I do not think that I am a great parent; I do not know if I am even a good one. Nonetheless, even those of us whose accomplishments are mediocre or worse learn from experience and can thus ascend the soap box once in a while to share advice with others (or to rant, based on the audience’s perspective).
Parenting in the frum world is a unique experience, as our schedules and obligations are typically far weightier than those of general society. Furthermore, unlike in the secular world, where education of youth is principally pragmatic – to provide the tools to make a living and conduct oneself properly, with awareness and appreciation for certain values and knowledge – the Jewish obligation of Talmud Torah, Torah study, transcends the pragmatic and is a holy lifelong endeavor of dedication to Hashem, demanding consistent reinforcement and presenting challenges throughout.
These factors – the character of a frum lifestyle and the nature of our chinuch (Torah education) obligations – combine in such a way that parenting for Orthodox Jews becomes a unique enterprise, requiring its own focus and cultivation, far beyond the “basics” of good parenting that general society preaches. Parenting in any society is never basic, but frum parenting brings with it a heightened new realm of essentials that must be brought to the fore.
Again, I do not consider myself to be a good example, yet experience and observation are worth something; I therefore would like to present some points to ponder regarding frum parenting, for those who are interested. Although lengthy books are written on this subject, I submit here a few of the areas of concern which I feel are the most overlooked.
Kids Being Normal, Parents Being Attuned and Focused
Although individuality is a virtue and is usually the basis for cultivating personal greatness, the value and centrality of thetzibbur, the public, looms large in Orthodox life. Cookie-cutter people are not the goal, but practical functioning and acceptance within the parameters of social norms is part of the vital fabric of frum society, for better or for worse. As such, our children very much need to operate and be accepted within the mainstream of their surroundings. While marching to one’s own drummer can more or less work in general society, in Orthodox society it is often a recipe for loneliness, future struggle and even failure.
Rabbi Chaim Pechter, my son’s high school principal, always advises parents on orientation night that despite parents’ own “sheetos” (ideological positions), such as that clothing style is irrelevant, or that one should not waste time and money at restaurants, parents are very ill-advised to make their children korbonos (sacrifices) for these values. Children (especially in frum society) need to feel that they fit in and are part of the norm. When children are forced to uphold values that conflict with the children’s social setting, the results are quite negative.
Hence, it is not only important to make sure that one’s children are in a proper environment, but it is also of utmost importance that one’s children are able to be mainstreamed in a healthy and good manner within that environment. This is where focused and attuned frum parenting comes in, as determining which communities/schools/social groups will provide an optimal environment is crucial, but being keyed in to the expectations and norms of that environment is also extremely necessary.
For example, unlike in general society, where summer is off-time and people frequently scatter and do their own things, in frum society, it is not uncommon and is even sometimes expected for everyone to be together and do pretty much the same thing, be it to attend certain camps, programs or the like. If most children in a frum community or school are attending a certain learning camp, day camp or program, or are working as counselors at a specific group of camps, one should think twice before deciding instead to send one’s child to nature camp or to an overseas program, as this seemingly innocent and noble move can set the child off from the others and deny him the sense of continuity, relative normalcy and cohesiveness that binds, identifies and is shared by the rest of the group.
School Above All Else
To describe the frum lifestyle as busy can be a massive understatement. Aside from placing primary focus on the service of Hashem via the “religious” aspects of life (daily tefillah, Torah learning, observance of mitzvos, Shabbos and Yom Tov schedules, etc.), while exerting full effort toward career and family, simchos can abound, with some people being invited to weddings several nights a week and to an aufruf or other affairs on countless Shabbosim.
While it is a mitzvah to attend these celebrations, the mitzvah of one’s children’s chinuch often comes first. Going away for Shabbos, which can deprive children of their normal sleep and schedules and can cause them to miss school on Erev Shabbos and Sunday, where applicable, has to be done on a very selective basis. Families who frequently go away for Shabbos are sometimes unaware of the negative impact it has on their children’s chinuch. So too for parents who are out very late at weddings on an extremely frequent basis. (And not to mention the effect of this all on one’s own Torah learning.)
Thank God, the range of yeshivos/day schools of all types is broad and ever-expanding. While this sounds like a positive development, it is actually a greater challenge, as mosdos chinuch (educational institutions) are becoming far more specialized than ever before. Sometimes the difference between one yeshiva and the next can be glaring, while at times it can be quite nuanced.
Irrespective of the degree of difference between one yeshiva, Bais Yaakov or day school and the next, the impact upon students can be seismic. Carefully researching each potential school for one’s child is critical, including attending open house programs, speaking with families who succeeded and who did not succeed with each particular school, and looking closely at the paths taken by alumni.
There is a tendency among frum Jews who “cross party lines” to inadvertently be less careful with their choice of schools. For example, parents from Modern Orthodox backgrounds who enroll their children in more yeshivish schools are at times apt to fail to do the necessary research, as for these parents, by way of illustration, the sight of boys with hats and jackets is already a bit foreign, and most “black hat” yeshivos seem sort of similar. So too, parents from more yeshivish backgrounds who decide that their children need the exposure of a more Modern Orthodox school are sometimes prone to lump the Modern Orthodox schools together, within a certain range. In both of these systems, the differences between each school is real and often immense, and it behooves prospective parents to research each school with painstaking meticulousness before moving forward.
Being Very Involved
Unlike in general society, where couples have fewer children and study is for the most part not a family event, frum couples, who generally have many children, can feel bombarded with educational obligations for each child, such as school orientation evenings and parent-teacher conferences – one session for every child, and often at a variety of different schools – as well as weekly Avos U’Vanim learning programs and the like. While these events are blessings, they can seem to be quite a lot to juggle.
Yet it is important to attend and participate and to make this all an absolute priority.
Teachers have told me how many parents fail to attend parent-teacher conferences, and I observe parents who never once attend Avos U’Vanim programs with their sons; their sons attend by themselves, or not at all. The time and effort invested to intimately track and address one’s child’s progress, and to religiously bond and show where one’s priorities lie, yield priceless dividends – not to mention the personal negative impact on a child whose parents are typically no-shows for these events. This is part of the responsibility of parenting, and the long-term effect of these and similar endeavors is profound.
Setting an Example – Through Omission
Fathers have on occasion told me that they do not daven Maariv with a minyan, as their wives need them to help out at home in the evening, or that they learn at home at night in order to set an example for their children, or that they are less strict about certainz’manim (halachic time) issues, so that their children can be awake for Kiddush, Havdalah or the like.
Although if one’s wife literally cannot function without her husband missing Maariv with a minyan should warrant his davening at home, what may be more important in the larger picture is the example rather than the action. When children see that their father has to rush out for something very important – Maariv with a minyan – or that he spends a portion of each evening at the beis medrash, or that at certain times of the year, Kiddush and Havdalah are too late for them, they are imbued with the concept that Torah and Mitzvos come first and supersede all else. (I actually asked a preeminent posek [halachic decisor] about the Shabbos z’manim issue, and these words encapsulate his reply.) Just as not getting everything which one desires is a life lesson for patience and for appreciation of reality, the life lesson of sacrifice of one’s time for Torah and Mitzvos, taught by the animated example of one’s parents, is irreplaceable.
What Will Inspire Them?
Many people like prefer no-frills davening, and they prefer to pray at a small shteibel or beis medrash that has no derashos (speeches), minimal singing and often no rabbi. While I leave the propriety of this approach to the discretion of the person and his rav (if he has one – and one must!), for children it is quite often a recipe for a life of uninspired tefillah and lack of connection to a rabbi. When bringing children to shul, their needs for a positive example and an inspiring experience and must be given heavy consideration and acted upon.
So too, discussing intricate halachic topics at the Shabbos table with erudite guests is wonderful, but failure to also colorfully and intently discuss the parsha and so forth with one’s children, and to provide inspiration tailored to them, is really unwise and unfair.
The mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim (Hospitality) must be carefully calculated when dealing with a tableful of one’s own children, or even one child or one’s spouse. While it is extremely meritorious to provide a Shabbos meal or lodging to those who need a place, there are times when hospitality breeds hostility, such as when guests monopolize the host and deprive the children of basic attention and some private time with parents. There is no greater turn-off to a child at a Shabbos table than being ignored and drowned out. Some guests do not respect essential family dynamics, and one is wise to consider not hosting these guests when it comes at the large expense of one’s family. (Furthermore, the mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim pertains to those in need of hospitality. People who otherwise have a place to eat and stay, but are invited purely for social reasons, should certainly not have priority over the attention one is obliged to provide to one’s own household.)
Give Them Space
Even if a parent davens in a shul or a beis medrash which he feels is optimal for his children’s inspiration and appreciation of tefillah, everyone is different. If older children feel more comfortable davening in a different minyan, so long as that minyan is also seen as an optimal makom tefillah (place of prayer), consideration should be given to permit this, even though it means that the family does not all daven together. Everyone responds to different stimuli and is comfortable with different settings; assuming that a child knows how to daven and will be in a positive tefillah atmosphere, with good examples there, forcing him to daven elsewhere with his parents may not be wise.
To successfully grow into a ben or bas Torah, a genuine religious Jew who embodies the Torah, is no easy task, to put it lightly, yet it is attainable, as such is what Hashem expects, and it has been successfully achieved for thousands of years. However, even should a child not appear to be on the trajectory for we must aim, that child nonetheless needs unconditional love.
Guidance is Indispensable
Frum childrearing is among the most delicate and sensitive endeavors there ever will be. Ever so subtle decisions can impact a child for life. It is crucial for every parent to have an experienced rav or a seasoned mechanech (Torah educator) with whom to consult for the multitude of issues that can arise.
I realize that much of what I wrote above can be deflected and rejected as one amateur’s personal rant, and that it can be dismissed for stating the overly obvious. And yes, I anticipate all the critical comments and a few keystroke assaults. But if this article can be of positive use to even one reader, it was well worth entering the line of cyber-fire.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.