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!”)