Photo Credit: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff

Chanukah means consecration. During the eight days of Chanukah we commemorate the miraculous rededication of the Beis HaMikdash by the Chashmonaim in 165 BCE, following three years of contamination at the hands of the powerful Seleucid Greeks.

Chanukah, however, can also be understood as education, the process of consecrating a child for the holy ambition of a Jewish chinuch. In this I refer not solely to the transfer of information and ideas but rather the inculcation of a way of life, a standard of principles and life-shaping ideals that will guide a child to remain on the proper path well into their adult lives. As King Shlomo instructed, “Train the youth according to his way, so that even when he ages he will not deviate from it” (Mishlei 22:6).

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The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, understood this dictate as follows:

Chinuch refers to realizing the inherent capability…for whichever task or the capability of a house or an object to fulfill its function…. When it is used to refer to the education of children, then the meaning is to raise and develop the child’s nature and capabilities… [Chovas Hatalmidim, Warsaw, 1932, pp. 1]

Chinuch, thus, is a topic that deserves special attention during Chanukah, particularly when we consider that the very essence of Jewish education was threatened at that time by a materialistic Hellenistic cultural darkness that outlawed the study and observance of Torah at the pain of death.

“The earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of Hashem was hovering over the face of the water” (Bereishis 1:2). Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish applied this verse to the foreign powers. “Now the earth was empty” symbolizes Babylonia…. “Astonishingly” refers to Persia/Media…. “Darkness” symbolizes Greece. [Bereishis Rabbah 2:4]

In a front-page essay earlier this year (“How You Shall Tell Your Son,” April 14), we spoke about the importance of providing our children with a strong foundational chinuch on Pesach and all throughout the year. Among the points we made was the need to develop a strong personal character to model what you want from your children as well as the need to instruct your children on what you want them to know and do, and not be overly reliant on schools and the community at large to fill that critical role.

Here we will discuss other educational strategies that parents can use to help their children develop and blossom.

  1. Spend quality time with your children: Studies suggest that parents today, particularly fathers, have more face time with their children compared with their counterparts of decades past. But they also find the same technology that allows parents to spend more time at home is simultaneously blurring the lines between work and personal life and distracting parents from the “family time” they so desperately crave.

A story is told of two roshei yeshiva from the same area who, by virtue of their communal roles, were invited to many of the same simchas. Rabbi A typically arrived first and stayed later. Rabbi B would come for shorter durations. Yet Rabbi A sensed that when his counterpart would get up to leave after his brief stay, the baal simcha would smile and thank him profusely for his attendance. In contrast, when Rabbi A departed he was often greeted with a question as to why he was leaving so early.

He presented his dilemma to Rabbi B, who gave the following response: “You spend more time at each simcha, it is true. But it’s clear to everyone from the time that you arrive that you’re counting down the minutes until when you can leave. You sit off to the side and learn or attend to other matters. Though you’re here for more time, your presence isn’t felt.”

He continued, “I may not spend as much time in each simcha, but when I come I am fully engaged. I dance, sing, smile, and genuinely participate. As a result, everyone, even the baal simcha, knows I was there.”

As this story illustrates, there is a huge difference between spending time with your children and offering them quality time. How can parents avoid becoming fragmented during their at-home hours so as to ensure more focused time with their children?

One successful strategy is to set strict professional limits whenever possible. Tell associates or clients how important family is to you and that you will complete the work or respond later. Research show that parents who can arrange not to be “on call” from the time the kids come home from school until they are in bed, or at least until all their homework is done, typically experience a calmer and more satisfying home environment.

Of course, true quality time also means spending personalized time with each individual child on a regular basis. That time should also be irrevocable, unless previously discussed and rescheduled. Children should know that, barring any uncontrollable circumstances, they will receive the personal attention they so strongly crave at the time they expect it.

It should also be time well spent. In some instances, this may involve learning b’chavrusa or engaging in some other form of mitzvah-based activity. It can also mean time spent in discussion, whether casual, philosophical, or otherwise. Come prepared to discuss matters that interest them, including the difficult questions they rarely have the opportunity to ask about. By showing your children that the Torah can and does respond to all matters of life, you will help them develop a deep sense of connection to Yiddishkeit, not just on an intellectual level but on a profound emotional level as well. And you will further deepen the bond between you and your child.

Naturally, for many children quality time will by necessity include outings or activities that may not have any intrinsic “deeper” value, other than spending meaningful time with their parent. Such activities may include participating in a recreational activity, going out for dinner, or simply being with each other without outside distractions.

Either way, research shows that good parent-child relationships result in happier and more successful children, both at home and in school. It also means payoffs in adolescence, greatly reducing children’s propensity to experiment with potentially risky behaviors – an unfortunate but all-too-well-known dilemma facing our community.

  1. Be a great listener: It is so important that parents really give their children a listening ear. With so many things competing for our time, it can be easy to half-concentrate on conversations, which, if properly developed, can share some important insights or simply deepen the parent-child bond.

Here are some strategies that promote better listening:

  • See eye to eye – One crucial element of good listening is making strong eye contact. By fixing your eyes on the speaker you will avoid becoming distracted while also showing genuine attention. Eye contact is an important element of all face-to-face communication, even if you know the speaker well.
  • Use receptive body language – Without saying a word, our bodies communicate much about attitudes and feelings. We need to be aware of this in any conversation we have. If seated, lean slightly forward to communicate attention. Nod or use other gestures or words to signal attention and to encourage your child to continue. Visibly put away possible distractions such as your phone. This communicates that there is nothing more important to you right now than this conversation.
  • Stop talking and start listening – This is the most basic listening principle and often the hardest to abide by. When somebody else is talking it can be very tempting to jump in with a question or comment. Patient listening demonstrates that you respect others, which is the first step in building trust and rapport.

I remember once listening to a talk on communication. The speaker, whom we’ll call Mr. S., was a well-known life coach and communication expert. Mr. S. recalled his early days on the job as a program coordinator for a large educational organization that required that he meet often with principals.

Mr. S. met with two principals in short succession. One was gracious and well meaning. He allowed for a lengthy conversation but was continually interrupted by phone calls and other matters. Though they spent an hour together, the meeting felt short and unproductive. In the next school, he had to wait for a while and was given but a few minutes with the principal. The man apologized for his lateness and brevity, but made sure that during their time together Mr. S’s agenda was fully heard and responded to. It goes without saying that Mr. S. felt significantly more validated by the second man, despite the wait and their short time together.

  • Take on their point of view – Approach each conversation from the vantage point of the child. Be empathetic and seek to objectively consider his or her position.
  • Summarize and clarify – When your child has finished talking take a moment to restate and clarify what you have heard. Use language like “so, to summarize…” End by asking whether you heard correctly, which will encourage immediate feedback. Not only will this ensure the clearest takeaway on your end, but it will help your child feel genuinely heard and valued.
  • Leave the door open – Keep open the possibility of additional communication after this conversation has ended. You never know when new insights or concerns may emerge.
  • Thank them for approaching you – Do not take any conversation for granted. Few things go as far in building good will as expressing appreciation.
  1. Make it personal: Education cannot work if it’s of the cookie-cutter variety. The educational world has woken up to the fact that one size does not fit all and that we need to differentiate our instruction if we are to reach and properly educate each child. The same holds true for parents. We need to be mindful of the needs of each of our children and develop approaches that can help them all shine.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his essay “Lessons from Jacob and Esau” (Collected Writings, Vol. VII), suggests that it was a fundamental error in how these two young men were educated by their parents that resulted in the struggle that would ultimately ensue:

Jacob and Esau alike could have been preserved for their Divinely-ordained destiny as descendents of Abraham if their parents would have noticed the difference between them at an early age. They could then have reared and educated both lads for the same goal by following a different approach in each case, taking into account the fact that these two brothers were basically different from one another. Because, unfortunately, an identical approach was followed in the rearing and education of these two boys, even though they were two totally different personalities, Jacob and Esau in manhood developed attitudes toward life that were fundamentally opposed to one another. Had a different approach been adopted, with due consideration for the differences between them, the two contrasting personalities could both have been trained to develop the same loyalty to one and the same goal.

According to Rav Hirsch, Yitzchak and Rivka failed to educate each child “in his own way.” They did not, as we say in modern educational parlance, differentiate their children’s instruction to properly identify and work with the differences between their twin sons. Had Yitzchak and Rivka studied Eisav’s nature more intently and asked themselves how even an Eisav, with his own set of skills and desires, could be won over for avodas Hashem, world history may have looked much different.

Every child possesses a different mix of learning styles, abilities, and interests (see Malbim to Mishlei 22:6). It is necessary for parents to guide children according to the path that their inclinations and abilities dictate (Ralbag, Ibid). Our goal must be to capture the child’s essence as much as his intellect.

Focus on their middos – It appears that, for whatever the reason, we have become much more focused on our children’s educational achievements, often at the expense of developing their character. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, Shlita, (With Hearts Full of Love, ArtScroll Mesorah) expressed it as follows:

[Parents] often make a mistake. They think that the main part of chinuch is in the mitzvos and that chinuch in middos is secondary, almost an afterthought. But in actuality, the opposite is true. The main focus of chinuch has to be in middos, because the obstacles in mitzvos are bad middos.

Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, (Selected Speeches, CIS) saw the problem as one of parental indifference, with dire ramifications for our children’s teachers:

In our modern age, our rabbeim suffer terribly from the fact that many children who go to yeshivos are the victims of the wrong chinuch received from their parents…. The lack of derech eretz and the degree of chutzpah in some of our institutions is appalling…. The children are not to be blamed! Unfortunately, so very often fathers shower money on their unruly children just in order to not be bothered by them. Very often, busy mothers and fathers have little to do with their children. The parents are too preoccupied with themselves to focus attention on their children.

While our schools have increasingly undertaken to promote positive character in our children, teaching proper middos remains a fundamental duty of every Jewish parent. Again, in the words of the Lakewood mashgiach (Ibid, p. 165, paraphrasing the Shelah Hakadosh):

“It is the responsibility of parents…to devote themselves to teaching their children good middos and shun bad middos until this becomes the essence of their beings.”

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