The Starting Point

There are so many things you want your child to learn.  So many possible places to begin to help him grow.  There are numerous skills, ideas, ideals, and virtues you want to teach him.  Where do you start?

Here’s a suggestion from Gems From The Nesivos Sholom on Pirkei Avos (page 369):

“In a fairly well-known dissertation, Rav Chaim Vital (Shaarei Kedusha 1:2) makes the following observation.  The importance of middos is known to all; yet, we do not find a specific commandment in the Torah regarding the cultivation of proper character traits!  Why is that?  Rav Chaim explains that this in itself underscores the importance of middos revealing just what a vital role they play in avodas Hashem.  Middos cannot be listed in the form of an individual mitzvah in the Torah because they serve as the foundation and basis for the Torah.  That is, for the Torah to rest within an individual, that individual must first fashion himself into a worthy receptacle by purifying his character.”

Given that middos are the foundation and basis for Torah, it would seem that we should begin working with our children on middos.  The question is, how do you do that?  How do you introduce your child to middos and teach them to him?

I think the best formula for teaching middos is 10% lecture and 90% demonstration.  Children learn the most by observation and emulation. As you demonstrate, over the course of the day, how you have integrated good middos, your child will observe and eventually emulate your way of being.

Unless he doesn’t.

That’s where the lecture comes in.  Sometimes, because of temperament or other influences in his life (not always peer pressure; other adults may display poor middos which your child has acquired), your child may need your explicit guidance.

Let’s look at some examples.

How do you explain the middah of Humility?  Telling your child to be humble doesn’t help.  What should he say to himself in various situations that will help him become humble?

Teach your child that humility is founded upon acceptance and gratitude for what you have already learned and accomplished, and the desire to build upon your accomplishments. If you believe that nothing you’ve done is worthwhile, you leave yourself nothing to build upon.

Teach him that when you notice only your failures, you may come to think of yourself as a failure and feel ashamed. Shame makes it hard to accept help. You would have to admit to someone else that you think you are a failure. That may be too painful, and then you can’t grow.

When you notice what you are already doing well, and seek to do even better, you are experiencing humility.

Your humility will prevent you from succumbing to anger and despair when something is hard.

Children who believe deep down inside that they are incompetent resist change and growth. They fear that learning and applying any new skill will confirm that what they had been doing until now was wrong. Humility is the beginning of growth because it gives you the confidence to seek additional knowledge. You believe in your goodness even when you want to do better. You think of yourself as seeking to grow even better, rather than thinking you are never good enough.

With humility, you realize that you have been competent many times in many situations and look forward to expanding your competence by learning more.

Here’s another middah to consider. Let’s look at how you teach your child the middah of savlanus.

The word savlanus is sometimes translated as “patience,” but that’s not what it really means. Savlanusdoes not mean to patiently, calmly wait for something to change. It means to be sovel, to tolerate something that isn’t pleasant, something that might be painful and difficult.

Think of it this way:

When you are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, you wait patiently to see the doctor. When you are getting stitches, you are tolerating the discomfort. In the waiting room, you’re able to wait your turn and don’t go up to the desk to ask how soon will you will be seen, but while you are getting the stitches, you may want to ask, “How much longer is this going to take?”

When you are comfortably waiting for something, you are patient. When you are uncomfortable and you are waiting for relief or improvement, you are tolerant.

When you say no to your child, help your child be sovel her disappointment. Children who never learn how to handle frustration can grow into adults who react to frustration and disappointment in negative ways. That doesn’t mean they will have a tantrum. Adults seldom throw a tantrum in the usual sense of the word. Adults have learned that kicking, flailing, and screaming are unbecoming, maladaptive, and unproductive. So what do adults who are very frustrated with a situation and who have outgrown having a tantrum do instead?

It varies. Some get drunk; that’s unbecoming. Some look around for someone to blame; that’s maladaptive. Some do as little as possible to get through the situation as quickly as possible; that’s unproductive. Others work at adapting to the situation; they work at being sovel something that is truly unpleasant.

This is what you teach your child: to be sovel a situation when it is difficult for her so that she will know how to be sovel unpleasantness as an adult.

This doesn’t necessarily mean forcing your child to be happy when you say no. Even if it is clear to you that no is a fair and appropriate answer to a request, that doesn’t make your child any happier about it. Don’t tell her why she shouldn’t be unhappy. Help her cope with her unhappiness. Help her express her thoughts and feelings in a way that you consider acceptable, rather than labeling her thoughts and feelings unacceptable. Teach her how to successfully tolerate frustration and resentment rather than making her think that there’s something wrong with her for feeling that way.

Teaching your child these middos and others, such as integrity and generosity, will serve as the foundation and basis for their Torah and your nachat.

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting.