March 7, 2017
Nosson Avrohom in #1060, Chinuch, Purim

As Purim approaches, a time when people have the custom to dress up in costume, we spoke with Rabbi Yoni Fein, who lectures on chinuch topics and is a veteran educator, NLP practitioner and psychotherapist, to learn about the masks children wear, and not only on Purim. * When is a costume not a good thing? When is it a red flag? How should we respond to costumes and what should we do when a child does not want to dress up?

The story goes that a depressed man went to see a psychiatrist. The doctor tried to help the man with various treatments and even prescribed medication, but nothing helped and the man felt worse.

The psychiatrist decided to change his approach and suggested that his patient go that evening to see a famous comedian who would be performing. Whoever saw his show would roar with laughter. “Go and buy a ticket. I am sure that by going you will be cheered up.”

The patient, whose eyes had been downcast all along, looked up at the doctor and said, “My dear doctor, that comedian is none other than me!”

The message in the story is clear. Throughout the year, each of us wears and removes endless masks and costumes until sometimes it can be hard to know when someone is really happy, sad, angry, or calm.

This type of behavior is also seen in children, but in a different way. While adults, deep inside (for the most part) know what they are feeling, a child cannot always explain his behavior. He can be angry without knowing how to explain why.

Purim is around the corner. It is a time when the custom is to dress up. Discerning people know that a child often expresses, in the costume he chooses, what is going on inside.

We spoke with Rabbi Yoni Fein, a longtime educator, about the masks children wear and how to react to them.


R’ Yoni Fein says that when he was a child he experienced many traumatic situations in school. When he got older, he yearned to do things differently; to have children wanting to go to school and learn, despite whatever hardships with which they might be struggling. I recently read this line in Chovas HaTalmidim, “to reveal that which is new in a child.” Chinuch is from the same root as chanukas ha’bayis, i.e., revealing something new. Every child is a new entity and we need to bring out the inner powers hidden inside him.

After he got married, he wrote to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh and asked how he should support himself. He opened to a long letter that the Rebbe writes about shlichus in teaching Jewish children.

“I did not understand how I could do well in the field of education. As a boy, I met tired, burned out teachers and dealt with a demanding and bloated system that did not seek out the welfare of the child, a tough system of punishments. How could I be a part of that?”

Still, as a Chassid who carries out orders, he began working as a teacher in a Chabad school in Ashkelon where he first saw an educational system that operates differently. “I realized that it all depends on the teacher.”

This article will be published for Purim, so I want to devote it to the topic of costumes and masks. Teachers and parents regularly have encounters with children after which they wonder, what happened to him? Why did he change? He used to be relaxed; why is he irritable now? There are kids who play the “tough guy,” kids who play the “prince,” a kid who plays the role of the wise guy. How do children get into these roles?

In psychology there is a concept referred to as acting out, which means that the child has not yet developed his verbal abilities, and he still cannot express what he is feeling. He goes through experiences but doesn’t know how to express how he feels about them. Even when a child has developed his skills for emotional awareness, he has yet to develop the skills needed to express it. He first tries to express what is in his heart, but oftentimes we parents react and consider what he says as chutzpa and rebuke him for it. This closes him up emotionally; it’s a tragedy.

Consider a child who is late to class because of a traffic jam, who is rebuked by his teacher. He cannot explain that it is not really his fault. Even if a student comes late because of his laziness, he doesn’t know how to say, “I feel confused now,” because his emotional intelligence is still not sufficiently developed.

When a child’s emotional world is developed and the teacher is smart enough to listen and understand, then this child won’t need to don a mask the next time in order to make himself clear; he can simply say what’s on his mind. But when a child does not know how to express his feelings, or he tried and was shut down, what will happen the next time? He will lie or make up an excuse, just so as not to feel the pangs of guilt.

However, if we think why the child is behaving like this, and understand that he is trying to convey a message; if we just allowed him to speak and hear him out, he wouldn’t need a costume or mask. Listening is an entire subject onto itself and this is not the time to expound on the art of listening and how to acquire it.

A child sometimes complains about a headache or stomachache, what we call psychosomatic pains. They really hurt! Why does it happen? It’s because of social pressure or academic pressure. When you don’t ask him how he feels and he doesn’t know how to express himself, and he keeps everything inside, then you can be sure the child will don a mask. When a child cannot express emotions, he hates where he is. When it is hard for him, he won’t say, “It’s hard for me,” because they didn’t teach him to speak like that. So he will don the mask of a disruptive child who disturbs the teacher in class or his mother at home. When you try to ask him how do you feel, he drops out of the conversation and escapes to his room because talking about emotions is a skill they never taught him.

How do we, as parents or teachers, determine whether a child’s behavior is a costume or a part of the child’s personality?

Somebody who has learned a bit about the structure of human psychology can more readily determine whether something is truly part of the child’s inborn character. When a teacher dismissively says, “That’s his nature,” with those words he is removing responsibility from himself. I would expect that someone who did not study psychology would not make such a claim because personality is a complicated thing.

As to your question, a personality is something that changes. Although there is a certain inner core that moves the person toward a certain personality structure, there are many external influences that lead a person to solidify his personality accordingly. The personality is also affected by one’s environment, by the behavior of parents and teachers, and various life experiences.

In the Rebbe’s sichos and letters, he says that every Jew, including Jewish children, is absolutely good. I remember that when I was exposed to this view of the Rebbe, I wondered about it. Before I came to Chabad, I learned entire philosophies about the structure of the personality but I had never come across a statement so clear and unambiguous that even opposes the general worldview of the Chareidi world. After all, the Torah says, “the inclination of the heart of a person is evil from his youth.”

But the Rebbe suggests a different explanation. The Rebbe explains that the evil within a Jew is an external layer. If we would intensify the good within each person, the evil would disappear. The yetzer ha’ra is something external and transient; it has no deep-rooted significance. A Jew by nature wants to behave well; he loves Hashem and wants to cleave to Him.

A child’s nature is a good nature. A child naturally wants to do well, to do kindness, to help at home, and to learn well in class. Any negative behavior on his part is nothing but a costume. Children behave this way because they are suffering.

Can you give an example of a response or pattern of behavior which is actually a mask indicating an entirely different issue?

I will tell you about something that happened to me a few years ago. I was invited to speak to the students of Beis Rivka in Crown Heights who came to tour the Old City of Yerushalayim. The speech went fine until a cat came in. The girls panicked and ran. A moment before the cat came in, one of the girls asked me the same question you just asked me.

When order was restored I decided to play tough and I remonstrated with them, “How are you not ashamed to get up in the middle of my talk? What is with this lack of manners?” I spoke forcefully and authoritatively – “A person prepares a lecture and you behave so badly.” The girls were in shock. They couldn’t understand what had happened to the nice speaker they had been listening to a few minutes before. After a minute of this performance, I asked the same girl whether she wanted to continue hearing what I had to say. She very honestly indicated that she absolutely did not. Why? She said I had not assessed the situation correctly. “We weren’t disrespecting you. It was just that a cat came in.” I smiled and said, “That is the answer to your question.”

The child is wearing a mask of a violent child? He is dressing up like someone insolent? It is not him; he is a part of G-d above. A cat suddenly came in. Something happened that caused him to act like that. And when it happens, what do we parents do? We react like I reacted. We don’t try to understand the reason but react strongly in a negative way and consider it chutzpa. By doing this, we intensify our distance from the child and turn the child’s costume into a permanent feature. We need to understand that a child experienced something negative which is why he decided that violence is the best way to solve his problems. This is a child who does not know how to express his feelings in words.

The more we, the parents or teachers, will teach him to react properly, giving him other options of how to react, and doing this in a pleasant environment, the more the child will stop using negative masks. When we genuinely inquire what is bothering him, what he finds difficult, and teach him to say what he really feels, the more he will behave naturally without masks.


How can we teach a child to speak openly about his difficulties and emotions and not to don a mask or costume?

I believe that it is possible and at any age, even preschool when children are still not fully verbal. There is an amazing sicha of the Rebbe in which he talks about how to be influential. The Rebbe cites three guiding principles: one, to do it in ways of pleasantness and peace. Two, to be a role model. Third, to speak from the heart. So too with a child, if you want him to express his emotions, then you the adult express your emotions. Be a role model, and not in a facetious way, so that he will identify with you and want to copy you.

When a child cries and screams, for example, I can tell him to be quiet or yell back at him. By doing so, I have not used the second principle because I am not a role model for him. On the contrary, I am directly teaching the child that screaming is okay, and now the teacher or parent is screaming louder. We won’t teach him not to scream in this way.

Instead, go over to the child, ask him how he is, how he feels, and if he is an older child, give him time to come over and talk, and then speak gently with him. Only when we are talking the language of emotions can we get the child to speak this language with others. If the adult, the parent or teacher, does not speak that way, then the child won’t either.

A child needs to hear gentle talk even indirectly, like in conversations between his parents. He needs to see how they manage their lives peacefully.

It sounds easy but we know it’s hard. How does one become a parent or teacher like that?

There are four stages through which we can teach a child to speak the language of emotions and express himself appropriately. The first stage is the stage of facts. We speak with the child about something that all agree occurred; nobody disagrees. It is possible to argue about a feeling following what occurred. To tell a child, “Your room is not in order,” is not an actual fact because maybe to you the room isn’t in order, but to him it is. We need to make sure that the child and you see the facts in the same indisputable way. When you say, “Straighten up your room,” the child needs to know what you mean by that.

You need to get into the details; just what do you want him to straighten up? When things aren’t clear, frustrations set in. You tell the child, “You did not clean your room up enough,” and he will say, “I did so.” But when you ask a child to put the pillow in place, there is no arguing about that.

Also, in the stage of facts, it is very important to be a role model. If I ask a child to make his bed, while my bed is unmade, he won’t accept that. Another example is when a father asks his son to come to shul and daven or learn. What exactly does the father mean by daven? What does he mean by learn? I am sure there is a huge difference between the father’s idea and the son’s idea when it comes to these things.

After the first stage of stating the facts and being a role model of what we are asking the child to do, we can move on to the next stage, the stage of emotions, and say to the child, “When I saw that you did not clean up your room, I was upset.” Or, “I was sad when I didn’t see you at the davening and would be very happy to see you the next time.”

Some time ago, a young man called me and told me his boys stopped wearing tzitzis and it bothered him. He was asking me for advice.

I asked him, “Why does it bother you?”

He said, “What do you mean?! It’s a mitzva d’Oraisa!”

“That’s what is bothering you?” I asked.

“Tzitzis are protective …”

“They shouldn’t be different than everyone else …”

Finally, he said, “You know what? I love them and want them to wear tzitzis because I understand how important it is.”

“Fine,” I said. “Did you tell them that?”

Probably not. We don’t speak the language of emotions, so why should our children speak this language?

In the third stage we can move on to interpretations. Here are some examples: “When you didn’t come to daven, I interpreted that as disdain for me or disdain for yourself.” The next sentence is important, “I assume that was not your intention.”

Another example: A teacher tells a pupil, “I hear you talking while I am talking (fact) and it frustrates me (emotion). I interpret that to mean that you don’t reckon with me and are disrespecting my rules. I assume that was not your intention (interpretation), but I’d like to ask you that when I speak, that you wait until I finish so that you can hear me clearly, and I will do the same when you speak (request).

In the fourth stage you ask. In many instances, the child will apologize for not doing what he was supposed to do. In other cases, he will say that he didn’t mean anything in particular and he will go clean up his room. Parents who are used to talking in the language of emotions, and who utilize these four stages in a positive way, will ask their children to clean up their room, and will tell them that they rely on them and know that they will do it because they are great kids. They will later go and see the clean room and compliment the child and do so in detail, “We see how you straightened out the sheet and how you put the pillow in place.”

It’s important to remember that a child sees himself as his parents and teachers see him. If we see him as a G-dly soul in a body, in a sort of exile, and he is facing a tough test, any effort on his part to head in the right direction is deserving of encouragement. There are instructions from the Rebbe about the importance of encouragement, especially to children.

Are there situations in which costumes are good for a child?

Just as a peel protects the fruit, sometimes a costume or mask is part of a child’s defensive system. As long as the peel protects the fruit, I know that the peel is good, but when the peel causes the fruit to rot, i.e., it makes the child become impossible to handle because his behavior is so poor, then the mask is interfering and even strangling.

All of us, adults and children, use masks to protect ourselves. The bottom line is effectiveness. If the mask serves me, and I give my parents nachas, and it is truly good for me and I learn well, what’s wrong? But if the costume gets me criticism from my teacher or distances my classmates from me, and every word that’s said to me makes me hole up in my room, then this costume is not serving me well.


About the actual Purim costumes, there are children who don’t want to dress up. What do you think about that?

When a child does not want to dress up and you want him to, you need to figure out why it’s important to you. Are you bothered by his standing out socially? He knows about that just as much as you do, and that doesn’t bother him, or it does bother him but he doesn’t know how to share his concerns with you. So it is important to find out what his reason is. There can be many reasons; it could be he does want to dress up but he has a problem with a specific costume that you want him to wear. Maybe he’s embarrassed to wear it. He might feel he will be made fun of by his friends, but he won’t tell you that outright; he might just refuse to dress up.

If we discover the reason, we can more effectively resolve the situation.

What does it say about a child if he wants to dress up in scary costumes and as bad characters? How should we handle it?

A lot depends on the age of the child. Until age five or six, the age of chinuch, I won’t ask the child why he wants to dress up in a certain costume and won’t look too deeply at every request of his. Not everything a child says is engraved in stone. As a parent or educator, I would set limits and ensure they are not broken. We can tell a child of this age, “I understand that this is what you want, but in school and in this home it is not acceptable, so I don’t allow it. Period. I’d be happy to explain it, if you want to listen.”

For an older child I would firmly say that it’s inappropriate, but I would add an explanation in the manner of an “adult-to-adult” conversation. Then I can explain that negative characters cause the animal soul to rule us, or impure animals are not appropriate for the soul of a Jewish child. It is also possible that this conduct on the part of the child is a call for attention to get close to the parents, and create a dialogue.

Furthermore, there are costumes that enable us to guess what is going on in the child’s inner world. If he dresses up in a costume with blood, it can show that something hurts him and you need to find out what it is. If a child wants to dress up like an Arab terrorist, it is possible he is afraid, especially these days. If a child wants to dress up in a scary costume, maybe it’s because he himself is living in fear and wants to deal with it in this way. On the other hand, if a child wants to dress up like a clown, maybe it’s because he wants to laugh and be happier and maybe, food for thought for parents, he feels this is lacking in his life?

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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