Lashon hora, or evil tongue, is a complex and complicated Jewish law targeting the proper and improper manners of speech. While its many components can baffle even a learned adult, there are ways to begin to teach children about this very intricate – yet very important – law.
In basic terms, lashon hora forbids us from speaking negatively about someone else. Besides avoiding saying bad things about another, we are also forbidden to repeat information that is said about someone else – whether it is good or bad. If we are in the presence of someone speaking negatively about another person, we are not to listen.
The laws go on, and we can see how they are elaborate. The Chafetz Chaim wrote a book by the same name outlining the details of this precise law. For our children’s sake, however, it is important to focus on positive speech and to teach them not to speak negatively of others.
Here is an experiential activity you can do with children 3 years old and up.
You will need a picture of a person’s face, cut out from a magazine. Preferably, select a picture of someone the children do not know.
Before you start the activity, you can engage in a conversation about Jewish law as related to proper speech. Base this conversation on the age and developmental stage of the children you are working with. For example, with three-year olds, we begin to talk about making good choices, being nice to others, and what it feels like when people are mean to us. With older children, we can delve into the specifics of the law, talk about situations where positive or negative things were said and how it made them feel, and begin to consider why such laws are necessary.
Once you have introduced the topic of lashon hora, begin the activity. Again, you will have to prepare the younger children differently than you will the older children. We want our younger children to understand that this is a teaching lesson and that it is ok to do what you are asking in this situation because we are going to learn something from it.
Take out your magazine picture and show it to the children. Tell the children that you are going to spend the next minute saying mean things to this person. Some of the children will be hesitant and unsure. You may need to start them off: “I don’t like you.” Allow the children to call out mean things for the next minute or so.
Every time a mean thing is said, fold the magazine page. You will keep folding until you are unable to fold the picture any more. At that point, ask the children to talk about how this person feels. They may say things like: small, sad, angry, or alone. It is amazing what can be interpreted from a crumpled up piece of paper.
Next, it is time to make this person feel better. We must apologize for the mean things we said. Again, you may need to start them off: “I am sorry.” “Would you like to play?” “I like your shirt.” As they begin to utter their apologies and say nice things, unfold the crumbled picture.
When the picture is completely unfolded, hold it up to the children. Ask them what they notice. What they will see is that – even after our apology and nice statements – the picture is still wrinkled.
This is the crux of this lesson – that when we say something or do something mean – we can apologize, we can try to take it back, or we can do something nice instead – BUT, we can never remove the wrinkles that we put on someone’s heart. This is why it is important to think before we say something and to always try to say nice things about others.