Emotional awareness and “Feeling Charts” have gained popularity as a way to help children regulate their emotions. But it can also raise children who are self-absorbed. Where is the balance?
By Rabbi Michoel Gourarie – Director of BINA, Sydney, Australia
Normal or Sedom?
The mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:10) describes four character traits in how we relate to others with the things we own. Two of them are explained in the following way:
“Ha’omer sheli sheli veshalach shalach,” if someone says: what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours, “zu middah beinonis,” this is average normal behavior, “veyesh omrim zu middas Sedom,” and some say: this is the character trait of Sedom (who were evil). “Sheli shelach veshalach shalach,” what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, “chossid,” is a pious person.
There are a few things to consider when studying this passage.
Firstly, we are taught the way of the “chossid,” as that should be our aspiration: selfless living. Considering that not everyone can always reach that level, the mishna accommodates a lesser but still legitimate mindset “middah beinonis,” normal behavior.
However, the difficulty here is a famous question. How can something that is considered to be normal behavior be labeled by some as middas Sedom? Normal behavior means you’re just not a “chossid,” but still acceptable, whereas middas Sedom is plain evil.
What Are Your Values?
One answer is a novel interpretation of the mishna.
When someone aspires to reach the level of a chossid, but he struggles and is somewhat protective of what belongs to him and treats others similarly, that is normal. However, says the Mishnah, if it becomes a “yesh omrim,” a philosophy of life, something that we teach and preach as an important value, then it is middas Sedom.
In other words, you can have things that are not intrinsically evil and for some it may be okay. But as soon as it becomes a yesh omrim, a philosophy and emphasis of our living, it is the way of Sedom.
This concept could be a general approach of how we navigate many issues and experiences, both for ourselves and for what we teach and promote, particularly in the chinuch of our children.
Rise of Secular Values
But first, a small introduction.
Today, while we live in relative comfort, we are faced with unique and unprecedented spiritual challenges and lack of clarity. In search of solutions, some look to the huge explosion of secular literature filled with attractive new ideas and strategies for self-help.
Sometimes some of these concepts are not entirely bad and may even be in line with Torah thinking. However, often they are not, and they even oppose authentic Jewish thinking. Yet sadly, many of these new-age ideas that come from distorted secular thinking have infiltrated mainstream frum homes, schools, publications, and even the minds of our young children.
As parents and educators, we must protect our core values, our Torah principles, and our mesorah which we believe to be absolutely eternal, nitzchi, irrespective of time and place. When Torah provides us with a way to behave or teach, it never changes.
Now, it must be said that sometimes there are certain aspects, where cultural changes and weaker generations necessitate minor modifications which we apply with guidance from our tzaddikim and rebbe’im. However, the core never changes and remains eternally the same.
Love and Discipline
Here is an example.
The gemara says we educate with “yemin mekareves usmol doche,” the right hand brings close and the left hand pushes away. In other words, there’s love and there’s discipline, boundaries. Both are extremely important.
The Rebbe points out that nowadays in particular, recognizing the fragility of today’s students and generation in general, the “right hand” must always be primary. The emphasis must be on love, closeness, and connection.
But of course, no one could say that today “smol doche” doesn’t apply, because it is impossible for a Torah value not to apply. With the Rebbe’s guidance, the focus and emphasis may shift, but the core formula remains. Indeed, the Rebbe often writes and discusses the importance of teaching Kabolas Ol and boundaries (a part of smol doche).
Let’s examine another educational concept.
Recently in our educational institutions there is a significant emphasis on emotional training. New curricula and parenting programs are popping up to teach these social and emotional programs. This is in line with modern secular literature that places a huge emphasis on acknowledging and accepting emotions, developing healthy emotions, validating emotions, and promoting the idea that all emotions are good. In our mosdos, these curricula often include Torah sources in an attempt to ‘kasher’ the program.
Now, it would be silly to say that there is no source in Torah for the importance of expressing emotion. An obvious example is the halacha of aveilus. When there is a tragedy and a person loses a loved one, Torah mandates the expression of grief. As the Rebbe explains in a letter, Torah gives room to express grief for a certain limited time and then encourages the person to move on, rather than dwell on it.
So, is there a makor in Torah for the expression of emotions? Of course there is. However, there is a fundamental difference between the approach of Torah and Chassidus to that of the non-Jewish world.
In recent times, self-help literature has moved to an emphasized focus on ‘self.’ The trend is one where everything is about self: self-care, self-love, self-protection, creating boundaries, being vulnerable (for oneself), communicating our own needs, and so on. This over-emphasis on self is negatively impacting adult relationships who have difficulty going beyond themselves.
Where is the Emphasis?
Here is where we return to our mishna.
Is self-care, okay? Of course. It’s normal, sometimes important, and occasionally a mitzva.
Despite chassidus promoting bitul, de-emphasizing the whole concept of ‘self,’ we are not always on the level of the Chassidim who were ba’alei mesiras nefesh often giving themselves up completely. Therefore, if we need to rest or take a vacation to stay healthy and calm, that is normal and appropriate.
The same is true for someone who is struggling emotionally and needs to create boundaries in their life and turn away request for help. It may not be the ultimate path of the “chossid,” but it is certainly a legitimate conduct for some people in our generation.
However, “veyesh omrim,” if that becomes the whole shita and philosophy of life, the emphasis and lingo that we preach and teach, then it is “middas Sedom.” This emphasis of self was never the emphasis in chinuch. On the contrary, the emphasis was on teaching selflessness and guiding our children and students to make room for others.
Keep Bad Emotions Away
The same can be applied to emotional training.
Firstly, certain ideas gleaned from secular literature are clearly not in line with Torah. One example of this is the notion that all emotions are okay. We know that Torah teaches that not all emotional feelings are okay, and one must exert effort to push away and reject certain emotions.
In Tanya perek alef, we learn how our nefesh habehamis produces bad midos such as anger, arrogance, taivah, and so on. Now, that doesn’t mean that a person is evil for feeling an emotion that is toxic. Tanya teaches us that the initial feelings of hate or anger or any other bad mida are natural and do not make us bad. However, it is our responsibility to recognize that it is toxic and, as the Alter Rebbe writes, to be “docheihu bishtei yadayim,” push it away with both hands. We must work overtime to discard the mida and certainly not act upon it.
But putting aside the obvious mistakes al pi Torah in these programs, there’s something more subtle that is problematic. The whole emphasis on formalizing a curriculum aimed specifically on feeling and validating emotions is incorrect. In our mesorah, it is not the derech hachinuch to highlight and explore in detail our own feelings, especially those feelings that come from yeshus.
Should emotions that are expressed by children be noticed and acknowledged? Of course. But creating a “yesh omrim,” a program of training them to know, explore and notice their feelings, is heading towards “midas sedom,” an obsession with self which is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy.
Our generation is indeed weaker and calls for a stronger yemin – more love and attention. In the context of reacting to an expression of emotions, this can mean two things: Firstly, not to be dismissive. When children ask questions or express emotions, we cannot ignore them. We must listen and acknowledge it. Secondly, not to be harsh. We can be firm in communicating Torah values, but never harsh.
But does that mean we encourage self-absorption? Should we be teaching our children to occupy themselves with themselves, noticing and being in touch with their own feelings all the time? Do we encourage them to accept and embrace their feelings – good or bad?
The antidote to emotion suppression is not emotion acceptance but rather emotion acknowledgment for the sake of serving Hashem.
Recognize Emotions of Others
If we are interested in teaching and building good and healthy midos, we ought to go back to something different which is in line with old traditional darkei hachinuch. Rather than teaching children to be conscious of their own feelings, let us invest in teaching them to be sensitive to the emotions of others.
They can learn about feelings by thinking about how another child feels when we are nasty to them. We can educate about the severity of humiliating or bullying someone else (malbin pnei chaveiro borabbim) by asking each child to imagine how it must feel.
What we should be teaching children at a young age is the meaning of true ahavas Yisroel. Ahavas Yisroel doesn’t mean only to be polite. It means to truly make room for another person, to feel for another person, to include another person, never to bully a friend, or to stand by while others bully someone in a classroom. Indeed, we must be aware of emotions, but the emotions and feelings of others, with less focus on ourselves.
Acknowledging the emotions of our children is fine. But the “veyesh omrim,” the shita and focus should be teaching true midos tovos, yiras Shomaim, love of Torah and Chassidishkeit.