Teaching Sensitivity

By: Rabbi Nochem Kaplan 
The Merkos Chinuch Office

Mendel, my fourth grade grandson, was asked to announce a Father-Son study project to his class. As he was about to begin, his teacher asked him, “Have you thought about Donny? Donny’s father passed away last year.” “Should I say Adult-Student study project?” he asked “Think about what will feel natural,” was the response. Mendel announced “A special study project where you may bring an adult as a partner”. “I liked the way he was thinking sensitively,” his teacher said to me later. I thought, “This kind of thinking can be taught.”

The idea that children need to learn how to think, rather than to learn subject matter is a not new one. We send our children to school to learn what? Of course we expect them to not only learn a lot of facts about a variety of subjects, but to develop skills in the process as well. The facts one needs to assimilate in order to be able to function effectively are overwhelming and are becoming all the more so.

More and more educators are advocating that schools should actively teach more thinking skills as opposed to subject content. Rather than learning information, they argue, students should be taught how to become “disciplined thinkers”. We ought to train children to build a general knowledge base in a specific field, they argue, and help them develop the thinking skills to be able broaden and deepen that base.

Forgive me, but when I read all the stuff about teaching “thinking” skills, I wonder; what of the ethical and moral underpinnings of our thinking processes? What about the kind of thinking Mendel needed to do? There seems to be an absence of discussion about what to me is the most essential part of the education process; teach a child to become a “mentch” (I don’t know how to say “mentch” in English); to think about and be sensitive to, what is right and proper.

I recently read a series of articles on this subject published by a noteworthy journal and I pondered about the essential ingredient missing from the discussion. As I read a number of thought provoking pieces by leading educators, it occurred to me that the discussion centers on helping our children move from asking “what” to “how” and eventually “why”. Missing from the discussion is the answer to an existential “therefore”.  What does all this have to do with how the child’s character will develop? Let me elaborate.

We can all probably agree that we send our children to school so they should acquire the tools which will enable them be able live comfortably in their world. We want them to learn how to sustain themselves through an appropriate form of endeavor. We also want them to learn to appreciate the finer things in life. Or more simply put, we expect them to learn the skills which will enable them to earn a livelihood and live comfortably. And we want them to learn to be able to make intelligent decisions which will make all that possible.

We might disagree about the nature of a purposeful life; or what constitutes the “finer things” in life. We may have varying views on what life is all about but we will agree that we want our children to learn to live an upright, ethical and moral life.

In what part of their education will children learn not just how to make a living, but how to live? Is it the school’s responsibility or is it the responsibility of the home? One would assume that at faith-based schools this issue is a basic component of the curriculum. I think, however that this requires more than learning about what is right and what is wrong. It requires a disciplined educational approach to promoting ethical and sensitive thinking.

It is not enough for a Jewish school to talk about a Torah story and draw a parallel to today, we need to become proactive at teaching our children to think in terms of ethical and moral behavior.

One would suppose that that is the combined product of school, home and society; that how a child will act is based upon his cumulative experiences. Much of the literature on the development of ethical and moral behavior would lead one to believe that without active, positive mentoring experiences a child may miss the boat completely. A child needs to learn how to think about what is right and what isn’t and to how to make proper, desired behavioral choices, if he is to learn to live an upright life. That is the most important thinking skill we need to teach our children.

Moral and ethical behavior development starts with rule imposition by an authority figure and eventually leads to recognition of the need for personal standards of behavior which are based upon universally accepted principles. When our children are young we set acceptable behavior standards for them. We teach them to respect other people’s property, to be considerate of their feelings and treat everyone fairly. Robert Fulghum wrote a best seller titled “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten” and he made a lot of money telling us the obvious.

As our children get older and our children look to their peers for approval, imposing a behavior system on them will become futile. They increasingly look to their friends and peers for acceptance and less to an authority figure. Even within a Torah society where desired behavior is based upon the religious values of the Torah, we ought to proactively help our children develop the sensitivity and the skills to think in terms of personal ethics. If we have taught them to examine their behavior against a higher moral authority and to think for themselves, we have the right to expect that they will “do the right thing”. If we expect them to learn, to think in ethical terms vicariously, we may expect to be disappointed.

The challenge is, of course, to be able do so effectively and I hope to share a few ideas in a future piece.