The Four Stages of One Child

Parents and children. If you’re a parent, you think all the time about your kid and your relationship with him or her. Parents and children work hard at getting along with each other and some times are better than others. But it’s always a big deal in our lives.

It’s always been this way. Here is an example from thousands of years ago. It’s in the words of a Haftorah that we read before Passover. Someday, at the end of days, the prophet Elijah is going to come, and what is he going to do?

So, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile fathers with sons and sons with their fathers. (Malachi 3:23-24) Is he going to make the sky open up or the seas part? No, he’s going to make children love their parents and parents love their children. Obviously, even thousands of years ago, there were lots of problems between parents and children; otherwise, Elijah wouldn’t have to come to fix things.

So how do I bring harmony to our families? I want to focus on one mistake that we make: Labeling children. Are there different kinds of kids? Are there bad kids? Are there good kids? Labeling children in this way, or any way, is a bad idea. But I hear parents say, “She’s the good one.” “Or he’s just a problem.” If a child gets it into his or her head that they’re bad, they may very well act that way. Labeling anyone, any time, is bad. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that the person will grow. It is taking one set of actions or one characteristic and allowing that set or that behavior to define the whole person.

Pesach will be here soon. And one of the most famous passages in the Haggadah, our classic book that we read at our Seders, our ritual meals on the First Two Nights of Passover, one of the most famous passages on Pesach is about the four children: The Wise Child, the Wicked Child, the Simple Child, and the Child who does not even know how to ask. It feels like this passage is doing exactly what we just said we should not do: Label people.

One way to understand the passage is as a symbolic passage, describing different attitudes towards our religious observances. One kid loves religious stuff, one hates religion, one doesn’t know what’s going on and the one is too young to really be involved.

But there’s another way to think about the four children of the Haggadah — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask — not as four different personality types, but as the stages of each person’s individual development.

Take the four children in reverse order and think about a person’s life. We pass from innocence to acceptance to rebellion to appreciation.

Each of us is a composite, with each part prevailing for a time. How often do we tell ourselves in moments of exasperation that our child is just going through a stage! Arrested development, to cite the title of a television show, is what we fear most. So in the middle of the Passover service, we pause briefly to reflect on how complicated human beings are.

It’s not that there are four separate children – the wise, wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. What we have, rather, is the portrayal of one child who goes through various stages of development. I suspect that adults would cringe with embarrassment if we were to look back at the way we acted in our teenage years or even in our young adulthood. We probably lacked knowledge, maturity, or insight. Thank goodness that we’ve all improved since then! I’m sure that the teenagers are embarrassed to think about some of the things they did when they were children.

At some point we come to the shocking realization that our parents weren’t quite as crazy or foolish as we thought they were. I remember once hearing a son telling his mother, “You were an okay mother until I became a teenager” and the mother responded in kind “You were an okay child until you became a teenager.” Thankfully, with the passage of time they are now closer than ever.

Think about it. Judaism is saying that when this whole world gets saved, just as when the Jewish people got
saved in Egypt, what will happen is that parents will live in harmony with their children and children with their parents. It doesn’t mention world peace or an end of war; it mentions parents and children getting along with each other. Surely in every age there is a generation gap; children believe that their parents are “clueless” and parents thing that their children, still a work in progress, are reckless and impulsive. I’m hoping that if we really understand the message of the four types of people in the Haggadah, the four types who are in each of us, that each of us goes through stages, maybe we can be more patient
with each other.

Perhaps when parents and children really live in peace and harmony, this will be the first sign of the coming of the Messiah. Maybe that’s how we’ll begin to change the world.

Rabbi Scolnic