Is It Possible to Change a Child’s Character?

The Vilna Gaon,[1] of blessed memory, expands our understanding of this issue by uncovering a deep and fundamental educational concept based on a teaching of the Talmud.

He cites, within his commentary to Proverbs, a Talmudic statement (Shabbat 87a): “One who is born under the astrological sign of Madim (Mars, Aries) will have the natural temperament to shed blood; he will either become a (therapeutic) blood-letter, or a mohel (performer of circumcisions), a kosher-meat slaughterer, or a (murderous) bandit.”  

The Gaon explains that two important foundations for education are hidden in these words:

A. We are not required, nor is it possible, to change the nature we were born with, but we must channel it properly.
B. Every natural character trait has the potential for being used in a positive way, even the impulse to shed blood.

In the words, “One who is born under the astrological sign of Madim (Mars, Aries) will have the natural temperament to shed blood,” our Sages are teaching us that a person born with the character of a blood-spiller cannot transform his character into that of a mild-mannered person; he will be drawn to shedding blood no matter what he does to try to change it.  But he can certainly channel his predisposition in positive ways, such as: drawing blood for a beneficial blood bank, becoming a lifesaving surgeon, fulfilling the Torah directive of kosher slaughter to provides others with food, or performing the holy commandment of circumcision to shepherd Jewish children into the age-old covenant of Abraham.

Yet there is also a great responsibility implied here for parents and teachers: if we are not able to train a child with such a character to want to express it in a positive direction, then it is very likely, God forbid, that his impulse to shed blood will manifest negatively through criminal violence!

In summary, the purpose of education is not to change the character of the child, even when that character is clearly perceived as negative. Such an attempt is bound to fail and is likely to only break the child's spirit (leading to greater long-term problems for both the child and those who care about him). The role of education is to channel every child’s character – no matter what it is – in a positive way.[2]

For this reason, the Sages of Israel were careful to refer to a person’s traits as: “good measurements (midos, in Hebrew)” or “bad measurements,” and not “good character” and “bad character.” There is no such thing as intrinsically “bad character,” since each character trait and can be channeled to a place where it will be put to good use, provided that it manifests in the proper measure and in the proper place.

In other words, the qualities we are born with are called our character. How we choose to use them is called our measurements (or midos, in Hebrew).

Therefore, when we direct a child to make proper use of the natural character traits he has been born with, according to the values given to us by the Creator, he will eventually become a man of ‘good measurements’. He will be happy with his nature and feel good about himself, and his parents and teachers will be happy and satisfied with him too.

This is what the verse is teaching us: “Educate the child according to his way” – according to his special inborn character! Only in this way can the child be given the healthy independence and the tools to successfully meet of the challenges of life.

Notes and Sources

[1] Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797), was a world-renowned expert on Torah and Jewish law, and the preeminent leader of non-chassidic Jewry of the past several centuries.
[2] It should be noted that this principle also applies to adults. Some people cannot stand the sight of blood, and others have no problem with it at all. The first should not denigrate himself for being too sensitive, nor should the other for being coarse. Each person is given the tools needed for his spiritual work in this incarnation, and each must direct his unique character toward positive channels. This, therefore, is the holistic perfection of creation, in which God created people with different characters and personalities, and each fulfills his part in creation by coming to express his particular character in a strong and healthy way. 
Some people do not like themselves, because of the natural character they received. They are always jealous of others who have different character traits they think are better or more desirable. This is a mistake, for a person must rejoice in the character with which he was endowed by heaven. There are extroverted people who are very open and lively by nature, and then there are those who are naturally closed and introverted. When talking to the introvert, he is jealous of the extrovert: “Why is it when he walks into a room, everyone surrounds him and tries to get his attention, while I'm always off to the side at every gathering, with nothing to say and nobody seeming to feel that I exist?” And when you talk to the lively, extroverted person in a personal conversation, he’ll say: “Why am I so noisy, always standing out everywhere I go, where he’s so dignified, calm and pleasant – I wish I were more like him.”

In truth, one should always rejoice in the specific qualities and nature that God has given him, and channel his unique tools toward positive goals. A person who is lively and happy by nature can take initiative and influence the society around him for the better, by directing and organizing Torah-learning programs and charitable endeavors. And the quiet type can sit down to meaningful personal conversations with people, calming and appeasing them in way that others cannot. Each person must see the unique points of light that are within him, rejoice in them, and build himself accordingly while at the same, fine-tune himself within his natural traits to reach a proper and pleasant balance. This is the healthy attitude and approach to both ourselves and our children.

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