Teaching our children: Modeling is not enough

In my post Trusting Our Children, I wrote about things that children learn on their own. So what do we need to teach them?

I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have the answers. I can’t, because they will be different for each family. Leora will make sure her children appreciate art and can express anger productively. RivkA’s children have learned about physical fitness and coping with chronic illness. Sephardi Lady will emphasize being satisfied with what one has and sticking to a budget. And that is how it should be. Each of these concepts is important, some are essential, but no parent can give them all equal weight. We emphasize the skills and values that are currently part of our lives, taking into account our children’s temperaments and inclinations. This is a good thing because it makes us a diverse, vibrant society.

I believe that teaching our children involves several elements. The first is expressed in this quote on education by Rav Yehuda Amital: [Hat tip: Hirhurim]

The greatest educational impact is achieved when the teacher is unaware that he is teaching and the student is unaware that he is learning. This is the meaning of “the Name of Heaven shall become beloved through you” (Yoma 86a) — a person through his ordinary conduct should bring about a sanctification of God’s Name, without even being aware that he is influencing others through his behavior. [Jewish Values, 150-151]

As we all know but often forget, modeling is critical. To quote a book blurb I saw recently, who we are is more important in how our kids turn out than anything else. But it’s not enough. We also need to explain to our children what we are doing and why.

Since I just quoted Rav Amital, I’ll give an example from our visit to Yeshivat Har Etzion last week (otherwise known as the Gush). To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the yeshiva invited graduates to visit with their families for the day. There were hikes, shiurim and other family activities. At mincha an announcement was made suggesting that parents take a moment to show their children about the beit midrash. Going to the beit midrash every day is a powerful statement, but if children don’t understand what happens there, the impact is lessened. We have to interpret the world for our children according to our values.

Here’s another example: We model safe behavior by wearing seat belts, and by expecting passengers to do the same. We refuse to drive unless children are properly restrained. But if the children don’t understand why we wear seat belts, the first time they go with a friend’s mother who says, “If you’re sitting in between two people you don’t need one,” they may wonder whether that mother is right. (Kids get these “deprogramming” messages all the time.) So kids need to know that car accidents can happen anytime and anywhere, and that even a sudden stop can cause serious injury.

This concept also applies equally to Jewish rituals; we can explain that waiting between meat and milk reminds us to be compassionate to animals. Or thoughtfulness: “We need to call Grandma when we get home from the airport so she won’t worry about us.”

Another aspect of teaching that we tend to neglect is the “how.” All too often our kids are away when we do chores and errands. When they are with us we tend to compartmentalize activities, as if quality time must involve kiddie entertainment. Then we resent it when we don’t have time for anything else. (That’s another post I’ve been meaning to write.) I find that summer vacation is a good time to teach one or two useful “hands-on” skills.

Below I attempt to categorize the types of things we teach our children. In many cases, setting an example and starting young is all you need, with some reinforcement along the way. This is prescriptive, by the way, not descriptive–I can’t claim to have succeeded in passing on all of these to my children to a sufficient degree. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure until they reach adulthood. And this list is far from comprehensive:

  • Safety issues, like crossing streets and using helmets/car seats/seat belts.
  • Torah, halacha, prayers, Jewish customs and culture, and Jewish perspectives on big and small questions.
  • Learning and love of learning; how to find answers; critical thinking.
  • Hygiene, including washing hands, toilet manners, and bathing. My 4-year-old recently decided she wants to take a shower herself, every day. She even washes behind her ears.
  • Health issues, such as food safety and nutrition, exercise, sun protection, normal body function and illness.
  • Order, caring for objects.
  • Character traits like compassion, integrity and generosity. I don’t believe these can be taught directly, but we can model and discuss them.
  • Effective ways of expressing emotions and dealing with conflict.
  • Everyday skills such as home maintenance, financial management and running errands.
  • General behavior and manners. Sometimes I wonder whether we teach children to say “thank you” because we want them to feel grateful and show appreciation, or because we want them to be perceived as well-behaved. The answer will determine our response when they behave “badly.”

Note: Sephardi Lady asked me about learning to talk. To me, speech falls into the category of things that we can trust our children to get on their own. A large group of normal children begin speaking late, and a proper evaluation can help determine which ones need intervention. It can be tricky. When one of my children spoke late, I found helpful information by Dr. Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University.


  1. Helene Rock says

    Beautiful posting, Mom in Israel! And precisely the reason why I homeschooled my daughter! Children learn far more by observing what you and others do rather than by yammering at them. I homeschooled because I wanted my daughter to learn from adults and NOT the peer group. Kids have a super sensitive radar that can pick up all the nuances. So it’s imperative that the desired behaviour, beliefs, middot etc, are modelled appropriately. At 21, I’m delighted to say, my daughter is a terrific human being. Somehow the “messages” she got from the significant others in her life were far louder and more easily assimilated than those of the prevailing pop culture. Good topic.
    Helene in California

  2. Great post, but I feel like I have so much that needs to be accomplished.
    As a speech pathologist, I can tell you that a typically developing child does not need to be taught to “talk”, that will happen naturally. There is a wide range of normal, and your pediatrician should be able to tell you if any concern you have is valid, if they can’t you should consult a speech pathologist. That being said, your child will mimic everything you say, so as with everything else, remember that you are a model for your child with regard to what you say and how you say it….

  3. I had to go back to the comments. I didn’t remember asking about language development, but rather if we, as parents, speak to our children enough about things we want them to learn.
    Anyways, we are coming off a rough night. I might email you later to find out if something is normal or abnormal.

  4. Mom in Israel, I love this discussion about modeling for our children. I try to supplement what our children learn in school by seeing what are their natural talents (and each is different) and allow them in non-school time to develop those.
    Today we are visiting Tsefat;this is not something our children would choose to do, but how to teach them about ancient synagogues, artists, Jewish history, a “different” culture without cramming in down their throats? We shall see how the day goes!

  5. Ever since you started posting on this topic, I have been thinking more about what messages I want to impart to my kids. There are so many!
    What you raise now, is also the question of how. That is a far more difficult question.
    My father also tried to convey the power of teaching in such a way that the child does not even realize what they are learning. But I don’t have that sophistication.
    I always tackle things head-on. I would like to learn how to raise important issues a different way, since head-on is not always the most effective way with kids and modeling is not always enough.
    (btw, thanks for the link)

  6. Nona Nita says

    I agree with you. It is important to explain our reasons for doing things to children and in some cases to model out thinking process. What seems obvious to us is often not to children, especially young children with “magical” thinking. Some people forget that thinking skills and reasoning ability are learned skills. They need to be taught right along with everything else.