Jewish wisdom to keep your family sane, happy and healthy this back to school season.
The back-to-school season is, for all intents and purposes, a period
of pure parental mayhem. From tracking down the coolest Batman or
Barbie backpack on the block to searching out that elusive five
subject, wide-ruled, perforated spiral notebook that our child needs
for Hebrew class, our to-do lists seem virtually endless.
Still for many modern parents, the stress of preparing our kids for
their return to academia pales in comparison to the pressure we endure
once they actually get there. After all, in our achievement-obsessed
society, it often feels that our parental efficacy is directly
correlated with our children's standardized test scores. It's no wonder
that the sheer thought of homework, report cards and parent-teacher
conferences has our stomach turning somersaults.
And if all this academic pressure is tough on us as parents, it's
wreaking absolute havoc on our kids. Research reveals all kinds of
worrisome trends showing up en masse in 21st century schoolchildren --
from anxiety and depression to psychosomatic illness to drug and
alcohol consumption. So intense is the pressure to perform in school,
in fact, that a recent cover story of Newsweek magazine titled "Fourth
Grade Slump" reported a rampant and unprecedented academic malaise --
characterized by declining interest in reading and gradual
disengagement from school -- that's striking American kids.
One of the most marvelous aspects of the Jewish tradition is its
ability to guide, protect, and strengthen us at times when we need it
most. As if our forefathers could see eons into the future -- knowing
their ancestors would one day be faced with back to school stress of
biblical proportions -- they've sent sage advice our way. The following
golden nuggets of ancient Jewish wisdom promise to keep your family
sane, happy and healthy this back to school season -- and for many
school-years to come.
Study for Its Own Sake
The Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, for
its own sake. In other words, we shouldn't learn Torah with ulterior
motives (i.e. getting on God's A-list or wowing others with our
biblical mastery). Rather, we should release ourselves to the beauty
and majesty of the text --enjoying it in its own right.
By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our
children as a means to an end (i.e. you study science so you can ace
the exam so you can get into a really good college one day). Instead,
we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement
and privilege of discovering the world around them.
There's a beautiful Jewish custom of drizzling honey on the letters
the first time a child learns the Aleph-Bet. The purpose of the honey
is not to disguise the work that inevitably lies ahead, but to serve as
a reminder to savor its sweetness. Similarly, by following up the
nightly homework drill with a family nature hike together -- or setting
aside an hour one evening to cuddle up on the couch with a bowl of
popcorn for some family DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time -- we can
recapture the inherent yumminess of learning without undermining the
importance of schoolwork.
And on the Seventh Day God Rested
Let's face it. Try as we might to reduce our kids' academic stress,
we can't do away with it completely. School is after all, hard work by
design. While studying is enlightening and empowering it can also be
demanding and rigorous. And that's exactly the way it should be.
Judaism places great value on work, and diligence, and of course, on
But our religion also believes in downtime. "Six days shall you labor
and do all your work" reads the Book of Exodous "and the seventh day is
the Sabbath to the Lord your God [on which] you shall not do any work."
Our kids spend their school-weeks in constant motion, schlepping
from classes to baseball practice to violin lessons to Hebrew School.
They desperately need a time to recharge and refuel. And in Shabbat,
they have it. But Shabbat is far more than just a weekly chill session
for our kids. In the Sabbath rituals our children find the consistency
and predictability they need to thrive despite a frenetically paced
life. They find the spirituality and hope that will keep them
emotionally healthy in an unpredictable 21st century world.
Educate a Child According to His Way
In modern day America, cramming kids into societally constructed
Harvard-bound boxes has become parental sport. But the reality is that
not every child is hardwired to go to Harvard. The wise King Solomon
recognizes this truth in the Book of Proverbs when he teaches us that
we must "educate a child according to his way." Notice, he doesn't say
anything about our way; or the school system's way; or the college
entrance board's way. He says simply the child's way.
On one level, these words entail a basic acceptance of our child's
academic realities -- coming to terms with the fact that our son may
have certain learning challenges that require a unique educational
approach, or that our daughter is simply going to be -- despite
tutoring sessions galore -- a perfectly average math student.
But the commandment of educating a child according to his way also
requires us to go a step further by recognizing and nurturing our
children's unique sets of gifts and talents -- whether or not they're
considered "gifts" and "talents" by modern societal standards. In his
Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shares his take on
Solomon's words. "As a parent you are obligated to be conscious of your
child's special intellectual and artistic abilities and interests. Yet
I've met parents who have definite views about precisely what sort of
person their child should be, and who do not take into account the
child's personal interests. Such an attitude denies a child's very
One of my favorite tools for illuminating children's unique gifts is
Howard Gardner's highly acclaimed theory of multiple intelligences
(1983, 1999) in which he delineates at least eight distinct types of
intelligences of value to society that exist in human beings. Eight
different realms in which to uncover the sparks of genius in our
Kids who are masters of puzzles and Legos, for example, exhibit what
Gardner calls spatial intelligence, while children who love reading and
telling stories possess linguistic intelligence. Bug-loving kiddies
tend to exhibit naturalistic intelligence, while children who get a
kick out of strategy games often have logical-mathematical
intelligence. Children with natural leadership skills show have
interpersonal intelligence; while introspective, spiritual children
have intrapersonal intelligence. Kids with bodily-kinesthetic
intelligence are agile and physically coordinated, while those with
musical intelligence have a knack for singing and playing instruments.
And if you're especially lucky along your parenting journey, you'll
get to know a child with menschlich intelligence -- a spark of
God-given sweetness and compassion that far transcends the 99th
percentile on the California Achievement Test.
But even if you conclude that your child is not a budding Albert
Einstein, you're in good company. At the end of the day most of our
kids are, well, regular old kids -- good at some things, not so good at
others. And counting on us to love and support them in all their
wonderfully regular-kid glory.
Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting
columnist, award-winning educator and mother of four. She is a feature
writer for more than 100 Jewish and secular publications, including
Good Housekeeping and Parents magazines and the Jerusalem Post. Her
Jewish parenting book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?"
(Broadway Books, 2007), is available where books are sold. Visit http://www.sharonestroff.com.
SHARON DUKE ESTROFF
Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? (Random House,
2007). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including
Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Woman's Day. Her popular Undercover Mom Blog on Net Family News
gives digital immigrant parents timely, straightforward advice on raising digital native kids.