Monday, December 1, 2014

Vayishlach 75 - Proverbs- Mishlei and the Pygmalion Effect

There is a lot of thought and psychology   behind Ya'akov's – Jacob's display of vulnerability, respect and servitude when he bowed 7 times before Eisav-Esau and called him my master. He bowed 7 times until he reached his brother and he certainly reached him. Eisav's compassion and mercy was aroused and he embraced and kissed Ya'akov and then he together with his brother cried. R' Hirsch explains that tears flow from the innermost feelings, so one can only cry if he is genuinely moved... The verse from Mishlei- Proverbs 27:19 say      כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים--    כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם, לָאָדָם. as in water, face to face, so too, is the heart of one person to another.  When one has positive thoughts and feelings about another person, these feelings will be reflected back to you as the other person will tend to feel positively about you too. A negative response from a person is a generally a reflection of how you feel about them. The feelings have to be genuine, coming from the heart and lightening up the face. These positive thoughts and feelings will lead us to act accordingly, with more empathy, compassion and kindness..

The idea in Proverbs precedes the so-called Pygmalion effect, documented in the 1960's, which showed how positive teachers'   assumptions, expectations and beliefs about student's intellectual potential affected student's performances in a positive way. Parents and teachers who believe that children have also a brighter side to their human nature and can behave in a virtuous and altruistic way can likewise impact on children and set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How we view children, our beliefs and subsequent expectations about them will guide and dictate our interventions and interactions with them. Parents and teachers who have a dark view of human nature and only see the negative side as in the verse -' since the imagery of man's heart is evil from his youth' –   כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו  
 will resort to very controlling environments with rewards, consequences and punishments. The message to kids is that you can't be trusted to learn or behave unless you are given rewards or threatened with punishments. And then we see how kids become so addicted to and dependent on rewards and punishments.  When we write off kids as disruptive, defiant, manipulative or destructive they are likely to 'live down' to these expectations.

 The key to a parent-child or teacher-child relationship is the child learning to trust the parent and teacher, so that kids want 'relationship', sees  them as  guides and someone to come to , especially when they ' screw up' and make mistakes. Rav Pam relates that as a 'Rebbi and teacher' - a kid came late for class and offered some excuse adding that he could bring a note from his parents. Rav Pam responded that he had already explained why he came late, why  would he need a note from his parents.'' In truth, I wasn’t sure if he told me the truth, but I couldn’t let him feel that I don’t trust him.”  Most teachers would be much more focused on their fear that the student will feel he put one over on the teacher.  They probably wouldn’t even consider the harm that distrusting their student would cause. 

We can help students develop good values and middot by attributing to the students the best possible motive consistent with the facts. So when they are generous and pro-social we do not say they were motivated by self-interest. When  they don't meet our expectations it could be that that they are good kids but were unaware of how their actions impact on others and are lacking skills rather than being selfish, defiant aggressive and lacking in compassion. And we would then  in a collaborative way, ' work with' kids to   teach important life lessons and solve problems by finding mutually satisfying solutions .In this way the kid contributes to the solution, learns important life skills and a trusting relationship with the parent or teacher is enhanced. 'Treat kids 'as if they need to be controlled' we may well undermine their natural predispositions to develop self-controls and internalize commitments to upholding cultural norms and values' – Marilyn Watson. 'Doing to ' kids with rewards and punishments just teaches them to ask – what's in it for me and feel sorry for themselves. It does not help kids to reflect on what type of person they want to be and how their actions impact on others.

Higher expectations of kids are positive, but we need to ask ' higher expectations for what'? If our expectations for academics are higher test scores, we will teach to test .If we expect more engagement, curiosity, and self-directed learning we will teach accordingly. If our high expectations for kids behaving themselves and being responsible is being compliant and following instructions we will be controlling. But if we understand that kids learn to be responsible by making decisions and acting in a pro-social way, we will allow them to participate in making decisions and solve problems in a collaborative way.

We all have a brighter and a darker side to our human natures, capable of being generous and selfish, helpful or hurting. But the good news is that if we follow the advice in the words of Proverbs- Mishlei and take into account the Pygmalion effect we can help ourselves and those we interact with to become more positive and caring people.

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