Middos tovos are a prerequisite for Torah.
One must first improve his middos and then the Torah can dwell upon him... One cannot learn Torah first and then acquire good middos because this is impossible.
(Rabeinu Yonah on Avos 3:17)
Yes, Rabbi Ackerman, I understand that. You have mentioned that the best way to teach children is by example. The problem is that my children are not with me all day to see how I conduct myself in various settings with different types of people. At home, Baruch Hashem, they see how my wife and I conduct ourselves toward one another, towards our children, towards our guests, tzedakah collectors, and delivery people. But they don’t see how I respond to demands and difficult people at work. They don’t know how I choose my friends, what values I look for when making those choices. They don’t know the difference between a friend and an acquaintance, a confidant and a buddy. How do I teach them the middos, the guiding principles they don’t get to see and need to learn?
I suggest you begin by learning ba’asher hu sham. Where are they holding now?
What do your children think about the demands and difficult people in school? How do they choose their friends? With whom do they share the joys and sorrows of life? Who stands up for them and for whom do they stand up? How do they respond when hurt by a friend? How does they express love?
What does love mean to each of your children?
Teach them that loving someone includes the root of the word ahava, hav, to give. Love means willingness to sacrifice and put your loved one first sometimes. Ask your child how often they are able to let a friend or sibling go first when it’s time to do something fun, enjoy a treat, get in line at school. If it is very hard for your child to do that, invite them to talk about what they think and feel when they have tried to in the past. See if you can help them become more comfortable with “losing” sometimes, if that’s how they perceive it, rather than trying to convince them that “winners let others go first.” Work with their perception rather than challenging it.
Teach your child to speak up for what is right when others are speaking in ways that are hurtful and wrong. Teach her to speak up for a child who is getting bullied or mistreated. Help her plan appropriate topics she can introduce to change the subject when she detects rechilus in a conversation. Install in her the awareness of her ability to be a mashpeah, to enlighten those around her. Teach her that she can be A little bit of light [that] dispels a lot of darkness. (Attributed to the Baal HaTanya, Rabi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
What counts is teaching your child to slow down and think, to formulate kavanah and be ro-eh es hanolad. If your household’s pace doesn’t model this, your child is going to have a hard time mastering it.
Any time your child says or does something that turns out poorly, sit down with her when you’re both calm and replay the event as objectively as possible. Then ask her what she was hoping to accomplish, her kavanah, and what she thought was going to be the outcome, ro-eh es hanolad. Let her think it through. This time-consuming parenting activity will pay you dividends in nachas far beyond your investment.
The middos of integrity and trustworthiness are the hardest to acquire and the easiest to lose. Modeling is critical here. So is forbearance. When your child loses your trust, help him regain it. He needs to trust you to reach down to him when he falls and to help him up. We ask Hashem for that every day. B’middah sh’adam modaid...
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.