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Little People, Big Mistakes

December 3, 2009 | by Yael Mermelstein

Four priceless lessons.

"I'm going to speak to your teacher this week," I said to my five year old as I tucked the blanket snugly around his ears. He was holding on to my fingers, shadows played upon his face from his long eyelashes, his face relaxed in a sleepy smile. He bolted upright.

"No!" he said. "Don't talk to my teacher. Please!"

I laughed. What five year old misdemeanor could my son possibly be worried about? "What's the matter sweetie? It's just parent teacher conferences. Abba and I just want to make sure that things are going okay." While my husband had seen the teacher a few times since the beginning of the year, their conversations had been brief. Still, the teacher had been nothing but encouraging.

"He's going to tell you what I did," my son said. "I'm a bad boy."

"No!" I said, rubbing his smooth back, kissing the top of his head. "There's no such thing as a bad boy. Tell me what happened."

His lips quivered. "Yesterday," he said, and I knew that he used this term loosely as five year olds are apt to do, "the teacher dropped some of his candies on the floor. The ones he gives for prizes. During recess, I ran and picked them up and instead of giving them back to the teacher, I ate them. When the teacher saw, he was very angry. Please don't call him."

I held his quivering little body close to me. "It's okay," I said as I rocked him back and forth. "Everybody makes mistakes. Your teacher doesn't dislike you for it. Really."

Inside, I was seething. What else would a five-year-old do when his eyes lit upon candy on the floor?

"Please don't go," he pleaded.

"I'm going to go," I said, holding his cheeks in my hands, looking into his soulful brown eyes. "We're going to straighten this out."

The Encounter

We entered the classroom, decorated with pictures of Noah's ark in tribute to the latest Torah portion. The teacher sat behind the desk, a huge smile gracing his face.

"You're Shlomo's parents. I'm so glad you came. Before I begin, please tell me if you have any questions for me."

"Well," I began, "thank you so much for giving Shlomo a wonderful few months. He seems to be learning well and developing in many ways under your tutelage."

The teacher leaned forward in his desk, his eyes expectant.

"But, it's just that Shlomo thinks you are unhappy with him."

The teacher looked at us, his brow furrowed, clearly perplexed.

"It was the candy story," my husband said. He repeated what our son had shared with me.

The teacher scratched his beard and appeared to be deep in thought. The room was silent.

"I'm shocked," the teacher said. "The story that you're telling me... it happened nearly two months ago, right at the beginning of the year. I was mildly upset and admonished your son for just a few seconds. Then the whole incident flew out of my head just as fast as it flew in."

The teacher shuffled a few papers in front of him. "All I was going to tell you about your son is that he is doing great. He is academically and socially successful; he is happy and well adjusted... and now you tell me this."

The teacher rubbed his hand against his forehead. "I thought Shlomo knew how wonderful I think he is, when all along he nursed this insult inside as proof of my dislike for him." He banged the edges of the papers on the desk, gathering them into one neat pile. "That's inexcusable," he said. "Tomorrow, I will fix things. I just wish I could have done it earlier."

As we left the meeting and walked home, my husband I discussed how this whole thing had snowballed. One minor infraction and our son had been sad for two months?

But the next day, my son came home from school jubilant.

"The teacher loves me," he said. "He gave me the special job of giving out the worksheets. And he gave me this." He whipped his fist open and showed me a crumbled confection. "Because I learn so nicely. I'm a good boy."

I learned a few priceless things from this incident.


  1. Teachers are fallible human beings. The teacher might have made a mistake but that does not negate the good work he has done. I need to work with my child's teacher, not against him. And in this case, my child's reaction was an inaccurate perception. Our Sages teach us to judge every man favorably and my child's teacher deserves no less than every man
  2. Parents are also fallible. I wish my son had told me about this earlier. I have since made it clear to my son that he will never lose by telling me the truth. There is a time and a place for teaching values and when your child shares his inner world with you, that is not the time. Though I always make time to speak to my children, I needed to reinforce the idea that telling Mommy is always safe thing to do.
  3. I shouldn't have let so many months pass by without getting to the nitty gritty of my son's life at school. Though we had been in touch with the teacher briefly, we could have asked pointed questions; "How is my son's behavior? Who are his friends? Does he sit up front or towards the back? Have there been any mishaps that we should be aware of?
  4. Out in the big wide world, our children's self esteem will get battered here and there. But while children are easily crushed they are just as easily nurtured. My son flowered overnight when he was showered with the smallest droplets of tenderness from his teacher. If we inundate our children with positivity and encouragement, it will help to pad all the emotional bumps and bruises they are bound to receive. In the words of Rabbi Wolbe zt"l, we are planters and builders. Our saplings needs frequent tending and watering.

When my son came home the next day he was even more bolstered by his teacher's love and appreciation. By now, my son has grown accustomed to his newfound position. And I am growing accustomed to mine.

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