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Sowing The Seeds - Adapting the Educational Approach to the Maturity of the Child

Parents must pay attention to the child’s maturity and abilities depending on his age, his personal character, and his particular skills and talents

Sowing The Seeds - Adapting the Educational Approach to the Maturity of the Child
Along with the formation of a child’s personality in terms of his approach to life and his ability to successfully cope with various challenges, such as getting to sleep on time and developing and keeping to a routine, combined with correct application of “pushing away with the left and drawing closer to the right”, one must begin sowing the seeds in every area that the child is ready for.

These areas include showing respect for parents, teachers, and people in general; overcoming negative feelings and poor character traits such as anger, pride, envy, and hate; respecting other’s money and property; not taking or using anything that does not belong to him; delaying gratification and refraining from prohibited activities; performing practical mitzvot appropriate to his age and dedicating time to Torah study; expending intellectual effort to understand, and review and memorization.

Practical education is carried out through proper guidance on what the child needs to do, supervision and encouragement and setting a personal example, until the child internalizes all the things that are required of him in all areas of life. But parents must pay attention to the child’s maturity and abilities depending on his age, his personal character, and his particular skills and talents.

Adapting the Educational Approach to the Maturity of the Child

“Our Sages tell us: A boy who knows how to wave the lulav (palm frond and other species waved on Sukkot) is obligated. To protect the [sanctity of] tefillin, his father should acquire for him tefillin.  Once he knows how to speak, his father teaches him Torah and recites the Shema [prayer] ... What is Torah? ‘Torah tziva lanu Moshe’ — The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:3). What is Kriyas Shema (the recitation of the ‘Shema’ prayer)? The first verse” (Succah 42a).

From these words of the Sages, we can learn that the content and subjects of education should not be chosen at random and according to opportunity. We should be constantly monitoring the child’s maturity and readiness at each stage of his development and adapt the subjects to his ability and maturation.

If a topic that he is not ready for is introduced too early, not only does the investment go down the drain, but it also causes harm and achieves the exact opposite of its purpose. For in the wake of his current failure, the child loses faith in his ability to manage the subject. And even worse: Because of the pressure he felt at the time, when it was so difficult for him to succeed, he also develops a deep aversion and rejection of that subject, as important as it may be.

On the other hand, it is clear that once he reaches the right age, introducing him to a new concept should not be delayed in any way. If, at the age when the child was ripe for instruction on that particular subject, his personality was shaped without it, it will be very difficult at a later stage to “implant” the subject in his heart. He might be repulsed by it or it may remain forever in his heart as a foreign implant that was not well absorbed.

However, when the child is educated at the appropriate age for each subject, it is built seamlessly into his personality, similar to a pastry ingredient that is mixed in well when kneading the dough, becoming an intrinsic part of his personality. The preliminaries are like a pastry before the dough is kneaded, while waiting too long is like trying to mix in the same ingredient after the kneading has been completed, and in some cases, after the baking is finished.

Starting from the Day of Birth

There are certain matters that should be instituted starting from the day of birth, as much as parents are able, for the good of the child’s physical and spiritual health. These include being careful what he sees and hears, and striving to maintain a relaxed atmosphere at home. When a newborn child is exposed to an immodest sight, unclean language, or quarrels and anger between the parents, his education has already been compromised. Apart from the child’s cognitive absorption, his personality is also influenced by the subconscious messages that are absorbed in his consciousness.

On the words of King David (Psalms 103:2), “My soul, bless God and do not forget any of His benefits [all the blessing that He has rewarded and bestowed upon you],” the Talmud explains (Brachot 10a) that the verse is referring to the period when he nursed from his mother.

All organs — such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, feet, and so on — are positioned in the human body the same as they are in mammals (animals that nurse their young), except for the place where they nurse. The nursing place of animals is located near a filthy place, while in a human being it is located near the heart, the place of binah (understanding). This is so the nursing baby will not see anything unseemly while he is nursing. King David thanked God for this with all his heart.

From this change that God made from general nature, we learn how aware He is, and how much importance He places, on the impact of an infant’s vision on his inner spiritual world — even though he understands nothing of what he sees. How vigilant we must be to guard the baby’s eyes from immodest sights, because the image remains!

It is also well known among those who deal with hypnosis that no image is ever erased from the mind. The same is true for unclean language, so care must be taken that it shouldn’t be absorbed by the baby’s ears.

Conversely, positive talk and behavior, such as words of Torah, judging favorably, acts of kindness, and a pleasant tone of voice, are well received by the infant, who is naturally alert to everything that happens in his environment.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Yevamot 1:6) tells us about Rabbi Joshua, whose “mother used to bring his cradle to the synagogue, so that the words of Torah would stick to his ears.” This is what the Mishnah (Ethics of the Fathers 2:8) says: “Rabbi Joshua — fortunate is the one who bore him!” Rashi there explains: “Because his mother caused him to become wise.” (See also in Midrash Rabbah, Parashat Toldot, 63:6, that even while the mother is pregnant, the child hears and senses what is going on around him, as we have explained in the book The Coming Revolution, vol. I, “The fetus senses and hears.”)

Age-Appropriate Tasks

This principle, accustoming a child to good habits, is also true for simple daily tasks that do not require the child to carry out actions that are above his age-appropriate abilities.

For example, one cannot expect a small child to tidy up a whole room, even though he is the one who made the mess. But it is also not correct to say that the mother should clean the room instead of him. She should clean the room with his help, so that his education is not damaged either way.

Here is an excerpt from the precious words of Rabbi Wolbe on educating a child at the right time, in the book Zeria u’Bniya b’Chinuch (Sowing and Building in Education, pp. 15-16): “The basic idea of education, in light of the words of Rashi, is the proper entry at the starting point. This is [the meaning of] “Educate the child” (Proverbs 22:6): Once the child can react to a given situation, it is [already] necessary to implant within him what he can absorb at that time. When that window of time passes without any appropriate implanting or seeding – it becomes too late.

From this emanates a clear requirement from the parents: They need to recognize more or less when the [various] phases are in [their child’s] development and to fit their requirements to the ability of the child in each phase. If they exaggerate with requirements that the child cannot meet, when the child is not mature enough to understand what they want from him, it will result in great harm educationally.  Such “seeding” will not be able to take root. The child cannot develop through something he does not understand. A child needs to advance in stages, and to go in sequence through the various stages of childhood.

We are not dealing here with the definition of the phases; that is a topic for a different article. Here we will try just to see the principles of education based on the Torah.

We will cite a number of common examples for the lack of synchronization between the abilities of the child and the requirements which are being expected of him:

One of the things which is widespread: Mothers boast about the fact that they succeeded to train their child to be clean (to part with diapers) at an early age. The more they were “successful” [with this] at a younger age, the more they can boast. It is accepted today (among researchers), and I accept this opinion, that if a child is forced too early to become clean, it harms all of his continued development. There will come a time that the child himself will want to be clean, and then the topic [at hand] takes place in a much more harmonious way.

Another example: Many times [adults] don’t relate to and don’t give enough importance to the child’s games. A game is a very serious thing for a child. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter says: When a child plays with a board in the bathtub and says that it is a ship, if someone takes away that board from him, it is equivalent as if they would have sunk a [real] ship for an adult. A person who bothers the child in the midst of his game, steals something from that child.

There are things that are agreed upon [by everyone], [things] that are known and accepted. For example: At the Sabbath meals, children are requested to remain at the table for the length of the entire meal, even when the meal lasts for an hour or an hour-and-a-half, and at times even more. For a young child this is impossible. A child cannot sit quietly for such a long time; he must move around. To sit for the duration of an entire meal is greatly beyond his abilities. If he is forced, then they are forcing him to do something that is greatly above his abilities, and it is not necessary to explain how detrimental this is. The intent is, in essence, good; they want to build [the child]. But for that purpose, they force the child, and a child cannot be built with requirements that are beyond his ability. The result is harmful for a child; the damage is great and is especially noticeable at the age of adolescence; because any small disturbance during the time of the “seeding” is likely to bring about serious repercussions later on.”

Adapted from 'The Complete Guide to Successful Jewish Parenting' by Rabbi Zamir Cohen

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