Does Purim Teach Poor Parenting Practices? (Purim 5780)
Full disclosure: I love Purim. It’s my favorite day of the year. I love the family themed costumes, the singing, dancing, levity, skits, community bonding. I love Megillat Esther and the whole Purim story.
There’s just one widespread custom that kind of rubs me the wrong way. (No, this is not an anti-drinking tirade.) The custom I have a problem with is the banging and making noise for Haman’s name in the megillah.
I know, call me The Grinch. This is a kid-favorite. For years, kids of all ages have been packing into shuls around the world, equipped with their groggers, noise makers, fog horns, confetti poppers and cap-guns, a full arsenal to be the loudest possible. (This is NOT an anti toy gun tirade either.)
Every child’s favorite word in the megillah is Haman. They sit and wait in anxious anticipation for their next opportunity to make a complete raucous in shul. (Nope, this isn't an anti-noise tirade either!) Some parents help their child point with their finger on the place to follow along and find the next time Haman’s name appears. I get it, it’s a highly effective method to keep children involved and paying attention.
So here’s the problem. As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in treating children with disruptive behaviors, I view parent/teacher training as an integral part of helping to shape the child’s environment to reinforce positive behavior. I spend many sessions emphasizing the principles of positive reinforcement and helping caregivers identify and reward the behaviors they want their child to exhibit more frequently.
The core philosophy of this treatment is summarized in the phrase “CATCH THEM BEING GOOD.” Children with disruptive behaviors often receive lots of attention for their negative behaviors (e.g. calling out, being silly, not respecting personal space, not following the rules etc.) This attention from adults and peers often serves to reinforce the behavior because it is highly rewarding. In fact, research shows that children with ADHD often do not differentiate between positive and negative attention. Meaning that even if an adult is reprimanding a child for acting out, the child may actually perceive that attention as a reward. As the famous saying goes - there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Therefore, a really effective technique for managing behaviors of children with ADHD is Selective Attention. Selective attention is when a child receives verbal and non-verbal praise or other forms of rewards for displaying appropriate behavior (e.g. working quietly, eating appropriately, sharing, cleaning up, waiting patiently). Negative behaviors are given no attention, with a technique called Active Ignoring. If the negative behavior is particularly aggressive and/or destructive, then an appropriate punishment can be given, with minimal verbal interaction between the caregiver and child. (To learn more about these techniques, check out this video of a positive parenting class I gave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buHR8iOz8Kc&t=1s)
Going back to this custom of making noise for Haman’s name - in a way, it teaches the exact opposite message of all the research on child behavior management. Haman, the antagonist of the story, gets all the attention, all the spotlight, all the glory. We are reinforcing a negative concept. We are practicing poor parenting habits by falling into the trap of focusing on the ‘bad’, instead of highlighting the ‘good.’
I have a solution - even though I’m pretty sure it will never catch on. Clap for Mordechai and Esther instead. Every time either of their names are mentioned, give a cheer or a high five, or play your favorite stadium pump up sound on your noise machine. Let’s focus on the heroes of the story instead of the villain. Let’s give them the positive reinforcement and attention they deserve. Let’s also turn this custom on Purim into a good parenting practice.
 Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional children, 67(2), 173-186.