Transmitting Jewish Values to Young Children

  • by: Rivka Behar

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 2, 1, 1987, pp. 10-11. Appears here with permission.

We have been charged with the mission of being a “light unto the nations” and, indeed we have held ourselves to a high standard. Jews have always been singled out for achievements in the general society and have been notably absent in affairs related to crime and corruption. Today, however, we read the newspapers with trepidation lest we come across names of yeshiva graduates linked to unethical or even criminal behavior.
How is it possible that we have failed to integrate Jewish ethical values into our daily lives? Why have we not prepared our students to deal with the pressures and moral ambivalence, which characterize today’s society? How is it possible that those who are taught mipnai saivah takum can sit on a crowded bus while an elderly person is standing; or that a yeshiva student who leans about genaivat da’at can cheat on a test without feeling guilty? Why do they fail to see a connection between Torah teachings and what is practiced in every day life?
Jewish values are intended to educate, sensitize and prepare us for making decisions in any moral situation. They serve as the core around which we shape the personalities and souls of our children. The examples we set, the roles we present, and the way in which we deal with daily problems in and out of the classroom, are the blocks upon which we build character and transmit values. Through the interaction of adults and children with each other, the classroom, the home and the community become the arena for the transmittal of ethics and standards.
Researchers, including Jean Piaget, have been virtually unanimous in focusing on early childhood as the prime formative period for moral growth and development of values and attitudes. Morality develops in sequential stages; progression from one stage to the next is dependent not on maturity alone, but rather on interaction with the environment. To progress to higher stages of moral growth, children require a nurturing and supportive adult who serves not only as a role model, but who helps them internalize moral values. Authoritarian parents and teachers, who control children through punishment and reward retard moral growth; adults who treat children with respect, fairness and consideration, promote moral growth.
How can teachers convey chesed, tzedek and rachamim to egocentric three, four or five-year olds? Young children often behave selfishly and aggressively with peers. Adult constraint may momentarily curb negative behavior but has no impact on developing values. A coerced apology from one child to another is seldom more than a mechanical gesture to placate a parent or teacher.
Traditionally, young children were taught chesed, tzedek and rachamim through formal lessons, slogan drills, work sheets and teacher-directed art projects. Children recite va’ahavta l’raiakha kamokha without comprehending its meaning or integrating its lesson. In fact, children often experience so much stress during a formal lesson, that they display irritation and behavior contrary to the very words they are reciting. A teacher who reduces Avraham Avinu to a paper doll for children to copy or assemble, trivializes our heroic role model and sheds no light on his moral teachings.
The professional early childhood teacher who understands how children learn, teaches midot and mitzvoth from everyday experiences. Haknasat orchim is taught by inviting guests to the classroom, involving children in acts of hospitality, engaging them in offering refreshments and making visitors comfortable. During the week of Parshat Vayera, Avraham’s example of hospitality and kindness to strangers is read directly from the Torah and associated with the children’s experience.
An important new channel for hospitality and kindness is the reception given to newcomers from Russia, Iran and Israel. The teacher’s example of welcoming them and easing their integration into the new environment is the model from which children may emulate Avraham Avinu and learn to live together in a complex world full of human diversity.
Children learn values through natural situations rather than formal presentations. Sensitive teachers provide time and freedom for informal social interaction in a warm and accepting classroom environment. The teacher guides the children at play and gently steps in at the “teachable moment” to make the “Torah connection”. In a conflict between children, for example, the teacher helps both victim and aggressor see each other’s point of view. Holding the children close to one another, the teacher clarifies and interprets the children’s perception of their altercation. The children learn to listen to each other, and are guided towards awareness and mutual empathy.
Two children are fighting over a doll carriage, each screaming, “I had it first.”

Teacher: What happened? How do you feel about that? How do you think he/she feels? What can you do to solve this problem?
Whatever the children decide that is agreeable to both , is a lesson in conflict resolution. Children need to build negotiation skills. They need to consider possible alternatives and the effect of their behavior on others. When parents or teachers decide on resolving the problem by, for example, having them take turns with the carriage, an important learning opportunity is lost. They have missed the “teachable moment” and the chance to relate v’ahavta l’raiakha kamokha to a commonplace situation.
Young children, even toddlers, often show natural signs of empathy and compassion. Parents and teachers can strengthen then tendencies by commenting on them.
Teacher: You helped Shmuel pick up all the beads he spilled. That was very kind.

A spontaneous act of kindness is verbally labeled a “mitzvah.”
Many young children (and adults) are oblivious to those around them in need of help. Parents and teachers can sharpen perceptions by articulating their actions. Modeling is not enough.
Teacher: Look, Mr. Levy is carrying our lunch tray with both his hands. He won’t be able to open the door. I’m going to help him. I’ll open the door for him.
Look at Mira’s face. She looks upset. Let’s find out what we can do to help…Mira is upset because she lost her new ribbon. Let’s help her look for it.

Today’s children are surrounded by examples of selfishness, greed, hostility and violence. They need tools with which to cope and counter confrontations in this environment. They need to develop autonomy, problem solving, coping, negotiation and conflict resolutions skills. These skills can be developed by learning Torah through active involvement. If we expect out children to integrate Jewish values and practice them, then we must make this the focus and priority of early childhood education.