In these challenging times, many parents wonder how to raise their children in a positive, hopeful, constructive way. These are concerns that are not unique to our current era, of course. In times of uncertainty and turbulence, parents have always sought guidance.The history of the Jewish people is filled with families enduring crises of tremendous proportions, from centuries of slavery to attempted genocide. One contributor to how the Jewish people have survived, and thrived, is an emphasis on family and parenting. Honor thy father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments because it is recognized that parenting and how family life is created is a cornerstone of civilization.Accordingly, Jewish wisdom and tradition has a great deal to say to all parents, whether Jewishly identified or not. Interestingly, a great deal of that wisdom has been – and continues to be – confirmed by child development research.
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 home?
● How can I help my child feel more secure?
● How can I empower my child to face life’s challenges?
● How can I teach my child responsibility?
● How can I motivate my child to succeed?
● How can I guide my child to be kind?
● How can I inspire my child to be appreciative?
These are not new questions, and Jewish families and sages have evolved traditions and practical suggestions that provide valuable guidance to parents today, whether Jewish, contemplating Judaism, and/or decidedly non-Jewish. Here are some examples:
● Create a peaceful home environment by having an ethic of shalom bayit in the house, so that you focus on building strong bonds between family members, learning to listen carefully to one another, and dealing positively with sibling rivalry. One of the many lessons of the story of Joseph is the wisdom of parents having an absolute policy against siblings physically harming each another, no matter how great the provocation and lofty the justification may seem.
● Recognize that behind Jewish rituals is a deep understanding of how children feel stability and security through ordinary activities like creating schedules, eating together as a family, and celebrating family traditions and our heritage. The process of pilgrimages engaged in by our ancestors was as much about the journey as the destination.
It is no less true today, as the preparation and considerations surrounding our holidays and commemoration days often are far more involving than what happens on the days themselves. That’s why it is so important for children to have roles in family preparations, and celebrations. And it is no less important for children to have duties to contribute to the household, appropriate to their age. It is this kind of preparation and task that strengthens family bonds, responsibility, empathy, and problem solving skills.
● Build children’s resilience in a complicated world by keeping focused on a sense of purpose, what one can do for others, maintaining one’s beliefs and values even under adversity, and drawing from the history of the Jewish people to recognize the importance of not giving up and always looking for another way to accomplish cherished goals. Conversations every day with our children about “what’s the right thing to do” are part of their understanding that their values – and Jewish values in particular – have a role to play in everyday decision-making. That includes how to respond to seeing others being teased on the school bus, what to do when you see a child alone at a table in the lunchroom, and actions to take when you see litter on the floor of our classroom – or your room at home.
● Focus on cultivating 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. Rabbi Joseph Wolpe points out that the morning blessings we say in synagogue originated in the home as a narrative of gratitude for each of the individual activities involved as they happened. Our early sages understood that, especially during their lifetimes, no routine event could be taken for granted. Today, we may not need a running commentary for every minor or major blessing we encounter – it’s hard enough getting kids and ourselves out the door in the morning – but it is more important than ever to appreciate what one does have and understand that many are worse off now, and have been throughout time.For each of the areas and examples above, there are many Jewish stories that can be added to show the vitality of our tradition for how we live our lives every day today. And there are stories from other traditions as well that point us in the same direction. It turns out that good parenting is more similar than different – though there are cultures and contexts where there are some highly meaningful and noticeable differences – and we do owe much of that knowledge and practice to the attention given to parenting and family relationships by Judaism (sometimes through negative example, to be sure) over the millennia.Maurice J. Elias, PhD, is professor of psychology and contributing faculty in Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, where he also directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org). He is co-author of the new book The Joys and Oys of Parenting: Wisdom and Insight from the Jewish Tradition (Behrman House). He can be reached at [email protected]