July 23, 2024
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At Ptach Lo: Raising Sensitive Issues

With v’higadtida l’vincha season underway, many have chinuch on the mind, pondering how to properly relay values to our children. With the Haggadah guiding us, we take the lessons about teaching the Exodus and try to generalize to other areas. I would like to discuss one such lesson—that of the she’eino yodeya lish’ol—the son who does not know to ask. Within the section of the Four Sons, the Haggadah instructs us to engage with such a child despite his lack of interest and wonder.

At face value, this advice seems uncontroversial. That a child doesn’t ask about our heritage should not be a reason to avoid sharing it. However, a closer look reveals some complexity. The Torah tells us we must eat matzah and avoid chametz. Why? Because “for this purpose, Hashem took us out of Egypt.” This line—which we use to engage the she’eino yodeya lish’ol—tells us that we do mitzvot as a condition of being emancipated. This forced commitment might not be comfortable to everyone. If so, why raise the question of the purpose of mitzvot to this son? Why leave him with a question paired with a potentially unsatisfying answer?

As a parent and teacher, this issue is constantly on my mind. Should I talk with my children about the birds and the bees? Foul language? Drugs? Should I wait until they become curious? Should I bring up issues of faith and doubt with my students? Is it dangerous to tell a 4-year-old that some Jews drive on Shabbat or to tell a 10-year-old that I can’t prove 100 percent that the Torah is true?

The advice “at p’tach lo” seems to answer this question; it urges us to proactively address challenging issues with children before they ask. Let’s discuss a few of the advantages and disadvantages to this approach:

Home Field Advantage

When a topic is proactively raised to a child, he or she has no preconceived notions. We don’t need to help the child “unlearn” anything. However, if a child already has an unhealthy view or experience, we must first convince the child that his or her thought process is incorrect or that his or her experience was not ideal.

This is a difficult challenge, particularly in the adolescent and preadolescent years when children begin to rebel and begin to view adults with skepticism. An attempt to change a child’s way of thinking will likely be met with something like “you don’t care about me, you just want to change me!” A parent or teacher introducing a sensitive issue has the opposite effect; you show the child you care and respect that child enough to engage.

Empowerment

What is the difference between making the right choice and the wrong one? For many, it is an issue of willpower over impulse. Someone who feels passive and unempowered may not find the fortitude to make a change or a difficult decision. A strong ethical sense and moral pride can have the opposite effect, providing that extra push to do the right thing. A child given the tools to deal with a challenging question or situation beforehand is more likely to like the active part of the situation. Without such tools, he or she is prone to feel like these things are happening to him or her and feel defensive.

Trust-Building

Trust is clearly an essential element to all relationships, particularly when the relationship has a hierarchy. The one lower on the totem pole needs to trust the authority figure to allow for positive influence. The confidence boost a child may experience from being trusted to deal with a sensitive topic will strengthen the relationship with parent or teacher. This will open the gates of communication in the future for the child to communicate honestly and listen openly.

Pandora’s Box

In terms of the immediate effect, being open with children may have more potential for negativity than limiting exposure. Sheltering a child may restrict his or her development and personality over time, but generally won’t have the sudden implosion that can occur when a child is introduced to a topic at an inappropriate time. Additionally, keeping a child sheltered keeps parents and teachers in control of the situation. However, once the cat is out of the proverbial bag, trying to get it back in may result in major injury.

Is It Worth It?

Finally, taking a liberal approach to sharing information with children has a clear downside—the potential for a child to respond to the exposure inappropriately. A child exposed to negative thoughts and rebellious ways of thinking is more likely to engage than a child who has no idea. Do we have the right to put a child at risk in this way? Isn’t it better to teach our children to be good and kind and make good decisions? Why not wait for Hashem to decide whether to challenge our children and when that should happen?

Context

I personally believe in the benefits of introducing children to difficult and uncomfortable topics. The positives mentioned previously are exactly what children need to thrive and to develop into productive human beings. When it comes to protecting our children, we have the tendency to ignore context. We tend to focus on the worst possible scenarios, often causing inaction, when being proactive is exactly what is needed. However, a child raised in a nurturing and spiritually healthy environment will be able to deal with the challenges of exposure properly. If you are a parent or teacher asking “how will this affect my child/student?” you are likely providing the love and care that renders the question moot.

‘Ba’asher hu Sham’

When thinking about the risks, I think it pays to invoke another chinuch-related statement from our rabbis. Regarding Yishmael, the Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashana tells us that he was judged by his current actions and not by the future. When we worry so much about what will happen
later on, we are in some way playing God. In this world, our job is to do the right thing for the present state. This doesn’t mean ignoring future results, but instead not letting fear of what might be stop us.

Utilizing this idea takes us even further. In Yishmael’s case, the angels knew exactly what damage would result from saving him. Yet, it was Hashem’s will to keep Yishmael alive, knowing what would result from his offspring. If we apply this to our situation, we are being told that even if our chinuch decisions backfire, if we did what we thought was right at this time, the resulting backfire must also be part of Hashem’s will. From all scriptural accounts, God does not expect all humans to be perfect; He expects us to try our best and will judge our children accordingly.

Conclusion

Like with most issues, there is no clear answer to dealing with such sensitive issues. The best we can do is make informed decisions and pray they are in our children’s and students’ best interests. But if you are a parent or teacher, please consider that children—especially those from caring families—are a lot stronger than we often give them credit for. Show them trust, engage them in conversation, and provide them with the tools you wish you had growing up.

Ve’zakeinu le’gadel banim u’vnei vanim chachamim u’nivonim.

By Yair Daar

Yair Daar is the assistant principal and mashgiach ruchani at Yeshivat He’Atid.

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