The Four Sons Redux or Misguided Educational Assumptions we Still Make

At this time of year Pessach, Passover, has taken over our lives. This is especially true in Israel, where I live.  Time was, when we women slaved away to prepare for the most stringent and labor intensive of all our holidays -the one that celebrates freedom.  Most of us are now followers of the “dust is not chametz” philosophy and keep “spring cleaning” in the non halachik, not essential before Pessach category where it belongs. Now, we are busy planning tiyulim.

As in generations past, children prepare to ask the four questions in contraposition to the fabled “Four Sons” and their queries.  Here is where we come upon some interesting subconscious philosophy.  The four sons are meant to represent the four types of students.  Four types?  As both a teacher and child therapist I have come upon many more types than that!  And what is a “type” anyway?  Reminiscent of the feeling behind- “Oh, I know your type”.  I always got my back up with that one.

Back to “the sons”. It would seem that the son “who does not know how to ask’” שאינו יודע לשאול)) either because he doesn’t know there is a question there or because he cannot formulate a question, and the simple son, (תם) are grouped together in a sort of learning disability class.  Not too shabby for educational theory going back nearly a millennium. The solutions regarding the education of these two youths is also quite progressive. It takes their needs into consideration. Then we get to the next group and things deteriorate considerably.

Since we have already been introduced to two sons with learning difficulties, the   “wise” son will be paired with perhaps a son who does not want to learn.  In my experience, that is the most difficult child to teach.  Not so in the Haggada.  The “wise son” ( (חכםis seen as being wise because he asks a question the way the author thought was correct; thus, he is a good boy. The final son is sees as the “wicked son” (רשע).  He asks basically the same question as the wise, good, son, but with an attitude. He becomes the epitome of wicked and his teacher is encouraged “to knock out his teeth”.  What is more, we let him know that he is not part of us anymore. If he were at the exodus, he would have been left behind. That’s shunning, the most insidious and hurtful behavior to inflict on a child. What’s going on here?

It’s not just about about asking a question, but how that question is asked and how the teacher perceives the question.  It is not unusual for me to be called into a classroom to observe a “problem child”.  It is equally not unusual for at least part of the problem to be a lack of patience, a lack of knowledge of child development, a lack of empathy or a combination of these on the teacher’s part. The final blow to the student is being seen in a negative light, as a problem or troublemaker and being ridiculed in front of his peers.  What exactly is this meant to accomplish? What is the student expected to do now? Apologize?  Get his act together?  He may have an attitude for a multitude of reasons only one of them having anything to do with his learning.

No wonder these kids, usually boys, stop trying and stop caring! It’s not “acting out”, it’s a natural consequence of how they are understood and treated.

It is terribly frightening to me how much of a child/teen’s sense of self and general outlook on life is tied to how someone in charge of his/her education treats him/her. That’s the problem in a nutshell.  It also works the other way around.  Namely, if a teacher is caring and non-judgmental, knows about learning styles and disabilities and treats the student with care, it can really change the child’s life for the better. This is even more so if he becomes the person that the student can depend on for a fair evaluation and guidance.

Bottom line, whether your child has learning issues, is a good student or has adopted an attitude as a response to difficulty in his life, as parents, we need to be really choosy and hands on regarding who is teaching our children.

About the Author
D'vorah Klein is a Child and Family Therapist with a Masters in Clinical Social Work, an LCSW-C in Child and Family Therapy and over two decades of experience. A Learning Disabilities specialist, she served as a Teacher Trainer and School Advisor for 9 years in the Baltimore City School System and several private schools. She now has a private practice in Bet Shemesh.
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