Soul of Parenting: Will Your Child be a Plant or a Robot?

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Plant New Growth
07 Aug 2018

While it’s wonderful to say that we should be recognizing individual differences in children and adolescents’ religious character and genetic sensitivities and predispositions, the truth of the matter is that this is easier said than done, if only because Judaism demands that everyone conform to the same minimum standards regardless of their individual sensitivities and predilections.

We previously cited a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) 22:6 – chanokh l’na`ar al pi darko. This is often translated as “educate the child according to his own needs.” But the ambiguity of the Hebrew phrase points to some alternative translations and explanations. “Darko” is literally translated as “his way” as in, educate the child according to “his way” or his needs. But it could just as easily be understood as educate the child according to “HIS way” meaning, teach your child God’s way or what God wants of him — and perhaps forget about the child’s own needs. Or, as one parent wrote to me, “Isn’t the implicit message of organized religion that one size does indeed fit all?”  And herein lies some of the tension in religious parenting and teaching – how do we balance the child’s individual needs versus the demands of a Torah life? “I’m too tired to go to shul” versus the mitzvah of davening with a tzibbur or congregation; “I’m too tired to come to the Shabbat table” versus the mitzvah of eating a meal on Friday night and the value of doing so with family. “I hate wearing a kippah on my head” versus the commitment that such a kippah can represent and engender. The list goes on and on and on – just ask some teens.

But just as in so many other areas of parenting the trick lies not in the science but in the art, the art of insisting on norms of behavior but also knowing how to taper those demands for the individual needs of the child or the particular situation. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005) in a fascinating little volume translated into English as Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child, speaks to the fact that every child is like an individual plant who has a need to grow the way that it wants. (After all, the word “kindergarten,” coined around 1840, refers to a “children’s garden;” hence the Hebrew gan yeladim.) At the same time, one wants to build or shape a child into a particular kind of person, with certain values and behaviors. And so if we allow the child the freedom to grow as he wants without trying to build his character, then that child will become a wild man. However, if we try to mechanically and forcibly “build” the child without acknowledging the natural seed which tries to grow from within, then we will be left with a robot. In other words, we need to build children in relationship to their natural tendencies.

What is true of raising children in general is no less true with regard to religious life. A parent who once said to me: “if that child wants to live in my house then he is going to have to wear tzitzit !” was trying to build a religious robot who would eventually turn on his Master. The parent who once said to me “I don’t really care if he wears tzitzit or not – he thinks they’re too uncomfortable” was asking for a child who would eventually throw away much more than his tzitzit.

Viewed in this light, raising religiously committed children is not so much about nature, than about the way we nurture – when we are planters and when we are builders. In this effort there are not a lot of hard and fast rules but only some guidelines that we as parents and educators should continue to share and wrestle with together. For the more we talk about these issues, the more likely we may be to “train the child according to his/His way.”

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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.