Yom Kippur, the annual Jewish Day of Atonement, begins the evening of Sunday, September 24. It is a time for deep reflection on one’s attitudes and actions over the course of the last year. Participants fast (abstain from eating) and gather for prayers and meditation.
The concept of atonement might seem too complex for children to understand. However, sharing some basic Yom Kippur ideals can be a powerful way to help kids explore self-reflection and accountability.
Start by talking about making and keeping promises. Ask children: Have you ever made a promise you didn’t keep? Invite them to share their story of a broken promise and offer your own examples as well. Ask: Why did you break your promise? Then make a list of reasons for failing to follow through.
Once you have reflected on your personal stories, introduce the idea of acknowledging hurt. Ask: How do you think [person’s name] felt when you broke your promise? Encourage children to reflect these emotions in their facial expressions and posture. This helps kids experience the feelings vicariously in their own bodies.
The next step toward atonement is saying sorry. Explore with children the many ways to let someone know that they feel regret for hurtful words and actions. They might offer an apology verbally, via a handwritten note, or through a digital message. They could set their words of regret to music or draw a picture depicting their apology. They might even create a skit or video that dramatizes the broken promise and their apologetic words.
As kids consider how to say they are sorry, reflect with them on offering a good apology. Watch The best way to apologize (according to science) with older children (9 and up) and talk about the temptation to shift the focus from ‘I’m sorry for my actions’ to ‘I’m sorry you feel bad’ or ‘Let me explain why I hurt you’. With younger children, role play simple scenarios where you pretend to break a promise and then apologize for your actions. Then reverse the roles, with your child taking the apology lead.
Part of a good apology is making amends. Ask children: What could make the situation better? How could you try to fix your mistake? Sometimes, a broken relationship can be repaired by following through on what was originally promised. For example, if a child had promised to attend a younger sibling’s soccer game and skipped out instead, pledging to attend the sibling’s next three games could mend the rift. Or offering to bake a new batch of cookies to replace the ones a child gobbled up instead of sharing can demonstrate true remorse.
Lastly, inviting accountability by others helps hurtful behavior change more quickly. Encourage children to identify and rely on a family member or friend who will be honest with them about their behavior. Emphasize that the goal of accountability is not judgment or condemnation, but having someone to act as a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly. Suggest that kids develop a ‘code word’ or gesture that their partner can use to signal the need for atonement, and another that affirms intentional efforts to make amends.