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Shof'tim for Tots

  • Shof'tim for Tots

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
Ellen and Peter Allard

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.

-Deuteronomy 16:18-20

"It's not fair!"

Sometimes it appears as if this phrase is hard-wired into the brains of children. The exact phrasing may not be coming out of your preschooler's mouth, but the concept is probably at the root of many of the conflicts you see with your young child. It may be difficult to hear, but it is well founded given the world view of the typical preschooler. At this age, children are egocentric; the world revolves around them. Therefore, it makes sense they would view the world as a place where they can get what they want 24/7.

Gradually, with time and maturity, children increase their awareness and empathy for others. They learn that the world doesn't completely revolve around them, and that other people spin in their orbits! One of the ways parents can nurture this awareness is by helping children develop a sense of fairness and justice, which is central to Judaism.

Since young children learn by seeing, hearing and doing, their parents and caregivers are the most important teachers a child will have, especially as it pertains to attitudes, morals, values, and behaviors. The best way to teach a child about fairness or justice is to act in a way that conveys fairness and justice. If you follow the rules, listen to others, and act fairly and with understanding in situations, they will learn from your example.

For young children, the concept of fairness can be understood in the context of rules. Rules are helpful because kids at this age tend to think in absolutes. As children mature, this concrete thinking will transition to become more abstract. Knowing and following the rules is a great place to start in teaching a basic understanding of fairness and justice. They are able to understand and apply these rules as long as they see other people following the same rules. They learn to appreciate how much society relies on everyone following the rules.

An important group of rules young children learn revolve around safety, for example: not touching hot pots on the stove or staying out of the street. These rules have natural consequences, and it's pretty clear why we have to follow them: if we don't, we'll get hurt. It is helpful to have rules to enforce that have a clear purpose to children. If they ask why (what three to four-year-old doesn't?), you have a concrete answer, rather than a "because I said so." By enforcing rules at home, you will allow your children to become accustomed to the rules they will ultimately encounter outside of your home, whether it be in school or in society.

For very young children, fairness can be a difficult concept. One of the ways you can help them understand fairness is by modeling your willingness to share and by being a good listener. When your young toddler hands you a toy, show your delight! Hand it back to her and before you know it, you have a game on your hands. Get down on the floor so you're right at eye level, look her right in the eye and give her your total attention-let her know you are there for her 100 percent!

Playing games with your preschool-age child will also help him develop an appreciation and understanding of fairness. Find a game suitable to his age, and help him learn about taking turns, following rules, and winning gracefully, as well as losing gracefully. It is also important to help your children take responsibility for their behavior. This will help them learn not to blame others for their own mistakes and empower them to accept responsibility for their choices. These are all an important part of building a foundation that will most certainly contribute to their understanding and appreciation of fairness.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, instructs the people Israel to do justice and practice fairness. Today, it is a reminder to us that we must always work to ensure that justice and fairness exist in our homes and in our society. The concept of pursuing justice and fairness for all humanity is a central tenet of Reform Judaism. 

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. What is your definition of fair? Where or from whom did you learn it?
  2. What do you do to help your children understand the concept of fairness?

Questions for Children:

  1. What are some of the rules you follow at home? At school?
  2. Why are rules important?
  3. Can you think of something that is fair and something that is not fair? How do you feel when things are not fair?
Reference Materials: 

Pages 1292-1306 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.