Parenting

Should I Push My Kids to Daven?

November 16, 2017

It’s Sunday morning and I am engaging in the same internal battle that many frum parents experience:

It’s the one “day off” of the week. Whereas every day, I need to wrest my kids’ soft cheeks from their cozy sleeping state and urge everyone to get dressed quickly before we make our mad dash out of the house with bags of cereal in hand, on Sunday there’s nowhere to run to. My kids can sleep late, take their time walking around in pajamas, make fancy breakfasts. The hour is getting late but what’s the rush?

At some point, I call this happy, lazy scene to an end as I remind my kids to get dressed so they can daven. They do as they’re told but there are those days when I am greeted by a suffering look and me, the tough Mom who rarely gives in to my kids’ complaints, wonders whether I am doing the right thing by pushing them to daven. On one hand, this is our family value; there is no day off from religious observance and I hope that the act of davening will become as habitual to them as brushing their teeth. On the other hand, when I see that look of annoyance, I worry about turning them off.

It’s every frum parent’s- truly every Jewish parent’s quandary. What is the balance between pushing too much that we turn our children off vs. pushing too little, to the point that our children see our religious values as not very important? I see this struggle play out in many ways across our community: Should a parent who wants their child to marry Jewish make a fuss when their child wants to date a non-Jewish classmate? It’s just high school after all, and what are the chances they will marry this boy? Won’t it turn them off from Judaism altogether if they make this a battle? Should a parent wake their teenage son for Shabbat morning minyan or will that turn him off to Judaism because he will come to resent going to shul? Should a child who is on break from yeshiva be woken up early to attend minyan? Maybe they should let him sleep late now that he’s home on vacation, after all, he’s tired and works so hard throughout the year.

These are not easy questions. While I certainly hear the concern of making Judaism appear onerous, there is an equal and opposite question of what message are we sending our children, when we look the other way about religious values that are important to our family? Do our children see it as we do that we are “choosing our battles” or do they see it as, “it can’t be very important if my parents aren’t raising an issue?”

This question was raised recently in a moving blog post written by Shira Pasternak Be’eri, a mother in Israel who has two children who went “off the derech” or, in her words, embarked on “a new derech.”  In this Times of Israel piece, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/when-your-child-embarks-on-a-new-derech/, she questions the following about how she raised her children:  

“In trying to make observance fun and avoid making religion onerous, did I somehow unbind my children and condone being lax?… And if nothing else, did I not inoculate them with a healthy enough dose of Jewish guilt?”

Although my children are younger and in a different place in life than hers, I found many of the questions she asked to be thought-provoking as a parent. Not because G-d forbid, I believe her parenting is the cause for her children’s decisions; the love this mother feels for her children and the pain she expresses stands out above anything she writes. But as a parent, I think it’s worth asking myself these questions that she’s asking herself looking back, as I parent my young children, looking forward. If there’s anything to be learned at seeing how many kids go off the derech, it is that it can happen to anyone. It happens to the best of families, to families who accept their children as they are, to families across the hashkafic spectrum and to people who parent in all sorts of different ways. No one is immune to the threat and it seems there are no easy answers as to how we can prevent it. However, in an age where this phenomenon is becoming all too common, I do think it is a worthwhile exercise for parents to read the questions she penned, realizing this could happen to our own children, and try our best to question our parenting decisions (including the schools we send our children to, which partner in our parenting) each step of the way. To parent with eyes wide open and to constantly ask ourselves if we are making the best decisions for each of our children.

So, to return to my current challenge at hand, should we make our children daven? I don’t have an answer for you but after careful thought, here’s what we decided to do in my family. We make tefilla part of the expected routine but ask my daughters to recite the minimum required for women by the Mishna Brura.

Thus, tefilla is not something too difficult so that my children should resent it. My daughters are not halachically required to daven yet, as none are yet Bat Mitzvah (although one is two months away) but we do this to habituate them in the hopes that it doesn’t become an issue of rebellion as they get older.

My husband and I try to model by showing our children that both Abba and Imma daven every day, to the point that sometimes I daven in the living room, in the middle of the chaos to make this point (this does not lead to great kavana). We also try to include the why’s, rather than just instruct the what’s by trying to have conversations with my kids about tefilla (and other such topics) at random, casual moments- on Shabbat morning while they eat their Shabbat cereal, on the car ride to school, or sometimes when we are lying in bed together on a school night, talking about the day’s events. I tell them why I find meaning and strength in making time for davening, I share stories I learned when I was at school about tefillah and why we live a more meaningful life by making room for Hashem in our day, even if we would rather be doing something else.

I am under no illusions that we are approaching this correctly or that we have nothing to worry about down the line. Parenting is the ultimate lesson in humility: We don’t really know the answers but all we can do is try our best. I anticipate that, like every parent, we have our struggles ahead and I daven that Hashem gives me the strength and intuition to deal with each situation in the right way. But if there’s anything I gained from reading the sad account of a mother who has experienced one of my biggest fears, it is to parent with eyes wide open.