The need for continuous and inspired parent-child dialogue is about as deep a Jewish value as you will find. For millennia, we have used such communication as a means of inculcating within our offspring a deep sense of religious connection and understanding, while also keeping them focused on proper behaviors and values. In fact, the concept dates back to our national inception, and has served as a basic charge in terms of how we recount our exodus from Egyptian bondage. “And you shall tell your child on this day…” (Shemos 13:8)
In the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
Tell it to your child… We are asked to accompany the practical observance of every religious precept, which our children see us perform and which we seek to teach them to perform in their turn, with a verbal explanation of its substance and significance. Through our words, our children should learn what these practices and observances mean to us so that they, too, may perceive them with their hearts and minds. (Collected Writings, Vol. VII, pp. 360-361)
If there is ever a moment in our lives that clearly underscores the crucial role that parents play in the development of their children, it is the Pesach Seder. At the Seder, we sat together surrounded by the many mitzvos of the evening. There, we deeply impressed upon the inquiring child that “by strength of hand did G-d take us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” It was not due to our strength or skills that we achieved our freedom; only through Hashem’s direct intervention could we witness salvation.
Moreover, at the Seder we solidified the nexus of thought and action. We did not simply recount what occurred to our forefathers three thousand years ago. Rather, we aimed to relive that experience through the reenactment of their glorious experiences, and drew a personal connection to ourselves and our present realities. “A man is obligated to view himself (at the Seder) as if he himself was leaving Egypt.” (Pesachim 116b)
But the topic of chinuch does not start and end on the first night of Pesach. All throughout the week, as we initiate the Counting of the Omer, we impart upon our children pertinent lessons, such as the true goal of Sefirah, which is to prepare to receive the Torah and achieve the special status of “metzuveh v’oseh” that was achieved at Sinai. (This is based on explanations of the passage in Dayeinu which states that, “Even if the Almighty would have brought us before Mount Sinai but would not have presented to us the Torah, it would have been sufficient an act to warrant our appreciation.)
At week’s end, we shift our focus to the culmination of the redemption – Kriyas Yam Suf. There, too, chinuch plays a central role. Our sages (Shemos Rabbah) tell us that the babies who were born and raised in Egypt were the first to recognize Hashem at that auspicious time.
Apparently, even later artwork communicated the centrality of chinuch at Yam Suf. A story is told involving the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, known by the acronym “Rashab.” The Rebbe Rashab once saw a painting whose theme was the miracle of Kriyas Yam Suf. The picture showed the children near their parents with their faces turned towards their parents, while the parents’ faces were turned upwards. His son, the Rebbe Rayatz, explained that when children recognize that they are still children, and they look towards their parents and see that their parents also acknowledge their smallness and gaze upwards towards their Father in Heaven, then the children grow up properly.
With such a chinuch-related emphasis all throughout the week of Pesach, it follows that this week represents a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our capacity to parent effectively. The following strategies may be useful in assisting parents with concrete strategies for reaching and inspiring their children.
- Work on your own character – There is perhaps no more powerful a lesson that we can impart upon our children than to be a solid role model for them. We know that the apple doesn’t typically fall far from the tree, or in Talmudic parlance, “The talk of the child in the marketplace is either that of his father or of his mother.” (Sukkah 56b)
To be a good role model is to be a good person and model that goodness to your children, day in and day out. Kids pick up on our tendencies whether we realize it or not. Our conduct and attitudes, stated explicitly or implicitly, often become those of our children.
In a famous poem entitled, “Children Learn What They Live,” author Dorothy Law Nolte poignantly captures this idea:
If a child lives with criticism,
he learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.
If a child lives with fear,
he learns to be apprehensive…
If a child lives with encouragement,
he learns to be confident.
If a child lives with tolerance,
he learns to be patient.
If a child lives with praise,
he learns to be appreciative.
If a child lives with acceptance,
he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval,
he learns to like himself.
If a child lives with recognition,
he learns that it is good to have a goal…
If a child lives with friendliness,
he learns that the world is a nice place in which to live.
If you live with serenity,
your child will live with peace of mind. With what is your child living?
Unfortunately, we know of far too many stories of children who got the wrong kind of messaging growing up. A story of told of a rebbi who asked his class what the most important thing in the world was. Naturally, most children responded “Hashem.” One boy answered with a sarcastic tone and offered “cholent” as his most important thing. In private conversation afterwards the boy said that each week he shares his dvar Torah with his father, who is far more preoccupied with wolfing down his cholent than he is with what his son has to say. In more current terms, one can easily imagine a child answering “iPhone” to the same question, considering how focused we tend to be with our phones, even during meal time, chavrusa time or other once-sacred times.
Some parents do the right things but feel that it’s best to be discreet and not share their mitzvah activity with their children. This can be a mistake. One time, a yeshiva bochur was walking in Jerusalem when he was recruited for a prayer service in a mourner home. The boy looked at the mourners and saw that they were irreligious; their attire and misfit kippot gave it away. Yet, he also noticed a large display of Hebrew sefarim around the room. Surely, the deceased must have been a great scholar, or at the least had an unusual affinity towards Torah scholarship. He asked the mourners for an explanation. They shared that the home was that of their father, the deceased. He was a great scholar who would immerse himself in study for hours on end. But he did so with his door closed, and failed to engage his sons in the beauty of Torah learning and in a genuine father-son relationship. The result was that each one viewed his Torah as a barrier to their relationship and wanted nothing to do with it.
- Instruct your child – A number of years ago, the CBS program “60 Minutes” ran two separate stories about the “Millennials”, the newest generation to enter the American work force. In just a short period of time, this new breed of American worker has come to challenge everything that their bosses hold sacred.
Gone are the days when young employees held their superiors and work environment with great reverence, hoping to one day climb the corporate ladder. Today, work orders and processes are routinely challenged, standards of attire regularly flouted. Even the largest, most established companies don’t know what to do with their youthful employs. Many have given in, and now offer free food, recreational rooms and work-schedule flexibility to keep their employees happy.
The obvious question is what has prompted this radical change in the way that our youth perceive the workplace and conduct themselves within it? Interestingly, the most commonly identified culprit is the doting, “everyone is special” world in which these young men and women were raised.
In all of my years, I had never heard a negative word about Mr. Rogers (of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame) until listening to this report. After all, the Mr. Rogers that I knew was always so friendly and positive. Yet, according to many, his glossy eyed view of the world, one in which everyone was special simply by virtue of the fact that they existed, trained an entire generation of children (and their parents) to think of themselves and their needs in inflated terms.
Soccer leagues have taught this same lesson. Many have placed an excessive premium on “fairness” and sportsmanship to the point where they do not allow for wins and losses. In these leagues, one need not win the championship to receive a trophy; participation alone guarantees recognition.
However, the guiltiest parties in this discussion seem to be the parents themselves, who have given their children the world (or at least the opportunity to tour it in style) on a silver platter, without requiring much in return.
These parents have failed to know when to step back and allow their children to live their own lives and struggle through their own challenges. In fact, many parents continue to actively advocate for their children even as they move into the college and work environments, inquiring (in oft-hostile manners) as to why their (not so) little Johnny received a “C” on his paper, or darling Sarah did not get the promotion that she was seeking.
Of all of Avraham’s qualities, perhaps his most important was the role that he would play in educating future generations (see Bereishis 18:19). We too have similar responsibilities and we cannot hope to outsource such obligation to our children’s teachers and schools.
Parents would be wise to insist on their respect, even as the world around us confers more and more authority on our youth. An incident is related about Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, in which the aged rosh yeshiva was traveling with a grandchild. The young man was acting with great respect towards his grandfather, and heeded his every need and request. Another passenger took note, and was struck at the contrast between this treatment and that which he received from his own offspring.
The observer asked Rav Yaakov as to how he merited such treatment. Rav Yaakov responded that the man, an adherent of Evolution Theory, maintained that every generation was one further removed from the ape. As a result, the next generation deserved greater respect than those that came before. In contrast, our mesorah states that each generation is one further removed from Sinai. Consequently, we are reliant upon our ancestors to serve as links in the chain of our tradition. As such, it is they who most deserve respect.
Still, such respect must only be insisted upon with gentleness. The Vilna Gaon wrote as much to his own children. “Guide (your children) only with gentleness,” he said, “for Torah learning is instilled within a person only through an approach of sincerity and gentleness.”
This may be all fine and good when the child is generally well mannered. But how are parents to educate their children, the ones who are indifferent, or worse, fight them on every point, in a manner that will help them achieve the desired goal? Wouldn’t insistence upon respect with such children backfire?
The Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, once advised a parent who couldn’t get his child to improve his behavior to pretend that it was the father that needed the help and the son who support him. “Say,” he advised, “that you need a study partner to learn ethics.” The goal was the same: to introduce the son to proper ethical thinking and practice. The method, however, was sufficiently indirect as to lower the boy’s guard.
Another strategy is to end on a positive note. One time, when Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski was a young man, he was at home with his family on Rosh Hashana. The family did not play games on Rosh Hashana and so young Abraham’s father was naturally upset when his son allowed himself to be drawn into a game of chess by a guest. After expressing his displeasure, he winked at his son and asked, “You checkmated him, right?”
We all need to reprimand our children. But it’s the way that we do it, and the flavor that we leave in their mouths when we’re done, that can make all of the difference.
May we all merit utilizing this week to its fullest, to strengthen our own resolve as parents and to connect deeply with our children, thereby achieving the powerful and eternal charge of all Jewish parents to “tell it to your child.”
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching and Consulting (ImpactfulCoaching.com). He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.