One day on the playground, Julie pulled on Katie’s neck so hard that she began hysterically crying. The girls came over to me, and when Katie showed me the marks on her neck and explained what happened, Julie admitted it was true. As I examined the marks with Julie, I asked her how it felt to know that Katie was crying because she hurt her. She said she felt sad, so I helped her ask Katie what she could do to make it better. Katie, who had begun to calm down, said with a little sniffle, “A hug.” The girls gave each other a big hug, Katie stopped crying, Julie said she was sorry – without any prompting from an adult – and the girls returned to playing.
As an early childhood educator, I spend a lot of time coaching children in their social-emotional growth. Early in my career, I learned that saying “I’m sorry” sometimes means simply following a script, and I began to notice the emptiness in the words. By the time children are the age of 3 or 4, many are savvy enough to know that saying, “I’m sorry” is enough to satisfy the supervising adult so they can move on and continue playing. I realized that the children in my class needed more coaching in order to truly develop their sense of compassion and empathy.
After many experiences similar to the Katie and Julie example – and my asking children, “How does it feel to see your friend crying?” – I have recognized one thing: Empathy takes practice. I see this in my own experiences, and know it’s just as true for adults as it is for children. Judaism has this figured out, which is why each year on Yom Kippur, we get the chance to take stock and try again.
The more time I spend teaching young children, the more aware I am that we all need reminders of how to be our best selves. Our busy lives have us rushing around without much time to think about our impact on others, and in turn ourselves. When’s the last time you regretted missing dinner with your child? Or wished you had more time to call your parents who live a time zone away? Maybe your temper was short with a coworker because you were over-tired. We aim, but like our children, we sometimes miss.
I often use the imagery of a bullseye when teaching young children the complicated concepts related to the High Holidays and Yom Kippur. Each day when we try to do our best, it’s like we’re aiming for the center of the bullseye. But sometimes we say something that hurts a friend’s feelings, or we do something unkind to a loved one. That’s when we land on an outer ring and miss the mark.
Judaism has a word for this – cheit. Often translated as “sin,” cheit actually focuses on the things we’ve done that weren’t quite right. We’re taught that it’s normal to miss the mark sometimes, and it’s up to us to keep aiming for the bullseye. This is the practice of t’shuvah, which literally means “to return,” and is at the heart of our preparation for Yom Kippur. According to Medieval Rabbinic commentator, Maimonides, t’shuvah happens when we are given the opportunity to repeat our (negative) behavior, but we choose to behave differently. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah 2.1)
Each of us, young and old alike, is constantly in need of reminders of how to be more compassionate, more patient, and more empathetic – not only with each other, but also with ourselves. If we see ourselves as learners – the way we see our children – perhaps we can be more open to our own practice of t’shuvah, returning to our center and aiming to be our best selves.
Julie’s empathizing with Katie gave meaning to her apology. This is the spirit of apology and forgiveness that the High Holiday season asks of us. A simple “I’m sorry,” will not suffice; the work must go deeper. Like Julie and Katie, we too have the opportunity to tap into our sense of empathy and compassion and to practice true apology and forgiveness toward each other and ourselves – on Yom Kippur and beyond.
Try these activities to help kids better understand Yom Kippur:
- Read The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story by Jacqueline Jules with your child.
- Create a large bullseye on poster board and then, blindfolded, try to place stickers in the center. Use the experience as a springboard to discuss the concept of aiming to be our best selves but sometimes missing the mark.
- Roleplay with dolls or stuffed animals a scene of one doing something unkind to another. When one begins to cry, ask the unkind doll how it feels to see her friend crying. Play out the scene, asking your child for suggestions of how to help the dolls.