Dealing With Differences Empathetically

Q: I am a mother of married children, older children no longer living at home and a nine-year-old son who is definitely the “prince” of our home. We have an open house, which is visited by many kinds of people whom we try to help. My older children have said that our guests are “R & R” — “relatives and rachmanuses.” We have people with special needs coming to our home, both adults and children, and I am proud of this.

However, my son can be very blunt and ask our guests embarrassing questions. He can comment to us how “weird” a guest is. His rebbi, too, has told us that he teases boys he feels are inferior to him in schoolwork, ball-playing, etc. I don’t think he realizes how cruel he is being. I’m not sure if he is just “spoiled,” or lacks social skills. My husband and I have attempted to talk to him, but it feels as if our words go in one ear and out the other. I think he has good self-esteem, so I do not understand why he might have a need to put down others. What is a good way to respond to this behavior?

A: The first place to look is at your family members. Your older children call your guests “rachmanuses”; does that not, perhaps, reflect what some of your family members are thinking and feeling? Sometimes younger children verbalize sentiments that are felt by older family members; they do not yet have an appropriate verbal “filter.” Though older family members may be judgmental and condescending, perhaps they are too genteel to verbalize it.

Perhaps you and your husband need to speak to your family and discuss how your son perceives and responds negatively to guests who are different from him. As role-models for their younger brother, the older siblings need to be more sensitive and careful how they speak about your guests.

The famous Gemara (Taanis 20a-b) speaks of Rav Elazar calling a man “empty and ugly” (referring to spiritual capability; Iyun Yaakov on Ein Yaakov). This man responded to Rav Elazar: “Go tell the Artisan who made me how ugly is the vessel that He made.” Realizing by the man’s response that he was definitely not void of ruchniyus, Rav Elazar immediately did teshuvah. We learn from this Gemara the importance of being flexible and nonjudgmental.

Once we point out what another human being lacks, this person becomes lower in our eyes, thereby causing us to feel elevated by comparison. Many people have the habit of doing this, in an attempt to falsely inflate their self-esteem. Your son may hear older siblings speak this way, and think that he is being “perceptive” and “mature,” as his siblings are, when he speaks this way.

Attempt to inculcate the concept of empathy: How does you son imagine the other person feels? What would it be like, if he, too, had this limitation?

Since he is nine years old, he can still benefit from a positive reward system. You can make a chart, where your son needs to think of specific people’s positive character traits — a few each day — and verbalize them to you. If his rebbi is willing (and your son is not greatly embarrassed), he can make a similar ahavas Yisrael chart for him. His rebbi can keep a mental note of your son’s attempt not to tease others, and your son can also mention these students’ good points, privately, to his rebbi. In this way, he will begin to think differently, and this will eventually be reflected in how he communicates with others.