Back to School

Age-old parenting lessons for a brand new school year.

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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.

The Pressure

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, or 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. In doing so, it is believed, we achieve a divine level of existence.

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.

 "We live in a goal-oriented society. The value of activities is measured in the results achieved. We study to pass tests. We attend classes to earn a degree. Thus, for most of us, the Jewish value of learning for its own sake is often regarded as a quaint but antiquated tradition," writes Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "It is time for Jews to reappropriate the value of Torah lishmah not only for our personal growth but for the healing that it can bring."

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Sharon D. Estroff

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? was released by Broadway Books in 2008. Her website is