The Four Children

I spent the last two nights celebrating Passover and observing the tradition of the seder when the story of the Exodus is retold (this year we were sure to pour out some liquor for Charlton Heston). Part of the seder is the discussion of the four children. My mother, the consummate educator, asked me to add my thoughts as a teacher on these four archetypes.

First some background from The Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom:

The Torah alludes to four types of children: one who is wise, and one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

What does the wise child ask? "What are the statutes, the laws and the ordinances which Adonai our God has commanded us?"...

What does the wicked child ask? "What does this ritual mean to you?"...

What does the simple child ask? "What is this all about?"...

As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should open the discussion for him.

The four children always spark thought and discussion at the seders I've been to. The idea that their roles and our response to their question (which I didn't include) are so clearly defined is often controversial. In this day and age distinct labels like wise and wicked, especially when applied to children, is usually off-putting. And so there are lots of interesting ideas to make the idea of the four children relevant. For example, one favorite explanation is that each of the four children inhabit a place in our own consciousness.

Now for my perspective as a first year teacher on the four children...

Each of these children is all too familiar to me. I've discussed Bambi, and she is a perfect fit for the child who does not know how to ask. She will sit there quietly, with a bewildered look on her face not knowing what to do, but not raising her hand to ask for help.

The simple child is a description that applies to many of the students in my class. They simply do not understand the content we are learning, but they are more than happy to ask for help. More often, many of them constantly ask for help rather than find a solution on their own.

The wise child, exalted in the haggadah, is rare in my classroom. The wise child understands the fundamentals of the traditions (the content in the classroom) and with an inquisitive nature wants to know more. These children are favored and it's a pleasure to find someone who understands the basics and still wants to know more. Of course the wise child isn't the most interesting of the four...that honor goes to the wicked child...

This child is the one who often sparks the most discussion at the seder table. Tradition teaches that one should answer the question, "What does this ritual mean to you?" by "setting the child's teeth on edge" and that if this child had been in Egypt, they would not have been redeemed from slavery. Harsh.

I know this "wicked" child all too well. What makes the child wicked? It's the tone of her question. It's the way the child asks. It's a challenge to your faith and of your reasoning. A challenge to explain yourself. Too often we perform rituals as a rote task without questioning ourselves why we're doing them. When an uninvited challenge comes, it often provokes indignation.

The "wicked" child in my classroom is the same way. She challenges me. Sometimes at appropriate times and often at inappropriate times. The instinct is the label this child as wicked rather than admit that I've done wrong or been unfair. The wicked child is one of the smartest in my classroom. I imagine the wicked child of the haggadah is very smart as well. You have to be intelligent to really question anything at its core.

The key to the wicked child is understanding how to respond to this child. For most of the year my response has been anger and defensiveness. This does not produce anything. Instead if you change the tone of the conversation you can guided the wicked child, or any child for that matter, towards real understanding. You can help the wicked child understand why you do things the way you do, and therefore why they should be important to them as well.


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