never stop growing

הוא היה אומר, בן חמש שנים למקרא, בן עשר למשנה, בן שלש עשרה למצות, בן חמש עשרה לתלמוד, בן שמנה עשרה לחפה, בן עשרים לרדף, בן שלשים לכח, בן ארבעים לבינה, בן חמשים לעצה, בן ששים לזקנה, בן שבעים לשיבה, בן שמנים לגבורה, בן תשעים לשוח, בן מאה כאלו מת ועבר ובטל מן העולם:

He [Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: Five years [is the age] for [the study of] Scripture, Ten [is the age] for [the study of] Mishnah, Thirteen [is the age] for [observing] commandments, Fifteen [is the age] for [the study of] Talmud, Eighteen [is the age] for the [wedding] canopy, Twenty [is the age] for pursuit, Thirty [is the age] for [full] strength, Forty [is the age] for understanding, Fifty [is the age] for [giving] counsel, Sixty [is the age] for mature age, Seventy [is the age] for a hoary head, Eighty [is the age] for [superadded] strength, Ninety [is the age] for [a] bending [stature], One hundred, is [the age at which one is] as if dead, passed away, and ceased from the world.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22

The field of developmental psychology, the study of how humans change over our lifespans, is only a couple of hundred years old, but theory and research in that area has offered us an ever-increasing body of knowledge on which parents and educators draw. Understanding more about the ways in which children develop (beginning even before they are born) can help us make decisions about raising and educating healthy children.

The quote from the Mishnah above offers an entire life history prescription for age-appropriate engagement in studying text and also in stages of life, and like many ancient Jewish texts, it suggests striking insight on the part of the Rabbinic authors. The first two stages described are about learning — at five a child learns TaNaKH, and at ten they study Mishnah. Interestingly, age at which we become obligated to observe mitzvot is thirteen, but the age at which we begin to study Talmud isn’t until we turn fifteen. The study of Talmud would enable far more complex understanding of the legal, philosophical and practical application of observing mitzvot, so the order here may seem a bit counterintuitive.

As we proceed into the ages we consider adulthood in our modern world, this portrait of development continues until one is either literally or metaphorically deceased. I appreciate the idea that growth and development doesn’t stop — I think that many of us get stuck in our own growth at times, and it is helpful to recognize that as humans we are designed to engage in a journey that only ends when we do. I love the notion that at thirty we come into a phase of strength, but that we actually return to a similar phase with added strength at eighty. I also love that we don’t consider an adult ready to counsel others until they’ve reached fifty, and even then there is plenty of maturity that has not yet been attained.

It is a powerful gift to offer your children the understanding that you as a parent or teacher are also learning and growing. At Gesher, one way we do this is by acknowledging and processing our own mistakes (as adults) with our students. Rather than reacting with bravado or defensively, we use mistakes as opportunities to demonstrate that everyone falls down sometimes and what is important is what you do next. I have a sign on my desk that reads, “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.” If we can help children understand the power of this approach, they will be able to practice the crucial skill of resilience, which will serve them their entire lives.

This shabbat, I encourage you to speak with your children about what you do when you realize you have made a significant mistake. Ask them how they feel when it happens to them.

Shabbat Shalom,