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Saturday, August 15, 2020
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Considered by Maimonides to be the bedrock of Judaism (Peirush Mishnayot, Tamid, 5:1), and by many to be the backbone of Western morality, the Ten Commandments are prominently featured in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Va’etchanan. Fascinatingly, they remain ubiquitous across all denominations of Judaism, prominently displayed on synagogue walls, entrances, and ark covers. When it comes to parenting, especially Jewish parenting, many parents want their children to live with these values as their moral compass.

However, it’s not enough to know these values. Children need specific social and emotional skills to apply these values. We know it to be true intuitively, and research by Kochanska (2002) suggests that children learn morals and values from the home, even more so than in school. Furthermore, as Daniel Goleman, in his international bestseller “Emotional Intelligence” shares, “family life is our first school for emotional learning.” According to Goleman, the home is the first place where children learn about feelings and relationships. It is, therefore, no surprise that teaching children the proper set of Jewish morals, along with their social and emotional abilities, are some of the most important parenting tasks during the childrearing years.

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By way of example, let’s explore teaching our children the fifth of the 10 commandments, kibud av v’eim, honor your father and mother. According to Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Exodus 20:12, there is a connection between this commandment and children’s moral and behavioral development. Rabbi Hirsch says “... Judaism rests entirely on the theoretical and practical obedience of children to parents, and respecting parents is the basic condition for the eternal existence of the Jewish nation.”

For Rabbi Hirsch, “theoretical and practical obedience” and “respecting parents” are the mechanisms by which Jewish values are transmitted, generation to generation. He goes on to say that it is “basic” to Jewish continuity. And it makes rational sense. If a child doesn’t learn to follow directions and care about being respectful to their parents, what are the odds they will learn Jewish values?

Obedience and respect, as character traits, require social-emotional skills. These skills are acquired at different speeds throughout child development. Without them, demonstrating obedience and respect may be a tall order. Skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making comprise the range of social and emotional abilities children need to be morally adept, which includes honoring parents (Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning).

So how do we teach our children to follow directions and demonstrate respect? Often, parents expect obedience and respect as a given. This makes rational sense. Parents do so much for their children, they deserve it. But relationships are not rational, they are emotional. And because relationships are emotional, skills need to be deliberately taught to navigate the tension between demonstrating respect and managing feelings.

To navigate this tension, parents need to teach their children about empathy and validation. Often social-emotional abilities become compromised in emotionally charged parent-child dynamics. When children (or adults) are emotionally hijacked, or when the emotional aspects of the brain take over the brain’s ability to problem-solve and make good choices, children are susceptible to misbehavior.

Consequently, it is important for parents to be aware of and label for their children when there is an emotional hijack. This gives children more of a chance to be respectful at times when their rational mind is compromised. It also saves a lot of time from escalating conflicts and makes children feel validated and heard. Using this language can help parents make more effective parenting choices in the moment such as validating and empathizing with their child’s feelings (i.e., “Sweetheart, I can see you’re upset and that’s OK”) and saving rational discussion for when their children are emotionally available and calm.

Commenting on why emotionally hijacked situations can be challenging for relationships between children and parents, Drs. Maurice Elias, Steven Tobias and Brian Friedlander in their book “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting; How to Raise a
Self-Disciplined, Responsible and Socially Skilled Child” share: “It is difficult for individuals under stress to do what, in calmer circumstances, they know is right.” Even if a child wants to be respectful, sometimes they just may not be emotionally available to do so. This is an experience of which anyone could relate.

In addition to empathy, parents need to be mindful of how they are respecting others. Harvard Professor Robert Coles, in his book “The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child” explains that children “absorb and take stock of what they observe, namely, us—adults living and doing things in a certain spirit.” According to Professor Coles, children are likely to mimic their parent’s moral actions. So if parents model respect for each other, their own parents, rabbis, teachers and community members, it is more likely that their children will do so as well.

When children are taught to navigate between respecting parents and managing their own feelings, they gain the capacity to learn and use Jewish values as their moral compass for life. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the success of Judaism itself depends on it. And as mentioned above, the responsibility to teach these values and social and emotional skills lands on parents. The Ten Commandments are a great place to start.

Dr. Perry Bell is a child and family psychologist in Morristown, N.J., with the Center for Child and Family Development. He specializes in programming related to social and emotional learning. He can be reached at [email protected]


Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is a rabbi in Baltimore, Maryland, and global director of Project Aseret, a collaborative to share a realistic and applicable understanding of the Ten Commandments as core values. He can be reached at [email protected]

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