By Maurice J. Elias
Being a parent involves asking fundamental questions about how to raise a child into a confident, successful adult. Questions like:
- How can I create a peaceful, secure home?
- How can I prepare my child to face life’s challenges responsibly?
- How can I motivate my child to succeed and help others succeed?
- How can I guide and inspire my child to be kind and appreciative?
The answers to these questions are contained both in our Jewish tradition and confirmed by child development research. When families are informed by these converging guidelines, they are stronger, their children are stronger and they are more likely to be Jewishly connected because they come to see the value of Jewish wisdom and tradition — whether they are Jewish, considering Judaism or non-Jewish.
What are some of the ways in which we all can guide our parenting to provide positive answers to these questions?
Create a peaceful, secure home environment by building stronger bonds between family members, strengthening the skills of listening and interacting with each other, dealing positively with sibling rivalry, and providing stability and security through routines and rituals. That is the genius of Jewish tradition — we need to eat together once per week with a focus on each other and not on our technology — and this is true whether one is shomer Shabbat or not.
Jewish wisdom on sibling rivalry tells us how parents cannot just let it go or play favorites. We don’t have pilgrimage festivals, but we still need many occasions to get together as families and communities and remind ourselves about freedom, oppression, resolving to be better and asking forgiveness, fighting injustice, remembering loved ones and those who sacrificed for others, and more. And Jewish tradition teaches us a special relationship with time and how we use our time, so that children greatly benefit from routines and rituals around bedtime and mealtime.
We can help our children see the world beyond themselves and foster a spirit of kindness through acts of helping and generosity that can shape their lifelong values. And we know how necessary it is, in the age of selfies, to cultivate our children’s sense of gratitude and thankfulness by making these actions a constant part of family life so they will grow as part of our children’s lasting character.
Birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals, is not required for us to help children — and ourselves — appreciate the food we have, how we come to have it and how others may not have it, or the home we are living in, with its four walls and non-thatched roof. Our tradition insists that children should not be protected from the obligation to help the needy, visit the sick and mourn those who have passed, and to learn the age-appropriate ways to do this.
Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology and contributing faculty in Jewish studies at Rutgers University, where he also directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.