Cultivating Humility

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09 Apr 2019

I am sure that many of you are in the thick of getting ready for Pesach. We associate Pesach with the eating of matzah. However, it is more than a commemorative food, it is also called the bread of humility. On Pesach we remove all leavened bread from our homes and eat only matzah to symbolize the removal of arrogance and egotism. We are supposed to embrace the midah, character trait, of humbleness.

Humility does not seem to be in vogues these days, but it is an important character trait to have. It is a necessary ingredient in developing a healthy self-concept and most important is critical to a person’s self-esteem. True humility stems from the appreciating yourself and understanding your strengths well. So much so, that you don’t need to rely on others to determine your self-worth.

Our Jewish tradition emphasizes this. Rabbi Bunim of Pshiskha, teaches us that everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

What does this mean? We all need to know, our children included, that the world was created specifically for us and we are of infinite value because we were created by G-d. However, He created you because he has a job for you to do in the world. Your worth is tied up into how much you contribute to society. We must use our talents and discover our purpose; we can’t live only for ourselves. If we don’t temper our self knowledge and self-worth with humility, then we are like dust and ashes.

This is important for our generation of parents. We have been taught to foster our children’s self-esteem at all costs, teaching them that the world was created for them.  In all this, we have forgotten the other half of it; the part about humility. We are overlooking the need to teach our children humbleness. We are not teaching them that they have a G-d given purpose. That their self worth is dependent on whether or not they are giving back to society. This is hurting our children and keeping them from developing true self-esteem.

Wendy Mogel in her book, Blessing of a Skinned Knee, tells the following story that can help us understand this:

“Listen to Isabel, a student I interviewed at an elite private school. Isabel will be entering eleventh grade next year. She told me that she was having a hard time socially…Her teachers seemed to favor other students. She felt confused and hurt: ‘I know why this is hard for me. My mom and day always, always made me feel like I was the best: the most beautiful, the smartest, the most charming. Mostly I’ve done well in everything. But now I’m finding out that I’m not that unusual. Maybe I’m good enough, but I don’t know anymore.’

Mogel continues, “ Like so many parents, Isabel’s mother and father were afraid their daughter would think she was ordinary. Whether they were also reluctant to admit to themselves that their child was “merely” average,  I don’t know. But their …attitude has not benefitted Isabel. They’ve put her on a pedestal and now she’s stuck up there, unable to find out what level she would reach if she had a chance to bob around with everybody else.”

Our reverence of cultivating our child’s self-esteem without the tempering of their ego is hurting our children. So, how can we help our children develop self-worth? How can we help them find their purpose, so they can contribute to the world at large? How can we teach them humility, the humility they need to have in order to have true self-esteem? Here are 6 ways we can do that:

1. Skip effusive praise:

When your child hands you a picture they made, instead of heavy doses of “Good job!” or “Your such a good artist!” ask children about their work,

“What is this?”

“What were you thinking about when you drew this?”

“The color combination is so cheerful. Why did you use those colors?

This helps a child focus on the effort she put into her work. She is able to focus on the feeling of working towards mastering a skill then already falsely being told that she has already mastered it. This promotes humility and an added bonus, resiliency. 

2. Avoid superlatives:

As we see from Isabel this is the fast track to giving children an inflated sense of self, which leaves them feeling, the opposite, deflated. We often tell children,

“You’re the fastest runner!”

“You’re the greatest basketball player on your team!”

It’s better if we compliment on what they contributed to their team on how they worked with their teammates and being kind to them, 

“You were cooperating with your teammates out there! You were passing the ball and giving high fives to keep them going!”

Not only does this teach them humility, understanding that it’s not all about them and their abilities, but it teaches them to be a team player, contributing to something outside of themselves.

3. Be kind when talking about others:

When talking about other people, their friends or ours, we want to make sure to point out their good qualities.

“He is such a sweet boy, isn’t he?”

“She is very kind, don’t you think?”

“That was very helpful of him, didn’t you think so?”

“He is nice. Do you think so?” 

This helps us appreciate others and the value that they bring into our lives. It teaches us to be humble, understanding that just like G-d brought us into this world for a reason, he brought other people too.

4.Teach Humbleness:

According to, humility should be taught explicitly, just like any other thing we want our child to learn. So when your child wins the prize for his science fair and it’s the night before his reward ceremony, review with him what he should say:

“Look, that’s a great job you did on your science-fair project. You worked hard on it. When you accept a reward its best if you say something like:


‘I like the way my friend, Matt, did his project, too.’

‘I don’t think I could have won without the help of my teacher.”

5. Help Children Find Their Purpose:

Most people need time to find their purpose. Usually it is tied up in what we love to do. We can start by supporting our children in their dreams. Even if your dreams were unrealistic as a child, (I want to be the next LeBron James! I want to own a horse! I want to be a fireman!) there is a kernel of truth in them. These are important clues for your child. So don’t squelch your child’s dreams. Listen to them and dream with them, and more important, attach a higher purpose to that dream.

You want to own all the toy stores in the world! Think of how many children who don’t have toys you can help!”

“You want to play soccer for Israel! Those soccer players always do a lot of mitzvoth. They are always visiting sick children in the hospital!”

6. Let kids hear you attribute purpose to your work:

As I have said many times, children do what we do, not what we say. If they hear us attributing purpose to our work, or any of our activities, then it will be more natural to them. We can say when they are in earshot:

“The best thing about being a doctor is being able to help people get well.”

“I love what I do! I love teaching families better ways to get along!”

“I hope this cake that I am baking for the Schwartz family cheers them up! It is hard when the Mom of the family breaks her arm!”

Let’s cultivate in our children a true feeling of self-esteem this Pesach. Let’s help them understand their self-worth, their purpose, to live outside of themselves and contribute to the world the way G-d intended for them.


Alexander, Jessica Joelle. The Danish Way of Parenting (pp. 89-90). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.