In my post Trusting Our Children, I wrote about things that children learn on their own. So what do we need to teach them?
I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t have the answers. I can’t, because they will be different for each family. Leora will make sure her children appreciate art and can express anger productively. RivkA’s children have learned about physical fitness and coping with chronic illness. Sephardi Lady will emphasize being satisfied with what one has and sticking to a budget. And that is how it should be. Each of these concepts is important, some are essential, but no parent can give them all equal weight. We emphasize the skills and values that are currently part of our lives, taking into account our children’s temperaments and inclinations. This is a good thing because it makes us a diverse, vibrant society.
I believe that teaching our children involves several elements. The first is expressed in this quote on education by Rav Yehuda Amital: [Hat tip: Hirhurim]
The greatest educational impact is achieved when the teacher is unaware that he is teaching and the student is unaware that he is learning. This is the meaning of “the Name of Heaven shall become beloved through you” (Yoma 86a) — a person through his ordinary conduct should bring about a sanctification of God’s Name, without even being aware that he is influencing others through his behavior. [Jewish Values, 150-151]
As we all know but often forget, modeling is critical. To quote a book blurb I saw recently, who we are is more important in how our kids turn out than anything else. But it’s not enough. We also need to explain to our children what we are doing and why.
Since I just quoted Rav Amital, I’ll give an example from our visit to Yeshivat Har Etzion last week (otherwise known as the Gush). To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the yeshiva invited graduates to visit with their families for the day. There were hikes, shiurim and other family activities. At mincha an announcement was made suggesting that parents take a moment to show their children about the beit midrash. Going to the beit midrash every day is a powerful statement, but if children don’t understand what happens there, the impact is lessened. We have to interpret the world for our children according to our values.
Here’s another example: We model safe behavior by wearing seat belts, and by expecting passengers to do the same. We refuse to drive unless children are properly restrained. But if the children don’t understand why we wear seat belts, the first time they go with a friend’s mother who says, “If you’re sitting in between two people you don’t need one,” they may wonder whether that mother is right. (Kids get these “deprogramming” messages all the time.) So kids need to know that car accidents can happen anytime and anywhere, and that even a sudden stop can cause serious injury.
This concept also applies equally to Jewish rituals; we can explain that waiting between meat and milk reminds us to be compassionate to animals. Or thoughtfulness: “We need to call Grandma when we get home from the airport so she won’t worry about us.”
Another aspect of teaching that we tend to neglect is the “how.” All too often our kids are away when we do chores and errands. When they are with us we tend to compartmentalize activities, as if quality time must involve kiddie entertainment. Then we resent it when we don’t have time for anything else. (That’s another post I’ve been meaning to write.) I find that summer vacation is a good time to teach one or two useful “hands-on” skills.
Below I attempt to categorize the types of things we teach our children. In many cases, setting an example and starting young is all you need, with some reinforcement along the way. This is prescriptive, by the way, not descriptive–I can’t claim to have succeeded in passing on all of these to my children to a sufficient degree. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure until they reach adulthood. And this list is far from comprehensive:
- Safety issues, like crossing streets and using helmets/car seats/seat belts.
- Torah, halacha, prayers, Jewish customs and culture, and Jewish perspectives on big and small questions.
- Learning and love of learning; how to find answers; critical thinking.
- Hygiene, including washing hands, toilet manners, and bathing. My 4-year-old recently decided she wants to take a shower herself, every day. She even washes behind her ears.
- Health issues, such as food safety and nutrition, exercise, sun protection, normal body function and illness.
- Order, caring for objects.
- Character traits like compassion, integrity and generosity. I don’t believe these can be taught directly, but we can model and discuss them.
- Effective ways of expressing emotions and dealing with conflict.
- Everyday skills such as home maintenance, financial management and running errands.
- General behavior and manners. Sometimes I wonder whether we teach children to say “thank you” because we want them to feel grateful and show appreciation, or because we want them to be perceived as well-behaved. The answer will determine our response when they behave “badly.”
Note: Sephardi Lady asked me about learning to talk. To me, speech falls into the category of things that we can trust our children to get on their own. A large group of normal children begin speaking late, and a proper evaluation can help determine which ones need intervention. It can be tricky. When one of my children spoke late, I found helpful information by Dr. Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University.