There’s an old song in which a child asks, “Father, please tell me, what should I believe?” If all you had to do to instill emunah in your children was just tell them what to believe, the task would not be nearly so daunting. “It’s very easy to train little kids–they’ll believe whatever you tell them,” says Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey and director of Project Y.E.S. “The challenge is to convey messages in a way that allows [children] to grow into it, so that it’s not a superficial bitachon but one that will really last.”
We asked several experienced mechanchim for their insights on how to shepherd children from their first “Modeh Ani” to the understanding that Hashem alone holds the key to every aspect of their existence. Here are the key principles they shared.
Keep Hashem Front And Center
The first imperative is to make Hashem part of your daily vocabulary. “Let them hear Hashem on your lips,” says Goldie Golding, early childhood director at Yeshiva Shaare Torah in Flatbush and author of several Artscroll children’s titles. “If you can’t find your car keys, say ‘Hashem, please help me find them!’” If you find a parking spot, thank Hashem out loud. And if you miss the bus, acknowledge that Hashem didn’t want you to be on that bus. “Gam zu l’tovah” (this too is for the best) is a great catchphrase, but you need to put Hashem into the equation: Why is it for the best? Because Hashem sent it. “What at first might seem like [they are] just repeating what the parent says, with time, with daily occurrences, over and over and over again, becomes true bitachon,” Golding says.
On an intellectual level, emunah and bitachon begin with the knowledge that Hashem is the Creator, says Malkie Machlis, principal of C32rown Heights Yeshiva Day School of Mill Basin. Many years ago, when she was a teacher introducing first graders to Parshas Beraishis, she would ask them: “If I give you crayons and paper, could you make me a picture?” “Of course,” they would answer. “What if I gave you nothing? Nothing at all? Then could you make me something?” “No,” they had to concede. “Hashem can!” she would explain. “Once they understand that Hashem can do that, then they can have emunah and bitachon,” she says.
Most young children will struggle with the concept of Hashem at one point or another–what is He? What does He look like? However, no one can really explain what Hashem is, says Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein, a second-grade rebbe at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on the Lower East Side, storyteller, and author of the Burksfield Bike Clubseries (Judaica Press). Trying to do so by comparing Him to any other being can lead children down the wrong path. The better approach, says Rabbi Finkelstein, is to stress Hashem’s omnipotence, His love for them, and His ever-presence in their lives.
Lead By Example
On one hand, we want to get our kids used to doing mitzvos–davening, making brachos, wearing tzitzis–in such a way that observance becomes ingrained as a habit, says Rabbi Peretz Hochbaum, director of Ohel’s Camp Kaylie and a longtime educator. In that sense, doing mitzvos by rote is a positive thing. On the other hand, there is so much more–understanding the words of tefillah, performing mitzvos with kavanah, feeling close to Hashem–that we want to cultivate in our children.
We want them to appreciate that each of us has a personal relationship with Hashem which continues even when things get tough, says Rabbi Hochbaum, whether it’s Cheerios spilled on the floor, the car breaking down or the loss of a job. By remaining steadfast in your observance, and handling life’s ups and downs with bitachon, you model for your children how to do the same.
Showing enthusiasm for mitzvos is another important way to model closeness with Hashem. “We need to imbue our children with how wonderful it is to be Hashem’s chosen nation, how lucky are we that Hashem gave us the Torah, how it elevates us,” says Machlis. When you do mitzvos, show your kids, she says. “Don’t bake that cake for a neighbor while the kids are sleeping.” Golding agrees. “They have to see the love that you have for Hashem. Every mitzvah you do, say ‘Hashem gave us this mitzvah, He gave us such a gift.’” And don’t be heard complaining what a long Shabbos it is!
Let The Questions Flow
“Today for sure kids are going to ask you questions,” says Rabbi Horowitz. “Assume that everything you say is going to be challenged later in life.” Before you worry about having answers, make sure your home is a totally safe environment for your children to ask questions, even those that go to the core of yahadus. Suppressing your child’s questions, says Rabbi Horowitz, is a lot more dangerous than giving imperfect answers.
How should you handle the tough questions? With young children, don’t give them more than they’re asking for, says Golding. It’s not until kids are about seven to nine years old that they can begin to think abstractly and understand that there is a world beyond the physical one. Let them know that just like you are there to take care of them, Hashem will always take care of them, too.
As they get older, one way to help them understand bad things happening is to explain that Hashem is saving a great deal of good for the next world, says Rabbi Finkelstein. “All the ice cream, toys, music–nothing adds up to the reward we get from Hashem in the next world,” he tells his students.
When something doesn’t work out the way they hoped, tefillah can help children channel their anger at Hashem. “Knowing ‘I’m always able to tell Hashem what’s on my mind’–that’s comforting,” says Rabbi Hochbaum. Children can readily understand that Hashem’s answer is sometimes “no” because they are used to hearing “no” from us.
It’s also reassuring to talk about Moshiach coming, the time when we will be able to ask Eliyahu HaNavi himself for answers. The Talmudic acronym “Teiku” (Tishbi yitaretz kushios v’avayos) can become a mantra to quell the most vexing queries. “Some adults have made the concept of Moshiach becoming a kiddie thing, a quasi-Lubavitch thing,” notes Rabbi Finkelstein. “[Parents] are afraid to go there because they can’t answer all the questions about what it will be like.” But it’s a source of comfort, he says, for kids to think about when Moshiach comes, and to know “I’m going to see Zaidy again.”
If your child is really struggling, “it’s great chinuchto take [him or her] to a local rav to help answer questions,” says Rabbi Horowitz. It’s always OK to say “I don’t know,” he stresses. But if you find yourself regularly coming up empty, it’s time to refill your own spiritual tank.
Fortify Your Own Faith
“You need to get answers for yourself so you’ll be ready when your kids ask–because the questions will certainly come,” says Rabbi Hochbaum. “You need to go to classes, read, strengthen your own emunah and bitachon,” agrees Golding. “Give yourself oxygen first, like on the plane.” You don’t want your kids exposed to persistent cynicism toward yahadus from adults around them, she notes, but it’s good for them to see you working through your own little crises of faith.
Although early on children will parrot what they hear and mimic what they see, ultimately “they can’t be fooled,” says Golding. You can’t transmit emunah that you yourself don’t possess.
Speak Their Language
There are many types of children, and many ways to reach them. As a parent, “you need to find a way to reach each child, even one who is disengaged,” says Rabbi Hochbaum. One child might initiate discussions with you; another might need you to open the dialogue. “With some kids, the way to get them is with a really interesting Tosfos. With others the way to get them is with a kumzitz,” notes Rabbi Hochbaum. If we expect our children’s teachers to take the time to figure out what makes them tick, we certainly must do no less.
Rabbi Finkelstein, the storyteller, finds stories an enormously successful teaching tool. “I can explain [something] but it’s a little beyond their grasp,” he says. “[But when] I demonstrate it through a story about a gadol or even something that happened to me, that’s a way they can get it.” Parents can use their own stories, he says. If you have an experience that reminds you of Hashem’s hashgacha pratis, come home and share it with your children.
The Burksfield Bike Club, the fictional group of yeshiva boys whose adventures Rabbi Finkelstein chronicles in his series by that name, has a motto: “Do your best and ask Hashem to do the rest.” A pithy saying like that, posted on the fridge, can become a go-to message when your child has a rough day. And don’t be afraid to make up a song on the brink of a meltdown. (Golding’s daughter-in-law sings, “This is just a test, this is for the best, now let’s clean up this mess!”)
Hashem is everywhere; the trick is to make Him part of whatever type of activity–music, art, science, nature–naturally engages your child.
Empathize, Don’t Moralize
“Kids going through a difficult time need more than just platitudes,” says Rabbi Hochbaum. When tragedy strikes–such as the death or illness of a loved one–set aside any expectations about what your child should or should not say or do.
Think of your own emunah journey and how you may have found comfort during a difficult time, suggests Rabbi Hochbaum. Then talk about that experience with your child. Doing the mitzvos even when you’re angry at G-d is part of how we maintain our emunah, he says. So support your child’s efforts to do the right thing, even if it seems like he’s just going through the motions.
If your child is feeling beaten down by disappointment (“Why didn’t I win the contest?” “Why did it have to rain and ruin our trip?”) try a Dayenu exercise: Have her list all the blessings Hashem has bestowed, big and small, for which hakoras hatov is due. Use the analogy of bitter-tasting medicine (or ouch-inducing shots) to explain the ways of Hashem: What feels bad to us now can make us better in the long run.
Ultimately, even kids need to realize the limits of our understanding in this world. As Rabbi Horowitz puts it, “we’re never getting 100% of everything.” Let us hope that the emunah and bitachon we instill in our children will bridge the gap between their finite comprehension and their faithfulness to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
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