Parenting for the Perplexed: Helping kids cope with seders tough stuff

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected]

I read your column about the problems with the Purim story for young children. What about the Exodus and the seder? A.P., San Francisco

Dear A.P.: Yes, the Passover story has many passages too unsettling for young children. Nevertheless, it is my — and most people’s — favorite family holiday and has great moments and lessons for small kids. About the tough stuff: Today (Part I) I’ll address passages that are actually in the haggadah and recited at the seder. Part II (in two weeks) will address elements of the Passover story that are not included in the haggadah but are often told at home, at school and in children’s books.

The Wicked Son
Who hasn’t groaned when reading this? How can you be comfortable with defining a child as “wicked” and then “setting his teeth on edge”? Offer the pedagogical approach we embrace today: It is the actions that are mean (aka “wicked”), not the person. Since we don’t know what the recommended assault is, you can ask your kids for their ideas: What should you do when someone asks questions that clearly are intended to be nasty and hurtful?

Opening the door to Elijah
What could possibly be wrong with this lovely custom? Well … when my daughter was 5 she freaked out: an invisible man coming through the open door and drinking our wine! Scary!
At ages 4 and 5, kids often are preoccupied with worries about their safety — usually expressed in questions and games about robbers and kidnappers.  You can either omit this part, or be very clear that this is a pretend game: Nobody actually will enter the house or drink the wine. Mark where the wine is on the glass with a piece of tape, and show your child at the end of the meal that the same amount is still in the glass.

“Pour out thy wrath on the nations …”
During the ritual of opening the door to Elijah, we read the most vengeful passage of the seder. Kids younger than 5 probably have no idea what “wrath” means and won’t bother to ask. But if they do (and for older kids who do or sort of understand), be ready to discuss revenge, why it is such a universal human emotion and why we resist it and replace it with laws and justice.

Ten Plagues
We’re still in the “wrath on the nations” quagmire. Some plagues can be entertaining and make the recitation fun. Consider the midrash that Exodus says “frog,” not frogs, because there actually was one gigantic frog that sat on the Nile and blocked the water for all of Egypt. At our seder, each person gets some small plastic frogs on their plate. These may be thrown at others during “frogs.” But with “killing the first-born” your child may shudder … as do I. There is no way to make this pretty, so discussion and questioning is the way to go.

Not finding the afikomen
For young children, losing is devastating. Who wants a heartbroken, sobbing child at the seder? We solved this by having a “mini-afikomen” for each of the kids, hidden in an area of the house reserved specifically for them. This allows adjusting the difficulty of finding the afikomen to each child’s age. And, of course, everyone gets prizes!
There is more: the drowning of the Egyptians, the “Had Gadya” “chain of battering,” etc., but you get the point.
By now you may be more anxious than you were before you started reading this column. Understood. Take a deep breath and start preparing by reviewing the haggadah before the seder. If you are a traditionalist and read every word, plan your explanations and go over some of them before the seder, with ample time for discussion. If you are “loosely observant,” either omit some sections, or send the kids to another room at the right moment to prepare skits about the Passover story. We’ve had great fun with those, including “Exodus — the Video Game” and “Moses vs. Pharaoh — the WWF Championship.”
To be continued…

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.