To religious Jews, parenting entails more than caring for our children physically and emotionally. We must be invested in our children’s religious identities, help mold their spiritual lives, and imbue them with a strong, deep emunah that will help them withstand the vicissitudes of life.
In the pages ahead, prominent rabbis and educators offer several practical tips or “habits” for raising children with strong religious beliefs.
Each contributor responded to one or two questions below:
1. What middot are most important for parents to work on to be successful in transmitting religious values?
2. What are the most effective ways for a parent to convey the core values of emunah and bitachon?
3. No one is religiously perfect. How does one deal with the inconsistency between what one teaches his children and his own actions?
4. What role does the school/yeshivah play in a child’s religious growth and development?
Habit No. 1: Be Authentic
There are three long term goals that are used as a litmus test to define the “mechunach child”—a well-taught child:
1. Child should know right from wrong;
2. Child should know his or her strengths;
3. Child is not afraid to fail or make a mistake.
A child primarily builds his values from his parents’ core value system. In order for a child to learn this from his parents, two essential components must be present: relationship and authenticity.
Relationship—Without a positive relationship, parents are limited in their ability to mold their child. (How does Dad make you feel if he is controlling, condescending or both? Would Dad be someone we would choose to spend time with or pick as a role model?)
Authenticity—Children pick up on who we are even if we don’t utter a word about our beliefs.
One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is of my mother greeting the unkempt women who used to come to our door collecting tzedakah. In addition to giving whatever she could monetarily, my mother would offer the women, most of whom hadn’t showered in a while, fresh fruit and a hot drink. Similarly, I cannot forget “Bess,” the ninety-something-year-old woman my mother would take on weekly shopping expeditions to Waldbaum’s. My mother would patiently walk up and down the aisles with Bess while she ever so slooowly perused the canned goods and the weekly specials. Then my mother would load up the car, schlep the bags into the elevator in Bess’ apartment building and bring them up to her door. My mother did not teach me about chesed by speaking about it. She taught me via the personal example she set.
Values are transmitted through our actions, not our words. We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and figure out what values we stand for before we think about passing anything down. There should never be an inconsistency between what you tell your child your core value system is and what it actually is. Is it reasonable to lecture our children about the value of davening three times a day or setting aside time for daily Torah study if we ourselves do not exemplify this? Can we teach our children to display responsible habits with their digital technology if we ourselves are not modeling such behavior? You may be able to fool yourself with sanctimonious lectures, but you cannot fool your child.
Perhaps even more powerful than our actions are the reactions that we present to our children. A reaction is defined by a spontaneous emotional response to an event. For example, what will make us more upset—a child who spills a bottle of grape juice on the Shabbat tablecloth or a child who speaks lashon hara at the Shabbat table? Our children learn so much about what really is important to us by our reactions.
Rachel Silber is a graduate of Michlalah Jerusalem College and received her MA in special education from Columbia University Teachers College. During her years living in Israel, Mrs. Silber taught in the Israeli high school system and founded and directed the Ramat Eshkol Reading and Writing Center. She attended Rebbetzin Sima Spetner’s parenting classes for over five years and consults with her on various educational issues. Mrs. Silber currently resides in Edison, New Jersey with her husband and six children. She teaches Navi in Reenas Bais Yaakov high school in Highland Park, New Jersey and is also the Judaic studies resource director at Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway Township, New Jersey.
Performing mitzvot is an essential feature of our mesorah. It is only logical that we parents want to pass the importance of mitzvot on to our children in as complete and nuanced a way as possible. However, children are smarter and more perceptive than they are given credit for, and they are particularly adept at “reading between the lines.” They have an uncanny, radar-like knack for sensing hypocrisy, and a lack of sincerity can quickly undo all of the effort that we invest into behavioral training and reinforcement of mitzvah observance. It seems to me that acting with sincerity is the single most important element in successfully transmitting our Torah values and hashkafot to our children. Sincerity is the window to our values and our values provide the connection to our lifestyles. Obfuscating our children’s view of our true selves triggers their hypocrisy radar, making our capacity to reach them more difficult.
Leba Musman, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker and serves as a school guidance counselor at Torah Institute (TI) in Baltimore, Maryland. She received her MSW from the University of Maryland. Mrs. Musman resides in Baltimore with her husband and five energetic boys.
Habit No. 2: Be Consistent
Our children do not expect us to be angels; however, they do expect and deserve to have parents whose behavior is predictable and consistent. Aside from feeling loved, a child needs to feel secure and safe and that he has total and unbreakable trust in his parents.
At times a parent has to discipline his or her child; however, the discipline must be meted out with consistency. A child, for example, might know that breaking curfew will result in being grounded for a few days or having his phone confiscated for a week.
If, however, his parents sometimes ignore when he breaks curfew and other times are enraged, this creates a feeling of insecurity in the child. A parent cannot allow his feelings and moods to dictate how he responds to a child’s infraction. If punishments vary depending upon a parent’s fickle mood, then the child gets a clear message: his parent is not someone whose behavior and reactions can be relied upon. This leads the child to feel—rightly so—that his parent is not someone he can trust.
Consistency, or the need for the same “mis-action” by the child to always be met with the same reaction on the part of the parent, is essential in establishing a relationship that has a strong foundation built on trust.
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman is the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel in Passaic, New Jersey.
Habit No. 3: Be Growth-Oriented
Parents should openly share that which is challenging, so that setbacks are viewed as opportunities rather than spiritual obstacles. When we share our challenges, appropriate missteps and strategies to succeed, we empower our children with “spiritual grit” to be their best selves. If Dad shares his story of how he left a meeting early to catch a winter Minchah, his children sense his commitment. When he takes it further and shares that he plans on scheduling his meetings earlier in the day to avoid having a conflict with minyan, they see spiritual success in the trenches of real life. As a result of communicating how we surmount our own religious challenges with thoughtful planning, we plant spiritual seeds.
I recently traveled for work to a warm climate and returned a couple of days before Chanukah. The trip was productive but very intense. When my children asked why I didn’t stay a bit longer and enjoy the sun, I easily answered that I wouldn’t be able to prepare for Chanukah properly and it simply wouldn’t feel right. There was no blame on Chanukah being “too early” or a waste of a trip. I made it clear that while the trip was necessary, preparing a chag for my family is my greatest joy and priority.
Rachel Burg is the director of Camp Dina for Girls and a teacher at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey. She has worked in informal, mainstream and special education for over twenty years. Mrs. Burg is also a founding board member of Naaleh High School for Girls in Bergen County, New Jersey. She currently resides in Bergenfield, New Jersey, with her husband Rabbi Steven Burg and is the mother of six amazing kids.
When children view their parents as growing individuals who are striving, parents are transmitting a valuable message to their children. Indeed, one of the most valuable lessons parents can teach their children is that failure, particularly in religious life, isn’t an experience reserved just for sinners. A child internalizes the messages that parents communicate, and these words become the child’s internal dialogue, the self-speech that goes on in his or her head.
Carol Dweck in her book Mindset (New York, 2006) describes two mindsets that impact a person’s sense
of striving and growth. Growth mindset is a belief that we can work hard and improve. The internal dialogue sounds like this: I want to learn from criticism; I find lessons and inspiration in people’s success; I am comfortable making mistakes. And instead of “I can’t” a child says, “I can’t do it yet.” Fixed mindset is the belief that our potential is fixed and set. Children raised in a fixed mindset environment believe that criticism is damaging and suggests failure. Risk and challenges are to be avoided lest they affirm weakness.
While Dweck’s theory is generally applied in educational settings, we can apply the theory to religious growth. A truly religious home embraces a growth mindset where parents and children are constantly aiming for greater spiritual achievement.
Parents are in a position to validate the challenge of religious observance while creating an atmosphere that encourages growth and effort. Getting up in the morning for davening can be hard, but rather than criticizing a child for wanting to sleep in, parents would do well to empower their children to develop their “spiritual muscles” and recognize that it is a struggle.
Ultimately, religious growth is an experience of the heart and soul. It is not easily quantified or measured in the ways that we are accustomed to assessing intellectual growth and development (e.g. first reading Hebrew letters, then Rashi script, et cetera). There are no obvious yardsticks to measure its success.
Nonetheless, we can realize religious growth in our lives, if we focus intently. Thus, one who works on davening with greater kavanah (fervor) develops a greater mindfulness and awareness, which hopefully will translate into other areas of religious development. Mindfulness in tefillah can impact mindfulness in speech and behavior. One doesn’t look at religious accomplishments as static, but rather as stepping stones toward greater spiritual self-awareness and commitment. Hence the famous Talmudic teaching (Avodah Zarah 20b) of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair that forms the basis of the classic ethical work Mesillat Yesharim:
“You shall guard yourself from everything evil” (Devarim 23:10): From here Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair derived: Torah brings to Watchfulness; Watchfulness brings to Zeal; Zeal brings to Cleanliness; Cleanliness brings to Separation; Separation brings to Purity; Purity brings to Piety; Piety brings to Humility; Humility brings to Fear of Sin; Fear of Sin brings to Holiness; Holiness brings to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit brings to the Revival of the Dead.
Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman is the founding director of the Orthodox Union’s The Women’s Initiative. A dynamic community leader and teacher for over twenty years, she also serves as rebbetzin of the Lower Merion Synagogue of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania and is the founding chair of the Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf a”h Rebbetzin to Rebbetzin Mentoring Program at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Rebbetzin Shmidman lives in Bala Cynwyd with her husband and four sons.
Habit No. 4: Learn from Your Mistakes
Must we demand perfection from ourselves in order to effectively pass down our values? There is a big difference between conflicting values and legitimately making mistakes. Having different values than those that you teach your child is the antithesis of chinuch. Conversely, making mistakes and “getting up” is an incredible teachable moment. One of the most powerful messages that we can give over to our children is “sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam—a righteous man falls seven times and rises up again” (Mishlei 24:16). Everybody makes mistakes and the human condition is such that we are able to correct mistakes that we’ve made and repent for our sins. A parent who can effectively model this behavior is planting seeds of resilience—teaching a child that his mistakes can actually be the catalyst in the organic process of his personal growth. When a parent makes a mistake and does not fall apart, but rather learns and grows from the experience, he is modeling the value of personal growth.
When we share our challenges, appropriate missteps and strategies to succeed, we empower our children with “spiritual grit” to be their best selves.
Ask any of my kids and they are sure to tell you what I think about IAD (iPhone Addiction Disorder) or TAD (Texting Addiction Disorder). I feel very strongly about maintaining healthy digital-citizenship habits. Last year when I started a new position, I had a lot of work-related e-mails and text messages to respond to after working hours. One night, Moishy, my seven-year-old son, turned to me and said: “Mommy, you’re so into your phone.” I realized that I was setting a double standard. I decided at that moment that my phone would be set aside during supper, homework and bedtime routine. A few weeks later Moishy said: “Mommy, I like you better without your phone.” This was certainly a crucial part of my own learning curve in responsibly balancing work, home and family relationships. Instead of feeling like a failure in front of my seven-year-old, I was able to reflect and become a better parent.
Habit No. 5: Seek Guidance
Ron Yitzchok Eisenman
A rav’s ability to analyze and counsel parents with a Torah-true vantage point is indispensable for any parent seeking proper spiritual guidance for his or her children. But helpful and effective guidance from one’s rav can only be achieved if parents take the time to cultivate a relationship with their shul rav. Couples who float from shul to shul and never bother to anchor themselves in one shul and develop a connection with their rav are unlikely to receive maximum benefit from seeking guidance from that rav.
Obviously, for true mental health issues one needs a competent and trained mental health professional, and a rabbi has to know when to say, “This is beyond my abilities.” However, with regard to other issues, the rav—assuming he knows the family well—has an advantage over a therapist; he doesn’t just see the couple at weekly sessions, and therefore, he sees the bigger picture. The rav knows the couple, and understands their circumstances and community.
Habit No. 6: Know That “It Takes a Kehillah to Raise a Child”
Many parents feel they are alone when it comes to raising children. In truth, there are many partners involved in raising a religious child. The primary partners are the parents, of course. They have the greatest influence on their children; they also must serve as full-time ambassadors for Yiddishkeit. Beginning at a very young age, parents need to give their children a love for Yiddishkeit in a loving and caring atmosphere.
Another pivotal partner in a child’s growth is a rav—ideally a rav who knows your family and cares about you. A good rav can provide moral support, help with difficult decisions, point you in the right direction when a professional is needed and offer advice regarding educational and other issues.
The yeshivah/day school is the third partner. Having been a rebbe for twenty-two years, baruch Hashem, I’ve witnessed firsthand the difference a good yeshivah can make in helping a child grow religiously. What’s the definition of a good yeshivah? A place where your children are encouraged to grow and know that they are loved and important. Our children spend most of their day in yeshivah. When choosing a yeshivah, make sure that it has an administration that has time for parents, and that the rabbeim and staff are warm and understanding.
Even more important than the yeshivah is the rebbe. A rebbe needs to love and care about his talmidim. Our children are a lot smarter than we like to think. Years ago, one of my students told me: “Many rabbeim told me they loved me, and some really did.” When a rebbe brings a positive attitude to the classroom and shows genuine excitement for learning Torah, for the yamim tovim and for being a part of Am Yisrael, his students will strive to follow in his path. I remember my first-grade rebbe telling me that the word “atah” in every berachah proves that Hashem is with us all the time. He said it with such conviction and enthusiasm, it still resonates with me almost thirty-five years later. That’s the power of a great rebbe.
Parents and rabbeim need to work together to make sure that children develop a love for Yiddishkeit and an excitement for Torah and mitzvot. Constant communication is key, as is mutual respect.
The flip side is that the parents need to respect the rebbe as well. Putting down a rebbe because you don’t agree with him is a really bad idea. Going over his head to the principal every time you have an issue is also unfair. Furthermore, if your child has an excellent rebbe or morah, let them know how grateful you are.
Yet another partner in a child’s growth is one that parents don’t necessarily think of—namely, friends. When our children are younger, we set up playdates and monitor their friendships. As they grow older, we lose control over whom our children choose to hang out with. Nevertheless, friends play a tremendous role in our children’s future.
You don’t need to insist that all of your child’s friends be just like him. Actually, a bit of diversity is quite healthy. You do, however, need to make sure that your kids are supervised in an age-appropriate fashion. If you’re worried about the effect a certain child is having on your child, cutting off the relationship isn’t always the best answer. Rather, make sure to keep playdates at your house, so you can keep an eye on things. It is very important to remember that any house your child goes to must have a good Internet filter or strong supervision.
The final partner is, of course, Hashem. We need to constantly daven that our children should stay on the path of Torah and mitzvot. We need to daven that Hashem should give us the strength and ability to be good parents, teachers and role models. Just remember, though, that it’s not just davening that will suffice; we need to put in our hishtadlut.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross, a grade-school rebbe on Long Island for over twenty years, writes a popular weekly parenting blog that has thousands of subscribers. He also gives parenting and social-media awareness classes and seminars throughout the US.
Habit No. 7: Make Hashem’s Presence Real in Daily Life
By Rachel Burg
Instilling faith in our children is an often overlooked yet crucial element of parenting. We can help our children develop a strong faith in God by invoking His presence at any given opportunity. We must ensure that God’s presence is not merely felt when the pendulum swings to the most rewarding moments like childbirth and weddings, or to the most challenging moments like death and illness.
Do our children feel it at the dinner table when we share a quick anecdote that reflects a kiddush Hashem opportunity? Do they feel it in the way we prepare for Shabbat? Do they feel it when they hear their mother tearing up while reciting the names of cholim (the ill) during hafrashat challah? Do they feel it when they hear a parent say “gam zu l’tovah” (“this too is for the best”) when they have two semachot to attend on the same evening and refuse to become frustrated?
If a flight runs late, let your children tease you and say, “I know, we weren’t supposed to be up in the air right now.” Hopefully, they have observed their parents many times casually shrugging their shoulders after missing a flight, demonstrating their belief that Hashem is moving the chess pieces with their best interest in mind.
If they hear you express this concept as toddlers, they can mimic you as they mature and replay it in their own minds when they are adolescents. Ideally, it will become part of their belief system as adults.
We need to create conversations that are both holy and casual simultaneously. If a family creates a mission statement where emunah is going to be reinforced at every opportunity, the mindset shifts to creating an achievable relationship with Hashem.
Q. Sometimes grandparents may be more or less religious than their children. What is the correct approach when dealing with religious differences?
By Leba Musman
Grandparents play an indispensable and highly influential role in the life of a child. That is, in part, the reason for the tensions that can arise due to differences of opinion regarding religious observance and outlooks between parents and grandparents.
Granted, there are many case-specific issues I cannot address in this format; but I would like to make a suggestion that may help resolve some of the challenges. Based on more than a decade of experience working in the yeshivah school system, it seems to me that, as a community, we are overly concerned with how others perceive and value our religious level of observance.
A shift in our focus will be helpful, regardless of whether the situation is that a grandparent is “not frum enough” or “too frum.” Focusing on grandparents’ good middot and finding Jewish values in which they excel—for example, chesed—can change the way both parents and grandchildren view the relationship. On a personal note, I am choosing to raise my children in a yeshivish school, whereas I grew up Modern Orthodox. Nevertheless, I would be delighted if my children were to develop the character and principles that my parents possess and which they worked tirelessly to pass on to myself and my siblings. Let us highlight grandparents’ strengths when we discuss our parents with our children by telling stories about their kindness and their sensitivity to the needs and struggles of others. In this way, we provide our children with an opportunity to see the continuity in their family history and understand how seemingly very different people are part of an integrated, cohesive entity.