Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When children suffer – a child’s view

Some time back, a ten or eleven year old boy told me that he had experienced a stomach ache in shul. He told me he was wondering whether his stomach ache might have averted some disaster elsewhere. If it did, he said, he would gladly accept more such pains in order to save people from catastrophe.

This conversation really bothered me.

Certainly, we do believe within traditional Judaism that when part of the community suffers, that can atone for communal sin, and avert a different communal tragedy. [Yes, this is the idea that becomes skewed into vicarious atonement in Christianity.]

It’s also good for a child to develop sympathy for others, and to be willing to endure hardship for the sake of helping others. This is a major parenting goal; you don’t need me to do yet another re-hash of Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s perennial pedagogy for his son.

Among my questions, though:
1. Who would teach this concept to an unsophisticated ten year old boy?

2. How does this child now view suffering – his own and that of others?

3. Is it healthy for a ten year old boy to think this way?

4. What sort of behavior toward himself and others might this trigger in the child, before he is mature enough to gain a better understanding of suffering?

I don’t know. I’m very uncomfortable with this.


  1. There are a lot of simplistic presentations out there: hagiographies, chassidishe maiselach, original stories written for children and modeled on adult religious folk tales. Certainly you've seen the publications. And teachers tell these stories in school. Much of our children's religious education is based on stories that the kids don't understand. On an only slightly better note, midrashim are taught to them that way, too. There are a lot of fifth graders out there who can quote The Little Midrash Says, but can't tell you p'shat in chumash.

    When I discovered this in an elementary class I taught years ago, I stopped the use of midrash with the kids. I spent that whole year making sure they knew what is actually written in the Torah, and had some idea what to do with Rashi.

  2. R' Mordechai-
    Definitely in agreement on the need for prioritization, but I'm still stuck here. The idea isn't wrong, at its core. I guess I'm trying to figure out what "age-appropriate" means here.

  3. I have a nine year old and eleven year old (among others). As far as someone teaching him this concept, people often say "It should be a kapparah..." He may have heard adults talking. There may have been some sort of tragedy in his community; he may have asked why, or how could this happen, etc. and received this answer, which he then 'applied' to his stomach ahce. Kids this age ask many questions that are 'beyond their years.'(and quite uncomfortable for the parents!) If thinking this way is helpful to him in dealing with his pain (as small as it may be)or life's difficulties, maybe it's better for him to think this way, rather than trying to come up with on his own, such as possibly thinking that there is no purpose to pain or that it's a punishment. I don't think negative behaviors would be triggered in an emotionally healthy child.
    If a child of this age asked about suffering, what would an age appropriate response be? When I've been asked, "We don't know..we can't understand why..." are responses that have worked, for now. I then try to steer the conversation toward discussing feelings, emotions, reactions.

  4. When I've been asked, "We don't know..we can't understand why..." are responses that have worked, for now.
    and when they get older they will understand?
    Joel Rich

  5. It has been my experience that we tend to underestimate the capabilities of children. Is it possible that this 10 year old thought this idea up by himself?

    Having been a 10 year old before I am not inclined to be concerned. As long as it doesn't cause him to harm himself or cause depression what is the big deal?