“I don’t want to learn and that’s it! I go to yeshiva all week and I need a break!” Your son storms off and slams the door.
All you had done was innocently ask him to learn on Shabbos afternoon. Your son, however, felt like a parolee asked to go back into solitary confinement. This is, to say the least, a painful experience for both father and son.
The Shema tells us that every father must be a teacher to his child – “v’limadetem es b’naichem” (you shall teach your sons). It’s true that sending our children to yeshivot fulfills this obligation. But many fathers rightfully want to personally learn with their children as well. This can be very difficult and a source of tremendous tension.
The following are six ideas that can greatly enhance the experience:
Create an incentive package. The Rambam, in his famous “Introduction to Perek Chelek,” discusses the educational process of moving the child from learning “lo lishma” (not for its own sake) to learning “lishma” (for its own sake). Do not expect children to have an automatic love of learning. The Rambam lists the progression of prizes one should award a child for learning, beginning with developmentally appropriate tangible awards (i.e., candy, shoes, clothing, money), and progressing to more intangible rewards such as becoming known as a famous rabbi.
Discuss the structure of the incentive package with your wife and confirm it with the child. Here is a list of suggested rewards in developmental order: sweets; special trips to the ice cream parlor or a favorite restaurant; toys; trading cards; baseball tickets; cash. You can award the child individual points for reading well and for asking questions and coming up with answers. Tell him that at 75 or 100 points he will win the promised prize.
Set the time and place in advance, together with the incentives. Most children will resist an announcement that you would like to learn now. So sit your child down and discuss with him your plans for setting up a seder (for example, one hour before Mincha every Shabbos). Discuss/negotiate the incentive package at that time.
Select the curriculum. I recommend that you provide your child with two or three choices of topic. I would advise against learning any school material unless the child is specifically interested in it. This is your time to bond with your child by learning your own special material. Suggestions include your own parsha, a sefer in Tanach, Mishnayot, a sugya in the Gemara, or classic works on hashkafa, all depending on the level.
You want to select an area your child (and you) will find interesting and relevant. Ideally, you should pick an area that can be covered in a realistic amount of time and that allows the child to feel a sense of accomplishment when the two of you complete the unit.
Know the world of your child. To be an effective teacher, it is critical that you understand the world of your child. For example, if your son loves the Yankees and occupies himself with all aspects of baseball, then that is his world. It is counterproductive to fight it or diminish it with comments like “Don’t you know that is just bitul Tora?” or “With your memory of all those statistics, you could know all of Shas.”
A wise parent understands his child’s world and uses it to bring the reality of Torah to him. For example, you could elicit from him how Derek Jeter prepares to face a tough pitcher and thus develop the concept of “being in the zone,” a state in which the athlete is able to remove all extraneous thoughts and focus exclusively on the task at hand. This could function as an introduction to the halachot of kavana in tefilla, which detail how a person is required to sit and remove himself from his daily pursuits and think exclusively of the world of Hashem.
Always start from your child’s world and bridge it to the world of Torah.
Prepare. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. It is pure fantasy to think you are going to engage your son for an hour merely by opening the sefer at the spot you left off the week before. You have to digest the material first and determine what concepts are to be shared and how. This will ensure success.