Teaching Teshuva: An Almost-2-Year-Old Learns To Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Josie is talking up an official blue streak. She saw me putting on lip gloss and said excitedly, “Is that nail polish for your mouth?” She yells, “There’s a fly! I’m scared! Hold you!” (She’s still unclear on the whole “you” versus “me” concept. The other night she woke up and really, really wanted a bottle, which she calls a “baba.” After whining “baba, baba” for a while, she finally looked me in the eye and said, “Can I get you a baba?”) When the astronaut in her bedtime book “Hush Little Alien” slugs the alien who’s trying to kidnap him (um, this is less violent and disturbing than it sounds, okay?), Josie screams, “No hitting! Boy needs a timeout!” This is accompanied by the Supremes-sanctioned “Stop in the Name of Love” outstretched palm gesture.

Of course, now that I can see more of the intricate workings of her itty-bitty mind, I am even more convinced of my ability to mess her up permanently. We mothers always know we have great and terrible power, but now that I see Josie watching my every move (the other day she picked up my cell phone and said airily, “Hi, how’s the baby?”), I want to make sure I’m a moral exemplar. I know that if she catches me picking my nose even once, she will eventually become a serial killer.

Seriously, she’s visibly learning social norms and sucking up behavioral lessons like a sponge. And at this time of year, when many of us take a moral inventory and apologize to those we’ve wronged and try to figure out how to be better people in the future, I’m trying to figure out how to teach Josie empathy. Empathy shows you a world outside yourself. It’s the first step in becoming a mensch.

Remarkably, Josie seems to be learning to care about others, despite my failure to avoid all nose-picking. (Hey, we have central air conditioning and it gets dry in here.) Her baby sitter reported that when her pal Raphael was crying because he wanted Josie’s juice (his parents only let him have juice heavily diluted with water, and as a neglectful parent who will surely raise a daughter the size of a barn, I let Josie take hers straight), Josie watched him for a moment. Then she said, “Don’t cry. Have the good juice.” And she gave him her sippy cup. The other day, when she threw up all over my mother (thanks for baby-sitting, Mom!), she immediately started saying, “I’m sowwy! I’m sowwy!” (She apologizes spontaneously when she spills things. She needs to be prompted to apologize when she takes other kids toys or hits. Go figure.) We’ve been giving her timeouts for hitting and pushing, and she now talks expansively about all the behaviors that deserve timeouts. (“Taxi splashed Josie! Taxi needs a timeout!” She tells her Teletubby doll, “No pulling the kitty’s tail! Hurts! Get a timeout!”) When her friend Casey fell during a playdate, Josie patted her back and murmured, “It’s okay, don’t cry.” (A few minutes later, she pushed Raphael down the stairs. Argh. The yetzer ha’tov and yetzer ha’rah, the good and evil natures in each of us, are always at war. Watching Josie develop a superego is like watching time-lapse photography of a tree growing. It’s so fast and so slow.)

Josie loves stories that depict anger. Her favorite is “The Grouchy Ladybug,” but she also loves “When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry…” and “No, David” (in which a mother gets mad at her rampaging toddler, gives him a timeout, then assures him she still loves him).

But Josie’s not the only one who reads around here. In my quest to make sure my daughter doesn’t become the next Anna Nicole Smith or Ann Coulter, I check out a lot of parenting books and articles. Everyone has a different theory on how to discipline children, as well as how to raise a mensch and how to make sure your kids learn empathy. I want consensus! I want to know exactly how to help Josie deal with her separation anxiety and stop pushing Raphael! But those stupid experts don’t agree even on when kids develop empathy, let alone how to turn empathy into ethics.

Still, here’s my take: Several studies have found that newborns under 3 days old are likely to cry for longer periods of time when they’re exposed to the sound of another infant crying. It seems that at birth, we’re primed to be empathetic to the suffering of others. This tendency develops throughout toddlerhood. Marian Radke-Yarrow and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler of the National Institute of Mental Health discovered over decades of research that when a 10- to 14-month-old child sees another person’s distress, she’s likely to cry or bury her head in her mother’s lap. Toddlers between 18 and 24 months (Josie’s age) may pat an unhappy person’s head, bring him a toy or verbally express sympathy. And Arizona State psychologist Nancy Eisenberg notes how incredibly often preschoolers help and comfort each other. To find out why, she made the novel scientific decision to ask them. They responded that they helped others not because adults expected them to, or because they feared being punished or because they expected to benefit in any way. They said they helped because their classmates needed help.

That’s something we can all learn from at the High Holy Days. There’s no performance art or quid pro quo to this kindness. They do it because somehow they know it’s right.

It’s not everything, of course. Experts seem to think that the most sophisticated kind of empathy doesn’t develop until kids are 6 or 8, when they can feel sorrow for people they don’t actually see or know. As parents we have to learn how to nurture those feelings. But how?The experts disagree on whether you’re supposed to make your toddler apologize when she does something wrong, whether you’re supposed to apologize for her (“Rivka, Josie’s sorry she put you in a hammerlock and took your balloon”) or whether you’re not supposed to put words in your kid’s mouth because then she’ll resent you, feel disempowered and become Ann Coulter.

Ultimately, I guess we all have to go on instinct. I do believe in timeouts and in ordering my kid to apologize (though check in with me again when she’s 3 and refuses to bend to my will). I try to be consistent, to remind Josie of our house rules, to encourage her to hug after a timeout and to point out good behavior often. But I’m imperfect, and God knows I don’t know what I’m doing. I just hope the rules for parenting are the same as those for Rosh Hashana: Remember to perform a self-inventory, do teshuva and know that there’s always an opportunity to do better.

Seasonal Note: The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Web site has a Kids’ Corner that’s a great resource for teaching kids Jewish values: www.learn.jtsa.edu. There are explanations of the Jewish holidays, games, recipes and easy crafts.

E-mail Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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Teaching Teshuva: An Almost-2-Year-Old Learns To Say ‘I’m Sorry’

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