Back to School

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

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This is not to suggest, of course, that we place no focus on scholastic performance. We should do all we can to help our children realize their potential--academically and otherwise. But we should be careful not to depict education simply as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, while we're at it.

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 study.

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 hisway". Notice, he doesn't say anything about our way; or the school system'sway; or the college entrance board'sway. 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 individuality." 

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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