Chaim Ginott was a schoolteacher whose ideas and observations helped to bring about a near revolution in the way teachers interact with their young charges.
He later practiced as a psychologist.
The phone rang, he relates in one of his books, early on a Monday following Thanksgiving weekend. The woman on the line was clearly very agitated.
“Try and figure this out, if you can!" she pleaded.
“There we were in the car, the whole family. We drove four hundred miles, from Pittsburgh to New York. In the back of the car, little Ivan behaved like an angel, quiet and deep in thought. .
“I said to myself, ‘He deserves some praise. ’
“Just as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel, I turned to him and said: ‘You're such a good boy, Ivan. I'm proud of you. ’
“A minute later, the sky fell on us. .
“Ivan pulled out an ashtray and spilled its contents all over us. The ashes, the cigarette butts, and the smoke kept coming, like atomic fallout. We were in the tunnel in heavy traffic, and we were choking. If not for the cars around us, I might have murdered him!
“And what burned me up was I had just praised him. Isn't praise good for kids anymore?"
Ivan himself solved the mystery a few weeks later, in Ginott's office.
All the way home he had been wondering how to get rid of his younger brother, who was snuggled up between mother and father in front of the car.
Finally, the idea occurred to him that if their car were jackknifed in the middle, he and his parents would be safe, but the baby would be cut in two!
Just then his mother had congratulated him for being so good. The praise made him feel guilty. He felt he had to show that he did not deserve it. he looked around and saw the ashtray. The rest followed automatically.
Praise can be a highly powerful motivator. We know that. Workplace managers and supervisors know it, and adults who have enjoyed some success in the training of children certainly know it. Parents and educators have few weapons in their armory as potent as praise.
Instrument of destruction?
However, its correct use is a skill that needs to be learned, like any other. Any weapon that's not controlled is an instrument of destruction.
I've cited an extreme case here to make the point. But hopefully, make the point it does.
Chaim Ginott was a strong believer in what he called “congruent communication. " “Congruent" means “consistent" or “harmonious. " What he meant by the phrase is that our communication should be consistent with, or in harmony with, our ultimate objectives.
Well, what's new? Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Unfortunately, for many of us it's not so simple. Not at all.
I read about someone who recalled how she was having difficulties with math when she was in elementary school. Sensing her child's frustration, her mother took her aside and offered some well-intentioned encouragement:
" No one in our family is good in math. I wasn't good at math, your sister isn't good in math. No wonder you're having a hard time. I'm sure you'll be good at something else. "
Consoling? Maybe. But if at the age of 30 or 40, the former struggling student still had the mathematical ability of an average 10 year old, would you be very surprised?
Unhelpful or unproductive messages that young people receive from their elders take many different forms.
A friend recently told me that his eleven year old was uncharacteristically moody and subdued for a few weeks. It took him a while to figure that something must be bugging the lad at school. At first, the boy insisted that everything was OK, but eventually he blurted it all out.
He explained sadly that his teacher kept upsetting him with comments like:
“Another poor grade in the test this week. You could do much better, if you really wanted to. "
“You say you find it difficult to concentrate in class? If you really wanted to, I'm certain you could. . . "
“Dad, " moaned the hapless pupil. “I just don't understand this ‘if you wanted to’ business. Can it be possible? Does my teacher REALLY think I don't care? Surely he must know how much I'd like to be a better student, if only I could?"
Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. The father had a friendly, heart to heart chat with the teacher, who understood where he might have been making a mistake. Before long, the teacher's feedback had changed to:
“Your grade in this week's test was two percent better. Now that you're going up, perhaps you can manage another two percent hike next week?"
“You've concentrated for a solid twenty minutes this morning. You see yourself you can do it. Now, just try to manage for another ten minutes!"
Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular free website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.