Pathways To Parenting

June 10, 2021

Treating Children as the Individuals They Are

I recently received a phone call, like many before it, in which a young man who is a top student in yeshivah shared with me that he finds that in school, there are two types of people: those who follow all the rules and those who were a bit more nonconformist and independent minded. He said he finds that those who at an earlier stage were in the latter group are doing much better in learning now, while those, like him, who did everything as they were told are on autopilot and stagnating. “What am I missing,” he asked me, “and is there hope for me?”

I told him this isn’t a new problem, but one that Rav Yisrael Salanter identified long ago, using the phrase from the pasuk in Yeshayah (29:13), “mitzvas anashim melumadah.” The issue of people lacking passion, commitment, and clear goals in their learning and avodas Hashem is an age-old one, and the end result is that many end up stunted, unable to grow and reach their potential. Indeed, they are not even aware of such potential since they don’t see themselves as having an individual identity apart from the larger mass they are part of.

This is also, in my experience, a major contributing factor to some people’s unfortunate decision to forsake Torah observance. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard such people explain their decision to leave Yiddishkeit behind by saying, “I never made the decision to be frum. I was just going with the flow, following the crowd.”

That’s a tragedy, because the crowning glory of the human being is precisely their bechirah, the ability to choose. But far too many people don’t even see their choices in life as being between good and evil, but between whether or not to conform to the group they identify with.

I believe the problem begins quite early on in life, with the many rules children are expected to follow regarding what and when to eat, play, do schoolwork, and much more. All these directives send a subtle message that how the child acts isn’t really their responsibility but that of whoever sets the rules, when in truth each of us should see ourselves as responsible for what we think and say and how we act.

When a child doesn’t feel that they have a certain amount of autonomy, the ability to be what someone once called “the master of their soul,” they are not going to feel very good about themselves. And as a result, they are likely to go looking for substitute means of getting that good feeling—which, after all, is the very definition of “happiness.”

Are rules necessary for kids? Of course. But perhaps there needs to be an accompanying message that although these rules are important for a child to develop into a functional, productive adult, they are still responsible for themselves.

What’s the real solution, though? One basic answer is to indeed treat our children and students as individuals. That is exactly what the Alter of Slabodka did in his yeshivah, and the results were phenomenal. To think that gedolim like Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, and Rav Yaakov Ruderman—each so different from the others—all grew to greatness in the same beis midrash of the Slabodka Yeshiva is astounding!

When the Alter set out to establish a yeshivah, he asked Rav Yisrael Salanter how to go about doing so, and Rav Yisrael responded by quoting the pasuk that speaks of “giving life to the low of spirit.” The mission of a yeshivah is to lift a student’s spirit by making him feel worthwhile, and the way to do so is by making sure he understands that he is created in Hashem’s Image, a G-dly person with the power to make important moral choices in his life.

Rav Henoch Leibowitz, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, once put it to me this way: This world is a laboratory for the creation of human beings, and each of us is given the raw materials needed to do so. Our mission in this life is to make the best possible person out of the materials we’ve been given.

Once we’ve communicated to our child the gadlus they possess, we have to help them identify their unique strengths. Parents in particular are well suited to do this, since at home there is much more leeway than there is at school for treating each child individually instead of with uniform rules that apply to everyone.

When Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to appoint a successor to lead Klal Yisrael, he said, “Since You know that the mind of each individual is different from the next, appoint a leader who will tolerate each person according to his individuality” (see Rashi, Bamidbar 27:16). If even the manhig of all of Klal Yisrael was expected to relate to each Jew individually, that is certainly the case for a parent at home and a teacher in their classroom.

And when we tune in to our child’s individuality, we gain entrance to their neshamah and can help them grow to what they can truly become.