What to do with the problem child--the one who is defiant and rebellious, ill mannered and seemingly unredeemable--is one of the most agonizing dilemmas that parents and educators face. As solutions running the gamut from understanding to suppression all vie with one another, a look at the Haggadah offers an unequivocal if disturbing prescription. One is commanded, with reference to the wicked child, to literally blunt his teeth ("set them on edge"). What kind of educational philosophy is at work here? What happened to always trying to bring out the best in the child, to faith in the pure soul beneath the dark layers of experience?
Part of the issue comes down to the ancient "nature versus nurture" debates, to the question of whether the child is simply "born under a bad sign" and will always be temperamentally out of step, or can be changed through a loving and supportive environment. For Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, the well known author and Rosh Yeshivah, modern educational theories which counsel the creation of autonomous children are clearly misinformed when it comes to human nature, for in his words "even the embryo has instincts leading to evil ... It is not independence that must be developed but submission." A staunch advocate of corporal punishment, he would no doubt see the Haggadah's formula for the wicked child as an obvious necessity when confronted with the child's evil inclination.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, on the other hand, predictably urges the reverse course, as he indicates in his Haggadah commentary: "Sometimes you see young people that are a little 'off.' You know why they're off? Because there wasn't anybody to believe in them. It's so easy to get off the highway when nobody believes in you ... The clever person isn't far away from the wicked person. Who do you think the wicked child is? Someone who was never told how holy he is."
For Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, the "rasha" is "the wayward self", a part of every human being that should not be stereotypically assigned to any one child: "Perhaps the Wayward Self is angry with God. Perhaps he is rationalizing, seeking to explain away his lack of devotion. As long as we hide from and keep hidden how we really feel about God, we remain with inner peace unattainable and world peace beyond us...when we hear the Wayward Self raising these questions within us, it does not mean that we are evil. Rather, let us hear in them a message, a call to strengthen our faith."
These words are inspirational in their linking of growth to honesty. Before condemning the wayward child/self, it is imperative to discern what this kind of anger represents. This is something that is often hard to hang onto especially when confronted with a barrage of bad behaviour. I have often found myself struggling to maintain patience with such waywardness, looking to blunt its edge rather than uncover its source. Whatever tendencies a child has, what is education if not the attempt to face the challenge of diversity. As it is, the wicked child has seen fit to show up at the table, and perhaps for tonight only, dayenu, that is enough.