September 2007

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Raising a Mensch

Teaching Our Children Teshuva

-- Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D. Ph.D.


Child A plays with a toy. Child B sees the toy, wants it, and takes it. Child A cries. Mother of Child B intervenes, grabs the toy and gives it back to Child A.

MOTHER OF CHILD B: Say you’re sorry.

CHILD B: I’m sorry.

A few moments pass and again, Child A plays happily with the toy. Child B sees the toy, wants it, and takes it, again. Child A cries. Mother of Child B intervenes, grabs the toy and gives it back to Child A.

MOTHER OF CHILD B: Say you’re sorry.

CHILD B: I’m sorry.

This frustrating interaction repeats several more times until Child A and Child B and their parents leave the playground. A fun day in the park has turned into a stressful event and everyone leaves feeling badly.

What has Child B learned from saying "I’m sorry"? Nothing.

Has this child truly apologized? No.

A true apology goes beyond rote repetition of "I’m sorry". As we enter the High Holiday season and begin to review our behavior and make amends, we need to explore how to teach Teshuvah to our children through both role modeling and guidance.

Rabbi David R. Blumenthal, Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, describes Teshuva, "the rabbinic concept of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, as requiring five elements: recognition of one’s sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét'), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét'), restitution where possible (peira'ón), and confession (vidúi)."

"Recognition of one’s sins as sins" involves an analysis that requires a moral conscience and a social emotional intelligence. In teaching this to younger children, you will have to be quite clear and have simple rules of interaction with others. Improper actions will require concrete consequences. As they mature, your lessons can include exploration of motives and how immoral actions are not only be a crime (for example, stealing) but also a sin against other humans and God.

"Remorse" describes feelings of regret and guilt. Improper actions against other people can be viewed as a failure of our self-control or abandonment of one’s spiritual roots. It is important for children to learn that they have many choices in life. When they act immorally, they made the wrong choice. Often children try to claim that it was not their "fault." If there was a wrong choice made, it was their choice even if there were extenuating factors. Remorse is a difficult concept for young children. Choice, right and wrong are simpler concepts to comprehend. As children mature, discussion can evolve into guidance around remorse and can include both verbal and written correspondence from the child to the victim.

"Desisting from sin" is an action. It does not simply involve stopping the action but also working to repress thoughts about performing the action and making a commitment to avoid the sin in the future. Children will need guidance on how to go through this process, step by step. "Restitution" is another action. If an item was stolen or broken, it should be replaced. The child should have to exert effort for restitution through direct service or by earning money for repairs. It is much more difficult, however, to make restitution for an insult or other damage to someone’s reputation. In these situations, the child should think of something to do that would make the other child feel happy.

"Confession" involves recognizing that a sin against another person is also a sin against God and requires ritual and/or personal prayers. These confessions need not occur only during the High Holidays but should occur throughout the year and should be specific.

Just as Judaism recognizes that no one can be completely successful in avoiding sin, including repeating a sin for which one has made Teshuva, so, too, should parents. We are not perfect. Think about someone who has the best intentions to quit smoking but succumbs to lighting up a cigarette or another person who vows to control his temper but finds himself raising his voice in anger. It can take several genuine attempts before someone is successful in extinguishing an unhealthy or sinful behavior. We need to praise the effort, if it is sincere, rather than the actual outcome. It is likely that with each attempt, more progress will be made.

The best way to teach Teshuva to a child is through role-modeling. When was the last time that you apologized to your child? No parent is perfect. We all try our best but we make mistakes. Think about a time when you might have over-reacted and yelled, for example, or wrongly accused your child. It is important to demonstrate to your child that you are not above making an apology. Better than any lecture, your actions serve as a powerful lesson. Acknowledge your mistake, ask for your child’s forgiveness, and demonstrate in words and actions what you will do to try to prevent the offense in the future.

Similarly, the next time that your child sees you argue with your spouse or another adult, let your child also see an apology interchange. Your child could see and hear you go through the five steps of Teshuva. Ideally, the role modeling would continue with the other adult accepting the apology without further discussion about the episode and a reassurance that your apology was accepted.

In addition to role-modeling, parents need to be prepared to guide children through apologies with practical steps. According to Susan Nichter, a social worker in Indiana, a child can be taught that an apology should include three separate sentences. The first sentence states what the child did or said that was wrong. The second sentence is an explanation of why it was wrong, not an excuse. The third sentence asks for forgiveness. Let’s revisit the playground scene, applying these principles.


Child A plays with a toy. Child B sees the toy, wants it, and takes it. Child A cries.

MOTHER OF CHILD B: Please give the toy back and come over here for a minute.

Child B comes over to his mother.

MOTHER OF CHILD B: You took your friend’s toy without asking. This was wrong because the toy does not belong to you, and you made your friend cry. You need to apologize to your friend. The next time that you want to play with someone else’s toy, you have to ask permission to use it, wait to get it, and say thank you. Now, please apologize.

CHILD B (to CHILD A): I’m sorry that I took your toy and made you cry. It was not my toy and I should have asked you for it. Please forgive me.


If we could teach this to every child, imagine the adults that they will become and the civilized world they would create.

Shana Tova Tikatevu.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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