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Play the Ball, Not the Man!

As parents and teachers, sometimes we want to praise, at other times we need to rebuke. Either way, how do we put our point across with maximum effectiveness?


Adults entrusted with the character training of children have few weapons in their armory as powerful as praise. Just how powerful, we all know from our own experience.

If we don't use this tool as much as we should, it's probably because we haven't trained ourselves to recognize opportunities to do so. It's a skill that must be learned, like any other.

But a weapon that's not controlled is, of course, an instrument of destruction.

Praise is not something to be administered haphazardly. On the contrary, it has to be perfectly targeted. And the most effective praise is specific, appropriate and objective.It is targeted not to the personality of the recipient, but rather to his or her achievements.

Global praise such as "You're a wonderful girl," may give a child the impression that her inherent worth is dependent on her actions. Again, if she senses that she does not deserve excessive praise, she may reject it out of hand.

On the other hand, if the praise truly matches the deed, the recipient will, of his own accord, draw the appropriate inferences. (Incidentally, although we're talking about children, these principles apply with anyone.)

If your son comes home from school with an outstanding poem he has written, it won't be helpful to exclaim: "Tommy, you're the world's best poet!"

But perhaps you can tell him: "Your imagery is so vivid that it's as if I can see the scene you're describing before my eyes!" He'll then conclude: "I can write poetry well."

Now - if all this is true when we are dispensing praise, how much more does it apply when it falls to our lot to rebuke someone!

Do you play football? The object of the game, irrespective of which variety you are playing, is basically to get the ball to the far end of the field. I'm no sportsman, but I remember that when we played Rugby as schoolboys, it was legitimate to grab a player of the opposing team and cause him to fall, in order to wrest the ball from his possession.

Occasionally, an overzealous classmate would forget that this "tackling" was a means to an end, and not an end in itself! He would be duly reprimanded with the words: "Play the ball, and not the man!"

Let's end with another true-life incident cited by Ginott in one of his books.

Seven year-old Sammy is sitting at the table, playing with a plastic cup.

"Don't play with that cup! You're always dropping things," chides Mom.

Sammy promptly drops the cap. It shatters into many pieces.

"Look, I told you so! You're so clumsy. Why are you so stupid?"

"You're stupid, too! Didn't you break Daddy's razor last week?"

"You're cheeky too! How dare you call your Mother stupid!"

"You called me stupid first!"

Mom grabs hold of her little boy to give him a good whacking. Sammy resists. In the ensuing struggle, Mom cuts her hand against some glass.

The sight of blood unnerves little Sammy, and he runs away in panic. It's late in the evening by the time he's found.

That night, no one in Sammy's household sleeps well.

Too bad that Mom had not merely said:

"Sammy, you dropped the cup. We can't afford to buy new cups all the time. Here's a broom and dustpan to mop it up."

Now what about YOU?

When you praise and when you reprimand, and communicate with others in all sorts of ways - do you play the ball...or the man?

Azriel Winnett is creator of Hodu.com - Your Communication Skills Portal. This popular free website helps you improve your communication and relationship skills in your business or professional life, in the family unit and on the social scene. New articles added almost daily.

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