The Wicked Child as a Discerning Connoisseur

One of the more common explanations about the wicked child is that they are labeled as such because of their choice to disassociate themselves from the community — presumably the Jewish community. This makes sense given that it is written, that the wicked child says, “what is this service of yours? They say ‘to you’ and not ‘to themselves,’ thus excluding themselves from the community and the very core of our beliefs.”

Last week, I read on-line that an educator, presumably uncomfortable with the label “wicked,” preferred to refer to this child as the “disengaged child.”

As the Haggadah is also often described as a pedagogic instrument I want to use this text to make a few educational points:
1. Children should not be labeled.
2. If you still feel a need to label children, they should never be labeled “wicked.”
3. Being disengaged is not the same as being wicked — it isn’t even close.
4. If a child is disengaged it is only because the adults in the room deem them so.

With very few exceptions, none of our children is disengaged. If anything, the opposite might be true — they are perhaps over-engaged in too many things, often all at the same time. When the Jewish community uses the term “disengaged” or “unengaged” what they are really saying is that the person is not doing what they want them to be doing.

It is time that we realize that Jews who are unengaged in certain Jewish activities are actively choosing not to participate in certain things because they (or their parents) do not deem them to have as much value as the other things that they are doing in their lives. In today’s world value is most commonly expressed in how one spends their time and how one spends their money. Simply put, many, or even most, Jews are choosing not to participate in certain Jewish activities partly because they don’t know they exist, but more often because they want to spend their time and dollars on things that they deem more valuable to their lives.

The child who puts themselves on the outside looking in is not at fault — not even one little bit. If anyone is to blame it is the rabbis, educators, and especially the child’s parents, who have failed to bring Judaism to a place of meaning and value for every type of child. If anything, the so-called wicked child should be lauded — despite their alienation they still turned up and even bothered to participate in the Seder experience.

It’s time we stopped calling this child, or any of our children wicked. Maybe a better term is a “discerning connoisseur” or “child waiting to be inspired.” As it is written in the Book of Proverbs (22:6), maybe it’s also time that we collectively understand that good education has always been about meeting every child where they are on their journey and finding any number of ways to show them the path that they were destined to journey on.

And while we’re at it, please stop labeling any of our children. It does way more harm than good, and it’s a practice that ought to stop right now at this year’s Seder.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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