I understand the need to tell my children stories that are above logic. But must I really tell them about Chana and her seven sons?
Renowned chinuch expert Rabbi Michoel Gourarie of Sydney, Australia addresses readers’ questions on all things chinuch.
I read your recent article – “Am I frightening my child?” – with interest. In it, you address the topic of telling irrational or scary stories from Tanach and Gemara to young children.
I was somewhat disappointed with the response, as the examples you quoted were referring specifically to miracles or seemingly far-fetched stories and midrashim, but not specifically frightening stories.
So, my question is:
- Can you point to a source that would apply to stories that might frighten a child?
- Could you explain why there is no concern that children may be adversely affected by these stories?
- If we should tell such stories, must we include all the gory details? This is particularly relevant now, since Chanukah includes two scary stories: Chana and her seven sons – which mentions the death of a very young child – and Yehudis cutting off the general’s head.
Rabbi Gourarie responds:
Thank you for your question, and for highlighting the aspects of the article which required clarity.
First, I’d like to point out a detail in the story of Shimon Hakofer and his refusal to tell children that Gehinom opened under Eisav’s feet. It is clear that in addition to avoiding the story due to its apparent irrationality, he also did not want to scare the students.
The same is true with the story of the melamed who taught the Rebbe Rashab’s grandchildren. It is told that the teacher did not wish to tell over things that “mavhil es horayon,” would shock the mind, which implies a similar concept. (See Likutei Sichos, Vol. 19, pg. 91).
Moreover, the Frierdiker Rebbe explained in connection with this story that a child’s chinuch must begin with stories of Mesiras Nefesh (see Shaarei Chinuch pg. 55). This would certainly include stories of people sacrificing their very lives.
Perhaps the explanation of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s directive is that the importance of telling these stories to young children is specifically because of the impact they have.
Children today grow up in a fairly comfortable and abundant society, and have come to expect things to come quickly and easily. As a result, the whole concept of Mesiras Nefesh is very foreign to them. Mesiras Nefesh is fundamental to Chinuch! It’s not only about giving up one’s life – it’s about learning to work hard, to give up our ratzon (desire), and about being willing to sacrifice what we want for the greater good.
It is specifically at a young age, before the child’s intellect is fully mature, that the concept of Mesiras Nefesh must be ingrained in their mindset. By sharing specifically the stories that are miraculous or irrational before mature understanding, we are able to implant emunah in young minds.
So, what about the young child becoming frightened or anxious?
I believe the reason children are not traumatized by these stories is because they understand them with a simplistic and childlike comprehension. While the stories do leave a strong impression on young children, their innocence and purity keep them from fully processing the traumatic consequences of particular narrative.
In other words, children have the ability – because of the purity of their neshama and their strong Emunah – to fully absorb and be affected by the Mesiras Nefesh aspect of a story without absorbing the physical consequences of the death or violence. They take the ‘neshama’ of the story to heart, but not the full ‘guf.’
To achieve this, there are two points to keep in mind:
1. Obviously all children are different, and when you have a child that is particularly anxious, you should talk it over with a mashpia and/or a professional.
2. It is not necessary to embellish the story with gory details. When we do that, we run the risk of actually making the story terrifying by inserting and mixing in our own adult perceptions, which could prove difficult for our children. It is best to tell the stories the way they are told in the original sources and allow the child to absorb the purity of the story and its spiritual meaning.
Wishing you lots of nachas!
Rabbi Michoel Gourarie is the founder and director of BINA, an educational institution for adults in Australia. Having served for many years as a teacher and principal, he is now a sought after chinuch consultant and teacher trainer. To send a chinuch question to Rabbi Gourarie, email firstname.lastname@example.org.