On Psychology
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

Father and Son

The "Four Sons" and the "Four Fathers"

The consequence and its antecedents

By Dr. Jacob Mermelstein

ONCE AGAIN WE will shortly be sitting at our seder table, enjoying the festival and gleaning from the text of the Haggadah ever new insights concerning our history, life, and human behavior.

A favorite source of inspiration and wisdom of the seder night, is the theme of the Four Sons, the nature of their behavior, and how they are to be dealt with. There is, moreover, a gnawing question that demands an answer -- why indeed are they different? Why does one son grow up to be wise, while another turns out to be wicked; why is one simple, and one cannot even ask a question?

Obviously, each one in his own way, is the product of a unique home, an environment which has fostered typical behavior, a set of antecedents with its inevitable consequence.

If one may be permitted the license of interweaving drash (homilies) with what is known as human behavior, a picture unfolds that seems to clearly indicate what is it that fashions each son into what and who he now is. It would seem that not only does each parent answer his child in a unique and particular way -- indeed, he has done so habitually for many years and thus has brought about the child's now typical behavior. For the way a parent deals with the child is not simply a reaction to the youngster; it, in turn, shapes his subsequent behavior. It is these countless reactions and subsequent actions that sum up and become the person's personality.

The Wise Son -- and his parents

The Wise Son -- what does he ask? "What is the nature of the laws and judgments?" He is inquisitive and asks in detail again and again. And his father is equally wise and patient and he tells him all the laws of Passover. This parent is not abrupt, he does not mind being nagged by his inquistive son, he answers him and talks to him a great deal. The result is that this father is developing a truly wise son, a reasoning and questioning individual.

Recent research seems to confirm what has long been suspected -- that the ability to learn and act intelligently is to a substancial extent based upon experiences in early life. This does not, to be sure, deny the importance of genetics. It merely points out that equally important is the way one's hereditary endowment is being used.

Intelligence has been likened to a rubber band. Each of us is born with one that's of a particular size in thickness and circumfrence. One can be born endowed with relatively little. But this little amount can, in a proper environment, be stretched and enlarged. Conversely, one can be endowed with much intelligence. An impoverished learning environment, however, -- one that does not make use of this ability but restricts it -- will cause its initially great endowment to shrink, become brittle, and eventually break.

The wise parent who has produced the wise son has from early childhood onward expanded the child's environment. He has made available to him many experiences and has stood by him ever ready to teach and to answer -- and prepare him for all subsequent learning and wisdom.

The Wicked Son -- and his parents

The wicked son impatiently asks: "What is the meaning of all this work for you?" He doesn't reason, nor does he question. All endeavors are classified as work -- a chore, an unnecessary burden.

At times, he has been conditioned to behave in this manner because his parents have stifled his desire to ask the right questions. He may have been told constantly to obey blindly, without being given inspiration and understanding. The result, of course, is a wicked, uninterested and impatient son, to whom all work is unecessary drudgery.

When children are disciplined in a harsh and arbitrary manner, they cannot help but view their environment as harsh -- and react in kind. When questioning is forbidden, reasoning ceases -- and they act in a self-defeating manner, one that hurts not only society, but themselves as well. They are in conflict both with society and with themselves.

The Simple Son -- and his parents

The simple son asks: "What is this?" He is neither inquisitive nor impatient. He is simple, foolish and emotionally flat. His parents didn't stifle him but neither did they stimulate him. And thus the parent now says in simple terms: "With a strong hand G-d took us out of Egypt."

The child has not been neglected physically nor harshly dealt with. But he has suffered a lot from a lack of interpersonal contact. His parents were too busy to converse with him beyond the simple and everyday needs.

Children in orphanages, or otherwise separated from their parents, are frequently found to be intellectually impoverished and emotionally disturbed. It is believed that this is due to lack of stimulation and consistent with interpersonal experiences with a parent or parent surrogate. This is in spite of adequate physical care.

The parent of the simple son, then, may have provided for him everything except the all-important interpersonal experiences, and thus impoverished him intellectually and emotionally.

The One Who Does Not Even Know How To Ask -- and his parents

The One Who Doesn't Even Know How To Ask a question does not speak, because he doesn't find it necessary to do so. His parent, as the text tells us, "opens his mouth for him." He is spoon-fed and over-protected, all is provided for him reeady made. He does not experiment nor exert himself, for there is no need to do so.

The story is told of the child who never spoke a single word. His parents consulted the pediatrician and psycologist, the educator and philosopher -- none could explain why. One day, the little boy sat down to eat his breakfast. He took the spoon and led it to his mouth -- and suddenly exclaimed: "THIS CEREAL IS TOO HOT!" The overjoyed parents summoned the experts, who were as astounded by this sudden utterance as they had been by his silence. They probed and examined -- still no explanation. Then one bold scientist ventured to ask the boy: "Pray tell us why you have spoken now after all these years of silence?" Unhesitantly, the little boy replied: "it's simple -- you see until now, there was no need to speak for everything was perfect."

Occassionally, one meets such a child, and his story may apply. More often, though, one sees children who do communicate but somehow do not venture into the world of others. They live in a shell, a fantasy of unending joy where others stand ever-ready to serve their every need. This parent tried to do so much and thereby stifled the child's need to master his environment, to seek and to question and learn how to lead a life of his own eventually.

The Four Sons -- and their fathers

The wise and the wicked, the simple and the one who does not even know how to ask a question. How to deal with them now may be less important than how they come to be that way.

Children are born with more or less genetic endownment. There is little that can be done about this. The parent's task is to use that which has been given to his child and expand it. True, every man's capacity does have some limit. The outstanding among us are not necessarily those who have been more generously endowed. They are the ones who have used what they have been given to the fullest -- and whose parents have laid the necessary foundations early in life.

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein is a practicing psychologist, certified both in New York and New Jersey.


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