Early-Childhood Parenting and Lifelong Religious Growth

One of the greatest fears of Orthodox parents is that their child will reject Torah and abandon the community. Some take comfort in the notion that most children remain Orthodox if they are raised in pleasant and supportive Orthodox homes and schools, are not victims of physical or emotional abuse, and are not shamed or degraded due to an inability to meet academic expectations. Curiously, and perhaps by design, there is no reliable data regarding the percentages of Orthodox day school and yeshivah graduates who abandon observance. Thus, the fear may be valid.

An additional, daunting risk that does not seem to frighten many Orthodox families is that a child will remain observant but fail to develop a deep and meaningful personal relationship with G-d. This eventuality is likely not that scary to those parents who themselves are content with a superficial Orthodox Judaism. Other parents are not as concerned because raising a child with a shallow relationship with G-d is not noticeable to others and thus causes them no embarrassment. But our community is falling significantly short if we are content to produce observant Jews whose Judaism is bereft of an ongoing and growing connection to Hashem. How sustainable is such an Orthodox community? And is that what Torah Judaism is all about? Religious leaders and community activists should find this phenomenon alarming, and the absence of vocal concern among many parents even more so.

Our educational system is exemplary in teaching children the nuts and bolts of Judaism, often including significant Torah study in its curriculum as well as the requisite training for proper halachic observance. Our schools, camps, shuls and youth groups also effectively integrate and socialize children into the Orthodox community.

But children learn how to love from their homes; it is family that models affection and the warmth of intimacy. These childhood lessons are the building blocks of happiness and the tools for developing meaningful relationships and a fulfilling family life.

Undoubtedly, developing and sustaining loving, meaningful relationships as adults will require substantial and perpetual hard work. But the likely success of such effort is greatly enhanced if the capacity to love and to be loved was developed through early childhood experiences.

Similarly, the capacity to develop a mature, personal connection with G-d is greatly affected by one’s early childhood experiences. While we enjoy the lifelong opportunity to develop a spiritual relationship through prayer, mitzvah observance, Torah study and chesed, the extent of our ability to absorb the spiritual energy generated by these efforts is influenced by the modeling and lessons we received in childhood. The love and warmth imparted by family are certainly key components of this preparation, but additional ingredients of religious readiness must also be provided by the home.

The obligation to perform mitzvos may begin upon becoming a bas or bar mitzvah. But the obligation of parents to ensure that mitzvah performance will be meaningful begins much earlier.

Early childhood as the springboard for spirituality

Visiting a tzaddik, a young mother asked when she should begin to teach her child about Judaism. He inquired about the child’s age and she responded that the child was five years old. With a sense of urgency, the tzaddik exclaimed, “You had better rush home for you have already lost five of the most consequential years.”

Though intertwined and overlapping, each stage of childhood presents a youngster with unique opportunities to grow and progress. During particular stages, however, certain behaviors and experiences have exceptionally significant lifelong implications. For example, teen and adult obesity can often be traced to unhealthy pre-teen diet and exercise habits, and student indifference or industriousness during certain decisive stages of schooling may be singularly determinative of future academic success.

While much attention is paid to early childhood physical and mental health as well as to primary academic and social skills, less focus is expended on cultivating a nascent loving relationship with G-d. This is unfortunate because the inculcation of religious perceptions and foundations during the toddler years through bas or bar mitzvah is critical to framing children’s lifelong receptivity to a relationship with Hashem.

Parents and grandparents often unthinkingly overlook the significance of early childhood religious experiences, or perhaps recognize their importance but feel unqualified to provide them.

In actuality, however, every parent possesses all the tools and skills needed to effectively groom young children for their impending religious journey. Moreover, furnishing young children with a valuable religious orientation need not be time consuming. But although time, scholarship and skill are not required, thoughtfulness, attentiveness and love are imperative.

Why early childhood spiritual potential is commonly overlooked

Vocabulary is the toolbox of comprehension and creativity. Increased language skills broaden the potential spectrum of our thoughts and provide access to otherwise elusive emotions and attitudes. Adults incapable of expressing sophisticated concepts are assumed to be incapable of truly comprehending them. Children, however, are different.

A young child’s vocabulary may be limited but it is constantly expanding. Unlike a sixty-year-old whose standard of articulation and comprehension has likely long been stagnant, a typical six-year-old’s perceptivity and creativity are constantly and rapidly advancing. An average six- eight- or ten-year-old stores observations, emotions and seemingly casual impressions, and then connects them to complex ideas and attitudes when later acquiring the requisite vocabulary and comprehension.

While complex ideas verbalized through unfamiliar words may swiftly fade, the impressions and feelings children draw from all that surrounds them eventually form the inceptive foundation of their worldview. Consequently, it is a grave mistake to interpret young children’s minimal capacity to articulate concepts and emotions as a limited capability to perceive and digest them. The child merely stores these concepts and emotions for future retrieval and integration.

Since latent childhood impressions carry significant future implications, parents have long been counseled that a loving and cheerful home is extremely impactful on children’s future well-being, including their ongoing sense of security and their capacity to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Similarly, thoughtfully planned early childhood religious experiences have a significant impact on children’s later sense of religious identity, and on their capacity to initiate and grow a personal relationship with G-d.

A preliminary list of parenting suggestions

There can be no uniform protocol for providing young children with a foundation for future religious growth. Every family must explore and experiment, and even within the same family, each child is different. But there are general principles that might be considered.

1. Make G-d the good guy.

Parents may be tempted to fuse religion and discipline. That is a bad idea and introduces a corrupted perception of Hashem.

Hashem, of course, loves each of us, and we need to integrate that reality into our psyche. It is unrealistic to expect children to intrinsically feel Hashem’s love if their introduction to Him is that of a stern and judgmental disciplinarian.

Rather than suggesting to children that Hashem will be disappointed or upset if they neglect their homework or chores, children should repeatedly be told how happy Hashem is when they are enjoying a game or a treat. And rather than admonish them for the sin of selfishness or disorderliness, emphasize the mitzvah of playing with friends and celebrating at their parties.

2. Demonstrate how much you treasure your own relationship with your child.

Many years ago in the middle of Kabbalas Shabbos, a fellow came over to criticize me as being a “mean father.” He pointed to the boys sitting in the back of the shul with their chevra, while I required my young sons to sit next to me. I responded that I never once asked my sons to sit with me in shul. He quizzically asked why then my sons were sitting with me, while so many others sat with their friends.

I suggested that he observe fathers walking home after shul. Fathers schmoozing with their own friends are conveying to their children that they enjoy their friends more than their children. Those children will inevitably reciprocate by preferring to spend their time with peers. On the other hand, fathers who elect to cheerfully schmooze with their children while walking home from shul are conveying that there is no one else they would prefer to be with. Those children will be eager to accompany their fathers, whether to shul or elsewhere.

Children, even toddlers, while being driven in a car or walking with parents, derive the same messages when observing their parents either preoccupied with devices, or alternatively, ignoring the ringing and beeps to chat with them.

Intellectually, we understand that Hashem loves us as our Tatteh in Himmel, Father in Heaven. But it remains a challenge to connect to Hashem, particularly in this era of hester panim, when Hashem’s presence is so veiled. And conceiving of Hashem actually loving each of us as individuals is even more elusive.

Fathoming Hashem’s love and care is far more accessible if we first experience love and care from a person—someone we can see, hear and feel. Even better is when such feelings and experiences are learned and relearned throughout childhood, particularly when they are received in the form of unconditional, absolute love from parents. Conversely, nothing imposes a greater barrier to children accepting the premise of G-d’s love than their own parents messaging that their parental love is conditional, or that the placement of their children’s needs and best interests on their list of priorities is tenuous.

3. For youngsters, Judaism should be the fun part.

Adults appreciate that even the most treasured aspects of life, such as precious relationships and coveted roles, are bound to include ups and downs, joy and sorrow, merriment and seriousness. Young children, by contrast, compartmentalize with little capacity to synthesize. Impressions and associations accumulated during early childhood are stark and unidimensional, and serve as the premise upon which more sophisticated adult perspectives are developed. Early childhood impressions and associations regarding relationships, ideas and experiences are, therefore, far more consequential than merely being the primitive and fleeting views of young kids.

Life within a healthy family includes joviality and fun, as well as gravity and discipline. Parents, however, too often allow everyday religious rules and rituals to be restrictive and tiresome home experiences, while generating family excitement, fun and delight during periods of recreation and vacation. A child raised in this manner will inevitably associate serving Hashem and observing halachah as burdensome obligations that must be satisfied in order to turn to the fun stuff.

Religious experiences and halachic observance should be a young child’s most joyous and cherished memories. Shabbos should be exciting and anticipated all week long, especially the family Shabbos table, which should be the high point of the week, permeated with excitement, kibitzing and fun. Yom tov even more so. The exhilaration of building and decorating a sukkah, participating in a Seder and preparing costumes and delivering mishloach manos should be the stuff of epic family recollections.

Providing youngsters with this delightful home experience requires neither sophisticated Torah knowledge nor significant time. What is required is an upbeat attitude, thoughtful planning and parents’ own authentic joy, if not in the mitzvos being fulfilled, then at least in the glee of their children.

4. Demonstrate deference and respect for rabbinic leadership.

Rabbinic leadership serves as the face of Torah and Torah values. Adults distinguish between the rabbinate as an institution and individual rabbis themselves. Consequently, some adults might not feel that they are degrading G-d’s holy Torah when critiquing a rabbi’s speech, a rabbinic policy position or even a rabbi’s personality or private life.

Young children, by contrast, do not yet distinguish between a communal office and its occupant. When a child overhears adults diminishing an individual rabbi, and even more so a group of rabbis, the impression conveyed is a dismissal of the sanctity of the Torah that rabbis represent. Likewise, when a child observes parents speaking about religious leaders in a dismissive or frivolous manner at the Shabbos table, they conclude that religion is frivolous and may be dismissed. And by contrast, when parents exhibit deference to, and respect for, religious leadership, their children are being gifted a prism through which to see the grandeur and holiness of our religion.

There will be ample opportunity during adolescence and thereafter for children to learn of rabbinic fallibility, and of the variances among leaders’ capabilities and views. But the impression of young children regarding religious leadership fuses with their impression of the dignity and sanctity of Torah, and even extends to their impression of Hashem.

Though on occasion a parent may feel differently about a particular religious individual or decision, it behooves him to consistently convey to his children enormous respect for, and deference to, religious authority and religious leaders. Religious cynicism is always dangerous, but when inherited from elders through the undiscerning eyes and ears of early childhood, it is toxic and destructive.

We all thirst for a closer and more authentic personal relationship with Hashem. And we also strive to provide our children and grandchildren with all of the happiness, satisfaction and inspiration that life has to offer. The beauty of providing thoughtful religious experiences to our progeny during their early childhood is that by doing so we are increasing the likelihood of both.

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.

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This article was featured in the Spring 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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