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Too Young for Teshuva?

Using the Teshuva process to correct a wrong

Too young for Teshuva?

Too young for Teshuva?

Question:

I am wondering how you plan to talk about Yom Kippur in Hebrew School next week. 

I went through Hebrew School myself as a child and I remember clearly being taught that the day is a one of repentance and introspection, and a time to request that we should be forgiven for our misdeeds. 

Sheila is seven years old, and while her emotions sometimes get the better of her and she acts in a way that might be hurtful to others, I know that at her core she is not a cruel or bad person.

I am curious to know how you are going to address teshuvah—forgiveness and repentance—with our children?

Yom Kippur is an intense day, dedicated to our personal and collective self-reflection. It’s a time when we as adults review the past years’ actions, and we need to be honest with ourselves and see when and where we erred, and how we can correct our wrongs. Teshuvah requires us to express our regret and apologize to others and G-d; in the process, we expose our vulnerabilities and realign our priorities.

So what relevance can a seven-year-old girl find with these ideas?

What do we do when we discover that our child bullied others? Gossiped about a friend? Got involved in a fight? Took something that did not belong to them? Cheated on a test?

Recognizing that our child has hurt another person or behaved poorly is not an easy thing for us to deal with, and we are often at a loss on how to respond and guide them to correct the wrong.

In Failing Forward, John Maxwell asks us to view failure not as mistakes that need to be endured but as learning opportunities. When you fail, you learn that the method you tried didn’t work, so it’s time to attempt something different. Failure humbles us; it allows us to see ourselves as fallible; to learn that there are times we can’t do it on our own and we need to ask for guidance. When we learn from failure, it becomes transformed and serves as a stepping stone on the path to success.

Our kids have been exposed to this idea of utilizing failure as a growth opportunity in school and on the soccer field. So why not as a path of self-correction when they do something that hurts another person or do something wrong?

Teshuvah follows this model of using our failures as stepping stones to forgiveness, and Yom Kippur is a wonderful time for us to teach our children how the teshuvah process works.

The halachic structure of teshuvah consists of three steps on our part: recognizing and identifying the wrong, expressing remorse, and resolving not to repeat the behavior again.

We can walk our children through the steps by encouraging them to identify their behavior as wrong or hurtful, and create a corrective plan of action that includes apologizing if necessary, repairing the damage, and deciding how they will avoid repeating their behavior when challenged or tempted to do it again.

During Hebrew School last year, a creative second grader used a sharpie marker to write a naughty but thankfully misspelled word on a wooden classroom door. I caught him in the act and told him he needed to clean it off the door.

He tried to wipe it off with a dry paper towel, and then a wet one with soap, but it didn’t fade the dark marks. There’s a life hack that teachers know that is useful when kids get creative with permanent markers: When you color over the permanent marker with a dry erase marker on a laminated surface, both markers can be wiped off with a dry tissue. I told our resident artist about this trick and he was eager to try it. Using the dry erase marker, he scribbled over his original artwork and wiped it clean. While most of his writing was gone, there was still a trace of gray and the word was still legible. I took out a cleanser with bleach, and I told him that there was a chance that the bleach might remove the gray. To his amazement, when I sprayed the last vestiges of his writing, it erased completely.

I asked him, “What happened when we used the dry erase marker over the permanent marker?” He described how it almost erased his writing. “What happens when we do something we are not supposed to do—how do we fix the mistake?” Having done this teshuvah exercise before with me, he replied, “I am sorry that I wrote on the door and I won’t do it again.” I asked him, “How would you know that you wouldn’t do it again? At some point see a Sharpie and be tempted to write on the wall or a door?” He stayed quiet, so I asked: “What did the bleach do that the dry erase marker couldn’t do?” I told him to look closely at the door. He noticed that there was a mark where the lamination was stripped by the caustic chemical. I told him, “When you really regret what you’ve done, it will leave a such a strong impression on you so not only won’t you do it again, but when you see someone else doing it you will stop them as well.” He thought for a minute and said, “I am going to tell my little sister about this and make sure that she doesn’t write on the furniture anymore.”

This exchange became a relevant lesson on teshuvah that evolved from my decision not to discipline him for destroying school property, but walk him through the teshuvah process. I engaged him in a conversation that let him see how his corrective action was actually an analogy for what happens when we regret what we’ve done and make the decision not to repeat the same mistake again.

Teshuvah as a method of self correction is a great addition to the “lifeskills toolset” we want to give our children. It will help them navigate their relationships and foster responsibility. And it will provide them with tools to realign when they lose their bearings in life.

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