Raising Children

What’s the Jewish way to raise children? Simple: just teach them Torah, model your values and encourage them to be like their ancestors. Right?

Right and wrong. True, as Jews we are all about education. But what kind of education? What kind of children are we aiming to raise? And how can we appropriately meet the needs of all different types of children? This week’s parasha, Bo, mentions three times questions asked by children and the answers offered by parents regarding the Exodus from Egypt and the Passover ritual. These passages (along with one other in Deuteronomy) become the textual source for the well-known section of the haggadah called “the four sons.” In this brief section we read of four different types of children: wise, wicked, simple and unable even to ask a question.

Passover is still two months away, but the challenge of the four sons is ever present. Why does the haggadah speak of distinctly different types of youngsters?

Some scholars have explained that it is a lesson in pedagogy — instructions to teachers for how to answer various nuances within queries. Others have seen it as representing different religious or theological attitudes. But there is a message in the text of the four sons that is even more direct.

It is a lesson in being a parent.

Once a year, at the seder, we tell the story of our people. Over the course of the evening, we take the time to share our history, our values, our beliefs with our children.

Every single day, parents tell their story to their kids. They teach, they share, they model their history and values and beliefs. That’s what we call “parenting.”

The haggadah says: Tell the story, but know your listener. If he’s wise (you’ll know from his questions) explain things one way. If he’s simple, say it another.

This wisdom expands far beyond the retelling of the Exodus story. It reaches right into us, into how we tell our story. We might want to convey parts of our spirit, our knowledge, our guidance to our kids, but each child hears it differently; each person begins and continues life with a unique disposition. Sometimes they just can’t hear it the way you’re saying it. So what’s a parent to do?

In recent years, researchers in special education have promoted what’s been hailed as a revolutionary concept: meet the child where he is. Don’t expect him to hear and heed you. Rather, you find out his place and meet him there. Instead of trying to get the child to see what you see, look through his lens, or listen first and then tell.

Using this approach, many parents and educators have made remarkable progress with children even with profound developmental disabilities — all because they learned to try seeing the world from the child’s point of view, then figure out what works. That same approach is exactly what the Torah and the haggadah lay out for us. What’s the Jewish way to raise children? Start by learning about who exactly it is you’re raising.

Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands and instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.