The Steipler on Learning Mussar With Children
The sefer, Ashkavtei Derebbi brings the following: Our teacher was asked whether it was necessary to learn mussar with a six-and-a-half year old boy. He responded, "Certainly one should learn with him! Otherwise he'll grow up wild and without restraint. The ideas of reward and punishment, of Gan Eden and Gehennom and of the world having a Master, should be implanted in him."
When asked how long to learn with him, he answered, "Every day, without any interruption and without missing a single day. Missing one day is like missing a hundred. One should learn from a sefer that's easy to understand, such as Orchos Tzaddikim, even though he won't understand everything in it and he shouldn't be tested on this study.
"One has to get it into a child's head constantly and frequently, that there is an Olom Hazeh and an Olom Habo, a Gan Eden and a Gehennom, until the awareness has penetrated deep into his mind and heart. When the child grows up and the yetzer hora begins to burn within him to make him sin, he will need tremendous strength to overcome it. When the idea of reward and punishment is firmly embedded, it can help a little in overcoming the yetzer."
The Steipler himself learned works of mussar for ten or fifteen minutes daily with a grandchild (who was then aged nine). He learned Pele Yo'eitz with him and then Orchos Tzaddikim, up to a point where the Steipler told him that from then on the topics were lengthy and they started to learn Rabbenu Yonah's Sefer Hayiroh. When the child was approximately eleven, they learned Mesillas Yeshorim for a quarter of an hour each evening. They learned through Sefer Hayiroh three times. Each time they completed it, the Steipler said, "I've already forgotten what was at the beginning, so let's start again." In this way, they learned it three times.
Someone once came to consult him about a child who was not behaving properly and the Steipler instructed him to learn mussar with the child. The father went and told the child, "The Steipler says that you have to learn mussar every day," but the child would not agree on any account.
The father returned to ask the Steipler's advice. "That's not how one speaks to a child," the Steipler told him. "Don't show him that he's at fault and that he needs to learn mussar. The natural reaction to that is to provoke rebellion and opposition. You have to tell him in a gentle manner, `My dear son, I very much want to learn mussar for a few minutes every day but I can't by myself. I'd like to learn with you.' Then the child feels that he's doing his father a favor and he'll agree."
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