Teshuva is on the forefront of our collective minds as we approach Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. By and large, adults can understand and properly approach the five basic elements of teshuva: hakarat ha-chet (recognition of one’s sins as sins), charata (remorse,) azivat ha-chet (“abandoning” or desisting from sin), pei’raon (restitution, where possible) and viduy (confession.) They recognize the importance of each component and can conceptualize a strategy with which to achieve their ultimate goal of atonement, whether their sin was against Hashem or another person.
Children, on the other hand, have a much more difficult time understanding the importance of the teshuva process, conceptualizing how it works, and strategizing how best to approach it. Naturally, some of this disconnect stems from an immature conception of Hashem. Children do not really understand who He is, what He wants from us and the fact that He engages in a detailed process of s’char v’onesh, reward and punishment, with every individual.
For the average child, who lives with a certain sense of invincibility, both physically and in the sense that he is not held personally accountable for his actions as a minor, Judgment Day is worlds away. Even for those who can comprehend this concept on some level, it is difficult to get them to appreciate the importance of taking a reckoning of their actions and improving their ways. Requesting forgiveness, particularly from family and friends, can also prove to be a daunting task for our young ones.
To assist children in this process, it is valuable to break it down into its components and show them how to make amends for their misdeeds. Simply instructing a child to apologize often results in an outcome that is less desirable than not apologizing at all, as the child is “released” from his wrongdoing without feeling any meaningful sense of remorse over his conduct. The victim, too, sensing the disingenuous nature of the apology, is left hurt and unfulfilled.
The first step in a proper teshuva, as noted above, is hakarat ha-chet, recognition of one’s sin as a sin. In teaching this to younger children, clarity and simplicity are paramount; this behavior is acceptable, this one is not. Children, as they mature, begin to understand motives, and how immoral actions can not only be “crimes” against another, but are sins against Hashem.
Charata refers to our feelings of regret. While remorse is a difficult concept for young children, “good” and “not good” is simpler to comprehend. As they mature, more focus can be placed on regret for our misdeeds and can include verbal and/or written correspondence from the child to the victim.
Azivat ha-chet not only involves stopping an inappropriate action, but also making a commitment to avoid the sin in the future. Children may need guidance on how to go through this process, including proactive strategies that will help them avoid problematic situations from the outset.
To make pei’raon (restitution) meaningful, the child should have to play a role in either providing a direct service to the victim or by earning money to pay for repairs. It is much more difficult, however, to make restitution for an insult or damage to someone’s reputation. In these situations, the child should be asked to think of something to do that would “pay back” the other child by making him feel happy and get past what occurred. Finally, viduy (confession) involves owning up to our actions by verbally expressing what we did wrong.
Of course, the best way to “teach” teshuva to a child, better than any lecture or conversation, is to model it. If you act improperly towards your child, acknowledge your mistake, ask for his forgiveness, and demonstrate in words and actions what you will do to try to prevent the offense in the future. In addition, make a special effort during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva to model Hashem’s attributes of patience, compassion and forgiveness in your interactions with your spouse and children.
There are other things that parents, particularly those of older children, can do to enhance their child’s “teshuva experience” and establish a greater sense of connection with Hashem.
Children should be made to understand that Hashem actively seeks ways to forgive, so long as they try to return to Him. Urge them to think of something that they wish they could undo, and that now, during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, is their best opportunity to erase that misdeed. Moreover, let them know that Judaism is not an “all-or-nothing” religion. Hashem will not invalidate their mitzvot or diminish His love towards them just because they have committed sins. In fact, people who utilize the teshuva process properly can even transform their aveirot into mitzvot, by using the motivation to correct their errors as the impetus towards developing a closer bond with Hashem.
Parents can also help their children by sharing their personal goals for improvement with regards to a particular mitzvah or midah. Suggest to your child to also strive for improvement, by undertaking a small goal towards that end.
This week presents all of us—adults and children alike—with a great opportunity to turn over a new leaf and come closer to Hashem. May we all utilize the opportunity to its fullest and experience a g’mar chatima tova.
Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so that they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. For a free, no obligation consultation, please call 212-470-6139 or email [email protected] Buy his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss,” on Amazon. Download his free productivity blueprint at ImpactfulCoaching.com/ Productivity-Blueprint.