Educate a Child According to His Way – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Many people are puzzled by the words of King Solomon (Proverbs 22:6): “Educate the child according to his way.” Does it mean that he should be educated according to the inexperienced and unruly way of youth? Shouldn’t he be taught in the clear and experienced way of parents and teachers?!

Let us imagine two brothers, one who has signs of stinginess while the other tends towards recklessness. The first brother keeps everything for himself; he hoards everything he receives, and is unwilling to share with any friend or sibling, while the second brother is just the opposite; he wastes and immediately gives away everything he gets, and never thinks about the future.

Obviously, in this family it would be inappropriate to talk to the two children in the same way about both the importance of giving to others and the disadvantage of wastefulness and randomly giving things away. Although both children should be taught in a general way about the shortcomings of each of these two extremes, the parent should strongly emphasize in conversation with each child the point that will balance out and strengthen his particular weakness.

Similarly, one should approach each child in a way that suits his character. To a delicate and sensitive child, even a hint of disappointment or dissatisfaction on the part of the parent or teacher is enough to prod him to immediately correct his mistake, while stronger rebuke would only harm his gentle soul. A strong and rebellious child by nature needs a more explicit and detailed admonishment in clear language, because a mild hint won’t get through to him. It should be emphasized, however, that even with this type of child, one should generally speak in soft words that convey fondness and having his benefit in mind, as explained below. After all, King Solomon has also revealed to us in his wisdom (Proverbs 25:15): “A soft tongue will break (a hard bone).”
Four Types of Children

The field of psychology is puzzled by the question of how many general character types should humanity be divided into. As many researchers as there are on the topic, so too it seems are the number of opinions. However, the Creator of humanity revealed in the Torah given at Mount Sinai that there are four basic types of character, each of which must be treated differently. As famously detailed in the Passover Haggadah: “The Torah refers to four types of children: one who is wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.”

In the four places where the Torah instructs us to educate our children, each is worded in a different way to teach us that God created four basic types of people, and each child, depending on which of these four categories he belongs, needs a slightly different educational approach than the others.

They are: Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Those Who Cannot Ask.

The Wise and the Wicked are both bright children, but where one child is of an accepting nature, the other’s nature is rebellious. (When we refer to the child as “wicked,” it must be understood that no child is born evil; only that if he is not educated in a way that’s appropriate to his particular character, he will end up being wicked, heaven forbid.)

The ‘wise’ child is easy to educate. He seeks wisdom, he has pleasant nature, and he’s open to hearing and accepting true ideas. Just teach him what’s the right thing to do, and he’ll do it. In contrast, the other (potentially) ‘wicked’ child is both clever and rebellious. He’s naturally argumentative and doesn’t want to be told what to think or do. 

The third, ‘simple’ child is not an independent thinker, nor is he as inquisitive as the first two. He asks briefly and simply and does as he’s told.
The fourth child ‘does not know to ask,’ meaning that he isn’t at all interested in what’s happening around him, and he must be awakened to think about things.

The Torah has revealed to us that all four of these types are required for the world to function in harmony and completeness. Even the child of rebellious character, who may turn out evil if not guided and educated in the right way, can be a wonderful person who uses his unique skills and abundant energy to accomplish amazing things. He’ll be able to initiate and run public welfare organizations for the benefit of the Jewish people and all of humanity. 

Every child today who is defined as hyperactive and at whom many look at negatively, has in fact been given extraordinary skills in such areas as alacrity, taking action, and the ability to get things done, and is also sometimes unusually eloquent, but in the framework of academic learning he finds it difficult to fit in and is perceived as abnormal because of his nature. But if his parents and teachers believe in him, behave nicely towards him and guide him according to his nature, he will be able to do great things in the future. Only now, while he is young, is his natural cleverness attracting him toward materialism and earthly desires of this world, and his burning pursuit of the worldly causes him to rebel against any actions that he deems (counterproductively) spiritual. He wants to enjoy himself here and now.

The Torah teaches us, in its wonderful language, the educational approach that can rectify the character of each type of child and elevate him to go in a positive way.[1]

Now we can better understand the words of King Solomon: “Educate the child according to his way!“. Think about, analyze, and classify in a general way each child as an individual, be it a son or daughter in one’s home or the student in one’s classroom, and educate each one in accordance with his or her nature and character.

Identify his challenges and provide him with the right tools to cope and succeed, as well as finding and focusing on his good points, so he’ll feel good about himself and grow.

Only then will you reach the summit of successful education, namely: “Even in his old age he will not abandon it.” He’ll remain true to the Torah values you’ve imparted to him, in any situation, anywhere, and at any age.

Notes and Sources

[1]Concerning the proper method to educate the ‘wise child,’ see the chapter entitled ‘Spiritual Experiences’. For the rebellious, argumentative child, see the chapter ‘How to Implant Educational Values in a Child’ in the subsection entitled “When the Ways of Pleasantness do not Help”. As for the child who ‘does not know how to ask’, see the chapter “A treasury of advice on children's education” in the subsections entitled “Recommended forms of illustration” and “The lesson from a son who does not know how to ask.”

Adapted from 'The Complete Guide to Successful Parenting' by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English


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