By Barry Kislowicz
Posting after posting on eJP and similar Jewish professional sites seems to return to the same topic: our Jewish future. Does the Pew signify our decline? Where is the next generation of leaders? How can we engage millennials and teens?
Yet despite these daily updates it seems that perhaps the most crucial, and most obvious, avenue for improving our future barely registers on our radar.
Beyond our professional roles, many of us are also parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. And if we are not we most certainly interact with others who are. A quick search of the eJP archives reveals a number of posting on the ethics of parental leave, and the occasional discussion of how a school or synagogue can improve parent engagement. Yet what is notably and unfortunately missing from our public discourse is any discussion of the practice of parenting itself.
Anecdotally, my professional colleagues in the Jewish community are among the most devoted and conscientious caregivers I know. Yet we seem reluctant to reflect publicly on the endeavor that occupies so much of our emotional energy. Perhaps we sense that this is too personal an issue for the public realm, or perhaps we don’t feel that our professional expertise justifies a foray into this neighboring arena. Whatever the reason, by leaving this topic off our agenda we are indeed doing ourselves – and all of our children – a disservice.
For me, this has been a relatively recent realization. I have been a Jewish professional for 15 years and a parent for 12. For most of that time these were two separate and distinct portions of my life. I read journals and participated in forums for professional development, and I read different magazines and visited different websites when I was thinking about parenting.
The accidental merger happened as I embarked on a recent book project. I had (in my opinion) a well-outlined educational philosophy aimed at innovative Jewish educators. That is until the publisher pointed out just how much broader an impact could be achieved if the target audience was not just educators but also parents.
That kind of pivot was daunting. But as I began to reflect on how educational theories of development and child-centered practice could be applied to family life, I found that both my professional and personal lives were enriched by the crossover. The impact multiplied exponentially through the conversations sparked with a range of colleagues, which deepened our exploration of crucial questions like:
1. What does it mean to create a child-centered family?
We spend much of our time as educators trying to create child-centered classrooms. What happens when we apply this same paradigm to the family dynamic? We may respond instinctively that the vast majority of our time, days, evenings and weekend activities are planned around our children’s schedules. But does that mean that we are truly engaged in child-centered parenting?
Child-centered parenting requires more than just caring for our children. It demands that we stretch ourselves to see the world from the child’s perspective. It requires that we treat our children not as objects, however precious, but as truly independent subjects pursuing their own growth and development. There are a number of litmus tests that can serve as indicators of how we see our children.
2. How do we answer our children’s questions?
As educators, we know that offering direct, factual answers is the best way to kill a child’s curiosity. We have learned, instead, to follow Italian educator Carlina Rinaldi’s advice: “When your child asks, ‘Why is there a moon?’ don’t reply with a scientific answer. Ask him, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Yet as parents we often confuse our natural desire to teach our children with an imperative to answer their questions. The emotional connection which binds us to our children can also blind us to their need to expand their own thinking instead of just imbibing ours.
The more meaningful the question the more dangerous this mistake. When our teenagers start asking us why G-d did not stop the Holocaust, or why there is so much injustice in the world, any answer we try to provide will fall flat. It is at that point that we so obviously need to be able to explore with our children, rather than attempting to provide answers which will inevitably fall short. Are we prepared to support our children as they examine life’s questions?
3. How do we help our children embody our values?
As I speak with my colleagues across the Jewish world I am continually struck by their idealistic commitments. Each of us may have a different sense of what these ideals mean to us, spread across the religious and political spectrum, but those I have spoken to all express a deep desire to share their ideals with their children.
The challenge then is to somehow share our ideals while still treating our children as independent subjects. This challenge provides us with a barometer for the education we seek to provide. Direct teaching by its very nature treats the learner as an object, the recipient of knowledge. Acknowledging this means that as parents we cannot fall back on the all too enticing temptation to simply tell our children what we want from them. This pushes us to reflect more on indirect methods of education, such as creating an environment rich for children’s exploration, focusing on family culture, and developing a complex perspective on the power of role modeling.
All of this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. The point, however, emerges quite clearly. Many of us who spend our professional lives building communities, synagogues and schools to educate the next generation have part of that next generation in our own homes. And it would be a shame not to marshal the same serious reflection and dialogue we exercise in our professional lives for the benefit of our most personal and crucial roles in raising the next generation.
Rabbi Barry Kislowicz, Ed.D., currently serves as Head of School at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, OH. More of his thoughts on parenting can be found in his recent book, “Parenting in Perspective,” (Maggid Books). He can be reached at bit.ly/bkislowicz