The Aish Kodesh: Inflated Success and Positive Reinforcement


Many child development books today encourage using only positive language with children. Instead of speaking with discouraging, critical, or punitive language, one should frame the direction in the positive. While there is clearly some benefit to this approach, when done incorrectly it may also further a next generation of inflated egos. There is already no lack of unearned “validation” in our culture. The authors of Switch explain:

We’ve all heard the studies showing that the vast majority of us consider ourselves above-average drivers. In the psychology lit­erature, this belief is known as a positive illusion. Our brains are positive illusion factories: Only 2 percent of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are below average. A full 25 percent of people believe they’re in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along with others. Ninety-four percent of college professors re­port doing above-avenge work. People think they’re at lower risk than their peers for heart attacks, cancer, and even food-related ill­nesses such as salmonella. Most deliciously self-deceptive of all, people say they are more likely than their peers to provide accu­rate self-assessments.

But researchers have found that domestic workers seem to be outside of this phenomenon, at least relating to their health and success. Prior to a 2007 study conducted by Harvard University’s Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer, 67 percent of domestic workers did not recognize that their work has any exercise value, and more than a third did not think that they exercised at all. The researchers wanted to measure whether telling the domestic workers that they were exercise superstars would have any effect on their self-perception irrespective of any change in activity. They were told that their work is sufficient to receive the full benefits of exercise. They were told that, on average, they would burn 100 calories for a half hour of vacuuming, 40 calories for changing linens for 15 minutes, etc. In another group, the domestic workers were not encouraged or told that their work was a form of exercise. A month later, the domestic workers who were told of the exercise benefit from their work lost an average of about 2 pounds, and showed improvement in blood pressure and body fat. In addition, at least 79 percent of the informed group now believed that they were exercising regularly, even though their activity had not increased.

While many seem to have a very inflated sense of personal success, many others (often the less privileged) have a more deflated sense of confidence, and reinforcement can make all the difference. When we educate our children, we should not give blanket praise detached from achievement, nor should we be exclusively critical or married only to results-based assessment and validation; rather, we must engage each child according to their respective sense of self-esteem. Thus, creativity, imagination, and inquisitiveness should be encouraged in students; however, those who make basic errors (for example, two plus two equals nine) or write consistently inadequate essays should not be given encouragement, as they will begin to think that their work is fine, and that no further work is needed. Then, when they get pushed through to a higher grade, they will be further behind and may not be able to catch up to the expected level.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (known as the Aish Kodesh and as the Piasetzener Rebbe, he was killed in the Holocaust in 1943) wrote a remarkable book on education where he begs that we educate our children differently.

Someone who is trying to educate through [merely] command and habituation need not pay attention to the way… [his child] thinks … An educator, however, who wishes to uncover the soul of the child that lies hidden and concealed…. must therefore teach according to his [student’s] nature, mind, character and other unique qualities… What he commands and instructs one child should be different from what he commands and instructs the next child, whose nature, will, mind, and personality are completely different from the first. And this is what King Solomon is hinting to us, “Educate each child according to his own path” (Prov. 22:6) (Chovat HaTalmidim, 5).

With the proper support, we can all achieve anything. We must help each other to learn our respective potentials. By staying both realistic and positive we can begin to see the positive in what we are already doing and achieve more than we can ever imagine.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”