Training Children to Think Sensitively
By: Rabbi Nochem Kaplan

Goals and Outcomes wrote a piece about the need to teach our children how to think sensitively and how to make decisions using a moral compass; it stirred the pot a bit and I got some lively responses.

The idea of learning to think with sensitivity requires more than just learning to distinguish right from wrong; it requires a disciplined educational approach to promoting ethical and sensitive thinking. One would assume that at faith-based schools this issue is a basic component of the curriculum. This piece will concentrate on a parental perspective.

It is not enough for a Jewish school to talk about a Torah narrative and draw a parallel to today’s world. Schools need to develop co-curriculum themes which relate to the moral dilemmas children face daily and lead them in discussion about what the choices are and why a particular approach follows the Torah’s moral guidelines. Most importantly, the ideas discussed should not be the exclusive domain of the classroom, but ought to be shared with the home so that they can be reinforced by parents. Nor should the school be concerned about partnering with parents in helping develop moral sensitivity. If we all look to Torah to teach us and believe that there is an ultimate divinely inspired moral authority to guide us, we will always be on the same page.

Helping a child on crutches make it up the stairs is a no-brainer; helping a struggling classmate with a word problem is less clear. Sticking up for a timid friend who is being bullied is more challenging, as is deciding to work cooperatively on a project with a child who can’t contribute but shouldn’t be left out.

Assuming that a child will learn how to deal with these kinds of issues by watching us is not sufficient; they need to be raised in an organized and methodical way. Children need to hear from us that there are Torah ordained, morally right and wrong approaches to the things we confront in our daily lives and we need to use every opportunity to reinforce the values we want them to live by. Parents must make use of every teachable moment to talk about what Torah teaches us about how to live within society.

In nursery school her teacher tells Bella she mustn’t hit or tease another child. Bella will comply because she does not want to be reprimanded. When she gets angry and wants to hurt Libby, Bella will tease her because it’s worth the consequence. So the teacher gives Bella a time-out and we are back exactly where we started. Bella knows that she mustn’t tease another child because there are consequences, unless, of course, she gets angry and is prepared to bear the time-out.

What the teacher and her mother need to do is to say to Bella is that it’s wrong to hurt someone; that’s a Torah rule! The rule is usually clear and unequivocal but we also want Bella to understand why. “You too feel hurt when a child teases you and that’s why the Torah says not to do so”. 

We can validate her angry feelings and still tell her that we still expect her to live by the rules of moral sensitivity. Bella has learned that everyone gets hurt when they are teased and that’s why it’s wrong. We will reinforce this rule many times in preschool and Bella will learn right from wrong and that it’s the Torah way. She will grow up with the idea that it’s morally wrong to hurt another and with the passage of time become more sophisticated in its application.

That does not mean that we have a right to expect that our children will never fail to use the moral compass they were given, but it does mean they will have the tools to act in accordance what they know to be right. Only if we have taught our children to examine their behavior against a higher moral authority do we have the right to expect that they will “do the right thing”. We must bear in mind that they are learning even if they don’t always show it and they will sometimes say and do things which make our efforts seem futile; rest assured they aren’t.  On the other hand if we expect our children to learn vicariously how to think in moral and ethical terms, we will be sorely disappointed.

I recently visited the Northwest region during an unexpected snowfall. A mother, clearly upset, lingered at the end of a meeting to tell the following story. David, her fourteen year old, was home because of the snow and he shoveled the walk of his elderly neighbor, who is a preschool teacher at his school. A group of his friends happened by and asked how much she was paying him.

“You’re a suck-up if you do it for nothing” 

“Don’t worry, no way!’ said he. ‘I wouldn’t do if she wasn’t paying me”

He was embarrassed to tell them that it was his initiative and that the teacher was totally unaware of his effort. The mother was disappointed in her son’s exchange with his friends and had to tell someone; I happened to be there.

Of course it is far more important to a teen what his friends will say than what his mother thinks. That does not mean that he  doesn’t get it, on the contrary, he originally acted upon his conscience, not what he thought his friends might say. We are getting through to our children even if they don’t always show us what they have learned. So, I told her, your son is a normal fourteen year old; he cares about what his friends think. She needs to tell him that she is proud of his decision to do this act of true kindness.

“Don’t be distracted by what he said, but be encouraged by what he did,” I added.

As our children grow older and naturally begin to look to their peers for approval, trying to impose a behavior system on them is, at best, futile; they increasingly look to their friends and peers for acceptance and less to an authority figure. It is our solemn duty to make sure that they have the tools to make proper behavioral choices by themselves. Grounded well in their thinking, they should be able to withstand the inherent peer pressure and choose to act as their conscience dictates.

Does that mean we should all start preaching morality to our teenagers? Of course not. We engage them in discussion about what the choices are and which choice is from our perspective, a morally superior one.

“You’re breathing down my neck”, your Hadassah will say. Indeed if you overdo it, you may be. The idea is to engage them in discussion, not to dictate. We have to be aware that what we may call ‘gentle discussion’ the kids call nagging, which is, of course, counterproductive. Discussing options and choices and letting the teen talk through the options before offering an opinion can be very productive.

A word of caution: We must examine our own behavior against the same moral compass we are presenting to our children. That gives us a leg to stand on when we talk about desirable behavior. Putting ourselves up on a pedestal and not ‘practicing what we preach’ invites rebellion. What we ultimately hope for is that the very idea that their behavior should be guided by a moral compass becomes their own idea. We hope they will have learned to be sensitive to moral values not because the adult tells them so, but because they believe it’s the right thing to do, even if do they lapse once in a while.

As she grows older Bella will look to her friends to validate and approve of her and that’s why we will want her to learn to use her moral compass very early on, and we want her school environment to reflect our values as well. She will want to wear the clothes her friends approve of and spend more time with them than with us. She will tell us that “Everyone is doing it!” and our rules don’t count. We will need to talk to her and listen to her and then we can impress upon her that there are immutable principles by which we live by and that all laws demand self-control and self-respect. She needs to hear that the divinely ordained laws which give meaning to our lives make us special, even though they may be restrictive and demand self-discipline.

David, who shoveled the walk, needs to hear from us that his first thoughts were indeed the morally sensitive rules he needs to live by and that we are proud that he even thought of doing his neighbor’s walk. Then we also need to validate his response to his friends; he didn’t lose his moral compass because he wanted to curry favor with them.

Here’s what I’m saying, in a nutshell:

Our children need to hear that Torah principles are the moral guidelines for interpersonal relationships. At school, there ought to be a disciplined way to discuss issues which require moral choices. At home, parents need to discuss what is right and what is wrong and why, without becoming overbearing. As our children grow older we need to discuss their options for dealing with issues that present moral dilemmas, and to explain why we believe a particular approach may be right. The objective is to have our children take ownership of morally right ideas. And then, we must expect that they may challenge us and look to peers, rather than to us, for validation and approval; but by then, they will have learned the lessons anyway.