Engaging each child as they are: A story of the Ten Commandments and Mr. Rogers

Two through 17 years old is a wide age range! That’s the range of kids who were at our 2019 family retreat. While initially it seemed daunting to plan activities for that age range, it ended up flowing easily and the event was successful at all levels. On the ride home from Wisconsin, I realized that it was easy because I focused on engaging each child as they are, which came about from two recent learning experiences.

First, I went to a screening of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Fred Rogers. While Mr. Rogers focused on preschool children, his messages of connecting with and validating every child and not oversimplifying concepts for children apply to children of all ages. He spoke to kids about difficult concepts and their feelings, something he knew children are fully capable of doing. At our retreat, we put this into practice. Children of all ages put the Ten Commandments in order. Preschool children ordered the numbers and teens grappled with more complex questions of which commandments are the most important. We didn’t shy away from difficult concepts. The 7th Commandment—“Do not commit adultery”—was rephrased for young children as “Be faithful to your spouse and respect other people’s bodies”, but we did not shy away from talking about it. At our talent show, we had incredible performances punctuated with moments for community building and meaningful conversation. One conversation prompt was “How are you talented in a way that might not be performed in front of a group?” to give voice to those who have amazing but off-stage talents.

Second, I became certified in youth mental health first aid. The certification means that I can help a tween or adolescent who is experiencing mental health or addictions challenges or is in crisis. Many discussions centered around listening to, being present with, and supporting teens one-on-one. We role played how to calm someone down during a panic attack or approach someone contemplating suicide. It was powerful to learn that one of the most important protective factors for adolescents is feeling close to at least one adult to whom they can turn when they’re struggling. Our retreat gave 28 kids the opportunity to interact with their parents as well as other adults in our community. Many met new families and made new connections with others over the course of the weekend—connections that will continue to develop over time.

I hear somewhat regularly from parents who want Shoresh to make explicit connections between some more secular concepts (think recycling, interfaith relationships, feeding the poor) and Judaism, so here’s the explicit Jewish connection to watching a Mr. Rogers documentary and learning mental health first aid training. These experiences help me continue to try to create an environment at Shoresh and KAM Isaiah Israel where we welcome each child for who they are. We engage with children and don’t shy away from difficult concepts. We recognize talents on and off stage. We connect with children and help children connect with each other and create community. The community at Shoresh and KAM Isaiah Israel may just be the place where your teen meets the adult to whom they can reach out and say “I’m having a hard time and need help.”

 

** For a list of mental health for youth in Chicago, click here. Please know that I along with Rabbi Reeves and Cantor Berger are always available to support you or your child. Reach out to us at 773-924-1234. **