Vayeishev for Tots: The Importance of Self-Control

Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1−40:23

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

When his brothers saw that he was the one their father loved, more than any of his brothers, they hated him and could not bear to speak peaceably to him.

-Genesis 37:4

Parashat Vayeishev tells the story of Jacob's children, the most well-known aspect of which is the rivalry between Joseph and his siblings. This parashah is the source of the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors; the story in which he is sold into slavery by his brothers, who allow their father, Jacob, to think that Joseph has been devoured by a savage beast. This parashah is rich with opportunities for reflecting on family dynamics. Here however, we'll focus more on the individual and the idea of self-control.

The verse quoted above tells of Joseph's brothers' feelings before anything happened to Joseph. The statement that Joseph's brothers "could not bear to speak peaceably" to Joseph brings up the question of whether or not this was a conscious decision. Could they have overcome their anger and been friendlier to Joseph, or were they really not able to be nice to him? Certainly, when one person does not want to speak to another, there is an element of (or lack thereof) self-control. We would argue that Joseph's brothers are not exercising a lot of self-control in their treatment of their brother throughout the events in this parashah.

Dealing with one's emotions can be difficult at any age but is, nevertheless, a skill set that must be learned and practiced. Self-control is a key part of this skill set and is one of the primary skills that young children can begin to work on at an early age. In fact, research indicates that children who exhibited more self-control in early childhood (compared to their peers) had greater success later in life.1 Although it is completely normal for young children to act impulsively, we can encourage them to build skills that will help them move toward greater self-control. These skills will help them (and their parents and teachers) now and throughout their lives, ideally building and improving as they grow into adulthood.

Both awareness and practice are key components of supporting the development of self-control. It is imperative that parents and teachers provide children with ample opportunities for developing a sense of pride in their accomplishments and create meaningful opportunities to practice responsibility. On a practical level, there are many things that you can do now to help your children develop this important skill:

• Allow your child to dress herself (even when it takes forever and you have places to go); it can provide a sense of accomplishment.

• Communicate to your child that he must put the toys away after playtime, even if you have to do it with him; this allows him to practice being responsible for his possessions and his actions.

• Give your children tasks that they can complete on their own, without direction (like setting the table for breakfast or washing hands before every meal); such tasks go a long way toward self-awareness and ultimately self-control.

Many of the opportunities that are necessary for building this awareness and confidence in children will arise if we, as adults, remember to exercise our own self-control. In this fast-paced world it is easier said than done, but slowing down and giving young children time to do things themselves just might be the best way to help them increase their self-control. Sometimes what we don't do for our children is just as important as what we do do for them!

Questions for Adults:

  1. Are there things that you do for your child that you think he might be able to do for himself? Think through what you would have to do in order to provide these opportunities more often, and make a plan for trying some new tasks.
  2. Do you have clearly defined expectations for chores that you require your child(ren) to do? If so, what are they?
  3. What are some of the ways in which you model self-control to your children?

Questions for Children:

  1. What are some things that you have learned to do on your own, now that you are a big kid?
  2. Do you have any jobs you do at your house or in school? What are these jobs?
  3. What do you do when you get angry?
Reference Materials

Pages 246–256 in The Torah A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition by W. Gunther Plaut