We live in a world that values achievement, excellence, hard work and success. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, I wish them on us all — on our synagogues and our schools, on ourselves and our children as well.
But the problem is, the message many of our kids hear is that excellence, achievement and success are the only things that matter in this world. And this is a terrible message for our kids. It’s a message that leads to expectations that can result in a lot of stress and a lot of suffering for our children. Kids who internalize this message end up “doing school” instead of learning. And then, ultimately, they become adults who end up “doing life” instead of living.
The horrible irony of it all is that the system that we’ve constructed to push our children to become successful achievers is actually a failure. Study after study demonstrates this. One example is early reading programs. Experts in child development have demonstrated that programs designed to give kids an early start often end up dampening their enthusiasm for reading. Yes, we can make our kids read before kindergarten or first grade, but it won’t necessarily make them more successful readers down the road.
If we really want to do our kids a favor, if we really want to give them a “leg-up”, we need to give them what they need most of all. And what is that? According to Dr. David Elkind, author of the now-classic book on this subject, The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, what kids need most “is a healthy sense that the world is a safe place, that their needs will be met, and that they will be cared for and protected by the grown-ups in their world.”
So what does it mean for us to ensure that the needs of our children are met?
According to our tradition, meeting the basic needs of our children includes providing not just food and clothing, but also a proper education. Torah study is a given. Some sages add that we should teach our children how to swim. Another says that we must teach them a craft.
But as important as learning is, our tradition understands that it must not be rushed: “Rav said to Rabbi Shmuel ben Shilat: ‘Do not accept pupils who are less than six years old…’” (Bava Batra 21a) The message: don’t hurry. For millennia our people, no slouches when it comes to learning and achievement, have waited until a child was five or six to start formal education. And our sages understood that a child should only be introduced to more difficult subjects like mishna and Talmud, when he is ten or fifteen years old.
But one of the most profound lessons about parenting comes in a rather unlikely place. In tractate Yoma, the part of the mishna that details the laws, customs, and meaning of the sacred day of Yom Kippur, we learn:
“Do not make children fast on the Day of Atonement. However, they should be trained the year before or two years before so that they become accustomed to the observance of the commandments.” (Yoma 8:4)
It seems obvious. Toddlers should not be required to undergo a 25 hour fast. It would be harmful to their health and of little value to them spiritually as they would not be able to understand the significance of the activity. When they are older, 11 or 12, they can prepare for adult responsibilities by eating a few hours later than usual. Once they become bar or bat mitzvah, they are required to fast like other Jewish adults. But until that time, they are k’tanim, they are minors and are not required to behave as adults behave. The Hebrew of the mishna is suggestive. It uses the term tinokot, babies, as if to remind us that, in the eyes of Jewish law, a seven year old is still a baby. Just as babies must be protected and nurtured, so too must young adolescents.
And this principle is extended to the post-b’nai mitzvah kids who still live in our homes. As long as they sleep under our roof, our tradition considers them our wards. We are still required to protect them and watch over them.
It is a mitzvah to let our kids be kids. They should play like children and act like children, and dress like children. We protect our kids best when we ensure that their childhoods, their birthright, are not taken from them.