Name the Problem, Not the Person

I’m a skeptic when it comes to believing that every cloud has a silver lining. Some clouds do of course, but other are just plain old storm clouds that rain down destruction and chaos. I do not believe that we have to find the good in every situation. But when it came to name calling, that inevitable default of children of a certain age, I am a firm believer in the literal power of turning curses into blessings.

When my own children got to that stage of life so many years ago (the oldest is about to head off to college any day) I quickly discovered that my general parenting patience disappeared almost immediately once the name-calling began. So I took a page from the Bible’s name-calling incident, that of Balaam, to put an end to the insanity.

A gifted and well known prophet, Balaam was approached by Balaak the king of the Moabites with the request to curse the people of Israel. Visited by God and counseled against it, Balaam refuses. Balaak, who clearly was used to getting his way and throwing his power around, keeps pushing until Balaam caves and agrees to do the deed. But in the end, after a whole bit of drama involving a talking donkey and an angel, Balaam can’t go through with the plan and his curse turned into a blessing.

Balaam’s words of blessing are immortalized in Jewish prayer. “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov” “How good are your tents, O’ Jacob.” They are meant to be said upon entering the sanctuary, or in our day as we begin our morning prayers. They represent a fabulous piece of spiritual irony. Waiting for our morning coffee or hoping to get to yoga class, we are forced to acknowledge that which is unlikely to be on our minds but which our spirit needs.

There is something underhanded but also powerful about this kind of spiritual judo. For Balaam to not just fail to complete his mission but to achieve the absolute opposite result must have been, not only infuriating but also a little embarrassing.  I can only imagine that he thought twice before taking on another commission to curse out someone.

I know this because when the name-calling started in my house, I instituted a simple rule. For every nasty name uttered, three compliments would have to follow.

At first the kids were incredulous. But I stuck to my guns. My goal was simple. I had no intention of denying the need for arguments or discontent. What I could not abide was the default to simple insults instead of articulating feelings. Name the problem, not the person.

Implementation took a bit of work. Often the angry offender would say two nice things and then try and sneak a “stupid-head” in for the third, only to find that they now had to come up with three more nice things to say. Turns out coming up with nice things to say is particularly difficult if you are feeling ill-disposed towards your sibling. Sometimes this took quite a while. More often, the compliments defaulted to a tried and true trope, “You’re cute, you’re cuddly, and you make good friends.”

But the headache of the rollout was worth it in the end. The kids got the message. Though bickering never went away, name-calling never became a thing in our house. The price was too high: better to stick with outlining the problem than belittling the person. More than that, however, was the unforeseen consequence. My kids learned to give each other compliments, to actually name the good in the other.

And much like Balaam’s famous curse-turned-blessing, Ma Tovu, which found a new purpose, my family continues to draw on this experience. These days, if we are tired or at a loss to know how to comfort one another in a trying situation, it is not uncommon for us to default to, “You’re cute, you’re cuddly, and you make good friends.”

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