to the rules of court. If you’re good at this, you might even decide to become lawyers.”

This quasi-humorous approach defuses the anger and allows the children to participate in a reasonable debate. When both sides have been presented, you have several options.

“Okay, I’ve heard both sides. I think we should first try for an out-of-court settlement. Why don’t you both talk it over and see what kind of compromise you can reach that will be fair?” Or, “I must take this under advisement. Court will be recessed until tomorrow, at which time I will hand down a decision.” Or, “I don’t think I can deal with this by myself. This case requires a jury. We’ll have to pick several outsiders to form a jury.”

It is rather unwise for parents to try to settle a dispute among children. Firstly, it is next to impossible to get at the real facts. Secondly, children have to learn how to settle disputes on their own. In their future lives, the parents are not always going to be there to settle their differences with others for them, and training a child how to get along with adversaries is an important preparation for life.

Correcting the problem first and postponing looking for or dealing with the cause until a later time is an excellent formula for adjusting to real-life situations. We can successfully convey this to our children, but if, and only if, we practice this in our own lives. Children who see parents indulging in blaming, whether they blame each other or outsiders, are likely to adopt the defensive blaming tactic themselves. When parents correct whatever needs correction instead of blaming, and point this out to the children, they are providing them with an invaluable method of coping with the many stresses they are sure to encounter in their adult lives.

 
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