Communicating with children is a challenge under the best of circumstances. And when we attempt to speak about the things that are the most important—the inner feelings and character traits of our children—the task seems almost overwhelming. How do we talk to our kids about things like love and kindness, faith and courage, honesty and trust? Though these are the things we most want to communicate to them, they are the most difficult to speak about.

The task becomes even more difficult because these virtues and character traits are not consistent. They tend to be fluid and abstract. They don’t behave the same in every situation. Unrestrained kindness, while generous and flowing, is not always wise. Loyalty, while an exquisite quality, can lead our children astray when applied blindly.

But how to understand these subtleties clearly enough to begin to talk about them with our children? How, for example, to distinguish between the horror of violence and the necessity of war, the purity of honesty and the cruelty contained in speaking unnecessary truths, productive assertiveness and hostile aggressiveness?

To do so wisely requires an understanding of these qualities. And a language, a vocabulary for expressing their subtleties.

But where to find this language? How to explain these nuances?

There is a source that reveals itself to us specifically at this time of year. It is a language contained in the Counting of the Omer, a mitzvah we perform in the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot.

After the children of Israel left Egypt, forty-nine days passed before they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Tradition teaches that each of these days was necessary for the children of Israel to refine themselves and be worthy of this gift. On each day, they examined and corrected another of their inner traits and qualities. There were forty-nine in all.

These forty-nine traits were comprised of seven basic attributes. Each of the seven contained all of the other seven, thus comprising forty-nine.

The Kabbalists tell us that the soul of man includes these seven basic attributes:

  • Love/Kindness (Chessed)
  • Vigor/Discipline (Gevurah)
  • Beauty/Harmony/Compassion (Tiferet)
  • Victory/Endurance/Determination (Netzach)
  • Humility/Devotion (Hod)
  • Foundation/Bonding/Connection (Yesod)
  • Majesty/Dignity (Malchut)

As we fulfill the mitzvah of counting the days and weeks from Passover to Shavuot, each of the seven weeks is devoted to a different attribute—one week for Kindness, another week for Discipline, another for Compassion, etc. On each of the seven days of the week we refine another of the seven aspects of the week’s attribute. For example, on the week devoted to kindness, we will devote one day to refining that aspect of kindness that requires discipline, and another day to refining that aspect of kindness that requires compassion, and so forth. During the week when we are refining beauty, we spend one day refining that aspect of beauty that requires dignity, and another day on that aspect of beauty that requires humility, until we have refined all seven aspects of beauty.

Ultimately, all character traits derive from combinations of these seven basic ones. Each quality continually interacts with the others, and in so doing has the capacity to modify its expression and effect. To be whole, a character trait must incorporate all seven; a lack or overabundance of even one of the seven renders it corrupt and, in some cases, damaging. Discipline, for example, can easily become cruelty with but a slight exaggeration.

Knowing this, we can use these attributes to begin to distinguish and explain the characters and behaviors of our children and ourselves. These attributes, which we count and refine in our forty-nine-day journey, can be used as the foundation of a new language, a Language of the Soul.

This language will provide a vocabulary that allows us to name and identify, and then speak with our children, about qualities that are non-tangible—that cannot be touched nor seen—but can be expressed in action.

If we learn to talk about these inner qualities with our children in clear, specific, and concrete ways, we have the possibility of penetrating their hearts and minds and opening their own ability to communicate with us from a deeper part of themselves.

Using the seven attributes as a guide, we can speak to our children not only about what something is, but how it is that way. We cannot only define kindness, we can also describe what it looks like in action. Does it always look the same? Can the same act be kind in one situation and cruel in another? Can an act appear cruel and yet still be kind? How and why?

The expression of any of these seven attributes requires modification depending on circumstances, and results in a variety of ways in which a particular quality might be expressed differently to meet a specific situation.

If being helpful is good, then why is helping someone steal not good? If being courageous is important, then why is doing something dangerous wrong? If being loyal is meritorious, then why not go along with the crowd even when I think they are doing something harmful? If tolerance results in a more peaceful world, then why must I sometimes stand against what someone does, or make a distinction between right and wrong?

As you explore each of these seven qualities and understand how they affect each other, you begin to see that the lack or addition of any of them dramatically shifts the meaning or expression of the others.

Though the essence of “love” is giving, would a child be loving if he gave a book of matches to a young seven-year-old friend, or if she gave away—without asking—a toy that belongs to her brother or sister, or if he or she told a lie in order to prevent a friend from getting into trouble?

If you spend time reflecting on each of these seven—kindness, discipline, compassion, endurance, humility, connection and dignity—and how they interact with each other, you can use them like a checklist to see which, if any, of these qualities is missing or in overabundance in any given situation. This will allow you to more easily talk about them with your children.

Let’s look at assertiveness as an example. Many of us wish to encourage this trait in our children. It is an inner quality necessary for accomplishment and for independence (going against the crowd). Yet we know that assertiveness borders on aggressiveness, and can easily become a quality that is misused or overused, resulting in some potentially nasty character traits. But how to explain this distinction to our children? Let’s try to apply our seven-attribute checklist.

For example, what would assertiveness look like if it lacked the attribute of love or discipline? How often have you met someone who proclaims to be assertive, yet reeks of hostility? Can your child be both assertive and compassionate (understanding and considerate of the needs of others) at the same time?

On the one hand, being assertive can help your child to be independent and not follow the crowd. It may prevent him or her from being bullied. But without instilling humility and compassion in your child, how can you be assured that he or she will not become the next bully on the block? Without humility, even though your child’s assertiveness may bring him success, might it also result in arrogance and pridefulness?

How effective will your child’s assertiveness be if it lacks endurance? Why do some very assertive people—passionately dedicated to their very worthwhile goal—still lack the ability to accomplish much? Could it be that with all their strength and enthusiasm, they lack endurance and discipline?

And how often have we met assertive, disciplined, committed people who lack openness to new ideas or the flexibility to respond to changing situations? Could it be that they lack a sense of connectedness to a large and ever-changing world? Do they fail to see that their actions affect this world in ways larger than themselves, and that the world to which they are connected is constantly affecting them and their goals? Or, lacking this quality, do they tend towards a self-centered approach to life that may move them towards their individual goals at the expense of others, and without a positive effect on the world around them?

And finally, upon acquiring assertiveness, your child should have a sense of dignity—a sense of self-respect and of being worthy of the respect of others. When you think about it, would this not be achieved unless your child was able to be assertive in a loving, disciplined and compassionate manner, exercising endurance and humility, and realizing the consequences of his or her actions to both themselves and others? Don’t we all know assertive people who lack one of these qualities and consequently don’t garner our respect? Doesn’t your child have a schoolmate who seems to always get what he or she wants, yet is neither liked nor respected by the other children? Could you identify one or more of the seven attributes that this child is lacking? Can you see how a lack in any one of the basic seven attributes can quickly turn a positive quality into a negative one? Can you explain this to your child?

After reading the above paragraph, can you now imagine a discussion with your child in which you try to explain to him or her the difference between assertive and aggressive behavior using the seven attributes as your vocabulary?

If the above description has helped you understand assertiveness better, or has given you some insight into yourself or someone you know, then you have begun to see the Language of the Soul in action. If you wish to continue this exploration, there are many sources where you can find assistance in developing your understanding of these seven attributes. Here are a few of them. And, with G‑d’s help, I’ll be writing more about this in future articles.


A Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer by Simon Jacobson

Ten Keys for Understanding Human Nature by Mattis Kantor

Mystical Concepts in Chassidism by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet

The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of the work of Rabbi Simon Jacobson to this article.